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“Death Knell: A Review of Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors”

A badly mutilated body buried in another person’s grave, the theft of an emerald necklace, a cipher, French underclothing, multiple murders and deaths, bigamy, a massive flood, and the mysterious role of Tailor Paul, a large bell—all go in to making Nine Tailors to be often considered the finest of Dorothy’s Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels.

Lord Peter is forced to stay in the Fenland village of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year’s Eve because of a car accident and then must serve as a last-minute substitute for a sick ringer in order for a nine-hour peal to be performed. The next day the wife of Squire Henry Thorpe dies. When the squire dies the following Easter, an unidentified body is discovered in his wife’s grave and the game is afoot as Lord Peter seeks to unravel a convoluted story of crime and deceit.

Although the casual detective story reader might be turned off by this complicated whodunit mystery and the references to campanology, the study of bells and in particular here church bells, it is perhaps the best Sayers mystery novel.
The Nine Tailors is not as funny as other Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but it is a brilliantly conceived plot and its suggestive, even symbolic, ending of the villagers finding shelter in the church to escape a cataclysmic flood in the fens is deeply moving. I am not positive that the explanation of the death of the chief criminal is medically accurate, but it is horrifying, and his surprising “executioner” is perhaps symbolic of the judgment of God.

I recommend Nine Tailors for the avid reader of crime novels, especially English mystery stories, and the admirer of Dorothy Sayers’ writings, both fictional and theological.  On the back of my old Harbrace paperback edition is a quotation from Sinclair Lewis. “In the realm of mystery stories there are four books which everyone should read.  They are The Lodger, Malice Aforethought, Bleak House, and The Nine Tailors.  I am not sure but that of all these The Nine Tailors is the best.”  Enough said?

2 thoughts on ““Death Knell: A Review of Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors”

    1. Thanks, Matt. I like Sayers too. She is witty and very insightful. Our students at Cair Paravel Latin School read her essay “Toward a Christian Aesthetic” in one of our Great Ideas courses.

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