In writing about "Clouds of Witness," by Dorothy L. Sayers, this week, I indicated that it really wasn't my favorite novel to feature Lord Peter Wimsey. So that, of course, brings up the question, which is my favorite?
Other's tastes may vary, but I think the best Lord Peter Wimsey novel is "The Nine Tailors," the ninth book to feature Wimsey, originally published in 1934. I love it because it is a good mystery, because it has wonderful, thoroughly developed characters, because it balances tragedy and humor, because it is beautifully written and because the eight church bells, with their distinctive names and personalities, play such a central role in the story.
For those unfamiliar with the book, "The Nine Tailors" has nothing to do with making clothing. The "tailors" are the so-called "teller strokes" sounded by the largest church bell; when it rings out nine slow, solo strokes, it is to mark the death of a person. Sayers is writing about church bells that are played in mathematical combinations, not a carillon of bells used to play tunes. She writes of them with a deep affection for the art of change-ringing, as it is called, and the writing is breathtaking.
The story begins on New Year's Eve, when Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, are driving through the gloomy landscape in the English fen country. Their car breaks down in a snowstorm near the small village of Fenchurch St. Paul, and they seek shelter from the storm with the vicar of the town's church, which will be celebrating the new year by ringing an hours-long peal of the eight church bells, ringing out the old year and ringing in the new. Lord Peter fills in as a bellringer, replacing another man who is too ill for the strenuous task at hand.
Months later, Lord Peter is called back to Fenchurch St. Paul. The body of an unidentified man has been found, buried in another person's grave. He must have been murdered and the body hidden - but there is no indication how he died. It will be up to Lord Peter to uncover the truth of what happened.
At the center of the book and its mystery are the eight great church bells, and Sayers' description of them never fails to move me. Here is her description of the midnight start of that great, prolonged New Year's Eve peal:
"The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, 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. Every bell in her place, striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes, and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvers of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells – 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. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul."
"The Nine Tailors" was the first book I ever reviewed on the "Classic Mysteries" podcast, before this blog was started. You can still listen to that review by clicking here. I know the sound of church bells is not welcomed by everyone - as Sayers herself points out, "The art of change-ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world." There are Sayers fans who do not care as much for "The Nine Tailors" as they do for other books in the series. But it is my favorite, and I commend it to you.