Rating: 2 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Challenge.
I love crime books. My favourite crime writer is Agatha Christie, to whose works I’ve been addicted since I was about 12 years old. I also recently read a Ngaio Marsh Inspector Alleyne novel and really enjoyed it. I find crime novels soothing. There’s something about the horror of the crimes committed, being able to imagine such awful events while safely tucked up behind the pages, mixed with the dogged determination of the detective to solve the mystery and the successful resolution at the end, that makes me feel happy. As an angry person, too, this genre assuages my rage somewhat. I read some pretty violent crime books, not just the cosy Golden Age type, and jokingly say that, in deflecting my inner rage from external expression, they stop me becoming a violent criminal myself.
I’d never read any Dorothy L Sayers before, so I was pleased when one of my monthly Willoughby Book Club titles was a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. I used to watch the TV adaptations of the books, so I was looking forward to reading The Nine Tailors.
The first thing that struck me was how frothy the prose is. It has that breathless air of the 1930s about it. There’s a different feel to Sayers’ style in comparison with Christie’s. I still prefer Christie. I think because her two most famous detectives are outsiders whose oddities mean they can worm their way into situations others might find difficult to access. They invite confidences. Lord Peter Wimsey’s advantage seems to be his poshness and the deference that brings.
One thing I didn’t like was the way, instead of Sayers writing descriptions of the action, the landscape and the characters as impersonal observations, she often has Wimsey provide a weird running narrative. In my head he came across as someone with a compulsion to externalise his interior monologue. There isn’t much in the way of his man Bunter offering a response, either, which makes it seem even more weird. Other characters do it, too, and as a plot development tool it jarred with me.
The set up in this book is Wimsey’s car coming off the road in heavy snow near an isolated village in the Fens. He ends up helping the local rector out with his bell ringing challenge, which involves a lot of discourse on the mathematics of campanology, in which I was only vaguely interested. I had a friend at university who was a bell ringer. She used to bore me on the subject, too. Wimsey is told a story about the theft of some jewels and the tragic lives of the local landed gentry in the aftermath, and then as he leaves the village he encounters a shabby man ostensibly seeking work as a mechanic in the middle of nowhere. It was clear nothing good would come of his arrival.
The chapter headings are all bell ringing related. Because of my lack of interest in or knowledge of campanology, they left me cold. I skimmed over them. I couldn’t be bothered learning about campanology in order to understand their significance. A lot of the way the crime is worked out by Wimsey also involves understanding different bell ringing formulas. If I’d been interested, I suppose I would have found all the hunt, dodge and lead references clever.
Once the central crime has been uncovered and Wimsey’s investigation begins, I almost got interested, but then Sayers started using ellipses to represent people’s thought processes. I’m not a fan of the ellipsis as anything other than a representation of omission for brevity or to cut out irrelevant information. I know that it can also be used to represent hesitation, or thoughts tailing off, but I find it an annoying affectation in that usage. It is just me, I know that, but it spoiled the book for me.
There were some amusing turns of phrase, and Wimsey comes across as quite spiky. In theory I should like him, but I found him too arch. This is the ninth of the Wimsey books, so perhaps I was suffering from a lack of background or a relationship with the character built up over the preceding eight books. I just couldn’t warm to him. I didn’t like any of the other characters, either, and found Sayers’ depictions of some people offensive. She uses the kind of clichés I imagine people in the current government bray with laughter over at their dinner parties and country suppers.
I guessed who the dead body was and who was involved in his death about a quarter of the way in. I didn’t get the full detail until later, as additional characters were held back. There were attempts along the way to implicate some of the other main characters, but on the whole it was an easy plot to unpick. I wanted a more flippant book after reading The Miner, but it turned out that this flippant book lacked a certain something to keep me engaged.