I have now read all eleven of Dorothy L. Sayers’s mystery novels featuring her intrepid aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Despite The Nine Tailors often being called Sayers’s finest mystery novel, and the high recommendations of friends and family alike, I somehow saved Nine Tailors for last. I’ve even tried to read it before, but failed out multiple times, at least once because I had borrowed it from the library and it was due back before I finished. I figured, however, if I made it through The Five Red Herrings, which was nearly unreadable (and I say this as generously as possible; Sayers is one of my favorite novelists ever), than I could certainly manage to finish Nine Tailors.
Sayers is considered one of the four Queens of Crime of golden age British detective fiction, and that reputation is well deserved. Alongside Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, Sayers crafted intricate plots with unusual methods of murder, lots of red herrings, and clues delivered in unexpected ways from unexpected characters. In Sayers’s capable hands, Lord Peter Wimsey offers wit and humor to boot, creating a series of breezy, intriguing, fast-paced novels.
Despite my previous failed attempts to read Nine Tailors, it is an excellent mystery novel, and I quite understand why people consider it the pinnacle of Sayers’s detective writing. Perfectly conforming to Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” of mystery fiction, the plot builds methodically, with the reader learning all the clues at the same time as the detective and slowly getting a complete picture of the crime. While there are plenty of twists and turns, the primary suspects are introduced early, and there are no cheap switcheroos or deus ex machina to throw readers off. And even though I’ve read many detective novels and watched all the Northern Gothic BBC crime shows, I still didn’t see coming the final reveal of the murderer (which Sayers saves for the second to last page). The setting is also well developed, taking place (as a good British mystery should) in the English countryside, in a quaint village in the fenlands of East Anglia. The local characters are caricatures, of course, but they are charming in just the tea-and-roaring-fire-while-it’s-raining-outside way that they’re supposed to be.
While Nine Tailors is a supreme example of golden age detective fiction, I have to admit that Sayers’s Harriet Vane quartet are still my favorite novels of hers. The character development, complex romance, and exploration of social issues such as class privilege and women’s rights and education create a more fully rounded story that engages me beyond the mental games of a well-crafted murder mystery. Golden age detective novelists themselves made fun of the increasingly absurd methods of murder they came up with in the pursuit of unexpected plots, and in her essays Sayers described both the challenges and the freedom of using the detective novel to delve into some of the pressing social questions of her time.
Perhaps more than her other novels, Nine Tailors displays Sayers’s mastery of fiction writing and the mystery genre specifically. But having finished Nine Tailors, I’m actually just itchy to reread Gaudy Night, my favorite of her novels. Which I suppose is just a sign of how much I like her work in general.