Monday, March 3, 2014

Slip Slypeing Away: The Slype (1927), by Russell Thorndike

"A secret path, covered way or passage.  A space very frequent in Abbeys, intervening between the transept and the entrance to the chapter-house, often called by the expressive name of the Slype.New Oxford Dictionary

"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):

Potter (caretaker)
Styles (head verger)
Dean Jerome
Norris (keeper of the Old Curiosity Shop--yes, there's one of those too--take note, John!)
Miss Tackle (gentlewoman and beekeeper)
Canon Cable
Alfred Watts (Chapter Clerk and Mayor)
Mr. Trillet (organist)
the Archdeacon
Dr. Rickit
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
In the first chapter we are introduced to Daniel Dyke, a young writer returning to visit Dullchester, and the memorable Paper Wizard, a man who makes his living cutting silhouettes (in Dullchester he evinces a predilection for "silly-wets" not of cathedrals, as one might expect, but of gallows).

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.

Rochester Cathedral

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).


  1. That sounds fabulous - you do a good job selling the story, I must go and look it up and find this new edition....

    1. Thanks. It's a good one, I think, Clothes. I'll be interested in seeing what the semi-sequel is like too.

  2. I agree, you make this sound fascinating as always. It brought immediately to my mind Michael Gilbert's 1947 debut novel, "Close Quarters", which I recommend for covering the same setting in a similar way; 1947 sounds quite far away but Gilbert's novel seems to be from an earlier time.

    1. Yes, I agree Close Quarters is another one that fits right in here.

  3. I began reading this ages ago when I was lucky to find a copy for a relatively cheap price, but I never finished it. Then I foolishly sold the book in one of my many desperate fits of "I need a vacation" fund raising. I'll be picking up a copy of the Valancourt edition sometime soon and making sure I read the whole thing. This review makes it all the more intriguing and touches on elements I never knew existed in the book. I did enjoy Master of the Macabre last year. Thorndike is a master at creating eerie atmosphere and so good at unusual characters. He should've tried writing an ending to ...Edwin Drood. I'm sure he could've done better than Leon Garfield whose obvious ending I was not entirely thrilled with when I read his version last year.

    1. John, thanks for the link to you Macabre review. I bought that book too and thought it looked very interesting.

  4. I recently saw a 1933 reprint of this in a charity shop; then when i read your review i instantly had to buy and read it. Two pound my edition cost- and now i hear its rare!. i thought its leisurely style was very different to what i was used to- in places it reminded me of middlemarch- and it took me longer to get through than i'd imagined, but it made a nice change, so thanks for featuring it, otherwise i don't think i'd ever have taken a punt on it

    1. Good show! It is leisurely, more in the Victorian style, but as you say a nice change of pace.