Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh

Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh
Russell Thorndike
First published in the UK, 1915 by Nelson
This edition, Kindle


An image from the 2006 Dymchurch ‘Day of Syn’, from the website of St Peter and St Paul Church. The demonic smugglers ride again to terrify the unwary…

* * * * *

Warning: This review contains an inherent spoiler. 

* * * * *

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

See also:

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.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Crime fiction of the year challenge, Crimes of the Century, History-mystery, Thriller, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh

  1. TracyK says:

    I did see that this book was published in 1915, but did not want to seek it out at this time. I do want read it sometime, because we have watched the Disney adaptation (The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963)) and enjoyed it. Sounds like I should find a copy.

    I did post my review of The 39 Steps a few days ago and had problems commenting at the 1915 signup post.


    • westwoodrich says:

      I’d like to see the film. Apparently Disney said it was based on a true story?


      • TracyK says:

        I did not remember that but I did find a source that said “Walt Disney believed he was and even on the introduction of the film stated so.” Maybe based on a similar scenario but not a real person?


      • Santosh Iyer says:

        Yes, Walt Disney states so at the introduction of the film. I quote from his speech:
        “Books of adventure, suspense and mystery always have a special appeal for me when they’re about real people, or based on the life of a real person, like these books by the English author, Russell Thorndike. The hero of all the Thorndike stories is one of the strangest characters who ever lived. A real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He lived in England nearly 200 years ago. By day, he was a respected member of his community, and by night, he was the greatest smuggler in the whole country. But, like Robin Hood, although he was a thorn in the side of law and order, he was a hero to the ordinary folk of his time. Because, whatever he made as a smuggler, he gave away to the poor and the needy.
        This is where he operated all along the coast here, better known to us today as the White Cliffs Of Dover. He was smuggling in cargoes from France, Belgium and Holland. And in this part of England, even today, they still talk about the Scarecrow’s smuggling gang.”


  2. Bradstreet says:

    Someone gave Disney bad advice. Thorndyke used names from tombstones in the local graveyard, but the story itself is spun from whole cloth. Dymchurch was the centre of a huge smuggling ring ruled by a farmer called George Ransley, who made thousands of pounds from his crimes. He was eventually caught and sent to Tasmania, but he did well there and died a rich man aged 77.
    The climax of the series of books was written first, so that by the time Thorndyke wrote his last Syn novel,(THE SHADOW OF DR SYN) the character and background don’t really match up with the first book (DR SYN). Syn suddenly becomes a baddy rather than an anti-hero, and various important members of the supporting cast vanish without comment! I re-read all of the books a few years ago, and if you do them in chronological rather than publication order it really is jarring. It just doesn’t feel like part of the same series. There is far more of an element of gothic horror in the first one than in the rest, whereas the swashbuckling predominates as time went on. The Arliss movie is basically an adaption of the first novel, with the ending changed and Syn cleaned up. Hammer did a remake of this movie, but found that Disney had got the rights to the character, so had to change his name to Dr Blyss. The Disney movie is actually not based on any of the Thorndyke novels, but rather an American adaption of a 1960 book called CHRISTOPHER SYN by William Buchanan, which was a rewrite of THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF DR SYN (I suspect that the rights issues surrounding the character are terrifying!). Despite Patrick McGoohan, the Disney is a bit weak-tea, with Syn turned into a goody-goody Robin Hood, rather than the anti-hero of the books. Hammer’s version is called NIGHT CREATURES or CAPTAIN CLEGG, depending on whether it’s the UK or US print, and is much closer to Thorndyke, with Peter Cushing turning in perhaps the definitve version of Dr Syn.
    The books were difficult to find for many years, but thankfully they are now being reissued in paperback, and it’s not hard to get the whole lot relatively cheap on Amazon. Personally, I think that THE AMAZING QUEST OF DR SYN is the best of the lot, with an excellent plot and rip-roaring climax, but all of them are enjoyable.


  3. John says:

    I always thought Dr. Syn was an amalgam of the various legends of British highwaymen, gentleman thieves and smugglers throughout the 18th century but most especially Deacon William Brodie, a real Scottish deacon and cabinet maker turned thief. “Dick Donovan” wrote a sensation novel about Brodie that I read a long time ago.

    I doubt anyone gave Disney bad advice. It’s just another example of Hollywood screenwriters making things up. And I doubt if Disney cared if it were true or not. Anything to sell a movie! He didn’t honor P. L. Travers’ requests in making Mary Poppins. Hardly a man of integrity. That so-called factual intro by Disney in THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH is a perfect example of a Hollywood version of history — it mixes up tidbits from the biography of Deacon Brodie with facts about historical smugglers and the legend of Robin Hood.

    BTW – The lemmings business is notorious in the annals of not only documentary filmmaking but all of cinema history. Horrible what they did.


  4. Bradstreet says:

    The clever thing about Syn is that he sort of feels like a legend that you’ve heard. The story takes place in a real location, the smuggling was real, Syn’s colleague is a highwayman called Jimmy Bone (wonderful name!), and the Prince Regent appears in one of the later books. If you are so inclined, you can even find Christopher Syn’s gravestone in the local churchyard. Like you say, even the dual identity has a real-life original. I’ve always been amused by Disney’s attempt to turn the story into another version of Robin Hood. They had already done a live action version with Richard Todd in the 50s, followed by a live action version of Rob Roy (also with Todd) which is essentially Robin Hood with kilts. The big surprise is that in THE SWORD AND THE ROSE, Glynis Johns as Mary Tudor doesn’t suddenly start robbing from the rich to give to the poor…


  5. Anne english says:

    I have been looking for this film and its ending for 47 years It is riveting clearly a collectors piece which unfortately I don’t posess. I am obsessed that I have found a few scenes on the net


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