When I am asked - as happens with some regularity - which of Dorothy L. Sayers's novels about Lord Peter Wimsey is my favorite, I never hesitate to answer: it is The Nine Tailors. First published in 1934, it features a beautifully tied-together mystery plot combining a whodunit with an even more powerful howdunit and fully-realized characters, all set against a background of bell-ringing. It was the very first book that I reviewed on the Classic Mysteries podcast. Here's a slightly edited version of what I said at the time:
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The body of an unknown man is discovered in an English churchyard. How did he die? And who killed him? This is the central mystery in one of the finest mystery novels ever written, Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors.
The phrase, "the nine tailors,” has nothing to do with the making of clothes. The word “tailors” here is a corruption of “tellers.” It refers to the nine teller strokes sounded by a church bell to mark the death of a man.
The Nine Tailors is very much a book about bell-ringing – in particular the form of the art, so well-developed in England, known as “change ringing.” In change ringing, the object is not to play a tune on the bells, as is done with a carillon. Instead, it is to ring the “changes,” sounding the bells one after another in a constantly changing, but mathematically predictable order.
And the bells of the church in Sayers’ setting, the town of Fenchurch St. Paul, are central characters in the book, with individual personalities and their own individual names. So before I tell you more about the mystery, let’s talk about Sayers as a writer.
As with many of the English writers of the Golden Age, Sayers use of language is nothing short of breathtaking. She assumed that her readers were intelligent, educated people – which could lead to some irritating traits, such as her habit of assuming that references to Shakespearean or Jonsonian verse, for example, would be instantly recognized without having to be identified further for the reader. But in The Nine Tailors, her writing is particularly beautiful and moving.
Let me quote one of my favorite passages, from quite early in the book. The bells of the church are about to be sounded in a special "peal" on New Years Eve – it will take nine hours for the eight bell ringers to ring this peal, beginning with a midnight service in the church to mark the new year. Listen to Sayers's descriptions of the bells ringing out, listen to her name the eight bells, as the great deep voice of the tenor bell, Tailor Paul, leads the way. Here is what she wrote:
The eight men advanced to their stations, and Hezekiah consulted his watch.
Time, he said.
He spat upon his hands, grasped the sallie of Tailor Paul, and gently swung the great bell over the balance.
Toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man. The year is dead; toll him out with twelve strokes more, one for every passing month. Then silence. Then, from the faint, sweet tubular chimes of the clock overhead, the four quarters and the twelve strokes of midnight. The ringers grasped their ropes.
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.
[That struck me, when I recorded this nearly ten years ago, as a fairly amazing and moving piece of writing. My opinion hasn't changed.] That is quite typical of the kind of writing Sayers could produce. She was one of the first women ever to earn a degree from Oxford University. Her novels, featuring her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, are mysteries, but they are most literate mysteries.
And the mystery here is a very good one. Wimsey, his car having broken down in the snow, stranding him in Fenchurch St. Paul, takes part in that great bell ringing extravaganza on New Years Eve. Some months later, he is called back to Fenchurch St. Paul: the body of an unknown man has turned up buried in someone else’s grave. The man must have been murdered, probably around the new year – but he appears to be unknown to anyone, and even an autopsy yields no indication of how he died. Wimsey sets out to discover how – and who – and why.
The story is beautifully and ingeniously developed, and the bells again play a major part in it. There is some humor – and some tragedy as well. Not for Sayers the pure puzzle mystery – there were always fully-realized, rounded characters in her novels, and while we enjoy their triumphs, we share their hurts as well.
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From time to time, I meet other readers of mysteries who don't care for The Nine Tailors. I mention this as a matter of fairness to you; I hope you will get - and enjoy - this book, but in honesty, it may not be everyone's cup of tea. It certainly is mine. The puzzle - the murder of that unknown man, and how it was done - is brilliantly told. I can't recommend it highly enough.
If you want to listen to the original podcast, you may do so by clicking here.
Next week: Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes.