Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

For Edmund Wilson and some other readers, The Nine Tailors is “that book about campanology.” Sayers became an expert on the subject while working on the novel, and after its publication she was made an honorary member of several bell-ringers’ groups as well as a vice president of the Campanological Society of Great Britain. Her notebooks, filled with notations of various changes, attest her meticulous concern for accuracy, and she prided herself that even longtime practitioners detected only three minor errors. Readers less captious than Wilson either enjoyed or ignored the technicalities of campanology; the book sold 100,000 copies in Great Britain within two months and was quickly translated into half a dozen languages.

More innovative than Sayers’ use of campanology is her treatment of the murder. After all, literary detectives have always possessed specialized knowledge, whether of cigar ash or poison. Lord Peter’s use of his knowledge of bell-ringing to solve the cryptogram is thus a convention of the genre. Another convention is that the murderer be a villain who is apprehended and punished. The world of the mystery is essentially comic despite the presence of death. Its world is orderly; though the murder upsets that order, the violation is only temporary, and with the discovery and removal of the criminal, peace returns.

Here the tenor is closer to classical tragedy. Lord Peter sets out to solve the riddle of the murder, only to find that he is the man he has been seeking. Yet even that solution is complicated by the fact that no one individual is responsible. William Thoday tied Deacon to a post in the belfry, but he acted to protect Mary and had no evil intentions. Lord Peter, the rector, and the other bell-ringers killed Deacon, but, again, they acted in ignorance. The knowledge of his part in Deacon’s death drives William Thoday to kill himself, but what expiation remains for the others? The questions of the corpse and the emeralds are answered, but the ways of Providence remain mysterious and unsettling.