A Record of Secret Service

By Erskine Childers

Penguin Classics. 299 pp. Paperback, $15

Like the novel of sensation, the spy novel came in with a glorious bang. Just as Wilkie Collins's "The Woman in White" (1860) is not only the progenitor of all mystery novels but still one of the best ever written, so Erskine Childers's "The Riddle of the Sands" (1903) is a pioneering spy novel - and still near the top of the heap.

Childers's story of Britons trying to foil German spies takes place partly on the Baltic Sea, with which he was familiar as a yachtsman. His day job was clerking for the House of Commons, but at night he toiled away at this novel, adding a romantic subplot at the suggestion of his sister Dulcibella, whose mellifluous first name he gave to the yacht in his book. Among other virtues, Childers was superb at depicting action, as in this scene in which the narrator, Carruthers, senses that he is not alone on deck: "I started up involuntarily, bumped against the table, and set the stove jingling. A long step and a grab at the ladder, but just too late! I grasped something damp and greasy, there was tugging and hard breathing, and I was left clasping a big sea-boot, whose owner I heard jump on to the sand and run."

The facts of Childers's life add a frisson to reading his pathbreaking book. Though born in London, he grew up in Ireland, and his agitation for Irish independence led to his execution for treason in 1922.

-Dennis Drabelle