The waters rise…

My house in Oxford flooded this law week, along with most of England, and my family there was ready with inflatable dinghies, Wellington boots, and a cellar cleared of possessions.

So I picked Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors off the shelf, since it had been a while since I re-read it. And I found that my memories of the book had been accurate: superb and moving descriptions of the land, the church, the bells—mostly the bells. How is it that a simple paragraph listing the bells’ names and showing how their tones shift in a peal can make a jaded reader like me choke up?

“The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo—tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom—tin tan dan din bim bam bom bo…”

And then there’s the flood itself—“And over all, the bells tumbled and wrangled, shouting their alarm across the country”—and the car chase against the waters, and the drama of retribution. So why does this pleasure have to be pushed around and broken up by a terribly clever but ultimately tedious puzzle?

DLS loved puzzles, and she put a lot of work into those parts of her novels that had ciphers and codes and the like. But in all honesty, they have nothing to do with the stories. It is simply not credible that the highly complex code she gives in Nine Tailors would have been created by the person who does it. It doesn’t fit, either the plot or the character, and it makes the entire book strain and creak with the effort of holding it. A serious crime novel becomes, well, silly.

Sayers herself knew this, deep down. In an introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, she famously wrote that the detective story could never attain “the loftiest level of literary achievement,” an admission of failure that many took as the failure of a genre, not of an individual writer. Her essay is known best, not for itself, but for Raymond Chandler’s reference to it in “The Simple Art of Murder,” after which I rather doubt the two writers were ever put in a room together. (Charles Silet has an excellent essay on just this, at )

Chandler’s essay is the one that builds to the resounding and oft-quoted paragraphs built around the idea, “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Personally, I think they both got it wrong, although Chandler’s essay comes off better because he is not apologizing. The detective story Sayers talks about is indeed a limited framework for a story, and it’s only when a writer tries to do more with it than create a puzzle mystery that its limitations become a problem. On the other hand, building a book around a protagonist who fits Chandler’s “untarnished and fearless” definition is equally two-dimensional, suited for comic books and comedic novels.

If there’s a puzzle, it needs to grow organically from the characters, the place, and the crime. If there’s a hero, he is only heroic if he acts despite his fear and tarnish, not because he lacks those qualities. A man or woman who does not feel fear is pathological, not heroic. A man or woman who lacks tarnish is not only unrealistic, but boring.

But now the flood waters are receding from the streets of Oxford, and I can go back to my summer’s unread books.

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  1. KarenB on July 30, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Yes, indeed, the puzzle piece of Nine Tailors is awkward and strained, but it does not, for me at least, diminish the joys that can be found therein. The descriptions of the bells and their personalities, the characters, Mr. Venables, Hilary Thorpe, even Nobby Cranton, are what gives the book its life.

    A mystery novel is a bit like a sonnet. The writer is constrained by the form, rhyme scheme and lines, or mystery and solution, but within that framework anything at all may come into play from beekeeping to bell ringing, from feminist theory to housekeeping. The artistry of the writer is to fully inhabit the framework, to clothe the structure so that the reader becomes unaware of the struts and trusses (okay I’m stretching this metaphor a bit). I would think that it would be difficult for an author to excise some bit of a book that he or she had labored over and loved even when it did cause the book to creak. Is this where fights with editors come into play?

  2. Roxanne on July 30, 2007 at 10:11 am

    I do hope that your house in Oxford is okay–and your family members as well.

  3. Gail on July 30, 2007 at 3:43 pm

    I can enjoy mysteries that are just puzzles and I can enjoy mysteries that are also glimpses into other worlds or are comic relief. But there are mysteries that are more that that. They blur into being novels with a mystery. They have actual character development and the characters being developed are multi-dimensional and in some way seem real because they are flawed and some part of the problem in the story deals with something bigger than just “who did it.” I think that one of the reasons that I like Nine Tailors, and it was the book that first introduced me to Dorothy L. Sayers, is that it in some way succeeds on those levels even though I too found the puzzle clunky. Laurie – your characters are wonderful to follow because they are real and flawed and are especially fun when you manage to write them as thinking they aren’t flawed but we know that they are. I too hope your house and family and the surrounding towns are ok.

  4. MaryL on July 31, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Another view of rainlogged England can be found an Ellis Peters story. She wrote the Brother Cadfael series and in “The Holy Thief” the River Severn leaps its bounds and rises into the abbey, threatening the “relics” of St. Winifred. I found the whole series an excellant discussion of faith-in-action, in addition to the very good mysteries. At any rate it appears the English countryside has been drowned for seasons beyond memory.

  5. bani on August 2, 2007 at 11:29 am

    Sorry about your house, I hope the damage wasn’t too great.

    I love this blog entry, I agree with everything you say. Almost. I am so enamoured with Dorothy Sayer’s way of making me interested in something so obscure as English bellringing that I can’t find the novel silly. I love it anyway (but it’s not my favourite).

    I’ve never read those essays, but I’ll do so now. Thanks! I think I lean towards Chandler on this one – Dorothy was putting herself and the genre down…

  6. Poodlerat on August 2, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I love Sayers, but she did have such a limited view of what a mystery novel could be! Lord Peter often repeats that it’s the how of the crime, not the who, that’s important in solving it. Whenever he does, I wish I could tell Miss Sayers that the how may be most important in solving the crime, but the who is the interesting part for the reader. I love her characters, and I wish she spent all her time on them instead of messing about with codes and timetables.

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