Doctor Syn

June 7, 2011

It doesn’t make sense for the early 19th century Kentish town of Dymchurch to have smugglers. It’s got the wrong sort of coastline. What it has got is a well-liked baronet, a pious but down-to-earth vicar given to singing pirate songs and possibly some demons who frolic in the Romney Marsh at night. And maybe smugglers too. That’s what Captain Collyer and his men have come to find out, anyway.

The book goes back and forth between the townspeople and the sailors, and you’re never pushed to choose a side. Nobody is completely likable, except for one fairly minor character who appears late in the book, and the closest thing we get to a protagonist is a rum-drinking twelve year old whose ambition in life is to become a hangman. Doctor Syn, the vicar, is appealing, but seems increasingly dangerous as the book goes on.

I thought the twist was fairly obvious from the beginning, but I expected Russell Thorndyke to take it in a different, lighter direction. Instead, much of the book is sort of chilling. It’s good, though. I kept forming new expectations as I read, and Thorndyke kept surprising me.

Doctor Syn is kind of a weird book. It starts out pretty lighthearted and gets much darker, but that implies a steadier, clearer kind of change than I felt. It’s all over the place. Sometimes you’re hearing from the townspeople, and sometimes you’re hearing from the sailors, and it’s never really clear if you’re supposed to be on anyone’s side.


  1. If the BBC audio versions are faithful to the stories, Doctor Syn fall reluctantly in love with a string of ever-younger girls. Each has more spirit and fewer years than the last, to an amazing extent.

    • That’s pretty alarming. I understand that this book was followed by a series of prequels dealing with his life as a pirate, so if the radio material comes from anywhere, I expect it comes from that.

  2. The vicar is named Doctor Syn? Oh, this doesn’t sound good AT ALL.

    • Yeah, I guess his name is a pretty good clue to the fact that the story does not end well.

  3. Do be sure to watch _The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh_, which is the Disney adaptation of Doctor Syn, starring Patrick McGoohan as the swashbuckling vicar.

    • The movie sounds like a very much declawed version of the book, but Patrick McGoohan might be enough to convince me to watch it anyway.

      • The Disney version is also sometimes listed as “Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow.” I remember enjoying it when I was a kid, but didn’t know it was based (however loosely) on a book.

        • I really wouldn’ have thought tht it would make a good kids’ movie. I guess now I’ll have to see it to figure out how they did it.

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