Revisiting the Riddle of the Sands - Mark Chisnell's Fulcrum Files and Sam Llewellyn's The Shadow in the Sands
Back to the Sands....? Re-reading Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands reminded me of two thrillers which took their inspiration from that classic location. I remembered that I'd previously written brief reviews so I hoped this might be a good moment to re-post them.
This review of Mark Chisnell's The Fulcrum Files first appeared in the Indie Ebook Review in July 2012
The Fulcrum Files makes excellent fictional use of a little known piece of historical fact. It is set in 1936 around the date that Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland and before the Munich Olympics. In Camper and Nicholson’s boat-building yard no one is thinking of European politics: their efforts are focussed on the final stages in the construction of a magnificent J-class racing yacht with a revolutionary new mast, ready to be rigged. It’s a tense, technical job, the yard are under pressure. And then there is an accident.
Or was it murder? This is a terrific beginning to a thriller and will have fans of the earlier Sam Llewellyn novels rejoicing that their time has come again. But how does it connect to pre-WW2 politics? I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I mention that the immensely wealthy owner of the new yacht, the man who is fixated on getting her ready for the next Americas Cup race, is obviously based on Sir T.O.M. Sopwith who was commissioning J-class yachts from Camper and Nicholson’s at that time. In an author’s note at the end of the book Mark Chisnell mentions a trip made by Sopwith’s representative, Frank Murdoch, to the M.A.N. factory in Augsburg in February 1936, in connection with the diesel engines for Sopwith’s new motor yacht. Murdoch was astounded by the extent of military preparation that he observed on this visit. The report he made on his return prompted Sopwith to order an early start to the production of Hurricane fighter planes. And the rest is history …
I love stories that play so neatly between fact and fiction. I also relish novels that give a respectful twist to their classic predecessors. Chisnell makes skilful use of the granddaddy of all invasion novels, Erskine Childers’s 1903 Riddle of the Sands. A thrilling chase through the sandbanks of the fog-bound Frisian Islands forms the climax of The Fulcrum Files and manages beautifully to echo Childers while transposing the action into quite different vessels.
You don’t have to be a sailing enthusiast to enjoy The Fulcrum Files – in fact my only gripe was that we didn’t get to sea quite often enough. This is a well-researched historical thriller with romantic extras. The hero is a poor boy with a brain and the complex snobberies he encounters are sharply delineated. Two nicely contrasted heroines, lots of period detail and a touch of industrial strife thrown in. This is a big book, well-worth settling down to.
Sam Llewellyn's The Shadow in the Sands has only recently been made available on Kindle. It's just as entertaining as The Fulcrum Files and I wish I'd written about it in greater depth. All I actually managed, a year or so ago, was a few hasty sentences on Amazon:
"I really enjoyed The Shadow in the Sands. The link to The Riddle of the Sands is cleverly managed but the tone is quite different. Shadow of the Sands is an entertaining fast-paced thriller which perhaps suffers if readers try to take it too seriously. I always relish the chippy social attitudes of Sam Llewellyn's characters but what made this novel SO good was the detail of the sailing and the real adventures of anchoring, getting stranded, navigating through this extraordinarily treacherous archipelago. I almost thought that the worst crime in this story was when the villains cut the withies..."