The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers
I have had a re-reading of this book in mind for a while, and when I remembered that it opens on New Year's Eve, I added to my Christmas reading list. I had forgotten, though, that it ends in the Christmas season, a year later, so it fits in even better than I expected. I don't know that I could ever pick a single favorite among the Peter Wimsey novels, but this would definitely be at the top of the list, with Strong Poison and Gaudy Night.
I expect that this is a familiar story to many people, so I won't say too much about the plot, which revolves around a stolen emerald necklace and a body that turns up in someone else's grave. The story takes Peter to the Fen Country - which is actually familiar territory not just to Peter, raised in Norfolk, but also to his creator. Catherine Kenney in her book The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers argues that this is one of the books where Sayers drew on her own background, as she did in Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night. Sayers grew up in the East Anglia village of Bluntisham, where her father was the rector of a church much like Fenchurch St. Paul, in this book. Kenney notes that buried in the churchyard there are members of the Thoday family, a name Sayers borrowed for important characters in her story.
One reason I enjoy this book so much is that it's the last of Peter's adventures on his own, with Bunter. It takes place presumably while Peter is involved with Harriet Vane, but she doesn't play any part in the story (even in a throwaway line, as in Murder Must Advertise). Nor does it have the other familiar characters from the series, except Peter's brother-in-law Charles Parker, Chief Superintendent at Scotland Yard, who appears later to help on the London end. (I always miss Peter's wifty mother the Dowager Duchess). Instead we get a vivid cast of local characters and criminal outsiders. I am particularly fond of the Venables, the Rector and his wife, who offer Peter hospitality at the Rectory after an accident to his car leaves him stranded with Bunter late on a snowy afternoon. While the Rector is a true shepherd to his small country flock, if a rather woolly-minded one at times, Mrs. Venables plays an equally important part in parish affairs and in their marriage. It's a lovely partnership,
This book also shows Peter at his best. On the very evening of his arrival, after a long and tiring day, he agrees to spend all night helping to ring in the New Year with the parish ringers, who have been left short-handed, rather than see the Rector disappointed. He is a perfect guest, polite, unobtrusive, undemanding. When a body is discovered improperly buried in the churchyard, he happily returns to the village to help investigate. He is equally at home in the Rectory and the village. He makes friends with Hilary Thorpe, recently orphaned and left impoverished after a magnificent emerald necklace was stolen many years ago from a guest at her family's home. (She wants to be a writer, and I did wonder if perhaps later Peter introduced her to Harriet.) When floods overwhelm the Fens, he and Bunter stay to help care for the villages taking refuge in the church, for more than two weeks. Peter even tries to go to the rescue of a man caught in the flood waters; he has to be restrained at the water's edge. True, he does spend a couple of days that Christmas home at Duke's Denver, irritating his sister-in-law the Duchess and her guests, but given how annoying Helen Denver is, I can hardly blame him for that. We also get glimpses into the lighter side of the ever-correct Jeevesish Bunter, whose music-hall impersonations are popular in the Rectory kitchen, and who helps Peter defraud the Royal Mail to acquire a vital letter.
This story takes place over the course of a year, with crucial events occurring at New Year's, Easter, and Christmas. I think that makes it unique among the Wimsey stories, which generally cover a shorter period. It is also unique of course because of the role the church bells play in the story. Like many readers, I knew nothing about change-ringing before reading this book. I had no idea that there are people who believe "the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations." I have to admit that I don't fully understand all the details of the bell-ringing, and as many times as I've read this book, I am still sometimes as lost as Wally Pratt. But in the end Dorothy L. Sayers makes their role in the central mystery as clear as the proverbial bell.