Openings: “The Nine Tailors”


Probably because early pulp writers were paid by the word overwriting continues to be a pervasive weakness in commercial novels. It is not unusual for mystery writers to grind out 4000 words simply introducing the setting, the primary characters, the crime to be solved – all the basic who, what, why, when, and wheres. The best writers in every genre try to avoid many of the pit-falls.  In The Nine Tailors Dorothy Sayers stealthfully crafted a mere 550 words that included all this preparatory data while simultaneously revealing much about the quirky personality of her strange but captivating gentleman detective and, to add a flourish, she sneaked in a little side puzzle between her and us, her readers. As if all this wasn’t enough to accomplish with so few words Sayers also managed to illustrate the method Whimsy will use to solve the novel’s many mysteries. Notable as this compression is I never felt as if she’d feed me all this information in a big fact-filled capsule but rather that she eased it in via an IV drip. 

How did she do it. Well, she begins with a quote from Charles Troyte’s pamphlet on change-ringing:

The coil of rope which it is necessary to hold in the hand, before, and whilst raising a bell, always puzzles a learner; it gets into his face, and perhaps round his neck (in which case he may be hanged!). 

I am almost always irritated by quotes preceding stories because they usually seem to have been included only to make the author look well read, say something the writer is incapable of, or pay homage to the source of their own inspiration. As you will come to know if you continue to read my small essays in WCR I’m biased against any kind of decorative writing. In this case, however, Sayers is not just telling us that she’s read a book on change-ringing but that the answer to the “puzzle” might be simply death by bell pull–which it is but just not in a way we are led to expect.

Revealing so much about the crime and its solution at the beginning of a mystery is not a common crafting decision even today but Sayers is both telling and not telling, and it this doubleness that poses her question to us, “Can you detect my trick?” 

Then she takes us immediately into an example of the method of analysis Whimsy (still a stranger to us) brings to solving mysteries which in this case is how his car came to be laying “helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank.”

Wimsey saw how the accident had come about. The narrow, hump-backed bridge, blind as an eyeless beggar, spanned the dark drain at right angles, dropping plump down upon that crested the dyke. Coming a trifle too fast across the bridge, blinded by the bitter easterly snowstorm, he had overshot the road and plunged down the side of the dyke into the deep ditch beyond…

 With this oblique entrance into the telling of her story Sayers reveals that her crafting style is to not deliver information in a straightforward manner. There will be little or no recitation about Wimsey’s physic. (No five-foot ten, eyes a’blue, smokes a cigar on rainy nights) but throughout the chummy monologue he addresses to “his man” Bunter are sprinkled many clues that “Wimsey” is not simply an unusual moniker but is also a description of the ironic position from which Sayers’ amateur detective consistently views the world. Not only does he unfailingly analyze even quite ordinary events but he also drives too fast and lovingly refers to his much-abused car as “she.” There are also bits dropped here and there that allow us to deduce that Wimsey is a lord, still has money enough to have a manservant unlike most of the impoverished aristocracy, and has not only read the provincial poet, Charles Kingsley, but feels free to talk of him as if he was a slightly senile but always amiable uncle. High arch— without a doubt the patter of Oxford or Cambridge! 

Even though Wimsey speaks all very respectfully about country villages and their churches, there is also a sardonic quality to his words that keeps us a little off-balance. We never quite know if he is serious about the things he says or is merely being condescending. Because Sayers splits the difference so gently we are eased into accepting that though Wimsey is graciously cynical about almost everything he is also too kind to ever express his opinions in any way that is actually cruel — more tease than tweak. An English gentleman to his toes. But what makes Wimsey entirely charming is that he never hesitates to speak of himself in that same ironic tone. Really who could not already like him? And trust him and be more than a wee bit awed by his aristocratic bearing.

Amidst all this Wimsey-speaking-Wimsey Sayers plays the poet’s game so that words do double duty, every pitch of his voice tells us both one thing and another. No ruffles and flourishes. Just spare, densely packaged phrases, some oddly poetic, some equally odd but endearing, and some sinister. At the same time that Sayers accomplishes all this she deftly slips us from our well heated reading nooks and out onto a wintry by-road that will inevitably lead to death.