Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

Nine TailorsIt’s probably no coincidence that the best of Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels  – Five Red Herrings, The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night – are shot through with a powerful sense of place.  In Five Red Herrings it’s the Scottish Borders around Gatehouse and Kirkcudbright, in Gaudy Night it’s Oxford and in The Nine Tailors it’s Fens … that vast area of unnervingly flat, artificially drained land in Eastern England lying (roughly speaking)  between Lincoln and Cambridge which seems to teeter permanently on the brink of a watery armageddon. The Fens are very much at the mercy of the elements and it’s therefore entirely fitting that the book begins in a snowstorm and ends with an apolcalyptic flood.

The Nine Tailors is a detective novel quite unlike any other that I’ve ever encountered – not simply because the entire plot hinges on the church bells of the fictional village of Fenchurch St Paul, nor even because the geography of the area, both natural and manmade,  plays such an important in role in the whole story;  but because Dorothy L Sayers – a prodigiously well-educated, intellectually curious and fiercely intelligent woman in an era when it was unfashionable to be any of those things – became fascinated by the art (or is it a science?) of bellringing.

As soon as you open the book, and read the first chapter heading, you know you’re about to enter extraordinary territory:

I

A SHORT TOUCH OF KENT TREBLE BOB MAJOR
(Two courses)

704

By the course ends

64352

23456

8th the Observation

Call her in the middle with a double, before,
wrong and home.
Repeated once.
                                                                                                                                     (TROYTE)
——–

The First Course

THE BELLS ARE RUNG UP

The coil of rope which it is necessary to hold in the hand, before,
and whilst raising a bell, always puzzles a learner; it gets into his
face, and perhaps round his neck (in which case he may be hanged!)
TROYTE On Change-Ringing.

The theme continues throughout the book – a serious case of “Your research is showing” if ever there was one – and in anyone else’s hands it would probably have become pretentious and tiresome in a very short space of time.  But Sayers wasn’t ‘anyone’ and The Nine Tailors is anything but tiresome.

Peter Wimsey is probably one of the most misunderstood characters in English fiction.  Those who have never read the books but have heard the name mostly think of him as an androgynous, silly-ass poser with clipped consonants and mush for brains.

The reality of course, is very different,  Sayers created in Wimsey her perfect man:  slightly smarter than she was, athletic, witty, courageous, sensitive, well-read, well-bred and absolutely loaded.  She then  added in a couple of  attractive weaknesses – shot nerves, (courtesy of the First World War) and an eye for the ladies – stirred the resultant mixture, and Bingo!  Sex on legs.

The Wimsey novels are never less than entertaining.  Peter has a neat line in disingenuous vacuity and self-deprecating humour which cloak a very sharp mind indeed.  Sayers surrounded him with a cast of regular characters who were far more than ciphers and a back story that built up with every new addition to the oeuvre.  But even amongst the Wimsey novels, The Nine Tailors stands out.

Stranded in Fenchurch St Paul on New Year’s Eve after driving his car off the road, Wimsey and his manservant are given aid and shelter by the local Vicar and his wife.  The bellringers of Fenchurch St Paul are that night to attempt an historic fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors – but they are one man short, thanks to an epidemic of influenza.  Wimsey, who happens to know a thing or two about bellringing – as, indeed, he does about many things – steps into the breach, and the whole first 50 pages of the book are dedicated to the event.

It takes supreme self-confidence and more than a little courage to start a detective novel  at such a leisurely pace and without a crime in sight.  The bellringing, however, is far from irrelevant and neither is the influenza epidemic.

When a mutilated and unidentified body is discovered in a grave that has been reopened to receive a second occupant, who else is the Vicar likely to call for help but his new friend, the famous amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey?

One of the pleasures of reading the Wimsey novels in the order in which they were written is the way in which his character develops.  In the early days – starting with Whose Body – he chiefly finds the business of detectin’ as he calls it, immensely entertaining and a nice change from being a man-about-town.  By the time we get to The Nine Tailors, he’s a middle-aged man who has become all too aware of the human frailties and tragedies that both underpin and result from the murder and mayhem he investigates and, in the days when Britain still had the death sentence, of the fact that his actions could send a man to the gallows.

The story of the body in the grave  and how he got there has a real weight to it that is entirely missing from so many crime/detective novels – where the chase is everything and the frequently grisly ‘who-done-it-and-how’ is the sole raison d’etre.  What seem at the time to be mere ‘atmosphere’:  the new drainage works, the failing gates at Van Leyden’s Sluice, the details about the tides and the Thirty Foot Drain – even the momentous bellringing event itself – eventually all prove to be completely pertinent to the story.

The bells of Fenchurch St Paul loom over The Nine Tailors in a way that lodges in your mind for weeks, months and years afterwards. Once you’ve read it, you never forget it.  The plot’s twists and turns may fade, but the bells haunt you.  Indeed, I know two people – one of them a fellow Book Fox – who started bellringing themselves BECAUSE of the book.  Some of the details are a bit questionable – the actual mode of death, Peter Wimsey handing over his bellrope to someone else in the midst of the New Year bellringing attempt – but they’re minor quibbles which detract nothing from the sheer class of the story-telling:

The whole world was lost now in one vast sheet of water.  He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon.  To the south-west St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship.  Every house in the village was lit up:  St Stephen was riding out the storm,  Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged,  Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire ethed black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere.  Close beneath the tower, the vllage of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate.  Away to the east, a faint pencilling marked the course of the Potters Lode Bank, and while he watched it, it seemed to waver and vanish beneath the marching tide.

If you’re a newcomer to Wimsey,  it’s perfectly possible to start with The Nine Tailors – although to get a real feel for both him and his world I’d recommend one of the earlier books, like Clouds of Witness or his first meeting with his beloved Harriet Vane – Strong Poison.  People who like fast-paced, ‘let’s cut-to-the-chase’ writing willl probably never learn to love Lord Peter but that, I’m afraid, will be very much their loss.

Edition shown:  Hodder & Stoughton. 1984.  ISBN-13 9780450060724.  312pp.  (This edition – the one I own – is out of print but copies of the book, both new and secondhand, are readily available online.)

12 comments on “The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers

  1. David Boyd
    February 3, 2012

    Great review of one of my favourite detective novels, Moira !

    I once made a pilgrimage to the setting for the novel (and subsequent film) – the real-life village of Walpole St Peter, whose magnificent church is called ‘The Cathedral of the Fens’

    Dorothy L Sayers was a bit of a buddy of TS Eliot, whose Little Gidding too is not far away, near Huntingdon and well worth plgrimage too

  2. David Boyd
    February 3, 2012

    ps

    see

    http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/walpolestpeter/walpolestpeter.htm

    but on reflection, I think there’s no direct evidence that it was tis church that inspired the novel, but lots of circumstantial, and it was certainly used as the setting for it for film and TV adaptations

  3. Anne Brooke
    February 3, 2012

    Fabulous review – I must revisit this one, and soon! 🙂

    Anne
    xxx

  4. Hilary
    February 3, 2012

    What a great review! You’ve certainly done justice to one of my favourite books of all time, and certainly a life-changing one (yes, I’ll out myself as the Bellringing Bookfox).

    You call it a case of ‘Your research is showing’ that happens to come off – I see it as a flamboyant tour de force of research that it would be a crime to try and hide. The science and art of change-ringing are so deeply intriguing. The descriptions from the wonderful Troyte have their own rhythm, beauty and mystique – how can the reader fail to be intrigued, at least, if not reeled in? I think the only surprise is that no-one had spotted before that a change-ringing method is such a great way of hiding a clue – however, I’m really pleased about that, as no-one but DLS could have made such a wonderful job of it. It’s combined in The Nine Tailors with such lightly-worn information and lore of the life of a parish church, and because of my rather chop-and-change religious formation I think I may have learnt more about the Anglican faith from this than from my middle-aged Confirmation classes 😀

    Ad Lord Peter – sigh – he’s my perfect man too – and wouldn’t you just know that he’s an accomplished change-ringer. Is there *anything* he couldn’t do if he turns his hand to it?

    Now, to find out where my copy is buried – wouldn’t you know that I can’t find it ……

  5. Christine
    February 4, 2012

    If I take exception to anything in your review, it is your praise for Five Red Herrings. I love the setting, but her effort to one-up all of the time table mysteries that were prevalent in the Golden Age puts me to sleep! I totally agree that FIVE, like NINE and GAUD (as the LPW listsibs refer to them) all have a terrific sense of place. Sayers was a frequent visitor to Scotland, studied at Oxford and lived in East Anglia for much of her later life. I don’t have a great sense of English geography, but I think the kind of low lying territory she describes in NINE can be found there. She writes best about the things she knows. If anyone wants to start out with a really fun Wimsey novel that also has a great sense of place and doesn’t require much of a back story, try Murder Must Advertise. Sayers was working in a London ad agency when she wrote Whose Body and she recreated that world in the book in an absolutely hilarious fashion.

    PS–TS Eliot wasn’t her only neighbor in East Anglia. Margery Allingham, who created Albert Campion (some say in Wimsey’s image) was also a long time resident.

  6. Jackie
    February 4, 2012

    I’ve never read any of the Wimsey books and I really should. Not sure why I haven’t yet, maybe they’re intimidating or perhaps the libraries only seem to have the later volumes & I prefer to read series in order? Whatever the case, Moira, you always make them sound so intriguing and here Hilary is confessing to them changing her life. I’m evidently really missing out on something….

  7. Anne Brooke
    February 4, 2012

    Ah yes, Campion is definitely a Wimsey Light, but fun too! 🙂

    Anne
    xxx

  8. Moira
    February 5, 2012

    Christine – Greetings!. I was waiting for someone to call me out on Five Red Herrings. I know it’s not highly regarded by everyone, but it’s at the top of my list after The Nine Tailors. It’s one of the most complexly plotted for one thing – you have to have your brain fully engaged to follow it, and it’s a part of the world I know fairly well (unlike the Fens, which I have only ever passed through – one day, I must go down and take a proper look). And yes, DLS knew the Fens well – as she did Oxford and the area around Gatehouse of Fleet. I once took a holiday centred on Gatehouse and – purely for my own amusement – sought out all the locations she used. There’s nothing quite like reading a book in the place it’s set. (I can recommend Gaudy Night in the quad at Somerville, too!). Our ‘favourites’ have a lot to do with our own experiences I think. I’ve always found Murder Must Advertise everso slightly irritating, but then that world is anathema to me anyway …

    But I’m glad everyone enjoyed the review. I thought I’d made a bit of a pig’s breakfast of it.

  9. Llyn
    February 8, 2012

    This is my favourite of the Wimsey stories. I love the evocation of the Fens, and how all that information ties together. We will be passing through that way in September/October, so I hope to see Walpole St Peter.

    The Fens have great ghost stories. One of the masters of short story horror was M.R. James, who set many of his stories in East Anglia and the Fens. One of his short stories is <A HREF=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treasure_of_Abbot_Thomas. Now, one of the bells in NIne Tailors is called Batty Thomas, and we are told that a long ago Abbott Thomas had the bell made and in stalled. I strongly suspect, although I cannot prove it, that Sayers named the bell for the M.R. James story.

  10. Colin
    August 28, 2013

    As someone who discovered Dorothy L Sayers and became hooked for life, in the 1970’s through the BBC dramatisations featuring Ian Carmichael as Wimsey – I have to confess that The Nine Tailors, is, for me, the best crime novel ever written. It is my favourite novel. It more than just a mere detective story, it is a documentary on a world and village life that has disappeared for good. I have since seeing the series and listening to the radio version (far closer to the book than the tv series) been fascinated by campanology. If you haven’t read The Nine Tailors – get a copy and enjoy – you’ll be sorry when its finished.

  11. Pingback: The Adventure of the Three Lame Men (1934) | Reading Ellery Queen

  12. MahlersGhost
    April 10, 2014

    I first met Lord Peter via the Nine Tailors and absolutely fell in love with him , the writing style of Miss Sayers. the descriptions of the Fens, the neatly sketched minor characters and as you say, Moira, with the bells themselves. It IS the bells and their personalities you can remember many many years later – “little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them”…”rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes.” And the scene in the belfry where Wimsey is exposed to the full terrible noise of all the bells as they ring the flood alarm and is nearly driven mad by them is one of the finest pieces of horror description I’ve read.

    The book started me off on my reading ALL the Wimsey canon, some of the best written crime novels in the world. AND they got me interested in bell-ringing. Possibly a bit too complicated for me to do myself, I nevertheless love to hear English (for it IS uniquely English) change-ringing of an evening. And if any of you wishes to hear a unique and utterly beautiful example of how church and hand bells can be brought movingly together you may care to follow this link:

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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