Title: The Nine Tailors
Author: Dorothy L Sayers
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:
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.