Dorothy L. Sayers: The Nine Tailors

The Nine Tailors
Dorothy L. Sayers
First published in the UK 1934, Victor Gollancz Ltd
This edition 2003 Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN: 9780450001000
374 pages
Score 4/5

The Nine Tailors has a striking opening. On a snowy night in the East Anglian fens, Lord Peter Wimsey has driven off the road across one of the sudden right-angled turns that they think is a good idea out there (believe me they’re scary). His Daimler is stuck in a ditch and he and his faithful manservant Bunter have to trudge to the nearest village to seek shelter and a mechanic, in that order.

They are taken in by the kindly but eccentric Theodore Venables, Rector of the parish of Fenchurch St Paul. Theodore is an obsessive bell ringer and before long has persuaded Lord Peter to participate in a record-breaking all-night peal. Obviously, the multi-talented Wimsey has bell-ringing skills…

A few months later, the Rector has occasion to call on Lord Peter’s help again. His sexton has made an unpleasant discovery in the graveyard. The grave of Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, has been used to hide another body, a man with a mutilated face and both of his hands missing. Summoned by the Rector, Lord Peter gleefully cancels his social engagements and drives back to the fens. So begins a mystery which takes in a pre-WWI jewel theft, a trip to a French farm, and a great amount of bell-ringing lore.

The Nine Tailors is, at heart, a rustic comedy. Fenchurch St Paul is seemingly populated almost entirely by stock yokels – Hezekiah Lavender, ‘a gnarled old gnome with a long beard‘, Wally Pratt, ‘an embarrassed youth with his hair plastered into a cowlick in the centre‘, Ezra Wilderspin an enormous blacksmith, and Potty Peake (‘he’s not really potty, only a little lacking, you know‘). Cue lots of jokes:

‘Providence?’ said the old woman. ‘Don’t yew talk to me about Providence. I’ve had enough o’ Providence. First he took my husband, and then he took my ‘taters, but there’s One above as’ll teach him to mend his manners, if he don’t look out.’

Fen country, it can get wet…
Bob Jones via Wikimedia Commons

It also has a great sense of place. The East Anglian fens are well described: all the dykes, ditches, and sluices of this unique landscape come to life in Sayers’ hands (she was a local girl), and she has a real feel for place-names: Lympsey, Great Leam, Leamholt, Old Bank Sluice, Frog’s Bridge, Thirty-foot Ditch, Van Leyden’s Sluice.

But the real stars of the book are the bells. Bells and bell-ringing make for an unusual backdrop to a murder-mystery, and Sayers adds in loads of campanological flavour, as well as her usual lyrical flourishes.

‘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 … 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-coked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southwards and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sweeping counties went the music of the bells.’

Anyway, that’s my opinion. Edmund Wilson thought differently

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Cozy mystery book, Golden Age detection, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Dorothy L. Sayers: The Nine Tailors

  1. Pingback: Edmund Wilson on The Nine Tailors | Past Offences

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Rich – You’ve picked up on two of the things in this novel that made it stand out for me. One is the sense of place. There’s a really strong use of setting in this novel and that adds to it for me. The other is what one learns about changing. I knew absolutely nothing about the tradition before reading this novel and I felt I learned while I read. I always enjoy that.
    I also thought that Wimsey’s reaction to the truth about the extra corpse in the grave very powerful. I don’t want to give away spoilers but I thought that was particularly well done.


  3. Moira says:

    I don’t bell ring myself, but I married into a bell-ringing family, and they always claimed that the book is full of mistakes on the topic – but that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment. I chose a passage from the book to be read out at my father-in-law’s memorial service.


  4. Sarah says:

    I like this book Rich, and I’ve read it a few times. However I don’t find it as easy a read as say ‘Murder Must Advertise’. But a great framework for a novel.


  5. Pingback: Book report for October 2012 | Past Offences

  6. carla says:

    shouldn’t it be “snow-choked louvres of the belfry”?


  7. Pingback: Review: The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers | The Game's Afoot

  8. Pingback: In Search of St Paul’s Church Fenchurch St Paul | James P Miller's Photographic Blog Ramblings

  9. Lucy Hodgson says:

    I love this tale and am currently re reading it starting it again on New Years eve. I use to ring bells and have rung in the new year but not like the Fenchurch ringers. Brilliant story will be sorry to finish it


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