The Nine Tailors (Dorothy L. Sayers)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

One of Sayers’ best novels. The Fen country village, with its church, is magnificently drawn, and the church services show as much feeling and power as the powerful bells, at once beautiful and menacing. This book obviously inspired H.C. Bailey‘s The Bishop’s Crime (1940), an interesting although somewhat over-rated Reggie Fortune, and Gladys Mitchell‘s Dead Men’s Morris (1936) and St. Peter’s Finger (1938). The plot indeed hinges on bells: there is an ingenious cryptogram and an ingenious murder method, both of which concern bells. Setting and writing are excellent, but the detective plot is not neglected; Wimsey does a brilliant job of discovering the identity of the body in the churchyard, and how it relates to an equally long-buried crime in the past. The book comes to its climax in the flooded village, “with an aching and intolerable melancholy, like the noise of the bells of a drowned city pushing up through the overwhelming sea.”

Blurb (US)

In atmosphere and setting The Nine Tailors, more a romantic melodrama than an ordinary detective story, is unusual and beautiful.  The ancient church and bells of the village of Fenchurch St. Paul play the leading part, and the book is steeped in the atmosphere of that strange, flat fen-country of East Anglia, where the wind blows perpetually across a quiltwork of dike and field, drained by canals and everlastingly menaced by the sea.  It is a fit setting for the tale, which begins with an unknown corpse in a quiet country churchyard, and ends with the clashing of the alarm and the roar of unleashed and overriding waters.  Through it all, grave and gay, goes the pealing of the bells and the great voice of “Tailor Paul” tolling out the nine “tailors” – the nine teller-strokes that ring for the death of a man.

Humour combines with tragedy, and beauty with mystery, to make The Nine Tailors one of the unusual crime-stories.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Sir Claud Schuster, 11th January 1934): The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers, is, as might have been expected, a detective story.  It so proclaims itself on the wrapper; and we are accustomed to look to Miss Sayers for that kind of thing.  But some of her readers have formed the hope that some day she would produce something which was a detective story and something more.  And yet she has seemed to be burdened with her equipment.  She knows almost too much of too many things.  Her imagination is almost too fertile, and she finds it very good fun to let it go.  The very name of her hero prefigures his and her own whimsicality.  All these things have prevented her from taking seriously either herself, or her reader or the crimes of her imagination.  “Most people are idiots,” says Wimsey in this book, “but it isn’t kind to tell them so.”  The recognition of this latter truth is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

For, indeed, Miss Sayers has now given us what we have long awaited.  We have here a crime, indeed several crimes, and a mystery, indeed several mysteries.  There are missing emeralds and unexpected corpses and a cryptogram and a great deal of erudition and a touch of the macabre.  But these are only accessories.  The theme is built round a noble church in the fenland.  Its great bells ring through it.  They give a certain majesty to the tale.  It grows, in their music, into tragedy.  Wimsey still performs feats of deduction and exercises his freakish humour.  But in the great level landscape, dominated by the church-tower, he becomes a human being.  There are other human beings also.  The rector and his wife are charming creations.  For all the blood and fury and for all the catastrophe to which the tale moves, there is a notable kindliness about the characters.  On the other hand, the technical management is as good as we expect it to be in Miss Sayers’s work.  The interest is sustained, the action rapid, the secret well kept, yet not beyond conjecture.  Few readers, indeed, will be able to follow so much of the argument as depends on a knowledge of the art of bell-ringing and the mathematics of that art.  But this hardly matters.  We commit ourselves to the author, and she, telling us a good deal more than we can understand, produces the feeling of wonder at which she aims.  For however much she may consider the creative imagination as something “which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently of yourself”; she has here bound it to something which she feels within, an emotion stirred by “the one loud noise that is made to the glory of God”.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 20th January 1934, 260w): A BUMPER CROP

Miss Sayers has given us so many admirable detective stories in the past and writes with such mastery over her medium that it is perhaps not surprising that she has grown restless of late and has indicated that she was feeling her way from the scene of her easy triumphs towards other departments of literature.  In Murder Must Advertise last summer she encroached on the territory of the thriller.  In The Nine Tailors she has veered about and is now heading for the straight novel.  The book is another of her admirable detective stories, but half its 350 pages is devoted to descriptions of the Fen country and conversations of the Fen people; and Miss Sayers seems reluctant to turn back from her character sketches and the visual scenes of dykes and tall churches to carry on with her plot.  It is a pity, as her plot is sufficiently ingenious to stand any amount of elaboration.  Lord Peter Wimsey, getting ditched in a fog in the Fens, takes refuge with the nearest clergyman, who promptly sets him to work ringing the New Year in with a peal of Kent Treble Bob Major, which lasted nine hours and thirteen minutes.  And bell-ringing, off and on, lasts us out the rest of the book; Miss Sayers is determined that we shall know something about that mysterious subject before she lets us go.  The mystery of the body, the supernumerary body, found in the lady of the manor’s grave only begins to take shape at Easter; our first lesson in bell-ringing occupies the first quarter of the book.  Naturally Lord Peter solves it in his debonair way to our great satisfaction, but even he, with his wide experience of the oddest crimes, was a little surprised at the actual cause of death.  As for me, I was profoundly shocked.

Sat R of Lit (24th March 1934, 40w): Fascinating accounts of bell-ringing, excellent characterisation and local colour, make this much more than a good mystery.

Books (Will Cuppy, 25th March 1934, 300w): Here’s required reading for all and sundry—this means you.  The Nine Tailors is way up above even Miss Sayers’s very high average.  This time she has risen nobly to the occasion with some fine heart-warming English, a positively grand background, a most ingenious plot and whatever else you like in a Lord Peter Wimsey book.

Springfield Republican (25th March 1934, 600w): The intelligence and charm of Miss Sayers’s incidental material impart to her story a distinction over and above the mystery of her narrative, which, as she says with a pardonable pun, is but the ringing of new changes on an old theme.

Boston Transcript (21st April 1934, 180w): Even the most jaded reader of detective stories will label it as one of the most ingenious and entertaining tales he has ever read.