The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1966.
Summary: Lord Peter, stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul due to a driving mishap, later is enlisted to solve the mystery of the death of an unidentified man, whose body is found buried atop the grave of a recently deceased woman. The “nine tailors” refers to the nine tolls of a bell when an adult man has died, after which the years of his life are tolled.
Lord Peter Wimsey suffers a driving mishap on the unfamiliar roads near Fenchurch St. Paul, in the fen country of East Anglia, on New Year’s Eve, and is forced to find refuge with the somewhat absent-minded village rector, Venables and his wife. Venables is a change ringer and the church has an impressive set of bells. Wimsey ends up taking the place of Will Thoday, taken ill with influenza and participates in ringing the bells for nine hours to ring in the New Year.
While awaiting the repairs on his car, Lady Thorpe dies and Wimsey learns that sad tale of the Thorpe house, whose fortunes were impaired by the theft of an emerald necklace from a house guest, Mrs. Wilbraham, whose loss was made good by Henry Thorpe. The butler, Deacon, and a London accomplice, Cranton are found guilty of the crime, but the emeralds are never found. Both went to prison, but Deacon’s body was supposedly discovered in a pit after a prison escape.
During the intervening four months, Henry Thorpe also takes ill. Daughter Hillary, dealing with impending loss, ascends the bell tower one day and finds a scrap of paper covered with unusual writing that turns out to be a cipher for the location of the missing emeralds. When Henry dies, he is to be buried in his wife’s grave, which when opened is found to hold another, unidentified body, missing its hands and with the face smashed in. Rector Venables calls in Wimsey to help solve the mystery of this death. And mysterious it is, not only because the man in this grave cannot be identified for lack of fingerprints, but also for how he died. Neither the rope with which he was bound, nor the injuries were the cause of death.
Wimsey’s investigations take him to London and to France, where he encounters the widow of the man in the grave. There is more to be learned of both Deacon and Cranton, and also the involvement of both Will and James Thoday. What did Potty Peake, the village simpleton, witness of the mysterious man’s death? And what will the mysterious scrap of paper found by Hillary Thorpe reveal of the hiding place of the necklace?
Sayers takes a risk in spending so much time in the book on the practice of bell-ringing and yet the bells are an integral part of the plot, including the mysterious man’s death. She also captures the ethos of the fen country of East Anglia where the story is set. Yet, the mystery is a favorite of many readers. According to Wikipedia, Sinclair Lewis judged it the best of his four “indispensables.”
The potentially tedious bell-ringing material is interspersed with methodical police Superintendent Blundell, spunky Hillary Thorpe, and the amusingly absent-minded Rector and his capable wife, who tend to both the spiritual and physical life of their parish, acting with aplomb when faced with the flooding of the fens at the end of the book. Of course, Lord Peter occupies center stage, with his faithful sidekick Bunter, as he unravels the mystery while playing mentor to the orphaned Hillary. No cold detective, this man, who discovers as he unravels the truth, the difficult and delicate work of exposing basically decent people caught up in a bad business. Sayers gives us an intricate, well-crafted, and winsomely human mystery.