The thing that strikes you most about The Nine Tailors as you read it is the sense of place. The descriptions of the drainage dykes across the Fens could be taken as long winded background, but they are important to the story. Sayers grew up in the Fens, where her father was a rector. Her knowledge of the landscape is apparent in the book. The next thing that strikes you is the emphasis on bell ringing (or campanology). If you take away the Fens and the bells, there is no plot and no story.
The plot is complex, linking a mutilated body found in the church graveyard to a jewel robbery that occurred twenty years earlier. However, it is slow to get going. I liked the slow pace and found it relaxing to ease into the story, but people in search of an exciting mystery may find the first quarter or so of this book a bit of struggle. The story opens with Lord Peter Wimsey crashing his car into a drainage dyke near the village of Fenchurch St Paul in East Anglia on New Year’s Eve. There’s a snowstorm and the car is stuck in the ditch for the night, so he takes refuge at the local rectory. But it’s not a peaceful night, as the rector is an enthusiastic campanologist and has planned a nine-hour peal on the church’s circle of eight bells to welcome in the new year. When it looks like this ‘treat’ will have to be cancelled when a bellringer comes down with flu, Wimsey steps in to save the day, and spends his night ringing one of the bells. The first few chapters of the story concern themselves with bell ringing, and the history and architecture of the church, both of which the rector shows himself willing to talk about for hours.
Early next morning, the rector is summoned to the local squire’s house to administer the last rites to the squire’s wife, Lady Thorpe. While he’s away, Wimsey hears the story of the Thorpe misfortunes which started when a valuable emerald necklace was stolen twenty years ago. The thieves were captured but the necklace was never recovered. Eventually, Wimsey’s car is retrieved, repaired, and he proceeds on his way. Several months later the rector summons him back to the village, asking for his help again. Sir Henry Thorpe has also now died, and when Lady Thorpe’s grave is opened for him to buried with her, a mutilated corpse is found on top of the coffin. Its hands have been removed and the face so badly beaten that no one can identify it. This is where the story starts to pick up pace, as Wimsey works with the local police to solve the mystery of the man’s identity and that of his murderer.
From this point we get a well-plotted murder, with plenty of twists, and mis-identifications and lots of suspects. Several of the villagers have secrets that they would prefer remain hidden, but Wimsey gradually sorts all of the divergent strands into a coherent solution. And all the time he is in the village, the eight bells are always in the background, important to both the routine life of the villagers and to providing the key to the mystery.
This is a beautifully crafted mystery that rewards a reader who takes the time to read it slowly and immerse themselves in the world of an isolated village where the local church is important to daily life. It’s a very human story, where Wimsey, as the main detective, begins to identify with the people he is investigating and becomes part of their life. This was a reread for me, but I loved returning to the story and to the world of church bells and ringing peals on the church bells. Well worth a read.
Why is the book called The Nine Tailors when there are only eight bells in the circle?
The title comes from the tradition of announcing each death in a parish by the ringing of a bell.
“The manner of ringing the knell varied in different parishes. Sometimes the age of the departed was signified by the number of chimes (or strokes) of the bell, but the use of ‘tellers’ to denote the sex was almost universal. For instance in the greater number of churches in the counties of Kent and Surrey they used the customary number of tellers, viz., three times three strokes for a man, and three times two for a woman; with a varying usage for children. The word ‘tellers’ became changed into ‘Tailors’.” (Wikipedia). This gives the expression “Nine tailors make a man”.
In Fenchurch St Paul, the passing bell is called Tailor Paul.