Stranded after a car accident in the fenland village of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year's Eve, Lord Peter Wimsey helps ring a nine-hour peal on the church bells overnight after William Thoday, one of the ringers, is struck down with influenza. Lady Thorpe, wife of Sir Henry, the local squire, dies the next morning and Wimsey hears how the family has been blighted by the theft 20 years previously of a valuable emerald necklace which was never recovered. The family's then butler, Deacon, and his accomplice from London, Cranton, were convicted and imprisoned. In 1918, long before the end of Deacon's prison term, he killed a warder and escaped. He apparently died shortly afterwards after falling into a quarry, where his body lay until it was found two years later, still in his prison clothes. After Deacon's death became known his widow, Mary, had married William Thoday.
When Sir Henry himself dies the following Easter, his wife's grave is opened for his burial and a man's body is found, mutilated beyond recognition. It is possibly that of an out-of-work labourer calling himself 'Driver' who had arrived in the village in early January although, oddly, the dead man was wearing underclothes that had been made in France.
Bunter, Wimsey's manservant, enquires at the Post Office for any uncollected letters. He gets hold of one that has been posted in France, addressed not to 'Driver' but to 'Paul Taylor' - a possible reference to 'Tailor Paul', the name given to the tenor bell, the largest of the 'ring' in the parish church. The writer of the letter is traced and found to be the French wife of a British soldier listed as missing in action in 1918 but who evidently deserted. The soldier, Arthur Cobbleigh, appears to have known where the emeralds were hidden and plotted to recover them with 'Driver' - who is discovered to be an alias of Cranton. It appears that the dead man may in fact be Cobbleigh, Cranton having killed him after retrieving the emeralds.
An odd document found in the bell chamber proves to be a cipher, written on the same paper as the letter but in a different hand. Wimsey decodes it (which requires knowledge of change ringing) and it leads him to the emeralds, still untouched in their hiding place. He also shows the document to Mary Thoday. The Thodays abscond to London. Wimsey realises that they have gone there to be remarried, as Mary recognised the handwriting on the cipher as that of Deacon, her first husband, and realised that her wedding to William was void because Deacon was still alive at the time.
Wimsey is now able to identify the murdered man: it was Deacon himself, who had not in fact died in a quarry as had been thought. After his escape, Deacon had murdered a soldier named Cobbleigh and swapped clothes and identities with him. After marrying bigamously in France he had waited several years to return for the emeralds that he had hidden in the church before his arrest. He had asked Cranton for help, sending him the cipher as a token of good faith. Cranton had nevertheless feared a double-cross and had broken into the church. He discovered Deacon's body but fled, saying nothing.
When the Thodays are located in London, William confesses his role to Wimsey. On 30 December he had encountered Deacon - who he had long believed to be dead - snooping around the church, looking for the emeralds. Desperate to protect his wife from the scandal of a bigamous marriage, he had tied him up and locked him in the bell chamber, planning to bribe him to leave the country the next day. Unfortunately, his bout of influenza prevented him from returning, and it was only his delirious talk that lead his brother Jim, a sailor, to discover Deacon's dead body still tied up in the same place two days later. Jim Thoday, appalled at William's apparent brutality but loyal to him, had waited until the night following Lady Thorpe's funeral, when he had made the body unrecognisable, hidden it in her grave, then left for sea. When the body was re-discovered at Easter, each of the Thoday brothers thought that the other had killed Deacon. Neither can explain how he had in fact died.
When Wimsey returns to Fenchurch the following Christmas, floods are threatening the countryside, and Wimsey climbs the tower as the bells are sounding out the alarm. The appalling noise in the bell chamber convinces him that Deacon, tied there for hours during the all-night New Year peal, could not have survived: Deacon had been killed by the bells themselves. Wimsey explains, "We needn't look for a murderer now. Because the murderers of Geoffrey Deacon are hanging already, and a good deal higher than Haman". William Thoday is drowned in the flood trying to save another man. Wimsey speculates that "I think perhaps he guessed at last how Geoffrey Deacon died and felt himself responsible".
- Lord Peter Wimsey
- 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 daughter Hilary
- Superintendent Blundell
- Geoffrey Deacon, once the Thorpes' butler, convicted of the theft of a necklace 20 years previously
- Nobby Cranton, London jewel-thief and Deacon's accomplice
- William Thoday, absent bell ringer, struck down with influenza
- Mary Thoday, William Thoday's wife, previously married to Deacon
- Jim Thoday, William's brother, merchant seaman
- Potty Peake, village idiot
- The bell ringers: Hezekiah Lavender, leader; Harry Gotobed, sexton; Joe Hinkins, gardener; Ezra Wilderspin, blacksmith; Alf Donnington, landlord of the Red Cow inn; Jack Godfrey, churchwarden; Walter Pratt, trainee ringer.
The Nine Tailors of the book's title are taken from the old saying "Nine Tailors Make a Man", which Sayers quotes at the end of the novel. As explained by John Shand in his 1936 Spectator article The Bellringers' Art, "'Nine Tailors' means the nine strokes which at the beginning of the toll for the dead announce to the villagers that a man is dead. A woman's death is announced with 'Six Tailors'. Hence the old saying ... which might otherwise be construed as a slander on a worthy profession".
Awards and nominations
In 1996 the British Crime Writers' Association awarded the story a Rusty Dagger award for the best crime novel of the 1930s, an award devised and organised for the Association by the noir writer, Russell James.
Literary significance and criticism
Writing in The New York Times on the book's first publication, Isaac Anderson said, "It may be that you, like this reviewer, do not know the difference between a kent treble bob major and a grandsire triple, but even so, you will probably enjoy what Dorothy Sayers has to say about them and about other things concerned with the ancient art of change-ringing, since her dissertation is all woven into a most fascinating mystery tale.... This is, most emphatically, Dorothy Sayers at her very best".
John Shand, writing in The Spectator in 1936, said "Those who would appreciate an artist's picture of a group of village bellringers - of the kind who can pull a rope with any Londoner - may find one in [this novel], [which] contains the best description known to me of the bells, the ringers and the art. It is probably, indeed, the only novel based on a study of campanology. Its very title and chapter-headings pay tribute to the peculiar vocabulary of the art". Shand considered the means of death to be "Novelist's licence, I am afraid. But a trifle like that cannot spoil a good story".
In his 1941 book Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, Howard Haycraft noted that Sayers has been called by some critics the greatest of living mystery writers. He went on, "Whether or not the reader agrees with this verdict, he can not, unless he is both obtuse and ungrateful, dispute her preëminence as one of the most brilliant and prescient artists the genre has yet produced... [This book is] in the writer's estimation her finest achievement and one of the truly great detective stories of all time".
Taking the opposite view, the American critic Edmund Wilson, in his excoriating 1945 essay attacking the entire genre of detective fiction, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? , criticised The Nine Tailors in particular for being dull, overlong and far too detailed. He considered the bell-ringing prose to be "a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopaedia article on campanology". In his view, Sayers does not, really, write very well: "it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective story-writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level".
In their review of Crime novels (revised edn 1989), the US writers Barzun and Taylor called this novel "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' ".
Also writing in 1989, HRF Keating said that the author "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".
As a child and young teenager, Sayers lived on the southern edge of the Fens at Bluntisham-cum-Earith, where her father was rector. She also was inspired by her father's restoration of the Bluntisham church bells in 1910.
Much of the technical detail of the novel was taken from Charles Troyte's Change Ringing, quotations from which are placed at the start of many of the chapters. In a letter discussing the book, Sayers said "I wrote [the novel] without ever having seen bells rung, by brooding over Troyte on Change-Ringing and trying to translate its technical descriptions into visual effects. That ... 'came out' beyond expectation".
The Nine Tailors has been adapted several times for BBC Radio: as a four-part serialisation by Giles Cooper for the BBC Light Programme in 1954, with Alan Wheatley as Lord Peter Wimsey; as an eight-part adaptation by Alistair Beaton for Radio 4 in 1980, with Ian Carmichael as Wimsey; and as a single two-hour Murder for Christmas programme by Michelene Wandor in 1987, with Gary Bond as Wimsey.