Arguably the greatest detective novel of all time

The Nine Tailors The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This, the ninth of Sayers’s eleven full length Wimsey novels, is the one that lifts her above the category of twentieth-century female detective novelist, and places her among the literary greats.

It is a thoroughly satisfying mystery – sophisticated, complex, intellectually challenging. Everything in the plot is there for a reason; and the final explanation is ingenious and unexpected.

It is Sayers, so there is more than just a plot. The characters have a depth and realism far beyond the caricatures of Agatha Christie. They have individuality and weaknesses and baggage and unexpected strength in the face of adversity. They are, in short, people.

Wimsey himself appears more relaxed in this than in most of the other books. A far cry from the self-conscious man-about-town of Whose Body? or the nervy war veteran of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, this is the Wimsey hinted at in Five Red Herrings: the born and bred countryman, at ease with himself, almost classless at times, an incomer who at once instinctively understands and is accepted by this tiny community.

The community itself is minutely and deftly drawn too – partly through its supporting characters, partly through Sayers’s own narrative voice, stronger and more distinctive in this book than in the others, and often taking on the cadence and the overtones of a local character to remarkable effect.

And then there are the most powerful and enduring characters of all: the bells of Fenchurch St Paul and the place itself. The Nine Tailors is to the Fens what The Return of the Native is to the heathlands of Dorset. It is a work of art, a tone-poem, a sonorous evocation of place and time, a symphony of words and images that endure in the mind long after the last page is turned. (For more on the power of language in The Nine Tailors, I refer you to my recent essay on The Art of Reading.)

Much attention is given in literary circles to the ‘great American novel’; little, if any, is given to the novel that depicts England. Yet The Nine Tailors, for all that it is set in an obscure and bleak corner of the countryside, is as intimate and accurate a portrait of inter-war rural Englishness as anything ever written – and an enduring one at that.

~~~

One must then turn, with the utmost reluctance and distaste, to the current sub-standard UK paperback edition of this masterpiece (978-0-450-00100-0). It appears to have been typeset and proof-read by persons with little knowledge of, and less interest in, either the English language or the basic rules of punctuation. It is further encumbered with an arch and self-congratulatory introduction by Elizabeth George, which adds little to one’s appreciation of the work, and which – to add insult to injury – is inserted between Sayers’s own foreword and the first chapter, thus breaking the rhythm of the author’s original text. (No doubt the same vandalism has been committed in the latest impression of Gaudy Night, where any interruption between the Foreword and Chapter 1 would be even more obtrusive. Fortunately I still have my 1988 paperback of that work.)

A minor point, but a further niggle in light of these graver shortcomings, is the faintly 1970s typography employed for the section headings.

In summary, this edition gives the unfortunate impression of having been brought to press by an editor who neither recognised nor valued the calibre and significance of the book. I have now placed my 2011 paperback in the recycling bin and ordered a second-hand hardback. On the grounds of the punctuation errors alone, I would urge anyone who wishes to read what Miss Sayers actually wrote, to eschew the current paperback edition in favour of any other second-hand copy available.

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