The Nine Tailors
|Author||Dorothy L. Sayers|
|Series||Lord Peter Wimsey|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Preceded by||Murder Must Advertise|
|Followed by||Gaudy Night|
Stranded in the Fenland village of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year's Eve after a car accident, Wimsey helps ring a nine-hour peal of bells overnight after Will Thoday, one of the ringers, is stricken by influenza. Lady Thorpe, wife of Sir Henry Thorpe, the local squire, dies next morning and Wimsey hears how the Thorpe family has been blighted for 20 years by the unsolved theft of emeralds from a house-guest by the butler, Deacon, and an accomplice, Cranton. Both men were imprisoned, but the jewels were never recovered.
At Easter, Sir Henry himself dies and his wife's grave is opened for his burial. A body is found hidden in the grave, mutilated beyond recognition. It is first thought to be the body of a tramp labourer calling himself "Driver" who arrived and then vanished just after the New Year. Acting on a hunch, Lord Peter enquires at the Post Office for any uncollected letters addressed to "Driver". Bunter, Wimsey's valet, inveigles a postmistress into handing over a letter posted in France, which confirms a link with the body, which was wearing French underclothes. The letter is addressed not to "Driver" but to "Paul Taylor", a reference to "Tailor Paul", the tenor (largest) bell in the ring at Fenchurch St. Paul. When the writer of the letter is traced, the dead man is assumed to be Arthur Cobbleigh, a British soldier listed as missing in action in 1918, but who evidently deserted and stayed in France after the war. Cobbleigh appears to have known where the emeralds were hidden, and to have plotted to recover them, probably with "Driver". "Driver" is discovered to be an alias of Cranton, the accomplice in the original theft. Wimsey assumes the two men did recover the emeralds and Cranton then killed Cobbleigh for them, but cannot prove it.
An odd document found in the bell chamber by Hilary Thorpe, Sir Henry's daughter, proves to be a cipher, written on the same paper and with the same ink as the letter to "Paul Taylor" but in a different hand. When Wimsey decodes the cipher (which requires knowledge of change-ringing) it leads him to the emeralds, still untouched in their hiding place in the church.
Wimsey shows the cipher to Mary Thoday, Will's wife and Deacon's widow. The Thodays abscond to London. Wimsey guesses the true identity of Cobbleigh, and confirms this through the Sûreté in France. Acting on Wimsey's advice, the Metropolitan Police discover the Thodays' whereabouts: they have gone to London to be married again, Mary having discovered that their first wedding was illegal because her first husband was still alive at the time.
Cranton is interviewed by Wimsey and his brother-in-law, Detective Inspector Charles Parker. Much becomes clear when Cranton confirms that "Cobbleigh" was actually Deacon, the thieving butler. In 1918 he murdered a warder and escaped from prison. A body, apparently his, was later found, but in fact Deacon had murdered a soldier (Cobbleigh) and swapped identities with him. He married bigamously in France and waited several years to return for the emeralds, which he had hidden before his arrest. Since he risked hanging if caught, he finally asked Cranton to help, sending him the cipher as a clue to the hiding place as a token of good faith. Cranton could not solve it but knew it related to the bells, so he came to Fenchurch as "Driver" on New Year's Day (when Wimsey encountered him). He went to the bell-chamber on the night of 4 January, but found Deacon's dead, bound body in the chamber and fled, dropping the cipher.
Parker places a hidden microphone in the interview room where Will Thoday and his sailor brother Jim are waiting. It becomes apparent that each brother thought the other was guilty of killing Deacon, but each was willing to take the blame himself or at least shield the other. When they are interviewed, Will relates that he encountered Deacon, who had come to retrieve the emeralds, in the church on 30 December. Will had married Mary after the war, believing her a widow. Now he realised Deacon was still alive, making his and Mary's marriage bigamous and their daughters illegitimate. Desperate to prevent Deacon from exposing his family to pain and scandal, Will tied him up in the bell-chamber, planning to bribe him to leave, but became helpless with Spanish influenza next day. Will's delirious talk led Jim to find Deacon's body in the bell-chamber on 2 January. He assumed that Will had murdered him. Appalled but loyal, he waited until the night after Lady Thorpe's funeral on 4 January, made the body unrecognisable and hid it in the new grave, then left for sea. When the body was discovered, Will assumed Jim had killed Deacon. Neither can explain how Deacon died. Both are released. Will marries Mary again in Bloomsbury and they return to Fenchurch St. Paul.
Deacon's death remains inexplicable. Only when Wimsey returns to Fenchurch the following Christmas does he understand. Floods inundate the countryside, and Wimsey climbs the tower as the bells are ringing the alarm. The appalling noise in the bell-chamber convinces him that Deacon, tied there for hours between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day while Wimsey helped with the all-night peal, could not have survived: Deacon was killed by the bells themselves. (Wimsey says that the murderers are already "hanged higher than Haman".) Will Thoday is drowned in the flood trying to save another man who has fallen from a failing sluice-gate. Wimsey speculates that Will may not have wanted to live, having guessed his part in the death of Deacon.
- Lord Peter Wimsey
- Mervyn Bunter, his manservant
- The Reverend Theodore Venables, rector of Fenchurch St Paul; his wife, Mrs. Venables
- Sir Henry Thorpe, the local squire; his wife Lady Thorpe; their only daughter Hilary
- Superintendent Blundell, of the Lincolnshire CID
- Jeff Deacon, once the Thorpes' butler, convicted of a robbery in their house 20 years previously.
- Nobby Cranton, a London jewel-thief and Deacon's accomplice
- Will Thoday, a farmer and bell ringer; Mary Thoday, his wife, originally married to Deacon
- Jim Thoday, Will's brother, a merchant seaman
- Harry Gotobed, the sexton and a bell ringer
- Joe Hinkins, a gardener and a bell ringer
- Ezra Wilderspin, the blacksmith and a bell ringer
- Alf Donnington, landlord of the "Red Cow" inn, also a bell ringer
- Hezikiah Lavender, leader of the bell ringers
- Jack Godfrey, churchwarden and a bellringer
- Potty Peake, the village simpleton
- Suzanne Legros, French farmer, married to Cobbleigh/Deacon
- Lady Wilbraham, owner of the Wilbraham emeralds
Awards and nominations
- Rusty Dagger award for best crime novel of the 1930s, British Crime Writers Association, 1999.
Explanation of the title
In some parishes in England the centuries-old tradition of announcing a death on a church bell is upheld. In a small village most people would be aware of who was ill, and so broadcasting the age and sex of the deceased would identify them. To this end the death was announced by telling (i.e. single blows with the bell down) the sex and then striking off the years. Three blows meant a child, twice three a woman and thrice three a man. After a pause the years were counted out at approximately half-minute intervals. The word teller in some dialects becomes tailor, hence the old saying "Nine tailors maketh a man".
The bell used in the novel for the announcement is the largest (tenor) bell, which is dedicated to St. Paul. Hence "teller Paul" or in dialect "tailor Paul". Sayers is here acknowledging the assistance of Paul Taylor of Taylor's bell foundry in Loughborough, England who provided her with detailed information on all aspects of change-ringing.
Literary significance and criticism
'For many reasons, no great favourite... despite Dorothy's swotting up of bell-ringing and the two good maps. The cause of death, however, is original, and the rescue scene in the church amid the flood shows the hand of the master. It should be added that this work is a favourite with many readers. Sinclair Lewis judged it the best of his four "indispensables"...’.
"Dorothy L. Sayers incautiously entered the closed world of bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors on the strength of a sixpenny pamphlet picked up by chance — and invented a method of killing which would not produce death, as well as breaking a fundamental rule of that esoteric art by allowing a relief ringer to take part in her famous nine-hour champion peal."
In his infamous essay attacking detective fiction, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, American critic Edmund Wilson decried this novel as dull, overlong and far too detailed; describing how he skipped a lot of the prose about bell-ringing ("a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopaedia article on campanology"), and also large amounts of Sayers' focal sleuth character, "the embarrassingly named" Lord Peter Wimsey.
Modern science has shown that excessively loud (200 decibels or above) and/or prolonged noise can kill a person. Being exposed to ringing bells for nine hours at close range may well suffice.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The Nine Tailors was adapted for television as a series of four hour-long episodes in 1973, one of several adaptations of Lord Peter Wimsey novels starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter. In a significant plot difference, the original theft of the emeralds was introduced by showing a young Lieutenant Wimsey of the Rifle Brigade attending Henry Thorpe's wedding shortly before the War and unsuccessfully pursuing the fleeing Cranton. (In the books, Wimsey did not join the Army until after the outbreak of the War.) Deacon's escape from prison and the murder of the soldier Arthur Cobbleigh (renamed as Watkins) are also shown in the first episode. So are the circumstances under which Bunter becomes Lord Peter's valet.
Other parts were played by:
- Glyn Houston – Bunter
- Donald Eccles – The Rev. Theodore Venables, Rector of Fenchurch St. Paul
- Elizabeth Bradley – Mrs. Venables
- Neil McCarthy – Will Thoday
- Elizabeth Proud – Mary Thoday, née Russell, formerly Deacon
- David Jackson – Jim Thoday
- Kenneth Thornett – Superintendent Blundell
- Gail Harrison – Hilary Thorpe
- Patrick Jordan – Cranton
- Keith Drinkel – Deacon
There were brief appearances by Geoffrey Russell (Sir Henry Thorpe), Desmond Llewelyn (Sir Charles Thorpe, father of Sir Henry); Mark Eden (Detective Chief Inspector Charles Parker, Wimsey's brother in law), John Duttine (Wally Pratt, bellringer) and Kenneth Colley ("Potty" Peake, local resident).
An 8-part radio adaptation was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1980. Ian Carmichael reprised Wimsey, and Parker was replaced by a local Superintendent, Blundell, played by Timothy Bateson. It is regularly repeated on 4Extra.
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- "'The Nine Tailors' (1974; mini)". IMDb. Retrieved 30 April 2008.