My post today is about a murder mystery in a church among the bells. A little history: Church bell ringing goes back centuries. The church bell heralded danger, death, marriage and festivities. In England, the tradition of bell ringing went even farther to where their steeples house whole teams of bells. The art (or science) of rope pulling became a firm part of the Church service.
Whole sequences that lasted for upwards of an hour or hours developed and were played before or after church services, sometimes everyday at the same time. When I visited Bradford on Avon I arrived at the time Christ Church's bells rang, which was for an hour every day. You can visit their web site here. This tradition was handed down to America in the form of hand bells. The rope pulling can be loud and long so I've included here a short piece of a hand bell choir playing Capriccio by Kevin McChesney which I think will be a little more aesthetically pleasing. You can click here for the link.
However, if you're interested in the real deal, you can click here.
Dorothy Sayers did meticulous research on bell ringing and includes various types of bell ringing sequences. She also makes use of bell ringing terminology to provide clues to the mystery. As much as I enjoyed the mystery, I will say I found the sections on bell ringing a little beyond my interest and skimmed over those paragraphs.
Other than that, however, Sayers makes a charming detective story, her ninth involving Lord Peter Wimsey.
Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, find themselves stranded in the town of Fenchurch of St. Paul after their car runs into a ditch. It is New Year's Eve and the weather bodes ill. For those of you who don't know (I didn't), the Fens are a marshy part of Eastern England, prone to flooding.
Fenland is also known for its cathedrals and churches, hence the setting for Sayers' story. Lord Wimsey meets the local Vicar, Theodore Venbales, a very friendly, if flighty Reverend who insists that Wimsey stay as his guest due to the bad weather and also because he needs a substitute bell ringer for the New Year service, one of his ringers having come down with the flu. The Reverend has ambitiously planned a nine hour ring starting at midnight to usher in the new year.
A local Aristocrat, Lady Thorpe, dies the next day (requiring more pealing of the bells, ones that decode to the village that a lady of a certain age has died. The bell sequence is different if a man or young person died.) Lady Thorpe's death brings up the story about the robbery of the emeralds which were stolen, several years ago, at the Thorpe mansion, although they belonged to a relative who was visiting. The thief and the jewels were never apprehended.
So far so good. But three months later, Sir Henry Thorpe, also dies. Lady Thorpe's grave is dug up to admit the remains of her husband and to the shock of the grave diggers, they discover another body has been tossed in on top of the casket. The hands have been cut off, presumably to avoid identification, and his face horribly disfigured for the same reason.
By this time, Lord Wimsey has gone, but he is called back by the local police to help discover whose body it is, how did he die and why.
If you want the solution you can read the book for yourself. It is one of those fun, comfortable reads that should only take you an afternoon or two, ideally on a rainy day with a cup of tea.
I could not help compare Sayers' writing with Agatha Christie's. A couple of observations:
One, Agatha Christie writes very good short stories. Her stories are at their most effective if they provide a fast punch and a quick solution. If she is required to develop the characters on a more than superficial basis as one would in a novel, she fails in my eyes. Her forte is when she keeps the characters functional with minimal back story.
Conversely, I find Dorothy Sayers' novels to be far more enjoyable than her short stories. I read her complete short detective stories and found only one or two that I considered worth reading. The rest were "meh".
Her novels, however, allow her to fully develop her characters and she does so superbly. I believe this is because, unlike Christie, Sayers created loveable characters. Christie's characters are all equally selfish, which casts suspicion on all of them. Sayers makes all her characters winsome and sympathetic (at least in this novel), making it impossible to decide which one of these good people could have done it.
Now, just because her characters are likeable does not make them boring. I find it interesting that the prevailing attitude seems to be that evil people are interesting and good people are boring. Christie and Sayers together, whether intentionally or not, make a good case that bad people are boring and good people are fun to be around (and read about).
Dorothy Sayers was the only woman to belong to the Inklings, a writer's group that included J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I see common traits in her writing as theirs. There is a coziness, a sense of comfort and contentment in the surroundings that I like. The little details that they all add with the characters having tea, or brandy, sitting in front of fireplaces while torrential rains pour outside. Yes, evil happens, but we can stand together and support and encourage each other. In Christie's novels the characters are alienated from each other.
I suppose it has to do with the fact that I like British literature and lately I have been reading a lot of the stuff coming out of the first half of the twentieth century from both sides of the ocean. I will be giving reviews of Graham Greene, another C.S. Lewis book of literature essays, and a biographies of Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright.
So, as they say in the U.K., Cheers, and have a jolly week!