Ominous sound of bells across the Fens

by
02 December 2016

Kate Charles enjoys Dorothy L. Sayers’s mastery of classic detective fiction in The Nine Tailors

ALAMY

Intricate plotter: Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)

Intricate plotter: Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)

Toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man.

 

IT SEEMS a happy coincidence that The Nine Tailors has been selected as the reading-group choice for this month, only a few weeks after bell-ringing and its practitioners have been much written about in the popular press, and on social media. Never, as far as I am aware, has the subject been so much in the conscious thought of the British public at large (News, 21 October).

And yet, more than 80 years ago, Dorothy L. Sayers constructed an ingenious crime novel with this seemingly unpromising subject at its heart. It is difficult to say a great deal about how central campanology is to this novel without giving away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that Sayers, a daughter of the vicarage, immersed herself exhaustively in the minutiae of bell-ringing lore and practice when she wrote The Nine Tailors.

Although she was not a ringer herself, she made her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey an expert on the subject — one who not only rings, but has written a book about it. It is said that expert campanologists have been able to find only three small errors in her lengthy descriptions of rings and methods, which is a tribute to her scrupulous research.

Many years have passed since my first reading of this novel. Seen afresh through the filters of my subsequent knowledge and experience, my recent re-read has produced a few reflections.

Sayers demonstrates a deep familiarity with the Church of England, its practices, and its nuances. She was, of course, a theologian in her own right; so it is perhaps no surprise that she knows her Hymns Ancient and Modern as well as her ecclesiastical architecture.

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The unravelling of the complex plot relies not just on bells, but also on a cope chest, a demolished west-end gallery, and an angel roof. And it goes beyond that: her prose has rich echoes of the cadences of the Prayer Book and the Psalter, in phrases such as “they had neither speech nor language”, and “staggered like a drunken man”.

The book also reflects Sayers’s East Anglian background. She understands — and vividly conveys — the peculiar geography of the Fens, with their sinister deep ditches and their straining flood-gates. She understands, too, the “naturals” such as Potty Peake, the product of too much inbreeding in this remote area. Her rustic characters speak in proper Norfolk dialect; they possess proper Norfolk names such as Hezekiah Lavender and Ezra Wilderspin.

She was, in many ways, a writer of her time. I was struck by how rooted the plot was in the horrors of the Great War, in which Lord Peter served, and which shaped the back stories of the other characters: “Mud, blood, shell-holes and trench-feet,” as Lord Peter says. We are now looking back on the Great War from the perspective of 100 years; for Lord Peter and Sayers, it was much more immediate.

Then, too, there are the attitudes of her time. There is the taken-for-granted rigid class system, in which everyone knows his place — in which Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter, always does the work, and Lord Peter often takes the credit. Sayers displays beliefs and sentiments that would today draw the ire of the PC police, in her (or her characters’) casual contempt for the French, for “the meanness of fifty thousand Scotch Jews rolled into one”, and even for the “village idiot” Potty Peake.

We must not judge her too harshly for these; for Sayers is a superb writer. She displays a seemingly effortless mastery of the conventions of writing classic detective fiction, with skilfully placed clues and an intricate plot, featuring layer upon layer of mistaken identity — even if the uncovering of the truth relies a bit too heavily, for modern tastes, on the discovery of an arcane secret cypher.

Her prose is literate, precise, and often beautiful — especially in her description of churches: “The bells, with mute black mouths gaping downwards, brooded in their ancient places.” “The shadows of the splendid tracery of the south window lay scrawled on the floor like a pattern of wrought iron on a gate of brass.”

And this: “The ringers were practising their Christmas peal; it drifted through the streaming rain with an aching and intolerable melancholy, like the noise of the bells of a drowned city pulsing up through the overwhelming sea.”

 

Kate Charles, a former chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, sets her crime novels against the backdrop of the C of E. Her latest novel, featuring an Assistant Curate, the Revd Callie Anson, is False Tongues (Marylebone House/SPCK, 2015).

The Nine Tailors is published by Hodder at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-473-62139-8.

 

 

THE NINE TAILORS — SOME QUESTIONS

 

How compelling did you find Lord Peter Wimsey as a protagonist?

“The Fen had reclaimed its own.” How is the novel affected by its Fenland setting?

How enjoyable did you find Sayers’s use of change-ringing as a theme and as a plot device?

What struck you about the novel’s portrayal of sin and forgiveness?

Is The Nine Tailors a conservative novel?

Do you think that Mr and Mrs Venables are good role-models?

Over the course of The Nine Tailors, St Paul’s, Fenchurch, is seen both as a beautiful place of refuge and a sinister scene of crime and death. How well does the novel manage the balance between the two?

How well does the ending of The Nine Tailors fit with the rest of the novel?

Were there any points where you felt you had solved the mystery? How satisfying did you find the eventual solution?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 January, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Enduring Melody by Michael Mayne. It is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.80); 978-0-232-52687-5.

 

Book notes

The Enduring Melody records Michael Mayne’s navigation of what he called “cancer country”, observing the joy and sorrow accompanying his treatment for terminal disease. Clinical and lucid in describing the pain that he was undergoing, Mayne’s articulation of faith and hope amid devastating suffering makes his book an inspiring and comforting document of Christian courage.

“Michael Mayne belongs to the great priest-writers,” Ronald Blythe wrote, describing The Enduring Melody as “a wonderful achievement”. The book was published shortly before Mayne’s death, and has been seen as a remarkable testament of reflection and endurance in the face of overwhelming darkness.

 

Author notes

Michael Mayne was born in Northamptonshire in 1929. The son of a priest, he studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, before training for the priesthood at Cuddesdon. He combined a distinguished ministry as a parish priest with a number of high-profile positions: from 1959 to 1965 he was chaplain to Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, and he was Vicar of the University Church, in Cambridge, between 1979 and 1986.

He was appointed Dean of Westminster in 1986, an office he held for a decade, in spite of his struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME). After retiring to Salisbury, Mayne was diagnosed with facial cancer in 2005; he died in 2006.

 

Books for the next two months:

February: Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

March: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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