One New Years Eve, Lord Peter Wimsey was driving his motorcar in the Fenland in eastern England, came around a sharp curve too fast, and ran his car into a ditch. He and his servant Bunter walked into Fenchurch St. Paul, where they were welcomed by the Rector and his hospitable wife and implored to stay the night. Fenchurch St. Paul had a beautiful sounding set of very old bells, and the Rector was fond of ringing the changes; in fact, to celebrate the new year they were going to ring three peals of Kent Treble Bob Major. When one of the ringers was found to have fallen ill with a fever, Lord Peter (who, in addition to his other accomplishments, had apparently rung changes as a youth) offered to step in for him.
(Change ringing is a permutation on the order of ringing, usually, eight bells. A “peal” is 5040 changes, and lasts about three hours.)
The peals were rung with much success (a commemorative plaque was later installed in the ringing chamber). The hearty breakfast for the ringers was interrupted by the Rector being required to give Last Communion to Lady Thorpe, who promptly died. The old bell ringer, Hezekiah Lavender went back to the church to ring the passing bell—Tailor Paul, the heavy tenor bell, cast in 1614 leaving a still-visible depression in the field—with two sets of three (one set for a child, two for a woman, three for a man) and 37 rings of her age. “Tailor” is a corruption of “teller”; the bell told the village who had died.
The death of Lady Thorpe served as the introduction to Lord Peter of the mystery of the Wilbraham’s emerald necklace that was stolen from the rich relative of Sir Henry (husband of Lady Thorpe) the day after they were married. Sir Henry’s father had insisted on reimbursing the value of the necklace, which was thousands of pounds, and hurt the family financially. The investigation at the time showed that two people were involved, a London jewel thief named Cranton, and the husband of one of Sir Henry’s father’s servants, Jeff Deacon. They were sent to prison, but the emeralds were never found. Deacon was later found dead, and his wife, Mary, married Will Thoday who had always been fond of her.
The car was repaired, and Wimsey returned to London, on the way giving directions to a tramp, who could possibly have been the London thief. At the harvest festival preparations in Fenchurch St. Paul, Sir Henry’s red-haired, young teenage daughter Hilary found a handwritten piece of paper while watching Mr. Godfrey grease the bell-mechanisms. Shortly afterwards, Sir Henry died. He was to be buried beside his wife, but as they were digging the grave, they found a body who was definitely not Lady Thorpe. It was a man, but his face had been bashed in and his hands cut off, so that no identification by face of fingerprints could be made. Rector Venables had heard of Lord Peter’s success in murder investigations, and invited him to come down again.
At the inquest, there was some thought that the deceased was the stranger Wimsey had seen. Said stranger had sought and obtained employment as a mechanic, but left suddenly after a few days, leaving what little belongs he had at his employer’s house. The stranger asked for two people named Paul Taylor and Batty Thomas, and was put out when he found out they were bells. (Batty Thomas was the treble bell, cast in 1338 by Abbott Thomas, who “bade [her] speake loude and cleare.” She had killed two people, one of Cromwell’s soldiers, and a novice bellringer practicing alone who accidentally hung himself on the rope.) The doctor reported that his autopsy showed the deceased’s legs to have been bound by a rope prior to death, but he had not died by hanging, poisoning, or starvation.
Wimsey investigated the bells and chatted with the villagers, but did not find any obvious leads. He chatted with Hilary, finding her a quite incisive mind, and found out from her that the well by the graveyard was deep. Meanwhile the police superintendent (with whom Wimsey was partnering), interviewed Mrs. Gates, and discovered that woman greatly offended that Mrs. Coppins had moved the wreath she had given Lady Thorpe’s grave to a less prominent spot and placed her ostentatious one there instead. Mrs. Coppins, when asked, said she did no such thing, adding that true ladies do not care about the position of their wreaths. None of the schoolchildren had done it. The day of the funeral (Jan 5) was cold and wet; clearly no one was going to be moving wreaths to more advantageous spots, hence that was the day that the deceased was buried. The police chief found Wimsey going fishing, but not for fish. Wimsey’s expedition went to the well, where they pulled up Batty Thomas’ old rope and a hat.
Acting on a hunch, Lord Peter went to the neighboring post offices. At Leamholt, Bunter was unable to find a letter addressed to Stephen Driver (the name that two-day mechanic had used), but he did notice a stamp from France on a letter the girl was holding. Saying that his “chauffeur” (Lord Peter) was Paul Taylor, he successfully acquired the letter, and acted put out that his own had not arrived. On their way back to Fenchurch St. Paul, they stopped by the sluice-keeper at Walbeach. Walbeach had been a port town at one point, but draining the fen had been done inexpertly (several hundred years in the past), leading the Wash to silt up. The Wash Cut was being dug to send more water to the Wash, which would sweep the silt out to sea. This would cause the tides to increase, causing load on the sluice gate, which the sluice operator said might fail, and he had asked for repairs no end of times, but since it was unclear which agency was responsible for the sluice gates, nothing had happened, nor was anything likely to happen, even though failure would flood the area.
The letter (delivered to the police, who were a little askance at the method of procuration, but praised his intelligence) was from a French peasant named Suzanne to her husband, asking where he was, since she had not heard from him in three months. The police asked the French police to locate this woman, which they were able to do and Wimsey went to France (at his own expense) to talk with her with the French police. She had claimed to have married a man, Jean Legros, who had lost his memory during the war, but the letter seemed at odds with her story. After showing her the clothes from the deceased, she identified them as from her husband, and was persuaded to modify her story. In fact, her husband had deserted the English army, and they made up the story about memory loss since his French was poor. Her fiancee had been killed, men were in short supply, and she had grown to love him. So they got married, kept her father’s farm, and had a few kids. They had lived happily until Jean had left on his trip.
Back in Fenchurch St. Paul, Mr. Blundell the police chief and Whimsey were discussing the case in the churchyard, while the police chief looked for “unspecified clues.” He discovered Potty Peake, the town imbecile, hiding behind a gravestone. Potty let on that he had seen Will Thoday in the bell tower talking to “the ninth,” who he later saw tied up with a rope. Wimsey received a letter from Hilary (who, after the death of her father was living with her Uncle—not a pleasant change, since he was against educating girls, and she wanted to be a writer), who enclosed the paper she had found in the bell tower.
Cranton, who had not reported to parole in several months, was located in a London hospital, so they went down to interview him. He was genteel and quite frank about his actions and intentions, although obviously not entirely truthful. He become very ill when confronted with evidence contradicting his assertions that he neither knew Jean Legros nor had been in the bell tower. Apparently Legros had told Cranton that the solution was found in the tower.
So Wimsey visited the tower again, finding only an empty, dusty beer bottle. He woke the next morning to an angry Bunter, and a crying Emily (Mrs. Venables’ maid), who had washed the bottle, not knowing that Wimsey was hoping to get fingerprints off it. Wimsey took himself to the public house and inquired of beer shipments around January, discovering that some quart bottles had been sent to Will Thoday. He visited the Thoday house, and talked with Mary. She seemed upset when shown the picture of Cranton, and their parrot kept saying “The bells, the bells! Must go to church. Don’t tell Mary!”
The paper from Hilary contained a mishmash of literary-sounding fragments. Wimsey spent some time trying to decode it without success until the Rector commented that it looked like he was writing changes. That put Wimsey onto the idea that possibly the message was decoded by tracing one bell in a change and using the letters at that bell’s position as the message. He was successful in getting another message, which the Rector noted was comprised of several Biblical references. During a church service he figured out the meaning, namely that the emeralds were hidden between the ornately carved cherubim on the roof (the roof of the medieval church was quite spectacular). Before the Rector’s time there was a gallery around the side where the servants sat. It had been torn down because the Rector quite disliked having ugly modern things blocking up the 500-year-old decorations. They looked around the cherubim, and eventually located the emeralds in a connecting hole whose peg had been cut (leaving a hole). Deacon had apparently known that the police were after him, and had hidden the emeralds during the church service, so he did not have them when he was arrested.
Mary and Will Thoday were absent from church the next Sunday, and Wimsey told them to talk to the archbishop and to charge Cranton. Now that he was charged, the police had more leverage, and Cranton told his side of the story. Deacon had not died when he escaped from prison, he had someone in the woods to get a change of clothes. It turned out to be a soldier, and he ended up on the front lines, fled, got the French girl soft on him, and had married. They were happy for a while, but when things started getting a little hard financially, he tried to think of a way to get the emeralds, and engaged Cranton, who sent him money to come over to England. The two did not trust each other, and Cranton thought he should go down to Fenchurch to have a look at the situation. He found out that “a tailor named Paul and a batty Thomas” were bells, but when he was finally able to get into the belfry, he found Deacon tied up and dead, with a look on his face like insanity.
Mary had realized that with her marriage to Will was invalid, as her former husband was alive (unbeknowst to her) at the time of the marriage. The archibishop prevented the new marriage because of the police investigation. On questioning, Wimsey suggested that Will had seen Deacon in the church, and tied him up in the belfry and fed him, until his illness, at which point someone else fed him, and then killed and mutilated him. This seemed to register, but neither admitted to anything. The case was pretty much stuck there.
Mrs.Wilbraham died unexpectedly. She had returned the money Hilary’s grandfather had paid, making Hilary rather rich, not that she wanted to be. She also left emerald necklace to Wimsey (he tried to give it to Hilary, who refused it), and her considerable estate to Hilary. She made Wimsey the trustee. So while her next of kin was Uncle Edward, who did not want her educated, Wimsey had the purse-strings and could persuade him to act differently. Hilary also invited Lord Peter down for Christmas, which he accepted with gladness, as it meant he could avoid spending time with his tedious family.
Will Thoday’s brother, Jim, had been with him during the first week in January. Jim arrived back from Hong Kong on his ship, and was taken into custody with Will. By means of a ruse, the police got them talking, and the story came out that Will had offered Deacon money to leave, but had tied him up in the bell tower (with Batty Thomas’ old rope) because he didn’t trust him. When he had become ill, Will told Jim to bring Deacon food and get him out of town, and Jim found him dead. Jim assumed that Will had killed Deacon, so he disfigured him and buried him to protect Will. Will assumed that Jim had gotten Deacon away, with the result that neither of them were willing to talk about it. Nobody knew who actually killed Deacon, although everybody concerned (aside from his French wife) was happy he was gone. Will and Mary were allowed to make their marriage legal.
Come Christmas, the waterways draining the fens were full to overflowing. Lord Peter visited the sluice-gate and was informed that, what with the extra water coming from upstream and the high tide, the gate was unlikely to hold. Wimsey informed the Rector, who had made preparations for this eventuality, and they rang the bells for an alarm. All the villagers brought family, bedding, furniture, and livestock to the church and yard, which was over ten feet above the surrounding area. The sluice-gate did fail, resulting in the death of Will, and the flooding of the area, quite a few feet deep. While the bells were ringing the alarm, Wimsey, for reasons unexplained, climbed into the bell tower, and discovered that the deafening sound of the bells made him lose his mind, so that he could not go back down the ladder, and he struggled up the next ladder to the top of the roof to get away from the sound.
The Rector’s preparations worked well, and everyone survived with no problems. After the burial of Will, Wimsey told the Rector and the police how Deacon had died. Deacon had been tied up in the bell chamber the morning of New Years, when they had rung the Kent Treble Bob peal for nine hours. It was the bells that killed Deacon; it was the bell-ringers who had killed him. The Rector observed that Batty Thomas had claimed a third soul.
The Nine Tailors is a superb book, primarily because of the rich characters, especially of the bells, and the winding plot that slowly unfolds. The book seems to be organized around following Lord Peter through the change; sometimes he leads, sometimes he follows, sometimes he is called wrong. This gives Sayers the structure to build a very complicated unraveling of the discovering the events leading to Deacon’s death. Unfortunately, I could not follow the structure, but that did not in any way detract from the enjoyment.
The characters are much richer than Sayers’ previous mysteries. The Rector and his wife are not central to the story (beyond being in charge of the church), but they have distinct characters and have plenty of conversations that do not advance the plot, but add to the ambiance. Likewise, the subplot of Hilary is largely irrelevant to the plot, but adds interest. Along the way we are treated to rich descriptions of the Fenland and life in the interwar period between the two world wars. The flooding is not, strictly, necessary, but adds interest, and it fulfills the running worries of the sluice-gate keeper.
The richest characters are the bells. Each has a name, a bit of history, and a character of her own. The characters repeatedly observe that being in the bell chamber is rather creepy, and the characters worry that the bells will start speaking, or fall down on them with their gaping, open mouths. At the same time, their notes are clear, and they serve many positive purposes in the community—joyous peals for weddings and the new year, the solemn tolling for the dead, warnings for the flood (and previously, air raids). The bell-ringers each have their own bell, who has a character all her own. The bells are revered by the Rector, both for their fine quality and age, as well as for the instrument of his change-ringing passion.
This is Sayers’ best mystery that I have read, an exciting, drily humorous, richly portrayed story. Not only is it a good read, but it introduces the American reader to change-ringing, which is completely new for most of us. (A perusal of Wikipedia and some YouTube clips of some changes are recommended before reading.) Finally, Sayers gives another rich picture of the world of early twentieth-century England, a picture come to life with her characters.
|Lord Peter Wimsey||Eccentric minor noble with a passion (and finance) for solving murders. Is innovative and tricky. Tends to think farther ahead than other characters, most notably the police.|
|Mr. Venables||The Rector of Fenchurch St. Paul. He has a love for the original beauty of churches, and a particular passion for change-ringing, having written a book on it. He is notably absent-minded, but very civic-minded, and plays a large part in maintaining a good village.|
|Mrs. Venables||Wife of the Rector, very hospitable. She is very full-minded, the opposite of her husband. She is also firm with the servants, believing (probably correctly) that to be afraid of servants is the door to domestic trouble.|
|Mr. Blundell||Police Superintendent, solid and competent.|
|Bunter||Bunter seems to have evolved into more of a servant than in the first book. He is, however, the consummate servant, being able to tactfully suggest appropriate attire, but also creative on the spot. His first failing (at least described to us) was the episode of the beer bottle, and he took this failure rather hard, resulting in a very tearful Emily threatening to give her notice.|
|Cranton||Very gentlemanly minded jewel thief. Refuses to do anything unbecoming, and is very frank about his intentions where the police have knowledge. Is not upset at going for jail for things he did, but it rubs him sore being jailed for having jewels he never had. He seems to prefer avoidance in the case potentially unexpected foul-play.|
|Deacon||First husband of Mary Thoday. He is universally unliked, and is especially not trusted by those who have personal experience with him.|
|Hilary Thorpe||A very intelligent teenage daughter of Henry Thorpe. She tends to be able to see through people’s actions and understand their intent, but makes the mistake of telling people what she knows. Wants to be a writer. Does not like her relative Mrs. Wilbraham, and is only persuaded to accept the estate left to her with difficulty.|
|Mrs. Wilbraham||A distant, wealthy relative of Sir Charles Thorpe. Is very eccentric, and also not very nice. She does not believe in safes and other similarly common precautions, which leads to the theft of her necklace. Seems to have valued her necklace quite highly.|
|Betty Thomas||Treble bell, has a reputation for killing people, especially those with poor character.|
|Tailor Paul||The large, heavy tenor bell, used for tolling deaths. Tends to be spoken of with a bit of awe and reverence.|
|Potty Peake||Town imbecile, but knows more than people give him credit for. Has an obsession with bells, rope, and hanging.|