Book Corner – May 2016 (2)
May 25, 2016
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The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L Sayers
Written in 1934 this is the ninth of Sayers’ novels to feature the amateur sleuth and all round good egg, Lord Peter Wimsey. Naturally, the hero can turn his hand at pretty much anything and when he is stranded on New Year’s Eve following a car accident at the fenland village of Fenchurch St Paul he is more than happy as an experienced campanologist to stand in for the indisposed Will Thoday in a nine hour peal of bells.
As a child and teenager Sayers lived on the edge of the Fens at a place called Bluntisham-cum-Earith where her father was the local rector. Whether it was a traumatic childhood I don’t know but she paints a rather bleak picture of the Fens. The book opens in a snowstorm and ends with a cataclysmic flood of biblical proportions. Fenchurch St Paul is populated by characters straight out of the central casting department for English rustic life – an amiable but absent-minded vicar and his practical wife, various rustics ranging from the simple-minded to the old and gnarled and landed gentry on the cusp of financial ruin.
But it is bells which loom large and loud through the book. The nine tailors refers to the country custom of announcing a death in the community by tolling the bells, known as telling or, in some dialects, a tailor. Three bells meant a child, six a woman and nine a man and then the bell tolled at half-minute intervals for each year that the deceased had lived. So nine tailors maketh a man. And each section of the book and each chapter take as their leitmotif excerpts from bell-ringing manuals, the vicar is obsessed with bell ringing patterns and the inevitable encrypted letter uses as its key a campanology run. But you do not need to be a bell ringer to enjoy the book and the technical guff is not so overpowering as to leave you as a reader ready to give up.
The story intertwines two mysteries – the rather Trollopian disappearance of some valuable emeralds and the discovery of an unknown, badly defaced, handless body in Lady Thorpe’s grave. The unravelling of the mysteries takes Wimsey and the ever faithful Bunter to London and France as well as the Fens. But the crimes and the unravelling of them are really just the middle of a rather larger sandwich. The first part is a rather languid introduction to the village with not a body or a whiff of murder in sight and the fourth is taken up with a flood which gives Wimsey the insight to explain how Deacon died.
The flood is rather telegraphed by long sections on the drainage work being done locally, the soundness (or otherwise) of sluice gates and the doubts of the locals as to the efficacy of the flood improvements – sounds familiar. And the identity of Deacon’s killer is given away by the reference and quotation from Sermet’s the Rosamonde, “the bronze monster had struck him dead” at the top of the relevant chapter and its revelation is the result of happenstance rather than deductive brilliance. I will never look at bells in the same way again.
Minor quibbles all. On the whole I found this a well-paced, engaging read and can see why it is considered to be one of Sayers’ finest.