The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Reviewed by Paul Harrison

The Nine Tailors (Victor Gollanz Ltd., 1934) is known as Dorothy L. Sayers's greatest work of fiction. Set in a lonely English village in the middle of the Fens, a marshy region in eastern England, where the main character of her series, Lord Peter Wimsey, has gotten lost, the plot centers on bell ringing and the dark secrets of the village’s residents and visitors.

The nine tailors in the book's title refers to the nine strokes of the tolling bell that announces a man has died. As a former handbell choir member myself, the book, appropriately the ninth in Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, was doubly interesting.

The plot revolves around the English “sport” of change-ringing, which involves ringing church bells in every possible combination according to a specific rule. The book opens with Lord Peter helping to ring the bells on New Year’s Eve for nine hours in a row, and of course being on hand to solve the subsequent murders that occur. The bells are almost like characters in the book, with names like Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul.

One of the things that struck me was the importance of the church in the society described in the book, which is involved in the life-cycle of many people in the area. When a flood happens near the end of the book, it is to the church that people go for refuge. The bells are used both to announce events and to give an alarm in times of danger.

Early reviewers of the book found the plot far-fetched and questioned the accuracy of some of Sayers’s statements about bells. Even knowing the ending from two previous readings, I found the book a compelling page-turner even the third time around. That means more to me than any small inaccuracies. Sayers is credited with helping to establish the genre of detective fiction. I recommend this book as a worthy read. 

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