The Rise of the Spy Novel: The Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty-Nine Steps
Episode 1 of Words To That Effect was on invasion fiction, sometimes also called invasion literature or future war fiction (you can listen to episode 1 here). If you are interested in the area then William Le Queux is certainly one of the big names to consider. He was massively popular and a public figure of much intrigue and speculation, he was published in newspapers with huge circulations, and he skilfully tapped into the ever-changing fears and preoccupations of his reading public. His work is also closely connected to the rise of the spy novel.
The issue for the modern-day reader is that while his books are a fascinating insight into the past, they are not, in the end, particularly great novels. With over 150 novels alongside his vast array of other writing, quantity frequently won out over quality. His characters, where they exist at all, are one-dimensional. The novels, originally serialized in newspapers, are often dragged out for an interminable length. Without the contemporary context his work loses much of its relevance and suspense, which is one of the main reasons why Le Queux’s name has largely fallen out of literary history.
So what should you read instead? Well, there are two other novels which overlap with Le Queux’s work but which are simply much better works of literature: Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).
The Riddle of the Sands
The Riddle of the Sands links invasion fiction with the spy novel and follows the story of Carruthers as he and an acquaintance navigate the shallow waters off the coast of Germany to uncover a secret plot to invade England. It is a classic novel full of suspense and it holds up remarkably well over a century later.
Of course, Childers is also a major figure in Irish history – a fervent supporter of Irish independence from Britain and father of the fourth president of Ireland. He was also an avid sailor, and it was his yacht, the Asgard, which was famously used to smuggle arms to the Irish Volunteers during the First World War. This love of sailing is more than evident in The Riddle of the Sands, a novel littered with tidal charts, water depths, sandbanks and technical sailing jargon. But don’t let that put you off what is undoubtedly a classic.
The Thirty-Nine Steps
Childers’ novel was a major influence on the creation of another World War I-era spy: Richard Hannay. Hannay was the creation of the Scottish author John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps is his most famous novel. It is another spy novel about an impending invasion of England and the race to uncover the truth of a mysterious plot. The story is generally quite well known today due to the numerous theatre, radio, and film adaptations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version, but this is the original.
The Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty-Nine Steps are both great novels and well worth a read. Certainly, Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 is a fascinating piece of history, but Buchan and Childers’ novels are just much better books. They are also essential reading if you want to understand the origins of the spy novel and the precursors to spies such as Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
Have you read either of these novels? Have I persuaded you to? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
If you haven’t listened to Episode 1: Invasion Fiction, William Le Queux, and Fake News, have a listen here