100 Years. 100 Books #3 – 1915


Doctor Syn: A Smuggler Tale of the Romney Marsh by Russell Thorndike

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

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100 Years. 100 Books #2 – 1913

The Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle

Not many people are aware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote more than the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle was a curious man and wrote many stories that today might be classified as science fiction. Take a peek at The Lost World (a 1912 classic) that imagined dinosaurs alive on earth long before Jurassic Park.

The Poison Belt suggests a murder mystery, but is in fact a nice little piece of speculative fiction in which Doyle imagines the course of events that would occur should the Earth “swim through the poisonous current which swirls like the Gulf Stream through the ocean of ether.” The story begins with journalist Mr. Malone being dispatched to interview his friend Professor Challenger. Those readers familiar with Doyle’s The Lost World will recognize the characters here – Malone and Challenger return, as well as Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton.

Professor Challenger has postulated through a letter in the London Times that the Earth has moved into a “poisonous belt” of atmosphere that is responsible for significant changes in the color spectrum as well as for widespread illness and panic in other parts of the world. Malone is dispatched to Challenger’s country home to get the story, but at the same time receives a summons from Challenger imploring him to “bring oxygen!” Malone meets Summerlee and Roxton on the way, they too having been summoned to Challenger in the same mysterious way.

Once they arrive at their destination, the three friends discover an excited Challenger who informs them they have but few hours to live before they also succumb to the poison belt. Challenger, genius that he is, has devised a way for the friends to last a little longer by sealing a room in his house. The room is furnished it with food and oxygen, which he believes will allow the friends to breathe and live beyond the rest of the household and neighborhood. As the day lengthens into night, the friends observe many terrible sights, such as a train running amok and eventually crashing into one giant heap, neighbors apparently dropping dead where they stand, and fires apparently burning great cities such as Brighton.

Our Mr. Malone, reporter to the end, records his observations and feelings as the night moves into day. As the sun rises, the friends see they are nearing the end of their oxygen supply and decide to meet death head-on. In a grand gesture, the window is thrown open and all prepare to meet their deaths. Or do they?

I was unprepared for the depth of Doyle’s speculation and found it quite refreshing. I am an avid Sherlock Holmes fan and hadn’t read anything else by the author, so this was a treat. Doyle’s rendition of what the world would be like after a catastrophic event is haunting, especially in a scene where a bell rings out over a London completely devoid of life. If Doyle had thrown in a few zombies or vampires, I might have thought I was reading Richard Matheson!

This is my entry for 1913 in my 100 Years. 100 Books reading project for 2011. I have to admit, I’ve started and stopped several books that I just could not read. This story, however, kept me interested and turning pages.

A solid 4 out of 5 date due cards.

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