RogerBW's Blog

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers 02 May 2018

1934 mystery, ninth of Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey. Stranded in a fen village on a snowy New Year's Eve, Wimsey helps out with the bell-ringing since one of the regular men is down with 'flu. But Fenchurch St. Paul has not finished with him, and soon enough a body will be found.

This is a strange book. Yes, there's the village murder mystery: a corpse found in someone else's grave, face bashed in and hands missing, but with no obvious cause of death. Yes, there's the garrulous Rector and the ailing Squire and the Rude Mechanicals and a long-missing emerald necklace. But this feels like a story with a hole in the middle of it all, and I think what's in that hole is Sayers' experience of the relationship between the human and the divine. The eight bells are central, connected with everything, glorious and terrifying at the same time.

And this, I suggest, is why there's so much apparently irrelevant talk about the mechanics of change-ringing, both in character and quoted (when people dislike this book, all that material tends to be the reason why): it is in effect holy text, the best that mere humans can do to understand something that by its nature is beyond them. (The reader is not helped by the fact that Wimsey is an experienced ringer – he has to be, for the substitution at the start to work – and so nobody needs to explain the basics to him.)

The mystery plot is important, and there's an interesting secondary theme of the amount of damage one bad man can do to a community, not to mention the difference between "good" and "bad" criminals. Of course, this being Sayers, everyone here is an interesting person, even the bit-parts. (I think it's a pity that Hilary Thorpe wasn't brought back in a later book, though combined with Miss Meteyard in Murder Must Advertise and Harriet Vane herself there's an interesting triptych of the author at various stages of her life.)

There's a little bit of Bunter, and fenland drainage, and a little bit of Parker, and another encoded message, and a largely gratuitous scene of action near the end – leading to a death that seems completely pointless, except that if you get your thinking into the right shape it's exactly what is needed to make everything right again.

It's not a book I come back to very often; it's awkward and spiky and defies easy classification. But it's very good. Followed by Gaudy Night.

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Previous in series: Murder Must Advertise | Series: Peter Wimsey | Next in series: Gaudy Night

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:20pm on 02 May 2018

    I note you mention a death at the end which makes everything right again. What annoys me about so much detective fiction is that is how the story ends, the embezzler loses all his money or the murderer dies or a repuation ruined etc. I don't find that satisfying at all. The best ending for me with crime fiction is for the criminals to be arrested, get a fair trial, and be put in jail for an amount of time commensurate with their crimes. That is how criminal justice is supposed to work. Is it too much to ask that of detective fiction either in books or on TV? Part of the reason I like Poirot is that is actually what happens at least some of the time.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 03:38pm on 02 May 2018

    In Sayers as a whole, most of the time there is an arrest and at least an implied trial. When she deviates from that pattern, she has a reason for it.

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