Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has reached the beautiful city of “N” on our tour. Thanks to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for so capably guiding us through the treacherous landscape. My contribution for this week’s stop on the tour is Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, published in 1934.

This novel begins on New Year’s Eve. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter are heading towards the town of Walbeach when they have a car accident near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul in East Anglia. The two men walk towards the village where they meet Rector Theodore Venables, who invites them to stay at the rectory until the car is repaired. The grateful travellers are settling in when word comes to the Rector that one of the men he’d depended on for the New Year’s Eve bell-ringing has fallen ill. William “Will” Thoday has come down with influenza and is too sick to take his part in the nine-hour traditional change-ringing. It turns out that Wimsey has a bit of experience at change-ringing, and offers to take Thoday’s place. Overjoyed at his good fortune, the Rector agrees and Wimsey prepares for the night’s ringing.

The change-ringing goes very well and the next morning, Wimsey and Bunter prepare to join the village in the New Year’s Day activities. Then, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of local squire Sir Henry Thorpe, has died. She is duly buried and after her funeral, Wimsey and Bunter go on their way. They’re destined not to stay away long, though. When spring comes to East Anglia, Sir Henry, devastated by the loss of his wife, dies. He is to be buried alongside his wife but when the grave is opened, everyone is shocked to find that there’s another body of an unknown man already there. No-one seems able to identify the man, and no-one can say how the corpse got there. So Rector Venables writes to Wimsey and asks him to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and help find out who the dead man was and how his body got in the Thorpes’ gravesite.

Wimsey and Bunter go back to Fenchurch St. Paul and Wimsey begins to look into the matter. Before long, Wimsey finds that the dead man is connected to a twenty-year-old story he heard during his first visit to the village. When the Thorpes were married, a valuable emerald necklace was stolen from one of their wedding guests by a team of thieves, who were later caught and sent to prison. The emeralds were never discovered. It’s highly likely that the dead man is one of the thieves, who quite possibly returned to the village to find the emeralds. But if so, which thief is he and who killed him? And where are the emeralds? With the help of some physical evidence, a frightening personal experience of his own and the cracking of an interesting cipher code, Wimsey finds out who the dead man was and what happened to the emeralds. As he re-traces the victim’s last days in Fenchurch St. Paul, Wimsey also finds out how and why the man died.

In many ways, this is an intellectual puzzler complete with a cipher, questions of identity and disguise, and some important physical clues. The reason for the death isn’t a deep-seated psychological one, either. So readers who enjoy exercising what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot called “the little grey cells of the brain” will not be disappointed. But be warned: it’s important to stay alert throughout the novel.

That said, though, there are some deeper issues explored here. Chief among them is the theme that our actions have consequences. When the truth about the dead man is revealed, that revelation has devastating consequences for more than one person and Wimsey wonders about the wisdom of letting the truth come out. This theme is also explored in a sub-plot having to do with water and flood management in the area. A new Wash Cut is being made so that the area will be better irrigated, but as a local sluice-keeper says,

“To my mind, things was all very well as they was.”

As he points out, it would be better to repair the gates for which he’s responsible than to go to all the expense of an entirely new drainage system. His point is made tragically clear towards the end of the novel when a terrible spring storm floods the area, breaking the sluice gates and wreaking havoc on the nearby villages.

Another interesting element in this novel is the background it offers on the English tradition of change-ringing. In fact, the title refers to this tradition, tailors referring in this case to the “telling” of church bells. Sayers has this to say about it:

“…the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations….His [the campanologist’s] passion – and it is a passion – finds its satisfaction in mathematical completeness and mechanical perfection, and as his bell weaves her way rhythmically up from lead to hinder place and down again, he is filled with the solemn intoxication that comes of intricate ritual faultlessly performed.”

The novel contains a great deal of interesting information about how changes are rung and what the different permutations are and what the result of them is.

The church itself is the setting for some key clues in this novel and some of the important action, and Sayers places the reader in that setting:

“At the first glance he [Wimsey] felt himself sobered and awe-stricken by the noble proportions of the church, in whose vast spaces the congregation…seemed almost lost. The wide nave and shadowy aisles, the lofty span of the chancel arch…the intimate and cloistered loveliness of the chancel, with its pointed arcading, graceful ribbed vault and five narrow east lancets, led his attention on and focused it first upon the remote glow of the sanctuary.”

There are some diagrams, too, that help place the reader at the church and rectory.

The village of Fenchurch St. Paul is located in the lonely and somewhat wild fens of East Anglia, and Sayers places the reader there, too, not only with description but also with a helpful map. You could argue that this setting is suitable for the story. It’s not what you would call a truly bleak novel; we see, for instance, how the village comes together during the storm, and there are some light moments (I’ll get to them in a moment). There are also elements of life and hope in the novel. But there is no real satisfaction when we find out what happened to the dead man. Even Wimsey is distressed by what he deduces, and although there is a sense of closure, there isn’t a corresponding sense of justice served.

Because this isn’t what you’d call a light, cheerful novel, the lighter moments in it are particularly welcome. Some of them are provided by Mervyn Bunter. For instance, at one point, Wimsey and Bunter go to a post office to see if they can retrieve a letter Wimsey believes is a clue to the case. The letter was sent to the dead man, and neither man is sure that they’ll be able to get it. But Wimsey sends Bunter into the post office to get the letter if he can. Bunter invents a story for the postmistress to the effect that he’s looking for a letter sent to his chauffer, indicating Wimsey, who’s waiting outside in the car. Bunter soon returns to the car:

What’s up?’

‘Better move on quickly, my lord,’ said Bunter, ‘because, while the manoeuvre has been attended with a measure of success, it is possible that I have robbed His Majesty’s Mails by obtaining a postal packet under false pretenses.’…

‘Bunter,’ said his lordship, ‘I warn you that I am growing dangerous. Will you say at once, yes or no, did you get that letter?’

‘Yes, my lord, I did. I said, of course, that since the letter for my chauffer was there, I would take it to him, adding some facetious observations to the effect that he must have made a conquest while we were travelling abroad and that he was a great man for the ladies. We were quite merry on the subject, my lord.’

‘Oh, where you?’

‘Yes, my lord. At the same time, I said, it was extremely vexatious that my own letter should have gone astray….and in the end I went away, after remarking that the postal system in this country was very undependable and that I should certainly write to the Times about it.

This novel was published in 1934, so there are several instances of the “isms” of the day. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ, but I found those “isms” more noticeable and more bothersome in this novel than “isms” I’ve encountered in other novels written at the same time. That said, though, the story is intellectually challenging, the pacing and timing are effective, and the characters and setting are effective “fits.” But what do you think? Have you read The Nine Tailors? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


  1. There are several aspects of this novel I like, e.g. the change-ringing, the setting, the cipher, and many of the characters. Besides I admire Sayers´ thorough research no matter what she wrote about.

    And finally, every time I read this novel I notice Reverend Theodore Venables. His distraction annoys me a bit, but it is so interesting to see that though he is a hopeless detective, he has excellent organizing skills when faced by a real crisis.

  2. Dorte - You are so absolutely right about Sayers' research. She did painstaking and careful "homework," and I respect that about her, too. And the setting and so on really are appealing.

    I noticed that, too, about Venables. He shows himself to be a true leader when the flood crisis comes, and he's quite knowledgeable in other ways, too. Those are helpful counterpoints, I think, to that very distracted side of his personality.

  3. I do remember reading this novel but not in a long time. I have been reading Sayer's books lately and can't wait to get to this one.

  4. Clarissa - I think you'll like it. It's got a very interesting mystery, and you will really appreciate the cipher :-).

  5. Margot: You have me intrigued with your review. It is not a book I have read. I think mysteries usually reflect the "isms" of their era better than other fiction.

  6. Bill - That's an interesting point. I don't know what the research might say about which sort of fiction is most or least likely to reflect a society's "isms," but certainly good crime fiction is realistic. It reflects a culture's reality. So it's quite possible that you're right.

  7. Thanks for this really thorough analysis - I think its a really special novel, not least for its apocalyptic climax which is similar to the one in Ellery Queen's THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY, only much gloomier. In this sense it is quite atypical of Sayers' output, which may be why I like it so much - she was a very clever plotter and a fine prose stylist (probably the best of her era amongst her near contemporaries) but those 'isms' are a real barrier to my enjoyment!

  8. Sergio - Oh, they're a barrier to me, too. You're absolutely right, though, that Sayers was a very talented plotter and her prose was graceful. I like the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle wit of her writing, too. And thank you for the reminder of The Siamese Twin Mystery. Now you mention it, this novel does have a similar kind of climax to the Queen one. Astute observation. Some people claim that this novel is Sayers at her best. I'm not sure I agree, but it does show her skills.

  9. I haven't read this book but I enjoyed your take on it. It sounds intriguing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Why, thank you :-). It's not what you would call a nice, light, "easy" read, but it's a solid mystery and setting and some of the characters are well-drawn. It is intriguing...

  11. I think these days readers might find Sayers' language a bit ponderous particularly with her propensity to play on words like "tailor" that must already have been a bit outmoded by 1934.
    Thanks for this contribution to the CFA though