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A Brutal British Mystery Novel for Boxing Day

by Jonathan Hayes
Dec 26, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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One Christmas when I was at medical school in London, my American girlfriend came to visit. On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas, when churches used to open their poor boxes to the destitute), we drove down to Kent for a dinner party at the country house of a friend's parents.

At the time, I had a mustard yellow Triumph Herald convertible that I thought was the suavest thing on earth, even if it did smell of rotting eggs whenever it warmed up. Luckily, between a torn convertible top and a cold snap that had dusted the fields and hedgerows with snow, the car temperature never hit 45.

My friend's parents and their guests were genteel and charming and mind-numbingly dull. After dinner, while everyone else was enjoying their port, I fled to the television room, where the BBC was showing an adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors. The broadcast was a two-parter, and when I got back to London, I picked up the book to finish the story.

The Nine Tailors isn't Sayers' best — that would probably be Unnatural Death — but it's a far richer read than anything by Agatha Christie. The story begins on a New Year's Eve in the 1930s, when a motor vehicle accident strands Lord Peter Wimsey in a village in the flat marshlands of East Anglia. The plot's a bit convoluted, with stolen emeralds, confused identities and arcane bell-ringing techniques — but Sayers' dialogue keeps things moving at a good clip, and her evocation of winter in Britain is spare and beautiful.

In detective fiction, a "cozy" is a classically English murder-in-the-vicarage-type story. While The Nine Tailors certainly has elements of the cozy — a rural setting, complete with manor house, village church and cast of colorful locals — it's made of far sterner stuff.

Which is just as well, since I detest cozies. Partly it's because that classic backdrop — the vicarage, the manor house, the church fete, etc. — fills me with horror, largely because it brings back memories of my childhood deep in the inert Somerset countryside.

But mostly I don't like cozies because they're as unreal to me as anything out of Tolkien. I've been a forensic pathologist in New York City for almost 20 years now, and there is nothing in the typical cozy that resembles the truth of a killing in the real world. In a cozy, after the initial quick blanching, shriek or swoon, death has no resonance. And in a world where even death can produce no emotion, there's nothing there for me to connect with. The crime is reduced to a trite riddle, self-contained and without broader implication; if that was what I wanted, I'd just play Sudoku.

In Nine Tailors, the violence is not bloodless, but brutal, and the characters are made of flesh and blood — even Wimsey, the hero, is struggling with the emotional aftermath of the Great War. Sayers helped nudge the English mystery novel out of the drawing room and into the real world, particularly in her later novels.

Of course, in the 1930s, the real world in crime fiction was increasingly a modern American world, with hard-boiled writers like Chandler and Hammet rising to prominence, but I think Sayers does deserve real credit for toughening up and broadening the reach of the British detective story. As well as for springing me from a grisly Boxing Day dinner in Kent.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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