"Take any cynic who will not believe in ghosts and let him meditate alone in Dullchester Slype, and that foolish soul will wish he had not boasted." The Slype (1927), Russell Thorndike
"Dickensian" is the adjective that reviewers have often applied to Russell Thorndike's The Slype. It is easy to see why. The novel is set in "Dullchester," based on Rochester, Kent, where Thorndike was born. His father was a minor canon at Rochester's great cathedral and in the novel Dullchester Cathedral is the focus of events. Naturally enough, readers of The Slype have been reminded of Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), which similarly details mysterious goings-on in a city based on Rochester.
|Rochester horizon, with the cathedral and castle|
Complementing an evocative setting are well-drawn characters. In the brilliant second chapter of The Slype (a novel long for its day and its genre--about 125,000 words by my count), Thorndike lays out all the characters (people who "mattered" in the Precincts of Dullchester and one who did not):
Styles (head verger)
Norris (keeper of the Old Curiosity Shop--yes, there's one of those too--take note, John!)
Miss Tackle (gentlewoman and beekeeper)
Alfred Watts (Chapter Clerk and Mayor)
Mr. Trillet (organist)
Dr. Smith (he did not matter in the Precincts, as he had "damned himself with the Cathedral folk by attending Chapel, hobnobbing with the defeated Labour Candidate, who was regarded as a Bolshevist, and by wearing a football trophy on his watch-chain")
Jane Jerome (the Dean's granddaughter, a businesswoman and provider of love interest)
Minor Canon Quaver
Minor Canon Dossal (great names, these two)
Mr. McCarbre (wealthy Cathedral benefactor)
Boyce's Boy (errand boy to Mr. Boyce, greengrocer)
|the Paper Wizard at work|
Then there are also the representatives of the police: the local, bumbling, Sergeant Wurrin, and the young, keen and intrepid Detective-Inspector Macauley of Scotland Yard.
Twenty characters (admittedly, a heavily male ensemble), plus additional ones introduced later on: wives, domestic servants, tradesmen/women, errand boys and, less pleasingly, a nefarious "Chinaman."
Were The Slype to be filmed, there would have to be multiple awards nominations, the roles would so demand good actors to play them. Dean Jerome would be a threat for best actor and Boyce's Boy almost a sure thing for best supporting actor (though arguably the latter is really a lead too).
One of those Dickensian urchin types, Boyce's Boy really is a marvel, surely one of the great working class characters in a Golden Age mystery:
So Sergeant Wurrin watched [Boyce's Boy] from the window of the Police Station, and although cats would spit at him and High Street dogs growl when he amused himself by shooting unripe gooseberries at them from a catapult, the animal world followed mankind and gave Boyce's Boy as wide a berth as possible. He had something about him.
I generally like to quote from the books I review, but The Slype has so many lengthy beautifully-written passages it's had to select just one. On a day when snow swirled outside the window as I typed and the temperatures plunged to a bitterly cold level, I thought how appropriate it was to be writing about this book, with its atmospheric descriptive passages about, among other things, the passing of the autumn into winter.
So what is the plot, you ask? Well, it involves a man with a guilty secret and several schemers intent on discovering something they think is to be found within the bowels of Dullchester. Plot is secondary to the characters, setting and writing, but readers should be intrigued by the series of bizarre disappearances that besets Dullchester (eventually eight people vanish, along with a sty of pigs, a panel from a stained glass window and a set of wind-up mechanical soldiers).
Near the end some action stuff with the evil Chinaman takes us out of Dickens-Land and into the more fantastic yet at the same time altogether less wonderful (Edgar) Wallace-World of the 1920s, but on the whole I would say The Slype makes marvelous mystery reading, especially if you like Edwin Drood and Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors (1934). As Mark Valentine says in the introduction, the novel has "a sense of great gusto, a panache in the plotting and storytelling, strong pace and vivid color."
For fans of Thorndyke's Dr. Syn books, there's a chapter in The Slype that ties up certain loose ends from that saga. That's another reason, in addition of course to its rarity (despite having been published in the U. S. as well as the U. K.), that the book has commanded such high prices on the secondhand market. Fortunately, the new nice quality Valancourt Books edition makes a more than adequate substitute for the original (and you don't need to have read Dr. Syn to navigate The Slype).
For more on Russell Thorndike, see my review from last month of Six Against the Yard (1936).