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