The opening of The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L Sayers, has to be one of the most atmospheric of any novel. Here we are in the wintry, bleak, isolated East Anglian fens with Lord Peter Wimsey:
Coming a trifle too fast across the bridge, blinded by the bitter easterly snowstorm, he had overshot the road and plunged down the side of the dyke into the deep ditch beyond, where the black spikes of a thorn hedge stood bleak and unwelcoming in the glare of the headlights. Right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.
He and his man Bunter set off to seek help.
They wrapped their coats about them and turned their faces to the wind and snow. To left of them, the drain ran straight as a rule could make it, black and sullen, with steep bank shelving down to its slow, unforgiving waters. To their right was the broken line of the sunken hedge, with, here and there, a group of poplars or willows. They tramped on in silence, the snow beating on their eyelids. At the end of a solitary mile the gaunt shape of a windmill loomed up upon the farther bank of the drain, but no bridge led to it, and no light showed.
They are rescued by the Rector of Fenchurch St. Paul, who puts them up while the car is repaired, and Lord Peter sees in the New Year by replacing a sick campanologist so a marathon bell ringing session can go ahead. Before continuing on his journey he hears the story of 20-year-old crime involving a missing emerald necklace, a jail-break and a murder…
Months later the body of a man with his hands cut off is unearthed while a grave is being dug. The corpse is recent, but no-one knows who the man is, or how he died – so the Rector writes to Lord Peter appealing for help. The plot is complex and there are dead ends and red herrings aplenty as Lord Peter tries to unravel the truth. Finally a coded message is cracked, an old mystery solved, and the identity of the dead man is revealed, but the cause of his death and the name of his murderer remain unknown. However, when Lord Peter makes a third visit to the village the stage is set for the final, shocking explanation during an apocalyptic flood.
|Dorothy L Sayers
Wimsey himself is a wonderful creation, with his slightly foppish and diffident manner masking a keen intellect, but it is the bells which dominate: Sabaoth, Gaude, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas, and Tailor Paul. From the outset they are faintly sinister and disturbing as they sound the death-knell of the old year. Then we learn that according to local legend, Tailor Paul has been responsible for two deaths. And there’s a premonition of danger when Hezekiah, the oldest bell ringer, warns: “They bells du know well who’s a-haulin’ of ’un. Wunnerful understandin’ they is. They can’t abide a wicked man. They lays in wait to overthrow ’un.”
Wimsey feels ‘the patient watchfulness of the bells’ and stands beneath them.
There he stood for a moment, gazing up into their black mouths while his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness. Presently their hooded silence oppressed him. A vague vertigo seized him. He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him. Spell-bound, he spoke their names: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul. A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams. Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: “Tailor Paul!” and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead.
Apparently, Sayers kept meticulous notes on her research into change ringing, and the novel has many details about the history and customs of bell ringing, while the terminology and lists of instructions have a mesmerising, magical quality – like the strange far-off places of the shipping forecast, or the peculiarly named teams you only know from the football results. In addition, Sayers includes quotations about the tradition, and her chapter headings reference the techniques involved in this ancient art, as well as reflecting the action.
Like all her plots, The Nine Tailors is as well constructed as a good cryptic crossword – and as fiendishly difficult to solve. I’d read it before, and the ending still took me by surprise. But it’s a ‘slow burn’, for Sayers takes her time setting the scene and, like the pattern of the bells, the story cannot be hurried along, but must move through various permutations before the final note is sounded.
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