Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh
First published in the UK, 1915 by Nelson
This edition, Kindle
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Warning: This review contains an inherent spoiler.
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I’ve been meaning to read this book since I noticed the sinister portrait of the Reverend Doctor Syn in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In Moore’s universe, Syn was part of the 1780s version of the League alongside Fanny Hill, Lemuel Gulliver, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Natty ‘Hawkeye’ Bumppo. Syn’s was the only name I didn’t recognise. So I was delighted to find Doctor Syn was published in 1915, and was therefore eligible for this month’s crime fiction of the year challenge.
And so I found myself in Napoleonic-era Romney Marsh, an area of Kent in South-east England, once a notoriously independent and lawless area:
‘The world is divided into five parts — Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.’
The dominant industry on the Marsh is smuggling, but that is about to be challenged. Authority is on its way, in the form of Captain Collyer, a naval hero now reduced to protecting the king’s tax revenue.
‘… it so happens that Captain Collyer holds the majority for stringing up smugglers. I have sent more from the coast to the sessions than any of his Majesty’s agents. And stap my vitals, I believe I have landed on a perfect hornets’ nest here.’
And he’s right. The Marsh plays host to a band of bizarre smugglers disguised as demonic creatures to terrify the locals and so discourage interference. Much of the story takes place in the (real-life) town of Dymchurch-under-the-Wall, ostensibly run by the genial Squire Cobtree but in fact governed by the Scarecrow, the Marsh’s smuggler-in-chief. One of Collyer’s men gets a good sighting of the Scarecrow’s men:
‘… when I see something wot fair beat anything I ever seed afore: it was a regiment of horse, some twenty of ’em maybe, but if them riders weren’t devils, well, I ain’t a seaman.’
‘What were they like?’ screamed Sennacherib.
‘Wild-looking fellows on horses wot seemed to snort out fire, and the faces of the riders and horses were all moonlight sort of colour, but before I’d shouted, “Belay there!” they’d all disappeared in the mist.’
Dymchurch’s vicar is the Reverend Doctor Syn…
A pious and broad-minded cleric, with as great a taste for good Virginia tobacco and a glass of something hot as for the penning of long sermons which sent every one to sleep on Sundays.
… who is, it is blinking obvious, the Scarecrow. However, I’ll say this much for Thorndike. I knew Syn was the Scarecrow before I started, but he keeps you guessing so much that by halfway through I began to wonder if I’d got it wrong. This may be because the story itself is deeply confusing. In particular there is one scene where Collyer sees Syn break a bottle with his teeth and then glass somebody, but finishes the chapter still not entirely convinced that he is the bad guy.
The story is largely told from the point of view of 12-year-old Jerry Jerk, who ‘possessed two excellent qualifications : pluck and a head like a bullet’. Jerry has a sinister ambition: to become a hangman and, specifically, to hang the village schoolmaster. Like Tom Sawyer, Jerry is torn between being a good guy and a bad guy, and so works on both sides of the fence.
The pirate/smuggler stuff is appropriately bloodthirsty (I was quite surprised by how graphic it was), but there is also comedy. The sexton Mipps is a stand-out character:
We was as happy and contented a pleasant-going little village as you could have wished, we was; but now, so help me God! you fellows have turned our little spot into a regular witches’ kitchen, that you have. Two days you’ve been here, and two murders we’ve had — one a day — and if you stays here for a year, as you can calculate for yourself, we’ll have three hundred and sixty-five, at the present rate. Of course it’s good for my trade, so I says nothing. Go on murdering to your hearts’ content, for I can knock up one a day all right, but I ain’t a-goin’ to take any blame about it…
So, if you like a bit of an adventure story (I wouldn’t say this really qualified as a mystery), Doctor Syn is an easy read with a memorable premise, a rambunctious plot, and more than a bit of humour.
The book spawned six prequels, which chart the character’s fall from romantic swashbuckling Pirate Clegg to the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. 1944’s The Shadow of Doctor Syn was the final book to be published.
Final destination: A keeper
Brandywine Books: Russell’s vicar – especially in Doctor Syn and Doctor Syn on the High Seas – can be a rather offputting person. He orders the cold-blooded murder of innocent people, hangs an informer, and slips into racist diatribes. I read somewhere (can’t find it now) that Thorndike himself was very fond of George Arliss’ much scrubbed-up portrayal. I suspect that by then he realized he’d made a mistake in his first book (which is last in sequence) by making the character too ruthless, and also by killing him off. Arliss’ movie version fixed both those problems. And as he added prequels to the series, Thorndike himself turned the character in a more sympathetic direction.