Friday, October 3, 2014

"The Story Is Not Badly Done"

By Russell Thorndike (1885-1972).
Doubleday, Page.
1915. 301 pages.
Online HERE and HERE.
Filmed several times, including 1963 (IMDb).
When actor Russell Thorndike turned his hand to adventure fiction, he was remarkably successful. The inspiration for his seven-book saga of Dr. Syn adventures came about like this:
. . . The story idea came from smuggling in the 18th century Romney Marsh, where brandy and tobacco were brought in at night by boat from France to avoid high tax. Minor battles were fought, sometimes at night, between gangs of smugglers, such as the Hawkhurst Gang and the Revenue, supported by the army and local militias in the South, Kent and the West, Sussex. — Wikipedia
An original review:
Dr. Syn, by Russell Thorndyke [sic], is a tale of wild adventure and villainy, told with such cheerful and engaging impudence as, in a measure, to disarm criticism.
The period of the tale is "in the days of George Third, with Trafalgar still unfought"; the scene is a fishing village on the Kentish coast, rejoicing in the name of Dimchurch-Under-the-Wall, and the chief actors are the village squire, the minister, the sexton and undertaker, the hostess of the village inn, and a fine assortment of king's officers, smugglers, members of the press gang, and other typical figures of those disorderly and hazardous times.
Considered as a type, the story is not badly done, and the class of readers who like the type will undoubtedly derive satisfaction from this example of it. But we cannot disregard the fact that there is a suggestion of gargoyle ugliness about the majority of the personages in the story; one feels that no artist, other than a Hogarth or some one of the mighty caricaturists of his period, could, if called upon to illustrate the story, quite live up to the requirements.
And the happenings of the story are so fantastic. The discovery that the pious minister is the once terrible buccaneer and cut-throat, and that the meek little undertaker, perpetually measuring friends and foes indiscriminately for their coffins, is the ringleader and master mind of a vast smuggling enterprise, is somehow all too grotesque and unbelievable to be greatly entertaining.
But the present reviewer frankly admits that his quarrel is with the type and not with the individual book. As far as the latter goes, the author has, in professional phraseology, done a good job. — Frederic Taber Cooper, "A Group of First Novels," THE BOOKMAN (May 1915; go to page 318, top right)
Thorndike attempted a non-Syn comedy crime novel called . . .

By Russell Thorndike (1885-1972).
Dial Press.
1928. 320 pages.
. . . Here the author is less interested in making his plot complicated than in making his people amusing. He has selected for the scene of mysterious disappearances, kidnapping, smuggling, attempted murder and so forth an English cathedral close and the surrounding parish. One has to know only a little about such a milieu to realize its possibilities for comedy and character sketch. Good use has been made of them.
An exciting story told in a pleasant narrative style with considerable skill, and a whole portfolio of Dickensian characters, drawn against a rich background make The Slype an almost perfect piece of light fiction. It is long, too, so that one dares let himself go in reading it, confident that he is not going to turn an innocent looking page and fall headlong into Finis. — Frances Lamont Robbins, "A Running Commentary," THE OUTLOOK (December 5, 1928)
Forget about the plot in this thriller, which must have creaked even in the ’20s and which Thorndike does not energize or even, I must confide, make much sense of at the end.  . . .  As I said, the plot is not the reason to read this novel; it should be read for Thorndike’s descriptive ability and his characters.  . . . First class entertainment if you aren’t a plot person. — William F. Deeck, MYSTERY*FILE (8 February 2012)
. . . There are plenty of puzzles and satisfying twists in “The Slype,” making it an ideal novel for a couple of lazy spring evenings.  . . . — Michael Dirda, THE WASHINGTON POST (May 7, 2014)
One of the Dr. Syn sequels was . . .

THE SCARECROW RIDES [American title].
By Russell Thorndike (1885-1972).
Dial Press.
1935. 344 pages. $2.00
Dr. Syn, pirate turned clergyman, helps honest Romney Marsh smugglers and thwarts numerous villains in tale of 1770s. - Follows not unfamiliar pattern (vide J. Farnol) but has movement, romance, gawdy verbiage, and unremitting action. - Verdict: Good of its kind. — "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (November 16, 1935)
- Thorndike was also a movie actor; his filmography is HERE.
- Wikipedia has a comprehensive page about the character of Dr. Syn HERE, and there's a website devoted to the good doctor HERE.

Category: Crime and adventure fiction

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