” I ought to have guessed. I believe it is at St. Paul’s Cathedral that it is said to be death to enter the bell chamber when a peal is being rung. ” (396)
In The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey gets stranded in a little fenland village and helps the village to ring in an all-night peal of bells on New Year’s Eve. In was 1918, the fateful year in which people were struck down by the wretched scourage of influenza. Months later, a body, badly mutilated, is discovered in a grave and not the body that is supposed to be there. Lord Peter is called back to investigate. Although Sayers writes beautifully of the fens, the tiny villages, the convolutions of life around the church, and the bells, I quickly stop reading the book as a mystery and recalibrate to appreciate The Nine Tailors as a novel of place. It represents a concerted effort on Sayers as a writer of craft and style to raise the quality of the mystery to that of literary fiction.
A dreadful event in the past has dictated the course of actions in this book. Lord Peter Wimsey hears about how the Thorpe family has been blighted for twenty years by the unsolved theft of emeralds from a house guest by the butler, Geoffrey Deacon, and his accomplice, a crook from London named Cranton. Deacon dies so mysteriously, found tied and dead to a beam in the bell chamber of the belfry; but he is only heard about, since we have never encountered him. Obviously he broke prison, bagged a Tommy, took his clothes and ended up at war on the French Front. He manages to make a comeback to retrieve his loot. He is a total corrupt person, representing the core of evil, in a stark setting of virtue, of simple rural people. His wife remarries Will Thoday and they both suffer greatly during the course of the novel largely because of memory and conscience.
Even though the novel is, in the broad sense, a murder mystery, it transpires that no willful murder has been committed. And to my initial chagrin, fully about a quarter of the book goes by without a hint of mystery. In the meantime there are bigamy, double-crossing, a cipher, and mounting suspicion, as some villagers try to cover the crime by making themselves seem more suspicious. The issue of who is guilty and who is innocent becomes very complex by the end of the book. I’m both chilled and surprised by the resolution, but at the same time am relieved that the long trudging has come to an end.
395 pp. Harvest. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]