Review: The Nine Tailors

Title: The Nine Tailors
Author: Dorothy L Sayers
Rating: 5/5

The Nine Tailors

Have cropped out as much of the tattiness as possible. Honest.

DL Sayers seems like someone I would have greatly enjoyed knowing. She was a Christian, a feminist, a lay theologian, a classicist, a writer of exceptionally geeky detective stories, a friend to CS Lewis and various other Inklings… I mean, she just seems pretty interesting. I don’t agree with all of her theology, by any means, but I think she might have stolen the spot of ‘Author I Would Most Like to Have Coffee With if Given the Opportunity’, held for the last fifteen years or more by CS Lewis. It’s an impressive feat.

This is one of those books where the ending was so beautifully realised that it significantly affected my overall enjoyment of the book. Prior to the closing few scenes, although I was enjoying the book, the excessive amount of campanology and the sheer brainpower required to follow the switching back and forth between past mystery and present mystery was making it somewhat of a slow read. I never feel quite clever enough to follow Sayers’ mysteries. With Agatha Christie, for example, I can at least make a few guesses along the way, but with Sayers, it’s all I can do to keep the suspects straight in my head. One of the reasons I enjoy Sayers’ work is that it is unapologetically intellectual, but perhaps I could do with things being a little more dumbed-down. I mean, I grew up in church and went to Catholic school, and even so I struggled with some of the more esoteric ecclesiastical references. There is an entire page (of extremely small text) that looks like this:

It is very small font. Very small.

It is very small font. Very very small.

I’ve omitted the main bulk of the page in case any extraordinarily clever people reading this could figure it out and thus be spoiled for the novel (unlikely, since even having read the thing I can only link it tenuously to the plot), but hopefully it’s enough to show the amount of brainwork she makes her readers do. I nearly stopped reading a couple of times, not because I wasn’t enjoying it but simply due to the density of the prose. I tend to prefer my crime reads a little more fast-paced.

Having said all that—oh my word, the ending. I don’t think I’m ruining things if I say that the climax of the novel comes in the midst of a raging storm. It was written so evocatively that I could almost feel the raindrops pounding on my neck and hear the bells crashing out their warning over the countryside; I could see the characters scrambling and scrabbling to protect their loved ones and possessions. Characters that had previously annoyed me, or seemed unnecessary, came entirely into their own. Others, who were positively heroic elsewhere in the narrative, came close to an undoing—you see human strength and human frailty flipped upside down, and that is far greater characterisation than one could possibly expect from a crime novel. The big reveal, for me, came as an absolutely unexpected twist—I had not been able to gather the various threads strewn through the narrative into anything like a coherent, plausible story, and Sayers’ grim creativity is at its best here. The ending is everything you could want from a crime novel, and such a contrast to the sedate, cerebral build-up: fast-paced, violent, gritty, and shocking. When I think back on this book now, a couple of months after reading it, all I can see is that clamour of activity, colour and noise created so effectively in the final few scenes.

I would particularly recommend this book to anyone with an enthusiasm for ‘quaint British things’. There seem to be an awful lot of you Anglophiles floating around in book blogger land. Rural England is no longer exactly the way that it is portrayed in the books—I’m not sure it ever was, except perhaps for a handful of privileged aristocrats—but there are certainly aspects of southern English culture represented extremely well within the pages. The narrative was rainy and restrained throughout. Passions sometimes came out sideways as a sort of symptom of emotional repression (the vicar, for example, says a thousand more kind things about the bells than he does about his wife, even though their relationship seems to be a good one). I spent my teens on a small and somewhat grimy council estate which nonetheless had a strong sense of community, and much of that Englishness was rendered well in this book. Half of the characters in this book populated my real-world adolescence (I knew someone called Nobby who does gardens; I knew a retired seaman called John, who slept in the caravan in his front garden when it rained and used to talk to me about t’Bible; I knew Mrs Kirk, who paid for the paper and the milk every Saturday at 9.20, on her way to the market. Any one of them can be found in the pages of this book, although the details are slightly altered).

Recommended more generally, too. My friends and family members have had this book thrust at them with vigour. It is undeniably hard work, but I think that it’s worth it in the end.

Austen in August & Pride and Prejudice reread

My relationship with Jane Austen is, I think, a bit complicated. I read all of her works in my early teens, and mostly didn’t like them very much. I think I was too young for them, and moved onto Wuthering Heights, which (rather worryingly, when considered as a commentary on my teenage mental health) I thought was much more realistic and enjoyable. Continue reading

Classics Club spin list #1

Since signing up for the Classics Club, I haven’t done quite as well as I might have hoped. I’ve read three of my 50 books (Agnes Grey by Charlotte Brontë, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell), and only reviewed one of them. A review for Ruth is in the works; however, immediately after reading Metamorphosis, I decided that I will definitely have to read the original German text before I can review it, because I could clearly spot places where the translation was letting it down. Whilst that’s fine, and a good way to practice my rather rusty German, it is taking a while. I’ve even acquired many of the books I want to read (I recently moved flat, and my local Oxfam bookshop is now perilously close; also, I found out about the very generous Foyles loyalty scheme)–I just haven’t picked too many of them up.

In order to rectify that, I’m participating in the Classics Club Spin, which is far better described on their own blog. Below, I have to list 20 books that I have yet to read as part of the challenge. On August 11th, they will announce a number between 1 and 20, and I will then have to read that book by October. Sounds doable, right? Right. Here’s my spin list, as per their category suggestions.

5 books I’m dreading:

1) The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
2) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
3) Ulysses by James Joyce
4) Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
5) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

5 books I can’t wait to read:

6) I, Claudius by Robert Graves
7) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
8) Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
9) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
10) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum

5 books I’m neutral about:

11) The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
12) Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
13) The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
14) A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
15) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

5 Penguin English Library editions that I want an excuse to buy*:

16) Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
17) Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
18) A Room with a View by EM Forster
19) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
20) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

 

I anticipate 11th August with excitement and trepidation, and a determination to finish The Great Gatsby before then. Here goes…

 

*All right, so this wasn’t one of their categories. They did say ‘free choice’, though…