Doctor Syn: A Smuggler Tale of Romney Marsh, by Russell Thorndyke

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Dymchurch-under-the-Wall is a Kent village with the sea on one side and Romney Marsh on the other.  It is presided over by a genial and popular squire and its spiritual needs are ministered to by that slightly eccentric but good-hearted cleric Doctor Syn, a learned man with a liking for rousing hymns and a predilection for singing gruesome sea-shanties to himself.  Into this small, close-knit community comes a band of his majesty’s sailors under the command of Captain Collyer, RN, bent on smashing the smugglers that are operating an energetic trade of wool and spirits with France to the detriment of the government’s revenues.  The smugglers dress in outlandish costumes with a hint of the supernatural in order to frighten the unduly curious, and are the cause of much superstitious fear among the natives.

This, the first in the Doctor Syn series, was published in 1915, but its popularity was such that Russell Thorndyke wrote six prequels (Syn having died at the end of the first book), though nowadays the character is probably best known through various film adaptations.  The story is set at some unspecified point in the period of the Revolutionary Wars with France, but before Trafalgar in 1805.  While war with the French is imminent, and hostilities resume right at the end, the novel’s action occurs over a few days during an uneasy peace.  That suggests May 1803, just before the Treaty of Amiens collapsed, but Thorndyke specifically states that Collyer’s frigate arrives in November.  The 1790s would seem to be precluded by the ‘again’ in the phrase ‘war was again declared with France’, and by references to Trafalgar rather than say the 1798 Battle of the Nile.  It is likely that Thorndyke was not unduly bothered by the fine details of chronology.

There is a marked degree of ambiguity in the story’s moral universe (and what could be more contradictory than a vicar named Syn?).  On the one side we have ex-pirate Captain Clegg having reinvented himself as a clergyman in Dymchurch after faking his death, at the same time running a sophisticated smuggling operation in the guise of ‘The Scarecrow’.  Nominally the villain, his charisma marks him as an antihero despite his occasional brutality, notably arranging the cold-blooded murder of the physician who was often out and about at night on the marshes and saw too much for his own good.  The Scarecrow is a benefactor, ensuring a level of prosperity in the area by keeping money in the local economy rather than it being lost to taxation.  On the other side is Collyer, who proves capable of ruthlessness himself and is a much less sympathetic figure than his opponent, being frequently outwitted in his efforts to catch the malefactors.

Thorndyke introduces a supporting cast of eccentric characters, the talkative sexton Mr Mipps, actually Captain Clegg/The Scarecrow’s lieutenant; the publican Mrs Waggetts, who has her eye on Mipps for her next husband; the creepy schoolmaster Mr Rash; Jerry Jerk, a boy whose sole ambition is to grow up to be a hangman (and have Mr Rash as a customer) who finds himself being recruited by both sides; and best of all the tongueless, earless mulatto sailor who had been stranded on a reef by Captain Clegg and now seeks revenge on Doctor Syn; but how did he survive?  Is he alive, or some phantom returned for justice?

By the conclusion, Collyer has worked out what is going on and he smashes the smuggling ring despite Syn’s best efforts, while Syn falls victim to the mulatto’s vengeance.  Even though right (in the form of the authorities) triumphs, it is a melancholy ending.  Collyer, we learn, was himself killed fighting the French almost immediately afterwards, before he could lay charges against those in the smuggling gang.  Mrs Waggetts’ demise at the hands of the sailors is shockingly abrupt, while Mipps escapes to carry on his yarning in faraway Penang.  Dymchurch becomes a quieter place after the death of Doctor Syn and the cessation of the illicit profits from smuggling wool.

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I remember picking up several of the 1960s Arrow paperbacks of the stories as a young teen and enjoying them.  Particularly striking was the cover image of Doctor Syn standing in clerical garb in his pulpit holding a brace of pistols (something of a contrast to my own church-going experiences).  So it was interesting to revisit the first of them after a lengthy gap.  It has stood up reasonably well, though there is less action and a lot more chat than I remember, even if there are several violent deaths.  It is not a long novel, but there is still padding: a sub-plot at Rye where Syn’s adopted daughter Imogene goes to rescue the squire’s son from the press-gang which Collyer has arranged in order to pressure the smugglers into producing Rash, who had disappeared; and a tale Mipps tells Collyer about his time in China.  The writing can be creaky, but the characterisation is lively and the cat-and-mouse game between Syn and Collyer entertaining.

A word of warning to those who dislike spoilers (though obviously too late for anyone who has read this far): the 2004 Wildside Press edition’s back cover blurb tells us who Dr Syn is, in fact all three of his identities, and John Gregory Betancourt’s introduction goes into the matter in some detail.  It could be argued that while Thorndyke reveals the links gradually, the revelations over Syn’s various identities do not come as a major surprise, but some readers may wish to find out for themselves.  The introduction really should have been an afterword, and the blurb more circumspect.

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