on 17 July 2010
No word of a lie; this really is one of my all time favourite novels. I think that Dorothy Sayers was head and shoulders above all the other Queens of the Golden Age of Crime and even now only P D James and Ruth Rendell come close. This is one of her best novels; not just a detective story but a touching portrait of rural England between the wars and a way of life that must have been all but vanishing even then. Ms Sayers never writes a wasted word; her descriptions of Fenchurch St Paul and the inhabitants are entrancing. Particularly Mr Venables, the rector; kind, absent minded, so enthusiastic about his church and his bells. Ah, yes, the bells. The bells are almost characters in their own right and have a very intriguing role to play. The plot carries you along, an old scandal, a missing emerald necklace and a suitably grisly corpse in the churchyard. I re-read this regularly and - horrors! - if I was only allowed ten books for my desert island this would be one of them.
on 20 August 2010
Several years ago, I struggled with Five Red Herrings and never finished it. So, thinking I'd try her oeuvre again, I have just finished The Nine Tailors; may be it is the print size (compared to my copy of Five Red Herrings) because that certainly aids reading but, really, it's more than that. The Nine Tailors is a wonderful evocation of fenland something like ninety years ago when life really was so much simpler. The plot is good and characterisation excellent. Being familiar with some of those massive East Anglian churches, I can vouch for the architectural detail.
on 15 March 2011
This, the ninth of Sayers's eleven full length Wimsey novels, is the one that lifts her above the category of twentieth-century female detective novelist, and places her among the literary greats.
It is a thoroughly satisfying mystery - sophisticated, complex, intellectually challenging. Everything in the plot is there for a reason; and the final explanation is ingenious and unexpected.
It is Sayers, so there is more than just a plot. The characters have a depth and realism far beyond the caricatures of Agatha Christie. They have individuality and weaknesses and baggage and unexpected strength in the face of adversity. They are, in short, people.
Wimsey himself appears more relaxed in this than in most of the other books. A far cry from the self-conscious man-about-town of 'Whose Body?' or the nervy war veteran of 'The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club', this is the Wimsey hinted at in 'Five Red Herrings': the born and bred countryman, at ease with himself, almost classless at times, an incomer who at once instinctively understands and is accepted by this tiny community.
The community itself is minutely and deftly drawn too - partly through its supporting characters, partly through Sayers's own narrative voice, stronger and more distinctive in this book than in the others, and often taking on the cadence and the overtones of a local character to remarkable effect.
And then there are the most powerful and enduring characters of all: the bells of Fenchurch St Paul and the place itself. `The Nine Tailors' is to the Fens what `The Return of the Native' is to the heathlands of Dorset. It is a work of art, a tone-poem, a sonorous evocation of place and time, a symphony of words and images that endure in the mind long after the last page is turned. (For more on the power of language in `The Nine Tailors', I refer you to my recent essay on The Art of Reading at [...])
Much attention is given in literary circles to the `great American novel'; little, if any, is given to the novel that depicts England. Yet `The Nine Tailors', for all that it is set in an obscure and bleak corner of the countryside, is as intimate and accurate a portrait of inter-war rural Englishness as anything ever written - and an enduring one at that.
One must then turn, with the utmost reluctance and distaste, to the current sub-standard paperback edition of this masterpiece (978-0-450-00100-0). It appears to have been typeset and proof-read by persons with little knowledge of, and less interest in, either the English language or the basic rules of punctuation. It is further encumbered with an arch and self-congratulatory introduction by Elizabeth George, which adds little to one's appreciation of the work, and which - to add insult to injury - is inserted between Sayers's own foreword and the first chapter, thus breaking the rhythm of the author's original text. (No doubt the same vandalism has been committed in the latest impression of Gaudy Night, where any interruption between the Foreword and Chapter 1 would be even more obtrusive. Fortunately I still have my 1988 paperback of that work.)
A minor point, but a further niggle in light of these graver shortcomings, is the faintly 1970s typography employed for the section headings.
In summary, this edition gives the unfortunate impression of having been brought to press by an editor who neither recognised nor valued the calibre and significance of the book. I have now placed my 2011 paperback in the recycling bin and ordered a second-hand hardback. On the grounds of the punctuation errors alone, I would urge anyone who wishes to read what Miss Sayers actually wrote, to eschew the current paperback edition in favour of any other second-hand copy available.
This is the ninth Lord Peter Wimsey novel, written in 1935. I read it first when I was about fifteen, when I found it boring. It took a bit more maturity before I realised what a good book it is.
The book's title is taken from an ancient English tradition of announcing a death by ringing a church bell. Three strikes on the lowered bell meant a child, six meant a woman and nine meant a man. The blows were called 'tellers' or 'tailors'. The nine tailors were the strikes on the bell that announced a man's death. In the book, the large tenor bell was used for this and was called 'Tailor Paul.' (This was a coded thank you to Paul Taylor from a bell foundry in Loughborough, who gave her the information on bell-ringing that she needed for the novel.)
Wimsey is stranded in a fenland village by a car accident and helps ring a nine-hour peal of bells (the nine tailors) when the team is left a man short. Next morning, the wife of Sir Henry Thorpe dies. Wimsey hears that, twenty years before, valuable jewels were stolen from a house guest of theirs. The butler and an accomplice were imprisoned, but the emeralds were never found.
At Easter, Sir Henry dies, too, and the family grave is opened. A mutilated body is found in the grave, thought to be that of a tramp labourer who vanished earlier in the year, but wearing (of all things) French underwear. Wimsey and Bunter, his valet, get hold of a letter from France addressed to him. The dead man seems to be Arthur Cobbleigh, a soldier believed missing in action in 1918, who had deserted and stayed in France. It begins to look as though Driver and Cobbleigh were trying to recover the emeralds and had perhaps found them. A coded document found in the bell chamber proves to be a cipher, which Wimsey decodes using his knowledge of change-ringing. However, the bells prove to have played an even bigger part in the mystery than Wimsey yet dreams.
The book has been criticised for having too much boring detail about campanology (the fifteen-year-old me heartily agreed) and it has also been debated whether the murder method would actually work (though modern science shows that it probably would). As usual with Dorothy L Sayers, the prose is written in a luminous, beautiful and erudite style. The characterisations are interesting and yet another facet of Wimsey's own immensely gifted character is disclosed. Not only is he a rich, brilliantly intelligent and a gifted musician and wit, a detective and government adviser who is pretty successful with women and swim like a fish, as disclosed in the other books - but he can do bellringing rather well. He really is the ideal man. Dorothy Sayers said that he was a cross between Fred Astair and Bertie Wooster, but he is far more than that. He is a brave soldier who came out of World War 1 with shell-shock and a deep sensitivity to the damage that investigating secrets could do and a horror of the fact that his work brought people to the gallows. He is a suffering superhero, fascinating and desirable. It has often been suggested that he was Sayers' dream man.
Dorothy Sayers is too intelligent to write a simple whodunnit. She is a thinking person who invites us to think, too.This book invites us to consider whether it is better to leave old secrets alone or seek to bring justice despite the damage this can do to innocent people. She also brings the fens alive for her readers, knowing and loving the area from spending a part of her childhood in a fenland village.
Harriet Vane, Wimsey's love interest, does not appear until the next novel in the series, and I do love most the four books in which she figures. There is no romantic and sexual tension in this book to heighten the drama. It is a bit slow to get going, too, but richly repays a reading.
Lord Peter and Bunter drive into a ditch in the Fens. They are rescued by the vicar of Fenchurch St. Pauls, whereupon we meet Peter's previously unsuspected bell-ringing skills. This pastoral idyll is disturbed, however, by the discovery of a faceless, handless corpse in the churchyard. With almost no means of identification, even Lord Peter is pushed to discover the identity of the corpse and its murderer, but the ending to this is both a witty twist on whodunnit convention, and a genuinely moving paean to English village life.
The Peter Wimsey revealed by this quaint setting and the proximity of the clergy is a pleasant antidote to the aristocratic fool and hopeless lover we so often see. Out of the city, his charm is less forced, his wit less studied, his intellect at once more obvious and less overt. No Harriet Vane either (hurrah), just the inimitable Mr Bunter, a lot of books and a murder. What more could anyone want?
on 24 November 2010
I have read " The Nine Tailors" several times in pocket edition, and like it so much that I wanted a hardcover edition. This edition is of very good quality, with a nice dust jacket as well. Generally, I am very fond of Dorothy Sayers, and I think this is one of her best. Her description of bell- ringing, which was an unknown field to me, is an added pleasure, as an integrated part of the story, of course, but for its literary qualities as well.
The story spans wide in time and space, and leads us from a pre- world-war one world to the disillusioned 1920-ies.
Dorothy Sayers books are never just simple whodunnits, the characters are interesting, the "couleur locale" also. They are like a chocolate box with many layers,and I never tire of Peter Wimseys rather complicated personality or his manservant Bunters infinite resourcefulness.
I highly recommend this book
on 26 February 2010
Set in the English Fens, a strange flat land of endless straight narrow roads, intersected by the dykes that keep the water at bay, the nine tailors is an unusual murder mystery. The main characters in this story are the nine bells in the church in Fenchurch St Paul, whose sound can be heard for miles across the almost featureless landscape. They are used to call the faithful to prayer, to sound the death knell for a departed soul, and to send out the alarm in times of emergency. Peter Wimsey has to break his journey for the night in Fenchurch St Paul after driving his car into a ditch. He helps to ring in the New Year in an all-night marathon effort, and continues on his interrupted journey. But soon after this, a horribly mutilated body is found where it shouldn't be, and Wimsey is back again trying to solve a really tough case. There is a dramatic and tragic climax to the story which I won't spoil for you by even hinting what it is. And the murderer! - If you guess whodunit I take my hat off to you!
on 12 December 2014
What can I say except that this has been called the finest detective story ever written and agree with that statement.
I first read this novel in the very early 50's and then ,because of the impression it made on me,went on to devour all the Peter Wimsey books.To me Sayers is far and above the finest writer of the so-called Golden Age of detective novels..Her books are both erudite and compelling,the range of her characters and plots amazing and her writing a joy to read.
If you've never read this novel please do so now and find out what great detective/mystery writing is.
on 12 October 2011
The story took time to get going but once it did then it developed very well. I liked the way the mystery gradually developed rather than padding and one big moment. The characters were believable and interesting and you wanted to know what was going to happen next. There is a lot in the book that is purely background, rather too much about church bell ringing and the water ways of the fens, but this is simply extra material in a good length book rather than a substitute for the main story. Opinion is probably divided on the ending/solution, I wasn't too keen but at least it was fair.
I’ve had The Nine Tailors on the shelf for quite a long time. I’ve opened it on a couple of occasions, but was never really sure I was in the mood for an English rural cozy from the golden age of crime fiction. Having now read the book I’m fairly confident that if I had carried on reading in the past my mood would have quickly changed. Sayers’ book rightly deserves plaudits for being a classic crime fiction tale, ticking all the key boxes - intriguing and clever plot, a thorny puzzle, excellent contextualisation, nice characterisation and interaction between characters, a strong sense of place, and literary prose. Essentially the tale is a whodunnit set in a small English village in the fens, centred on a Church and its bells, and the legacy of a robbery some twenty years previously. The plotting is intricate and well executed with minimal use of plot devices, and while the tale strays a little from social realism at times it nevertheless hangs together coherently and is rounded off with an ingenious but plausible denouement. Sayers clearly draws on her own knowledge as a daughter of a chaplain to provide context and also demonstrates a keen understanding of campanology and fen drainage. Whilst some might find some of the detail tiresome, I thought it was fascinating. Wimsey is an engaging detective and Sayers populates the story with a number of other well-drawn characters. Where she excels, in my view, is in the character interactions, with an especially good ear for dialogue. The result is some well penned and vivid scenes. Overall, a very satisfying and entertaining read from one of the best known crime fiction authors of the first half of the twentieth century.