The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
In a comment to one of the posts on our Fen Rivers Way walk, Ros pointed out that The Nine Tailors was set in the Fens and described it as one of the best descriptions of the area she knew. I had completely forgotten that not only did Sayers set novels in the area, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother is the Duke of Denver. As in Denver the town and Denver the sluice. Good grief, how did I not remember this? TheHusband did, but we didn’t talk about it on the path.
I pulled out my copy of The Nine Tailors a couple of weekends ago and started reading. It has been described as one of Sayers’ best novels, even the best by some. All I remembered about it was that there was a lot of information about bell ringing and bells played a major role in the story. But as soon as I started reading I realized how much more than that it was. Sayers spent part of her life in the Fens and was very familiar with the villages and the agricultural life of the area, and it shows.
Lord Peter and and his man Bunter have an automobile accident on the way to a house party during the holidays and wind up in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. They are put up by the vicar and his wife and Lord Peter becomes drawn into the vicar’s (and the village’s) central passion, which is bell-ringing. The church is famous for its bells, and on New Year’s Eve Lord Peter helps out the village’s group of bellringers in their effort to set a new record.
On their way out of town after the car is repaired the two encounter a man who is looking for work, speak with him briefly, and go on their way. Lord Peter notes his condition and the discrepancies between who the man says he is and what his appearance suggests, but thinks little more about it until he is contacted by a young member of the village for help in identifying a body that was buried where it shouldn’t have been.
Lord Peter takes up the case and returns to the village, where he finds that the identification of the unknown man may be connected to a previous crime: the theft of a valuable emerald necklace. Two men, including the butler of the house where the necklace was stolen, were convicted and imprisoned for the crime, but the necklace was never found. The butler was found dead after escaping from prison, while his accomplice was eventually released on parole and disappeared. Investigating the identity of the body leads Lord Peter into a thicket of questions pertaining to several of the villagers, the residents of the village manor, and across the sea to France.
There is a lot of arcane information about bell-ringing in this novel. For fans of neepery it’s great fun, but not all reviewers were enthralled, with Edmund Wilson comparing it to encylopedia material and not in a good way. I know almost nothing about bell-ringing and still couldn’t tell you what a Kent Treble Bob Major is, but I didn’t let my ignorance stop me from enjoying the story. To me the point of the detail is to immerse you in this particular world, and it succeeds in that very well. Fenchurch St. Paul isn’t just a village but a specific village with a specific personality. The characters in turn are embedded in this context and reflect the idiosyncracies of this place. If they lived elsewhere they wouldn’t be quite the same people.
There are a lot of characters, which adds to the complexity of the plot, but none of them are extraneous. If someone is mentioned in the early chapters you can be pretty sure they’ll show up later and for a reason. I was reminded when reading that Sayers, like many of her talented contemporaries, may have stuffed her novels with people and plot, but everything had a purpose. You do have to pay attention, which adds to the immersive quality of the read.
The village really comes to life, and as the mystery is unraveled more people come into focus. The climax of the novel, however, is not the solution of the mystery, or at least it’s not the only climax. Instead, it is the flooding of the village, which puts residents, livestock, and property at great risk. The community, led by the vicar and his wife, mobilize their resources and make sure everyone who can be is protected and cared for. I don’t mean to take away from the ingenuity of the crime and the skill of solving it, because that is quite impressive. But the section on the flood is just brilliant.
Is this Sayers’s best novel? Harriet Vane isn’t in it so I’m sure many readers would say no. I’m partial to Murder Must Advertise, myself. But I very much like the Lord Peter we see here. He’s less fussy and nervous, and while he’s wickedly smart in how he figures out what happened, he doesn’t feel quite as much like Lord Peter Perfect here as he does in other books. And Bunter is excellent as always. In some ways The Nine Tailors resembles Murder Must Advertise (and Gaudy Night for that matter) because the context is so rich and textured. But unlike those two, it’s set in a less exalted setting and gives us a view of Fen village life that isn’t easily come by. And the mystery is complex and arcane enough to satisfy even the most veteran reader of the genre.