‘The Future of our Delicate Network of Empire’: The Riddle of the Sands and the Birth of the British Spy Thriller

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When The Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903 it was quick to attract attention. Its plot, concerning a German conspiracy to invade Britain, has almost universally been credited by cultural historians with contributing significantly to a public ‘invasion mania’ in the years leading up to the First World War—feeding the popular appetite for more spy thrillers and breathing life into the fledgling genre (see, for example, Andrew 1985; French 1978; Hiley 1990; Horn and Winthrop-Young 2013; Kestner 2010; Moran and Johnson 2010; Porter 1992; Prior 2013; Trotter 1990). Such assessments of the novel’s influence have tended to focus on the authenticity of the invasion plot, the history of its subsequent reception and the presumed sympathy of Childers with the militarist opinions of Arthur H. Davies, one of the central protagonists. Connected to this is a common view of The Riddle of the Sands as belonging to a right-wing movement that sought to bolster British imperialism through calls for naval rearmament and the establishment of a secret service (see Andrew 2009; Boyle 1977; Hampshire 2001; Nyman 2000; Price 1996; Purdon 2012; Woods 2008); along these lines, Jessica Meacham remarks on the ‘widely accepted narrative that links the development of the modern-day MI5 with…the work of “invasion novelists”’ (2012, p. 286). The Riddle of the Sands certainly creates a space for the articulation of such arguments, which Davies does indeed deliver in declamatory fashion. Yet to identify the overall political sensibility of the novel with such demagoguery is only sustainable if one disregards the ways in which it is mediated by the literary form and tone of narration.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNew Directions in Popular Fiction
EditorsKen Gelder
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan UK
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781137523464
ISBN (Print)9781137523457
Publication statusPublished - 23 Nov 2016


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