Classic Crime

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was born in Oxford on 13th June 1893, the only child of the Rev. Henry Sayers, who was at the time the headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School. She was brought up in Bluntisham near Cambridge where her father was Rector. She went to school at the Godolphin School in Salisbury from where she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. In 1915 she graduated with first class honours in modern languages. From there she went to work for the publishers Blackwell’s. From 1922 to 1931 she worked for the advertising firm of S.H.Bensons in London. Two of the advertising campaigns with which she was associated were The Mustard Club and the Guinness Toucan.

In 1926 she married journalist Arthur Fleming. In 1928 her father died and she bought a house in Essex for her mother. On her mother’s death the next year she moved in and expanded to the house next door. She lived there until her own death in 1957.

In 1923 her first novel “Whose Body?” introduced Lord Peter Wimsey. She continued with him as her hero for a further thirteen volumes of novels and short stories. She succeeded G.K. Chesterton as President of the Detection Club.

After Busman’s Holiday, the last of her completed Wimsey novels, she turned to drama and wrote two plays for the Canterbury Festival. In 1941 she wrote The Man Born to be King, twelve radio plays on the life of Christ written for broadcasting in Children’s Hour at the request of the BBC. At the time there was protest at the presentation of Christ’s voice speaking modern English.

After the war she taught herself Italian and translated the first two books of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She died unexpectedly from heart failure on 17th December 1957 whilst working on the third volume.

Her faith was important to her. She worked with Rev. Patrick McLauchlin at St Anne’s centre for Christian discourse and in 1952 became Churchwarden of her London parish, St. Thomas-cum-St Anne’s.

Review: The Nine Tailors

Lord Peter Wimsey and his faithful manservant, Bunter, are stranded in the village of Fenchurch St Paul over the New Year. While they wait for repairs to their car, Lord Peter helps out with the ringing of the New Year in with a record peal of bells. Will Thoday has been taken ill and unable to leave his house to take part in the ringing of the peal. Lady Mary from the local manor succumbs to influenza and when the family tomb is opened an unexpected extra body is found, but with face and hands disfigured to hamper recognition.

The bells – each with a strange name, including Tailor Paul and Batty Thomas - are very much a part of the development of the story, which includes the theft of an emerald necklace and the involvement of several villagers, both past and present. Wimsey unlocks the puzzles one by one, but it is not until the very end that the complete truth emerges.

This story is very much of its time. Set in the 1920’s, it reflects a time when the aristocracy received respect and the class system was entrenched in village life. Wimsey is allowed to follow his own way and even “bug” a room to listen to two suspects with barely a remonstrance from the police. This is, however, part of its charm. Dorothy Sayers was brought up in a Fenland vicarage and was intimately acquainted with the inhabitants of the village. The vignette of life at that time and place is fascinating and preserves manners and attitudes which have now long since disappeared.

The plot is ‘clever’ and involves solving a complicated cryptogram which relies on a knowledge of bell ringing. This reflects Sayers own love of puzzles and her knowledge of the bells. Peter Wimsey is self effacing, knowledgeable and skilful but always completely confident in his position in society. I find him fascinating, although I am very glad that times have changed.

Reviewed by: S.D.

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