Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

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!


  1. Interesting and insightful post Sharon. Bell ringing seems so fascinating. I had no idea that there was so much to it.

    I think that it is neat that Sayers wrote an entire mystery around it. I have not read anything by her but this book sounds very good.

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Hi Brian. Dorothy Sayers is a recent discovery for me as well. I didn't care for her short stories but I have since acquired a taste for her stories. I look forward to reading more of her novels. Have a great weekend, too!

  2. This mystery sounds so interesting, including the bell ringing. And I especially like your hard-cover volume! Interesting comparison between Christie and Sayers --- I can very much believe it. I must admit that I have only read one Wimsey mystery but they are always in my mind on my mental TBR list. I have read a number of her theological books though, which I quite enjoyed.

    1. Hi Cleopatra. I have not read any of her theological books, unless one counts "Are Woman Human" as theology, which I doubt. It was good, though.

      I have the Mind of the Maker and I am going to by The Man Born to Be King because C.S. Lewis speaks highly of it in his Essays.

      I am currently reading out loud Sayers' Gaudy Night (another Wimsey mystery) to my mother.

  3. Sharon, do you think the author's religious beliefs influence her "crime" fiction? Could that be the reason for the style of her characterizations? Well, I might be overstating the case. I just wonder.

    1. Hi R.T. I do think that an author's worldview inescapably colors their writing whether consciously or not. I get the impression that Sayers had great compassion for people, hence her sympathetic view reflected in her characters.

      I have to wonder if Christie liked anyone. The only character she made that I really like is Inspector Poirot and I read that she couldn't stand him. Go figure.

  4. I must admit I've read nothing by Dorothy Sayers (shocking!) but I might just give this a try.
    Thank you for a most interesting review.

    1. Barbara: And you're British too! Shame, shame! I think you will enjoy Nine Tailors. I am currently reading Gaudy Night by Sayers and so far I find this the best story of hers yet. A review is in the future. Have great week!

  5. Gaudy Night is my favourite. I feel more educated every time I read Sayers with all the details and unusual topics she weaves into her books. Thanks for visiting & commenting on my blog. I tried to follow you on Blogger when i first visited but my pic didn't show up on your followers. I'm going to try again now :)

    1. Hi Carol! I am really enjoying Gaudy Night. Each chapter is a character study on its own. I'm reading it out loud to my mother who is a passsionate reader but unfortunately is unable to read due to ill health. We both like Harriet Vane and her observations on the people around her. Sayers' characters have such strong voices.

      I wish I were more technical or I could advise you on the following. Try putting your email in to subscribe. That works best for me. At least that's what I did at your blog.

  6. Strange - I should be no 256 of your followers but I don't show up on your followers??

    1. Carol: I think my follower feed is actually defunct. You'll need to subscribe by e mail. Good luck!

    2. Your posts come up in my blog dashboard. I tried following another blog and the same thing happened. I wonder if it's a Blogger issue? I haven't had any trouble until recently.

    3. Hi Carol. I am so not techno-savy but I hope the problem is solved.:)

  7. Sharon!
    and hi, Carol.

    I love your blog, I found myself liking this post, that post... I'm going to have to come back and read slowly. I love that you read about music and musicians, and I don't, you are going to help me grow, I know that.

    I love the way you compare D.S to Christie, and what you say about the Inklins, YES, that coziness... I had thought about how I'd describe both of these women, Sayers-Christie, and you nailed it. I have Sayers' short stories, but I have only read 3 novels. Gaudy Night, Carol, is coming, only that I'm reading not all, but what I have, in chronological order, so this one, The Nine Tailors, came first. I like some Christie, mainly Poirot, and specifically, The Orient Express, and Curtain. Sayers is more robust as a novelist and character developing, while, as you say, Christie is best at her fast pace and very intriguing plot based novels.

    I'll be visiting more, and popping up with comments here and there.

    Nice to meet you, Sharon.

    1. Hi again Silvia! I'm glad you enjoy my blog. I sometimes worry because it is not a "niche" blog. My reading is rather eclectic but with a definite emphasis on classic lit.

      I am really falling in love with Sayers. I think it is because of her Christian worldview that makes her characters so appealing. There's an emptiness to Christie's characters.

      Except Poirot. He is also my favorite character. I especially like David Suchet's interpretation of him in the T.V. Series. Incidentally, Suchet became a Christian several years ago (his family is Jewish) and I wonder if that impacted how he played the "little Belgian detective."

      If you haven't read Gaudy Night you are in for a treat. That is one of the most developed mystery stories I've read. I was literally on edge in the final chapters.

      I will be reviewing it shortly but I won't give anything away.

      By the way I am researching Charlotte Mason since reading about her on your and Carol's blog. I never knew about her and am interested to know more-especially since my sister is trying to find a home-school curriculum for her children.

      Take care!

  8. Mrs. Henning,

    I found your blog while researching books I found cleaning out my grandparents house. This happens to be one of the books I have found. However, I have found 8 books all with the same red hardcover and black strip. Other than the title and author there is no other identifying marks and I am trying to figure out if they were apart of a book club. Do you remember where you bought your book from? Any help would be appreciated. Thank you, Allison

  9. Mrs. Henning,

    I have been researching books that I found while cleaning out my grandparents house. The Nine Tailors is one of those books. I found 8 books all with the same red hardback cover and black stripe. I was wondering if you remember where you bought this book or if it is part of a book club. There are no other markings inside the book to help me identify these books. Any help would be appreciated.

    1. HI Allison. It was probably part of a book club. I believe I got my copy from a Library book fair. What a great treasure you've come across.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.