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.
It’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:
A SHORT TOUCH OF KENT TREBLE BOB MAJOR
By the course ends
8th the Observation
Call her in the middle with a double, before,
wrong and home.
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.)