“I mean to say, bygones are bygones and all that and one hates digging anything up, what? But when it comes to dead bodies in other people’s graves and so on, well, sometimes one gets wondering about them and all that sort of thing, don’t you know.”
Old ways still endure in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. Sir Henry Thorpe presides over his estate, the harvest festival is always observed, and the church bells—the nine tailors—are rung to announce a death in the community. Between New Year’s Eve and Easter, the nine tailors will ring out three times as fresh graves reveal old sins. In order to stop the deaths, Lord Peter Wimsey must discover what long-ago secret is hidden within the peals of the bells.
The Nine Tailors has the reputation of being half mystery, half bell-ringing. That’s not entirely accurate. It’s more like forty percent mystery, forty percent bell-ringing, ten percent rural dialect, and ten percent drainage. For most readers (including me), that will still be far too much specialized bell discussion for their taste. It’s especially unfortunate that so much of it is concentrated in the first section of the book—I’ve tried reading The Nine Tailors before and never even made it to the murder because my mind was so dazed by passages like: “The ninth lead should bring Queen’s change–let me see, let me see–51732468, 15734286–that’s the first thirds and fourths all right–51372468, 15374286–and that’s the first fourths and thirds–13547826…” It turns out there’s an interesting mystery buried in here somewhere; it’s just that Sayers makes it awfully difficult to find.
That long prologue finds Lord Peter Wimsey and his man, Bunter, stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul when their car breaks down during a New Year’s Eve snowstorm. They seek shelter with the local vicar, a bell-ringing enthusiast whose plans to ring a complicated sequence for the new year are threatened by the illness of one of his ringers. Wouldn’t you know, Wimsey once swung a mean bell himself. He happily steps in, endearing himself to the villagers. One would think the opposite, since if he had not offered his services, they would not have had to listen to nine hours of church bells in the middle of the night.
Sadly, the bell-ringers are back in the church tower sooner than anticipated. Lady Thorpe, the squire’s wife, has died. It’s an unexpected death, but, everyone believes at the time, a natural one. A few months later, however, a headless, handless corpse is found buried in Lady Thorpe’s grave. Wimsey learns that nearly twenty years ago, on the eve of Sir Henry and Lady Thorpe’s wedding, one of their guests was robbed of a priceless emerald necklace. Reimbursing the cost of the necklace ruined the Thorpes financially, and the stones have never been located. Wimsey becomes convinced that the new murder is connected to this long-ago crime. Over the course of the year, he sort of pokes around at both mysteries in a leisurely fashion.
He is especially intrigued to learn that the dead man had been asking around the village for a Paul Taylor, since “Tailor Paul” is the name of one of the church bells. On the basis of this rather flimsy evidence, Wimsey begins haunting the church, much to the confusion of Superintendent Blundell, who can never keep track of whether he’s talking about a bell or a person. (Join the club!) While Sayers wrings quite a bit of menacing atmosphere from the bells, which at times seem to come alive with malevolent—and even murderous—intent, it’s just an awful lot about bells.
He passed up through the great, bare clock-chamber, released the counterpoise and climbed again till he came out beneath the bells. There he stood for a moment, gazing up into their black mouths while his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness. Presently their hooded silence oppressed him. A vague vertigo seized him. He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him. Spell-bound, he spoke their names: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams. Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: “Tailor Paul!” and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead.
The investigation itself is intriguing, as the threads of both the murder and the jewel theft extend across great expanses of time and place. The more Wimsey finds out, the more confusing the situation becomes. There is a lot of information that is not properly straightened out until the end, resulting in a mysterious but somewhat frustrating atmosphere. Suspicious people and circumstances keep piling up, as no one can be definitively ruled in or ruled out. Along the way, Wimsey meets many suspects and witnesses whose lives have been torn apart by these crimes; their positions are tragic, yet ambiguous. It’s worth noting, given Sayers’ soft spot for the aristocracy, that the only entirely innocent victims here are the landed gentry. The poor must make compromises that lead them into dangerous positions, and perhaps even murder.
Although she is hard-up by the standards of her class, the one character who never has to compromise is the appealing Hilary Thorpe. Fifteen-year-old Hilary doesn’t mind the loss of her inheritance because she intends to earn her own living as a best-selling author. “You’ll want a bit of experience before you can write novels, old girl,” her father cautions. “Rot, Daddy,” she replies. “You don’t want experience for writing novels. People write them at Oxford and they sell like billy-ho. All about how awful everything was at school.” At first, it seems Hilary is being set up as a girl sleuth and sidekick to Wimsey. He is certainly impressed by the clues she spots, and gives her some advice that may come from the author’s own hard-won experience.
“If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day […] Because you have the creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently of yourself. You’re lucky.”
“Do you really think so?” Hilary looked excited.
“Yes—but your luck will come more at the end of life than at the beginning, because the other sort of people won’t understand the way your mind works. They will start by thinking you dreamy and romantic, and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times—but they won’t ever know it, and you won’t know it at first, and it’ll worry you.”
Far too soon, however, Hilary vanishes from the story. Just as she has planned, she is off to boarding school, with Oxford in the future. Despite the hand-wringing over how the theft of the emeralds ruined the Thorpes’ lives, they’re not really poor. There’s enough money for Hilary to live her dream. She gets to rise above the messiness of crime, while other characters have no choice but to keep living in that dirt, however much they may want to leave it behind.
The Nine Tailors is a strange mixture. A crime of the past reaching into the present is a classic premise that always works. When Sayers sticks to this, the book is at its most effective. Though the circumstances of the crime are complicated, the solution has a wonderful simplicity. The portrayal of the bells is also fascinating: far from being the background noise of daily life, in this village they have a dangerous physicality that must be respected, even appeased. The bells are ominous and omnipresent, ready to turn on anyone who enters their lair. Little of that research about bell-ringing that drags down the book so much is actually needed. The bells are frightening enough on their own, but their horror is muted by the sheer weight of all the technical details. The Nine Tailors is an ambitious effort, and certainly something different in the mystery genre. Unfortunately, it is trying to do so many other things that it sometimes forgets to be a mystery at all.
It’s beautifully written and is a very fine literary mystery; the plot is extremely interesting and the story is well-developed; the characters are properly drawn and interact credibly; the resolution is flawless and it has a good sense of time and place.
One of Sayers’ best novels. The Fen country village, with its church, is magnificently drawn, and the church services show as much feeling and power as the powerful bells, at once beautiful and menacing.
The Nine Tailors is available in the US as an ebook from Open Road Media and in the UK as a paperback or ebook from Hodder & Stoughton.