Dec 12 2008 11:07am

A break with the bell-ringers: Dorothy Sayers Nine Tailors

Dorothy Sayers wrote early in the era of detective fiction and helped to establish the borders of the genre. Her Lord Peter Wimsey stories follow, and help shape a classic cosy formula, an amateur detective who provides the continuity from book to book, a small enclosed community with lots of fascinating detail, and into that community the horrible disruption of murder, turning everyone into suspects. Sayers’s genius was to write a pile of stories on this model, all very neat with elegant solutions, and then to make her cardboard hero real and write a couple of real novels in the series with heart and depth. These last two, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, deserve to be read after the others to be truly appreciated.

I came to Sayers very late, about ten years ago. I read Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey’s cosies as a teenager, but I found the British Sayers covers that were then current quite repellent, and also in a kind of reverse snobbery felt I didn’t much care to read about a lord solving mysteries. This idiocy deprived me of some excellent books for a long time. I eventually decided to read them after being thoroughly spoiled for Gaudy Night by Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. The spoiler—and I suppose I can forgive Willis for spoiling a sixty year old classic—was enticing. I asked for reading order, and Pamela Dean gave me the very wise advice that the books start with Whose Body, but the best one to start with if I wanted to know whether I liked them was the entirely stand alone Nine Tailors.

In Nine Tailors, Lord Peter gets stranded in a little fenland village and helps the village to ring an all night peal of bells on New Year’s Eve. Months later—the events of the book cover a year—a body is discovered in a grave, and not the body that’s supposed to be there. Lord Peter is called back to investigate. The book takes in snow, floods, the drainage of the fens, bell ringing, a missing necklace, bigamy, murder, a village idiot, church architecture, and in the end a very neat solution to the mystery.

Mysteries are, like science fiction, very dependent on the tech level at which they are set. The techniques available for autopsies, the possibilities of blood typing, of DNA evidence, the whole paraphernalia of detection depends utterly on the technology of the time. Reading an old book like this makes one very aware of the limitations of the techniques of the period. Unlike science fiction, you know that at the end of a cosy mystery nothing will really change, everything will get put away in the box again safely.

The thing that I love about cosy mysteries in general is the way there is a small enclosed society that is disrupted by the murder and then restored to order by the solution. I’m also fascinated by the way that they’re about the intrusion of violent death into lives, yet everything always seems so nice. There are cups of tea and bottles of beer and anything and everything may be a clue, but there will be muffins later, brought by a servant who is delighted to serve you, but who may be the butler who Did It. There’s a strange tension there. (This fascination is, naturally, why I deliberately played with all this in my Small Change books.) Nine Tailors is a perfect example of a classic British cosy, with the change ringing and emerald necklace and servants everywhere. Beyond that it’s beautifully written and it has tremendous forces of nature: the great flood, and most of all the huge named bells: Tailor Paul, Batty Thomas, John, Jericho, Gaude, Saboath, Jubilee, Dimity.

It’s a great pleasure to re-read a book like this on a cold day, knowing everyone’s motivations and revisiting the familiar scenes of an orderly universe with just a little uncanniness creeping in at the edges.

Rf P
1. readforpleasure
I agree that the books of Peter and Harriet's courtship are most striking if one already knows the Lord Peter mystique and the rather distant character he can be in the earlier books. However, I'm always at a loss as to which book to recommend first. I'll have to reread Nine Tailors.

One of my favorite stand-alones--for sheer goofiness--is Murder Must Advertise, but as Lord Peter is playing a role for most of the book, I'm not sure it's a great intro.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
The other problem with Murder Must Advertise is the cricket. Most people outside Britain can understand enough about bell-ringing to follow Nine Tailors but I've often been asked to explain the cricket in MMA. (And everyone knows that right after "Never get involved in a land war in Asia" comes "Never try to explain cricket to an American.")
Mary Frances
3. Mary Frances
. . . the familiar scenes of an orderly universe with just a little uncanniness creeping in at the edges.

My God. That's Nine Tailors in a nutshell. I've always loved that book--I'll pick it up in a library or bookstore, just to reread the last few pages--but I've never quite figured out what was it that made that one so different from the rest of Sayers' mysteries. It is that "edge" of uncanniness, isn't it.
mm Season
4. mmSeason
Sayers was my mother's favourite, so i read some when i was quite young, and Nine Tailors was my first. It got me hooked. I came to them in completely the wrong order, and don't think i've really come across many of the earlier ones. That will have to happen, now you've re-whetted my appetite.
brightening glance
5. brightglance
I don't understand cricket myself, but I find the description of the match in Murder Must Advertise good enough that I almost imagine I understand, if I don't peer too closely. (Also the cricket scene in the O'Brian books where Stephen plays by the rules of hurling.)

It occurs to me that reading Nine Tailors first as a youngish teenager may account for how right the power of bells in Garth Nix's Abhorsen books seems.
Mary Frances
6. Mary Frances
I'd agree with you about the power of bells from Nine Tailors having a lasting impact on readers, except I'd also add that I think one of the things Sayers is using is the experience of having lived in a place where the bells punctuate daily life. In some communities, bells have marked the passage of time, announced current events, sounded alarms . . . all of that. "Send not for whom the bell tolls," to quote another line that people who live in an age of sirens and other news sources sometimes don't quite "get" emotionally. When the bell tolls, especially unexpectedly, it's always important and you have to pay attention. The sound of a tolling church bell can bind a community together, temporarily or permanently. Including the community created in a book, and even the one created between the characters in a book and its readers, maybe.

Well, I told you I loved Nine Tailors . . . this is partly why.
Mary Aileen Buss
7. maryaileen
I started with Murder Must Advertise, on the advice of a friend, and it worked as an introduction for me. It's still one of my favorites, as is Nine Tailors.
Christine Evelyn Squires
8. ces
I, too, read Nine Tailors first - it was the only Sayers novel in the bookstore at the time. When done, I got on the internet, compiled a list of all the Lord Wimsey books in the order they were written, ordered them all, and read them all, in order. A wonderful series! perfect for a day like today - cold, very wet, & in front of the fireplace with a cup of mint tea.
Madeline Matz
9. mcmatz
You may have read them already but if liked Lord Peter, I recommend highly Margery Allimgham's Campion books. I would say Allingham is something like a mix of Sayers and P. D. James with a bit of Conan Doyle. She isn't as well known and her books are scarce in American bookstores but available online and well worth the effort. Wikipedia has a chronological bibliography. I think you'll enjoy them.
10. rogerothornhill
Yes, the Peter and Harriet books will always be my favorites, especially the confession and the proposal in Gaudy Night. But I also have a peculiar fondness for The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. It's so anthropologically English that I think I unconsciously base most of my ideas about private clubs and post-WWI England on my reading of that book, even though I should know enough history to know better. But I think only a woman could have written a sustained description of a private men's club that's so wonderfully alien.
David Dyer-Bennet
11. dd-b
I very definitely don't understand cricket, but I didn't find that interfered with The Nine Tailors for me.

No idea which I read first; that was 40 years ago probably.
Janice Hopper
12. Archergal5219
I'm very fond of The Nine Tailors. Lisa Grossman (the Tsock Tsarina) designed a sock that uses the Kent Treble Bob change ringing pattern twice in the pattern, in a cable section and in a bit of colorwork. Nine Tailors Sock. (NAYY.)

But when I forget what falling in love feels like, I go back and read Gaudy Night. I fall in love with Lord Peter every single time.
Mary Frances
13. clovis
If I may mildly take issue with the description of Sayers' books as 'cosy'. I always found a sinister undercurrent to them that is lacking in most other golden age detective fiction. With the Wimsey books it is both the aftermath of the first world war (Wimsey, like Sayers' husband, suffers from recurrent shellshock) and the consequences of the hero's detecting activities (the murderer being executed or in one volume, Wimsey's activities cause further murders).
In my humble opinion, The Nine Tailors is the finest detective novel written. The mood shifts from the comic, and yes the comforting (warm buttery muffins) to the sad and sinister as the past catches up with many of the characters. The solution is splendidly satisfying and running through it all is the almost mystical presence of the bells themselves.

Nine Tailors Make a Man
Paul Weimer
14. PrinceJvstin
I've never read this novel.

On the other hand, I heard about this novel 25 years ago...since Isaac Asimov mentioned it in one of his essays on Mathematics (the actual essay was about factorials, as I remember). He used the ringing of the bells as a springboard to explain how factorials can be counted.
Andrew Mason
15. AnotherAndrew
Jo: did the butler ever really Do It? I had an idea that this became a catchphrase because it was so improbable; the servants could always be trusted.

mcmatz: one thing about Allingham which I don't think your description captures is her fascination with the weird (not the same as the sinister, which as Clovis is to be found in Sayers). A lot of her books are set in places or communities with something definitely odd about them. This sometimes brings her to the borders of SF and F: her late work The Mind Readers is science fiction, and Look to the Lady may be fantasy.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Spoilers for books where the Butler Did It... talk about useless!

The butler stole the emeralds in Nine Tailors; married the girl in To Say Nothing of the Dog; and did the murder in at least one Agatha Christie which time has graciously obscured. Oh, and in Gosford Park it wasn't the butler but the housekeeper...
Andrew Mason
17. AnotherAndrew
Thank you! But we know from the start that the butler stole the emeralds in Nine Tailors, so that isn't the solution to the mystery; and To Say Nothing of the Dog and Gosford Park are both metafictional works.

Time seems to have graciously obscured the Christie from my mind as well. But perhaps she saw it as an amazing defiance of convention, on the same lines as Roger Ackroyd and The Orient Express.

(And my previous comment should of course have read 'as Clovis says'.)
Lee Schumacher
18. lelliot
I actually came to these books via the PBS showing of the bbc production starring Ian Carmichael in the early '70s. Having read the books later its hard to be completely objective, but I think his performance is definitive - he captures the combination of seemingly supercilious upper-crust twit with the razor-sharp mind underneath very well. I still recall the ending of Nine Tailors quite vividly.

In what sense is Gosford Park metafictional? Its not really a murder mystery in the traditional sense (or at least the cozy sense) since the perpetrator isn't apprehended by the authorities. Tonally its all over the map, but i think its my favorite Robert Altman movie ...
Mary Frances
19. arnique
I also got on to Sayers through Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. I read Have Carcase then couldn't stand not knowing what would happen to Harriet and Peter, so I had to jump to Gaudy Night. The chessmen!

Sayers is more difficult than Christie, given the wealth of references to literature and history, but ultimately more satisfying. Strangely enough, I've yet to find a copy of Nine Tailors. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Ken Walton
20. carandol
I've just read Nine Tailors recently. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I found Wimsey himself something of a cypher -- I get the feeling that Sayers had written enough about him by then that she felt he needed no introduction. I've since read Whose Body?, which gives a much better picture of the character of Wimsey.

Sayers is now out of copyright in some parts of the world, so her books are slowly becoming available as free ebooks.
Andrew Mason
21. AnotherAndrew
Perhaps 'metafictional' is too strong. But I think it is playing with the idea of the traditional country house detective story; it is saying 'You know what a traditional detective story is like? Well, this is not like that.'

(There is a butler who is also a murderer in And Then There Were None. But this again is known almost from the beginning.)

(And I am now getting very off-topic.)
Stephanie Leary
22. sleary
I don't know if I'd recommend Murder Must Advertise as an introduction to Lord Peter, but it is fall-down funny, especially if you've ever worked in a design job. I swear I've had a couple of those conversations verbatim, substituting pixels for pasteboards. Apparently design firms have not changed one jot in seventy-five years.

Nine Tailors seems to be the only Sayers mystery that Harper doesn't have the rights to reprint, which might explain why it's the only one present in some stores and the only one absent in others. It took me ages to find a copy.

I adore the entire series. The bits in French and Latin in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon gave me fits until I finally Googled for translations and tucked printouts into my paperbacks. I could work around the literary allusions and cricket descriptions, but French...!
Liza .
23. aedifica
I've never had a problem with cricket matches in Sayers' work, not even the one in Murder Must Advertise--because I know I know nothing about cricket, I skip the crickety bits and move on with the story. And so I think it's a good one to start with, because it's got more of Peter's wit in it than Nine Tailors.

I have a friend who loves Ngaio Marsh and didn't like Sayers; I felt the same in reverse, so we each lent the other a selected few books. She had more success than I did, as I discovered I do like Marsh whereas my friend merely found that Sayers wasn't as bad as she thought.
24. rogerothornhill
Yes, Murder Must Advertise is funny, and it works on so many levels, including as both a wonderful office comedy and a slice of British cultural history. In courses, I've had students read it side by side with a book like Graves' Long Weekend and the friction that the conjunction of the two texts produces is wonderful.

I came to Sayers through the Carmichael adaptations, too, but I have to say that I came to love the later Beeb series with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter even more. Partly, I think it was because they were adapting the Peter and Harriet books, which we've all gone on about already in this thread. But I think it was also because the actors played the subtext of the characters more, the desperation that should lie under all that British alternation of babble and understatement if it's going to be dramatically compelling.

I also had a wicked crush on Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane, but I don't think that was too much of it . . .

On spoilers, try to find a mint edition of the 80s volume Murder Ink. Along with a fun bunch of short pieces about various aspects of the history of the detective story, at the back it had a sealed section that revealed the endings of ten canonical detective stories that were legendarily famous for their endings. This is before we used the term "spoiler," children, but we still could have used the alert and all.
Sam Kelly
25. Eithin
I came to Sayers very late - I tried reading one of the Peter Wimsey novels (I'm not sure which, now) about ten years ago, and bounced. Then last week I found a copy of Gaudy Night in a second-hand bookshop and fell in love with it within a few pages. The class business normally turns me off something quite thoroughly, but Harriet's a wonderful viewpoint character for that.

I'm certainly going to attempt the others now, but I shan't be upset if it turns out I accidentally started at the apex of the series.
Mary Frances
26. clovis
I too started with the Ian Carmichael BBC adaptations but also recommend the Edward Petherbridge versions, not least because Petherbridge looks more like Wimsey ('all nose and nerves'). To start I would recommend The Nine Tailors or The Unplesantness at the Bellona Club. Am I alone in thinking that the latter is the best title for a murder mystery ever? Murder Must Advertise is probably the funniest (informed as it is by Sayers' own experiences working in advertising, you can see her Colman's Mustard campaign posters in the Norwich Mustard Museum, no honest) and Unnatural Death the most sinister. But all of them stand as great detective stories, excellent novels and fascinating slices of social and cultural history. Once you're hooked, I recommend reading them in order (Whose Body? first, Busman's Honeymoon last) along with the short stories. Montague Egg is one of the great unsung detectives.
Mary Frances
27. The RCK
I read Busman's Honeymoon first and then Gaudy Night. I suspect that, if I'd started earlier in the series, I'd not even have finished one book. Starting with Busman's Honeymoon and Gaudy Night, I had something other than the mysteries to enjoy even when I went back to the earlier books.

I don't enjoy most mysteries and need to be reading for something else in order to pick up a second mystery by a particular author. Picking up a first mystery usually happens when I'm stuck somewhere and have nothing else or otherwise desperate. I can usually read a few chapters before I give up.

I suspect that the question of which Sayers book is the right one for a person to start with depends on what they like in their books. I think I read a lot of the series to find out where Peter and Harriet came from.

I tried the Ian Carmichael adaptations but couldn't manage to watch them because, although his mannerisms and voice were right, he looked (to me) utterly wrong.
Mary Frances
28. Electric Landlady
sleary, in one of Sayers' short stories the entire mystery is resolved by a single adjective in a solid PAGE of French dialogue. I read and speak French quite reasonably, but even so, I feel your pain. ;)
Mary Frances
29. HelenS
I once saw Edward Petherbridge in a stage production of _Busman's Honeymoon_, playing opposite his wife as Harriet. It was rather low-budget, but great fun. The Petherbridge adaptations vary -- I disliked Gaudy Night, in which all the dons seemed to be made very unpleasant, and there was so little humor.

I like the advertising sections of _Murder Must Advertise_, but I think the plot is pretty bad and the other sections drag quite a bit (I do like the cricket part, even though I don't actually understand it). Incidentally, I once read a really bad translation of MMA into German, in which almost the only clever bit was having Wimsey called Tod (Tod=Death in German). Most of the other clever bits got left out, sad to say. There is another translation that I am told is much better, but I've never run across it.
Vicki Rosenzweig
30. vicki
I don't understand cricket (I'm weak on the rules of some American sports, and I grew up here), but didn't need it for Murder Must Advertise. For that, it was enough to understand Wimsey's reasons for playing down his cricket skills before the match, and his effort to play in a style unlike what he'd been known for as a varsity athlete, without getting all the details.
Jo Walton
32. bluejo
Anobium: And my husband the geneticist asserts that if you already understand evolution then Stephen J. Gould's books on that subject will explain baseball to you.

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