I confess I selected this story because I remembered watching the Wonderful World of Disney production Scarecrow of Romney Marsh where Dr. Syn was played by Patrick McGoohan, aka The Prisoner, which I loved as a child, and which is available on DVD at the Chili Public Library!
Because I remembered the Disney production and because I watched it recently, the plot was fresh in mind when I began reading. However, I quickly discovered that Disneyfication isn’t limited to fairy tales as I came to know a very different Dr. Syn and residents of Romney Marsh as written by Mr. Thorndike.
The story is based on local tales of smuggling along the coast of Great Britain in the 18th century, where Romney Marsh was notorious as a destination for smugglers bringing in brandy and tobacco from France. Thorndike expands on the basic tale by introducing Dr. Syn and a host of colorful characters, such as Jack, a young lad with a highly developed sense of right and wrong who aspires to become a hangman, and even goes so far as to hire a man to build him a gallows on the tiny piece of land he owns in the Marsh.
This leg of the story takes place at the end of Dr. Syn’s adventures. During his lifetime, Syn went from living peacefully in Dymchurch-under-the-wall to becoming a wronged lover, to a ruthless pirate, right back to where he started on Romney Marsh. Having returned from a life of crime as the infamous pirate Captain Clegg, Syn settles down at home. He quickly discovers that the people of Dymchurch are heavily involved in smuggling, and also ascertains that they are in danger. He organizes them into a fearsome band of Devil Riders, led by the even more fearsome figure, The Scarecrow. The Scarecrow and the riders use a phosphorescent mixture to make themselves glow, thus lending them an air of devilry when they ride out to greet the smugglers ships at night.
Life goes on quietly until the arrival of Captain Collyer and his band of King’s men, come to stop the smuggling. Collyer and Syn match wits throughout, with Collyer eventually learning of Syn’s notorious past and attempting to bring him to justice.
There are no cute Disney fairies or quaint Englishmen here. These are rough and tumble characters who are handy with knives and guns, and ruthless enough to use them. There’s also one very odd scene with Dr. Syn capering about his study that certainly wasn’t part of the Disney version. The writing at times can become tedious, and is full of colloquialism and dialect, which can be a challenge to read. However, the action and storyline are enough to keep the reader involved.
Thorndike wrote a series of Dr. Syn stories, which are available as a collection via Google Books. He wrote the first Dr. Syn story in 1915 but didn’t publish another until 1935. Thorndike may be better known for his work in the theater, where, along with his sister, he was a Shakespearean actor with Ben Greet’s Academy. The Dr. Syn stories have been produced on film, television, on the stage and in comic books.
3 out of 5 catalog cards