‘The Nine Tailors’ by Dorothy L Sayers

I went into ‘The Nine Tailors’ expecting a well-written golden-age mystery. I was curious to see Peter Wimsey without Harriet Vane as a balance. I wasn’t expecting anything more than some colourful scenery, a bit of wit and an engaging puzzle. I got all those things but they weren’t really what the book was about.

‘The Nine Tailors’ is a story lacquered with lots of layers of imagery and inquiry but, at its heart, I think it’s about Sayers’ love of the Fens and its people and her understanding, expressed through Wimsey, of her arms-length relationship to it.

I didn’t always find it an easy book to read. At the start, I was a bit overwhelmed by a tide of technical details of bell-ringing that I couldn’t follow and which, especially in the audiobook version, became tedious. I could follow the lengthy descriptions of church architecture more easily because I love to visit old churches but even so, it was a lot to take in.

Eventually, I let go of trying to understand the detail of bells and church and focus on the meaning behind them. A picture emerged of bell-ringing as something that binds a village together. The bells and the church are hundreds of years old. They’ve stood at the centre of the village, marking all the significant events of village life, for generations. The peals the bell-ringers pull are marvels of mathematics, a sort of Bach in sounding bronze, and yet they are mastered by men with no education but a great deal of commitment. Ringing the bells is a disciplined, collaborative act that requires skill and stamina. The sound of the bells is so strong and so rich that you can lose yourself in it. The book starts with nine hours of bell-ringing. Think of losing yourself in the sound for that long but never letting go of your concentration and constantly having to use your muscle and your wit. That is a mighty meditation.

The bell-ringers are men of the village, with a hierarchy of their own when in the bell tower. The vicar links them to the bells and the music in a way akin to leading the parish in prayer. When Sayers has Lord Peter Wimsey step in at the last moment to ring in the New Year with nine hours of bell-ringing, he puts aside the title and status he was born to and becomes someone judged by his ability to play his part, to collaborate with the other bell-ringers and give himself to the music welcoming the New Year across the village. It seemed to me to be a kind of baptism.

Sayers presents the church as the physical and emotional centre of village life. The vicar and his wife are two of the most engaging characters in the book. He is distracted, obsessed with bell-ringing, proud of the history of his church and is easily distracted from the practicalities of life. His wife is practical and organised and effectively runs the Parish. The two of them represent a link between the village and the rest of English society. They seemed to me to be benign colonists or perhaps transplants who have started to mutate. The church stands above the village and the voice of its bells can be heard everywhere. At one point the church becomes, not for the first time, a refuge for the villagers, a sort of Ark against the floods. I thought these descriptions of bells and church were Sayers’ way of showing the spiritual life of the village.

Her love of the place is so deep, it mostly carried me along in an ‘isn’t that charming’ sort of way, like something from an earlier era, perhaps ‘Under The Greenwood Tree’ or ‘Lark Rise To Candleford’. But I’m not from that place or time or faith and one small thing pulled me out of the mood. I learned that, when a man dies, the Tailor bell is rung nine times to mark his death and then once for each year of his life. Suddenly the charming but obscure title to the book got translated in my head as ‘The Death Knell’ and I imagined the book rewritten as a piece of Noir. It was what I learned next that pulled me out of the cosy world of the book and back into a place I recognise. Although when a man dies, he gets nine bells tolled for him, when a woman dies, she gets six bells tolled for her. I found myself suddenly angry at the fact that, even in death, the Anglican church treated women with less respect than men, and angry again that no one even comments on it. 

Wrapped around this depiction of village life and this contemplation on death knells, there is a murder mystery and Peter Wimsey is at the heart of solving it. It’s a clever mystery. I couldn’t have guessed how the murder was done or by whom. It’s also a mystery that adds another layer of symbolism to the book. The cause of death and the consequences of the killing both speak to an almost supernatural force driving justice and atonement.

The mystery decorates rather than drives the plot. The plot moves at a pace so slow, it feels as though you’re drifting on the narrative stream with no rudder and no objective other than taking in the view. A TV version of ‘Nine Taylors’ might get as far as the inquest (about 25% into the book) shortly after the credits but in doing so they’d completely miss the point, which is to immerse yourself in the slow rhythm of life in this isolated village.

As we drifted along, I found myself taking a quiet delight in how Sayers writes. Her prose bubbles with a gentle humour that never sneers or uses sarcasm but rather shows her affection for the people of the village and the way they treat each other.

There were set pieces that I thought quite marvellous. The continuous flow of speech that establishes the characters of the vicar, Mr Venables (great choice of name) is fast and deft and very effective. The way the Sextant and the Vicar talk at cross-purposes when the body is found which, as well as being humorous, shows how a man who is never in a hurry tells a tale to a man who is never quite sure what to do next. The vicar’s letter to Wimsey is a masterpiece. The vicar’s whole character is on the text of that letter. The description of the Coroner’s brisk handling of the inquest feels like fancy camera work in the way it cuts out unnecessary detail and, in the process, establishes the atmosphere of the event.

When I finished the book, I was struck by the way its tone reminded me of Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’ which takes a disappearance as its starting point but spends its energy capturing the rhythm of village life. In ‘The Nine Tailors’ the tracking of the crime is secondary to the immersion into the life of a Fen village. It also uses that solid, unvarying life of that village to reflect on the life Wimsey is living. The book starts and finishes with Wimsey stepping outside his normal life to make up new roles in the village. Yet he cannot escape who he is and what he knows. He remains entangled in the affairs or Red House. Finding the solution as to who died and who was involved in the death brings nothing but disruption and pain. When he finally understands the killing, what used to be a memory that made him smile with affectionate pride has been transformed into something sinister.

I’d wanted to see who Peter Wimsey was without Harriet Vane. In ‘The Nine Tailors’, Wimsey seems to skim along, dipping in and out of engagement with others. He presents himself as no more than a genial puzzle solver but I think he is constantly trying to step out of the shadow of his own knowledge of the world. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I was struck by the image of Wimsey’s car, last to leave the flooding sluice, at the back of the queue of vehicles, axle-deep in water and being pursued by an impersonal but unstoppable flooding tide, as a symbol of the man’s life. 

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