Friday, December 24, 2010

Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors

The ginger cookies don't look great.  I do far, far better with drop cookies.  

A mystery, I thought.  A mystery is perfect vacation reading.  
I needed some hours with Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey, my favorite detective. Lord Peter Wimsey is a witty, suave, and often artfully silly sleuth who mingles and gossips enthusiastically with all classes, collects obscure clues, deciphers codes and train time-tables, and solves murders.  He's a bit like Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, though Wimsey came first.  Sayers was a medieval scholar and a translator of Dante, but is much better known for her 11 Wimsey books.

Anyway,  I picked up a copy of The Nine Tailors because it is a classic, yet not one I'm overly-familiar with.   And I remembered some winter scenes.  I'll read for just a few minutes, I decided, and then I'll riffle through the boxes downstairs and add a few Target ornaments to our plug-in artificial tree and then I'll go out and get some chocolate.
Snow accumulated and I certainly didn't dither over the problem of no chocolate in the house for the holidays.  I was glued to my book.  The Nine Tailors opens in a snowstorm on New Year's Eve.  
"That's torn it!" said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow.
Peter Wimsey and Bunter, his butler, take refuge in Fenchurch St. Paul after the accident.  The rector of St. Paul's is a keen change ringer and very proud of the ancient bells in his church.  One of the ringers is ill and Wimsey offers to stand in for him during their nine-hour ringing-in of the New Year.  Sayers provides fascinating information about change-ringing, the art of ringing bells in mathematical patterns.

But more fascinating is the history of crime in the village.  Twenty years ago an emerald necklace was stolen from an old woman guest of the squire's.  Although the conniving butler, Deacon, and a jewel thief, Cranton, were convicted, the emeralds were never found.  Mary, Deacon's former wife, once suspected, has married Will Thoady and returned to the village.

A few months later, when a body is found in the grave of the squire's wife, Peter Wimsey is called in to help the police.

Who is the corpse?  Was he the tramp who came through the village last winter, asking strange questions about the bells?  And how do the bells fit in with the mystery? 

Wimsey believes the tramp may have been the jewel thief, Cranton, now out of prison. The tramp worked as a mechanic for a few days and then disappeared.   The accomplice butler, Deacon, who is believed by the police to have been the worse of the two, died some years ago after breaking out of prison. 

But identification of the corpse is difficult.  The face and hands have been cut off. 

A piece of paper with a silly paragraph, part of which Wimsey identifies as a satire of one of Le Fanu's novels, holds riddles to the mystery.

So good.  I haven't read a mystery this quickly in years.

I now wish I'd asked for a set of Peter Wimsey books for Christmas.  Some of my old paperbacks are torn and tattered, in need of replacement. 


Vintage Reading said...

I've only read Gaudy Night - love novels set in academia - but I'd like to read more Sayers. The fact that you intended to read only a few pages and got drawn in is excellent - love it when that happens.

Frisbee said...

Sayers is SO good. Now I'm reading Murder Must Advertise: another classic, though I like The Nine Tailors better.

I tried to persuade my husband to read The Nine Tailors--in vain.