In the first year of the COVID pandemic, my lockdown reading included that old chestnut, Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors. An inveterate mystery reader, I craved the familiarity and comfort of a well-worn paperback, and I welcomed the wintry setting of the novel’s opening scene. Maybe you remember: Lord Peter Wimsey and his loyal butler, Mervyn Bunter, have a minor mishap in their motor car on a country bridge while en route to friends for New Year’s Eve. They stand perplexed and freezing in the gloom of a snowy afternoon, until the distant sound of church bells rouses them. Soon they’re plodding down the road to Fenchurch St. Paul. For dreariness and sheer physical discomfort, this beginning is nearly unmatched. It was just what I wanted: Dante lost in his dark wood; Christian mired in his Slough of Despond; and me, trying to avoid cable news reports of a rising death toll, wildfires and toxic air, Gulf storms descending on the unwary.

A melancholy pervades Nine Tailors, the fen country itself suggesting a kind of flatness of spirit. Only with difficulty can the two travelers follow the bells and find the signpost that guides them to the village, which is gripped, they will learn, by an influenza epidemic, as well as a history of crime and its repercussions. As their footprints are obliterated by rapidly falling snow, it’s as if they’ve entered a mythical kingdom languishing under a dark spell.

From the quiet of our living room, I also felt removed from the world’s traffic, like the villagers in Sayers’s mystery. Our daughter came home from Denver to stay for a while. The college where we used to teach shut down, concerts and programs canceled. We stocked our refrigerator and cupboards with food to last. Safe in my social distance, I sank contentedly into my book. It sounds a little like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but it turned out to be anything but.

Sayers’s influenza outbreak is set in the emotional and spiritual aftermath of the Great War. Biographers say the author spent the early war years as an Oxford student, making friends, writing verse, and participating in amateur theatricals; she left no written evidence of moral or mental distress over world affairs. As the Great War ripped across the European continent, she appeared to consider it little more than a subject arousing curiosity and excitement.[1] Afterward, in the 1920s, as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land thrilled and perplexed modern readers, she settled into a rather adventurous social life for a clergyman’s daughter, entering into a liaison that resulted in the birth of a son. Eventually she turned from poetry and religious drama to more lucrative and catchy detective fiction.

 But if the malaise of wartime and the challenging years after left no discernible mark on the author, the context of such events can nonetheless be felt in her mysteries. Wimsey, her now legendary detective, himself a veteran and victim of shell shock, has turned to solving crimes in an effort to make sense of an altered world. Although references to the war are muted in Nine Tailors, the 1934 novel of despair and redemption bears its indelible impress. Picking it up again after many years, I wondered if it might speak to me in our current climate of crisis, emerging as it does from a shadowed world in serious need of saving.

Fenchurch St. Paul’s recent history, as described in the novel, is grim. The reader learns that Sir Henry Thorpe, scion of the local nobility, was leveled a blow when his guest’s emeralds were stolen in 1914; now, some fifteen years later, Thorpe still suffers from injuries sustained in the war. He’s widowed in the novel’s opening pages when his wife succumbs to influenza. Thorpe senses his own death is not far off, and since his family had to make reparations for the stolen jewels, he worries about leaving his teenage daughter poorly provided for. Indeed, the village seems in a state of suspended animation, cursed by the memory of the robbery and its implications for the Thorpe family. A pall has settled over its affairs.

Steeped in my literary training, I wondered whether Sayers had absorbed the motifs of Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as the poem’s oppressive postwar ennui and longing for restoration. As Eliot drew extensively from the legend of the Holy Grail, so too Sayers includes a figurative Fisher King, I speculated, in Thorpe; there is snow and torrential rain, a drowning, and a chilly April Easter (as The Waste Land points out, “the cruelest month”) that painfully calls to mind for the Thorpe family better days. There is, as in The Waste Land, a buried corpse dug up, an image relevant also to Wimsey’s personal war history of being rescued (by Bunter), and brought back to life from a near live burial.[2] Wimsey himself appears as a kind of Parsifal, the knight from medieval romance who discovers the missing Grail and restores the cursed kingdom. This is not to say that Sayers based her work on the poem that became the modernist manifesto of the 1920s. But she might have adapted Eliot’s tone and imagery to a very different kind of work, a mystery reflecting both hopeful renewal and a frank recognition of despair and destruction, both her belief in a just God and her modern acceptance of evil and injustice as facts of life. I sat in my chair, shutting out the chaos and confusion that beset the year, and I read some more.

Finding refuge in the parsonage, Wimsey’s soon pressed into service by the hospitable rector, who discovers that he’s short a man to ring the changes on an epic New Year’s Eve. Hoping to set a record with nine hours of change-ringing, Reverend Venables is delighted to learn of Wimsey’s considerable experience in the art. The parish ringers are dedicated to their task, driven by a “passion” that “finds its satisfaction in mathematical completeness,” and “filled with the solemn intoxication that comes of intricate ritual faultlessly performed.”[3] The village seems to thrive on order, restraint, and decorum, which nonetheless can’t erase the memory of a crime committed, or remove the resulting uncomfortable complications. 

Nine Tailors throughout explores a persistent tension between appearance and reality, truth and fiction, truthful speech and nonsense. It’s up to Wimsey, chiefly, to tell the difference. There’s a seemingly nonsensical letter that turns out to be written in code, based on a bell peal.   There’s a locally designated village idiot who reveals key clues about the reappearance of the man once charged with the long-ago theft. A parrot speaks a kind of ear-splitting but truth-telling gibberish. Navigating between competing explanations and versions of the truth in the panic of COVID’s first weeks and months, I found the cognitive dissonance both familiar and unsettling.

The bells themselves represent and develop the tension between intelligent speech and mere noise. Painted below the windows in the belfry ringing chamber, their motto is to the point: “They Have Neither Speech nor Language but their Voices are Heard Among Them, their Sound is Gone Forth into All Lands” (25). Capable of producing a delightful peal, they can emit also a fierce and destructive “tin-tin-tin” and “dan-din-dan” (26). During the New Year’s Eve change-ringing, the bells figuratively come alive, “rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamoring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes,” as a man, tied in the bell tower, dies horribly (32).

 Lord Peter almost falls victim to their maddening sound when he first investigates the tower: “A vague vertigo seized him. He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him.” The result is swift and startling: “a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead” (197). Puzzling over the mystery of the still unidentified dead man, “he sat back on his heels and looked again to the bells. If their tongues could speak, they could tell him what they had seen, but they had neither speech nor language” (198). Yet the bells do speak, and their speech can terrify. A key character who finds the body in the tower accidentally drops his light inside the chamber, striking a bell: “You’ll think I’m loony,” he says to Wimsey later, “but I tell you that bell was alive” (245).

I’ll admit the ominous power of the bells induced a frisson of terror as I read, not uncomfortable in my quarantine, but I was fully intrigued by something else as well. More than one mystery lies at the heart of Sayers’s novel. Take, for instance, the seeming coincidence of Wimsey’s timely accident and arrival in Fenchurch St. Paul, countered by Reverend Venables’s theology early on: “Is it not really providential? That just at this moment we should be sent a guest who is actually a ringer and accustomed to ringing a Kent Treble Bob?” (17). He’s convinced “it shows the wonderful way in which Heaven provides even for our pleasures, if they be innocent” (18). Throughout the novel’s early pages, the repetition of the words accident, coincidence, and providence underscore competing implications regarding Wimsey’s appearance in the village where he’s twice needed: to take the place of a ringer felled by influenza and to solve the mystery still at the heart of Fenchurch St. Paul’s unease. Nancy-Lou Patterson points out several other words that flirt with notions of divine influence, such as influenza itself, suggesting an astral “influence” on the spread of infectious disease, and the rector’s calling his missing ringer’s unavailability for the New Year’s ring a “disaster,” which means “ill-starred.”[4] Does accident, coincidence, or providence govern?

Sayers leaves the question unanswered, and suitably saves her linchpin scene for last. When the gates of the sluice give way and the river rises around the villagers, they find safe haven in the church. As the flood waters recede, the bells once again prove their destructive potential. In what must be the novel’s most riveting moment, Wimsey unwisely climbs into the bell chamber as the peal is sounding: “The brazen fury of the bells fell about his ears like the blows from a thousand beating hammers. The whole tower was drenched and drunken with noise. It rocked and reeled with the reeling of the bells, and staggered like a drunken man” (293). Suddenly the mysterious death in the bell tower is solved, nearly at the cost of Wimsey’s own life.

Some readers see the bells as exacting a kind of dark justice, since the man who meets his death during the New Year’s peal is a murderer and a thief. Wimsey’s accident on Frog’s Bridge can be called providential too, but Sayers leaves open the possibility that divine intervention remains in the eye of the beholder only. There’s no justice in the war that’s ravaged the landscape of Europe and taken many lives, in the influenza epidemic, or finally in the devastating flood that causes the deaths of two characters. Sayers’s novel testifies to an unfathomable darkness that besets human life and to disturbing events that appear beyond human control. Despite her own convictions as a Christian, she creates a detective in Wimsey, nominally in the Church of England but at least moderately agnostic, for whom the received opinions of conventional faith are unsatisfying options.

As the pandemic dragged on, I found both the spiritual certainties that nurtured my education in the church and the theories, scientific and political, that attempted to explain what we were going through less than adequate. Media reports on the COVID pandemic, wildfires, and extreme weather pointed a finger at climate change, at increasing international travel and deforestation that pushed civilization farther into wild habitats, reducing necessary vegetation and exposing humans to animal viruses. Voices were raised to condemn the biblical scope of our multiple plagues, sounding an alarm like that of Old Testament prophets who railed against contemporary practices. Did we do this to ourselves, and are we paying the price?

While one mystery in the novel is solved by Wimsey’s near fatal mishap in the bell tower, other mysteries deepen. Do the bells possess an agency of their own, perhaps in accordance with divine judgment? Is Wimsey, pressed into service on the fateful night, judged guilty of accidentally taking a life, as are the other ringers? I looked for answers in the writing of another Sayers scholar. Lionel Basney, I saw, decides that Wimsey is both one of the murderers and “the murdered as well,” symbolically undergoing a “death” like that of the dead man in the tower. “He thus represents in its clearest form the novel’s theme—the juxtaposition of innocence and guilt,” and in doing so he “carries the burden of moral knowledge.” That’s an interpretation that gave me pause. Guilty of participating in a man’s death, Wimsey nearly dies himself in the unrelenting clamor of the bells, a noise that can only remind him of the battlefield he experienced. “His solution,” argues Basney, “reinstates not reason but charity, the necessary sharing of pain and guilt.”[5]

This recognition in Nine Tailors speaks to our moment too. Nine Tailors’s central mystery is not so much the hiding place of the emeralds, the manner of the death in the bell tower, or any of the tangible mysteries relevant to the plot as it is the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for us and our sacrifice for others. I saw such sacrifice reflected in the health care workers, family members and neighbors, others who performed needed services during the pandemic, risking and often losing their lives for others. I saw it in political figures and clergy, community leaders who figuratively suffered alongside the sick and dying, and those waiting for burial, most often strangers.

Sayers keeps that ultimate mystery unfathomable and doesn’t pretend to know the answers. Indeed, she suggests in the novel the futility of efforts to explain in easy terms any meaning to be found in suffering or any convincing notion of divine recompense. The rector’s elderly parishioner, for instance, tries to put together a convincing theology and succeeds only in rendering a hopeless parody of ignorance: “Don’t yew talk to me about Providence. I’ve had enough o’ Providence. First he took my husband, and then he took my ‘taters, but there’s One above as’ll teach him to mend his manners, if he don’t look out” (71). When the rector responds, “We can but trust in God, Mrs. Giddings,” he’s mainly interested in getting on with parish duties, not in supplying a thoughtful correction to her. A compelling answer eludes him, as it does us.

Sayers withholds an explanation, but her novel suggests that we can better cope with disaster when we share the suffering of others in community, as Wimsey does, and when we recognize and accept paradox, with its capacity to confuse and perplex us. Wimsey, for example, uses reason and logic to investigate mysteries, yet his name suggests whimsy, and indeed, he is capable of intuitive flights that seem to surpass the limits of his rationality. More seriously, the bells confer both delight and terror, subject to the deft skill of a practiced ringer as well as to fits and vagaries of their own. And the natural world replenishes itself, flowering each spring, but also contributing, through freaks of nature, to the flood waters that inundate the fens.

The villagers too display such paradox, a point that became meaningful to me. They nurse old grudges, but they’re nonetheless capable of kindness, bravery, and self-sacrifice. They mark the death of an unknown body with proper rites and burial, even while they are suspicious of the corpse’s identity. “Give him a proper funeral for we don’t know when it may be our turn next,” they say (100). Their concern became all the more striking to me as I saw images on the evening news of gurneys carrying the newly dead through hospital halls and of more and more COVID victims stacked in freezer trailers awaiting identification.

As gruff old Hezekiah Lavender says the morning after the long New Year’s peal, when the ringers learn of Lady Thorpe’s death, “in the midst of life . . . we are in death,” quoting from the rite for the burial of the dead in the Book of Common Prayer.[6] I couldn’t help but recall the same words echoed in Eliot’s The Waste Land, calling attention to a traditional faith that many in his time had lost. In our own year of seemingly insoluble problems, with COVID deaths spiraling out of control, I tried to remember this same lesson, that we’re in the midst of life even as we share the fear and grief of others. We ask what it takes to live, and to live together, with justice and charity.

Holding on to perceived certainties doesn’t work in Fenchurch St. Paul or in the world we inhabit. My old copy of the novelis illustrated by charts of full peals, an architectural drawing of the church, and maps of villages and the surrounding countryside that show the waterways and a seemingly secure system designed to keep them flowing in check. They reminded me of the rapidly revised graphs and charts projecting the pandemic’s scope and likely course, normally useful tools but powerless to affect COVID’s outcome. Orderly systems have their strengths, but order seldom prevails.

All systems fail, yet at the novel’s end, Fenchurch St. Paul cleans up, for the moment unaware of the next war that looms. Nine Tailors develops its own theology of salvation: in recognizing our common humanity, accepting our complicity in wrongdoing, and acknowledging our participation in suffering, we achieve a kind of redemption, living the spirit of the gospel. This is the wisdom Sayers has to offer us nearly ninety years after she wrote her novel; it can still reconcile us to a world of paradox and uncertainty, the mystery central to Christianity hovering everywhere over the flat, wide landscape broken by its singular landmark, the church and its bell tower.

[1] See Ralph E. Hone, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography (Kent, OH: Kent State Press, 1979), 16.

[2] See Eliot, The Waste Land, in Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1963); also see Nancy-Lou Patterson, “‘All Nerves and Nose’: Lord Peter Wimsey as Wounded Healer in the Novels of Dorothy L. Sayers,” Mythlore 14, no. 4 (Summer 1988): 13–16. Patterson draws attention to Wimsey’s near burial alive and subsequent rescue as “the key to Lord Peter’s detective career” (13).

[3] Sayers, The Nine Tailors (London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1959), 22. All subsequent references to The Nine Tailors will be cited in the text.

[4] Patterson, “A Ring of Good Bells: Providence and Judgement in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors,” Mythlore 16, no. 1 (Autumn 1989): 50.

[5] Basney, “The Nine Tailors and the Complexity of Innocence,” in As Her Whimsey Took Her: Critical Essays on the Work of Dorothy L. Sayers, ed. Margaret P. Hannay (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1979), 34. Also, see Patterson, “All Nerves and Nose,” 14; she emphasizes the significance of Wimsey’s suffering in the bell tower, pointing out that “as a bell-ringer, he himself has been an unknowing agent of death” (14).

[6] See Basney, “The Nine Tailors,” 27.