Sayers, Dorothy L. The Nine Tailors.

NY: Harper & Row, 1934.

To the geeks among her readership, this is one of Sayers’s most thoroughly fascinating novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Peter and Bunter are driving through the Norfolk fens late one blizzardy New Year’s Eve when the car goes into a ditch and they have to hike through the blowing snow to the nearest village, Fenchurch St. Paul. They’re taken in by the elderly rector and his wife, who assure them the car can be rescued in the morning — but just now, the rector is planning a big event in the huge 11th century parish church across the road.

The Rev. Mr. Venables is an avid bell-ringer with a crack team of rope-pullers from the village under him and they’re about to attempt a full peal of Kent Treble Bob Major — 15,840 rings, taking more than nine hours. “Ringing the changes” means following mathematical progression, not playing tunes. It’s a peculiarly English avocation and has been for a long time; Batty Thomas, the oldest bell of the eight in the belfry of St. Paul’s, was cast in 1368 and the local records of progressive ringing go back more than two hundred years. It’s also an arcane subject with its own jargon: “‘Make it a 704,’ said the Rector. ‘Call her in the middle with a double, before, wrong, and home, and repeat.’” And Sayers doesn’t bother to explain any of this, which keeps it all mysterious and rather bewildering. (One could wish she had included an explanatory appendix.) Anyway, one of the ringers is suddenly taken by influenza and Wimsey, an old bell-ringer himself (naturally), is dragooned into substituting — which he carries off successfully, to everyone’s grateful delight. And then the car is fixed and Wimsey and Bunter proceed on their way. Meanwhile, the local squire dies and preparations are made to bury him in the same grave with his wife, who had passed away only a few months before. But in opening the grave, another body is discovered just below the surface, an unknown intruder with a battered face and lacking its hands (and therefore its fingerprints). The local cops are having no luck with the case so the rector writes a hopeful note to Wimsey in London: Might he have some suggestions as to how to proceed? Hah! A mystery, and under highly unusual circumstances! Peter’s back down there like a shot! And then things begin to get complicated. There was this theft of a very valuable emerald necklace back in 1914, and various people died or went to prison, but the emeralds were never recovered. And as Lord Peter’s investigation widens, it becomes clear that the two cases are intertwined. The suspects pile up but they all seem to have alibis — and besides, Wimsey discovers that the people he personally likes appear to be the best suspects, which doesn’t make him happy. It’s a complex plot, with some notable characters among both the cops and the fen people, as well as the absent-minded rector himself. And the water-logged fens are a major player, too. This is widely considered one of Sayers’s very best efforts and I have to say I enthusiastically agree.

Published in: on 23 June 2011 at 11:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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