Ringing the Changes
The Book Club have been looking at Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers for their December read. This 1934 novel, featuring the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, is something of a Christmas story, although it opens on New Year’s Eve up in England’s fenland countryside.
Now, much as I love Dorothy Sayers, I have to admit that the book is far from perfect. Sayers has an unfortunate taste for the twee in her writing, and an uncomfortably easy acceptance of her era’s class structures and racist (and sexist) attitudes. Too, her plot here is as convoluted as they come, while the murder at its center is frankly implausible, if not outright impossible. Sayers doesn’t seem to trust the mystery to take care of itself—one of the cases when, as Raymond Chandler (The Art of Murder) noted about her writing, “the weakest element in them is the part that makes them detective stories.” As for the research in the novel, even those of us who adore picking up odd bits of knowledge in our mysteries end up feeling somewhat bludgeoned by the sheer quantity of information on the minutiae of bell ringing.
And yet, the book sings. Sayers always has a knack for shaping exactly the right phrase, the one that captures a moment or implies a complex sub-text: how after nine hours of physical work her character is so famished he feels his sides “clapping together like an empty portmanteau”; how a suspect has the “face of a man pushed to the last extremity, haggard and grey, and pinched about the nostrils like a dead man’s”; how during a ring of bells “the whole tower was drenched and drunken with noise.”
She paints pictures with words—
Before the cars reached St Paul, the flood was rising and pursuing them. Wimsey’s car—the last to start—was submerged to the axles. They fled through the dusk, and behind and on their left, the great silver sheet of water spread and spread.
But it’s more than cleverness with words and a knack for language. In Nine Tailors, Sayers is writing about a countryside she loves and a way of life that is in her bones—and it shows. You might not agree with her, in attitudes or in the construction of plot, but even a critical reader can’t say she doesn’t give her heart to this book.
What else would explain how choked up I get reading the story? How some passages just seem to fill my lungs and eyes, ridiculously but undeniably:
The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting up in the high 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…little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them.
These are church bells, for heaven’s sake, bashing away in their towers, each clapper slapping its bronze surround in unnecessarily complex patterns and keeping everyone from sleep. But the language! The shape of the words, the names of each bell, their individual personalities, the verbs describing their movements and the tin/tan/din/dan/bim/bam/bom/bo of the initial descending sounds before each launches off into its mapped-out pattern—all those things come together to play a reader’s emotions as the ringer plays the bells overhead.
I challenge the reader not to feel a surge of emotion when, after one mystery has been solved and an act of heroism has taken a life, as the besieged village grows weary of the floods, Wimsey finds the waters starting to inch down—
…and returned, waving a handful of laurels from someone’s front garden, as the nearest substitute for an olive-branch. That day they rang a merry peal of Kent Treble Bob Major, and across the sundering flood heard the bells of St Stephen peal merrily back.
I love this book, despite—because of?—its flaws.
Nine Tailors is also the source of one my fondest memories. Many years ago, I was driving my brother and his wife through England. As we went, heading from Salisbury to Oxford, we were listening to Nine Tailors on the rental car’s tape player. As dusk settled in, I decided that our chances of finding hotel rooms (in those pre-cell phone days) might be easier outside the city, so I stopped in the nearby market town of Faringdon. The scene on the tape was clearly drawing to a close, so I let the car idle for a couple of minutes outside of a likely coaching inn…and when I shut it off and we climbed out to stretch our weary limbs, we were surrounded by the sound of bells from All Saint’s Church, and discovered that the inn we were parked in front of was called The Bell.
I am ashamed to admit, however, that even at the time, I couldn’t have told you if they were playing Kent Treble Bob Major.