“…What’s that? It mayn’t be the right letter? Rot! It is the right letter. It’s damn well got to be the right letter, and we’re going to go straight along to the Cat And Fiddle, where the port is remarkable and the claret not to be despised, to celebrate our deed of darkness and derring do!”
I finished The Wombles on Wednesday lunchtime, which left me short of reading material for the train journey home. Usually when this happens (it’s pretty common) I end up making a mad dash to the library for an Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse to tide me over for a few days. Alas, both were a bit thin on the ground this time so I came away with this instead, my first Dorothy L. Sayers book. I know she has a bit of a cult following so I was intrigued…
The Nine Tailors is in the Lord Peter Wimsey series but that really didn’t mean anything to me. I quickly discovered that Wimsey (it’s a silly name) is a sort of gentleman detective who solves crimes as a hobby with the aid of his loyal valet Bunter. On paper it sounds almost like a cross between Christie and Wodehouse but, not having read any of the other books in the series, I’m not sure I can do him justice here. There isn’t much of an introduction to Lord Peter in this novel so I had a quick look at Wikipedia for some context. It wasn’t strictly necessary though; The Nine Tailors works as a standalone novel without a backstory.
In this novel Lord Peter is summoned to the damp East Anglian fens to investigate a death in the isolated village of Fenchurch St Paul. The parish sexton has uncovered a handless, disfigured corpse hidden in someone else’s grave and no one seems to know who he is or how he came to be there. It becomes a surprisingly complicated case involving a twenty year old jewel theft, a cryptic cypher and a wartime case of mistaken identity. Much of the action takes place around the parish church and the title is a reference to change ringing, a system of bell ringing that was apparently quite popular at the time.
I liked this book… but then, of course I would do; it’s almost as if Sayers wrote it with some of my favouritest things in mind:
Golden Age murder mystery? Check.
Posh chaps who say ‘My dear sir…’ and ‘Jolly ho!’? Check.
Set in the Fens? Check.
Excessive research and attention to detail? Check.
Maps, plans and drawings included? Check.
In fact, it’s almost like Sayers happily complied with all my requests and then (knowing how much of a geek I am) chucked in a bit of medieval church architecture for an extra treat. Bloody brilliant.
It’s an odd sort of book really. I worked out the identity of the victim pretty quickly – before Lord Peter even – but I was having such a good time that this didn’t really matter. In fact, I don’t think the crime is the most interesting thing about this novel. I know that sounds weird but Sayers does such a good job of setting the scene that you can almost forget that this is a whodunit. She lets the murder and the investigation fade into the background so the bleakness of the fenland landscape can take over. Her descriptions of the church and village are detailed and she captures the desolate, brooding atmosphere of the fens beautifully. There aren’t that many novels set in my part of the country so to me this novel felt a bit like home. There’s a kind of haunting eeriness to it that I would have loved even if it hadn’t been set on my home patch.
And then there are the bells. I wonder if Sayers just wanted to show off her research here or if she was just really, really enthusiastic about bell ringing? I also wonder how many readers have been chased away by all those long passages devoted to the bells?
“The change ringer does, indeed, distinguish musical differences between one method of producing his permutations and another; he avers, for instance, that where the hinder bells run 7, 5, 6 or 5, 6, 7 or 5, 7, 6 the music is always prettier, and can detect and approve, where they occur, the consecutive fifths of Tittums and the cascading thirds of the Queen’s change.”
Er…. pardon? A bit of an introduction to change ringing might have been nice before she jumped on in but I don’t think knowledge of how it works is really necessary. My enjoyment certainly wasn’t hindered by not knowing anything about bell ringing beforehand. It sounded quite interesting. Besides, I quite liked the bells; they’re almost characters in their own rights. There’s something a bit dark and malevolent about them.
It took me a little bit by surprise, this book. I was hoping for something simple to keep me entertained for a few days… but this was much better than that. I like the fact that Sayers makes you work quite hard – harder than Christie – and it’s more than worth the effort when you reach those final apocalyptic flood scenes at the end. If you take away the crime novel label you’re left with something that’s actually a good piece of literature in itself. I’ll definitely look out for other Dorothy L. Sayers books.