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JIM KELLY: A Landscape of Secrets

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Jim Kelly’s brooding and atmospheric crime novels are set in the eastern counties of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. I am a huge admirer of his books, and you can click the link below to watch a short video which tries to distill the essence of his work into a brief juxtaposition of images and music.

JIM KELLY: A Landscape of Secrets

JIM KELLY . . . Landscape, memory – and murder

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Phil RickmanWhen it comes to creating a sense of place in their novels, there are two living British writers who tower above their contemporaries. Phil Rickman, (left) in his Merrily Watkins books, has recreated an English – Welsh borderland which is, by turn, magical, mysterious – and menacing. The past – usually the darker aspects of recent history – seeps like a pervasive damp from every beam of the region’s black and white cottages, and from every weathered stone of its derelict Methodist chapels. Jim Kelly’s world is different altogether. Kelly was born in what we used to call The Home Counties, north of London, and after studying in Sheffield and spending his working life between London and York, he settled in the Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely.

jim kelly Small_0It is there that we became acquainted with Philip Dryden, a newspaperman like his creator but someone who frequently finds murder on his doorstep (except he lives on a houseboat, which may not have doorsteps). While modern Ely has made the most of its wonderful architecture (and relative proximity to London) and is now a very chic place to live, visit, or work in, very little of the Dryden novels takes place in Ely itself. Instead, Kelly, has shone his torch on the bleak and vast former fens surrounding the city. Visitors will be well aware that much of Ely sits on a rare hill overlooking fenland in every direction. Those who like a metaphor might well say that, as well as in terms of height and space, Ely looks down on the fens in a haughty fashion, probably accompanying its haughty glance with a disdainful sniff. Kelly (above)  is much more interested in the hard-scrabble fenland settlements, sometimes – literally – dust blown, and its reclusive, suspicious criminal types with hearts as black as the soil they used to work on. Dryden usually finds that the murder cases he becomes involved with are usually the result of old grievances gone bad, but as a resident in the area I can reassure you that in the fens, grudges and family feuds very rarely last more than ninety years

deat1In the Peter Shaw novels, Kelly moved north. Very often in non-literal speech, going north can mean a move to darker, colder and less forgiving climates of both the spiritual and geographical kind, but the reverse is true here. Shaw is a police officer in King’s Lynn, but he lives up the coast near the resort town of Hunstanton. Either by accident or design, Kelly turns the Philip Dryden template on its head. King’s Lynn is a hard town, full of tough men, some of whom are descendants of the old fishing families. There is a smattering of gentility in the town centre, but the rough-as-boots housing estates that surround the town to the west and the south provide plenty of work for Shaw and his gruff sergeant George Valentine. By contrast, it is in the rural areas to the north-east of Lynn where Shaw’s patch includes expensive retirement homes, holiday-rental flint cottages, bird reserves for the twitchers to twitch in, and second homes bought by Londoners which have earned places like Brancaster the epithet “Chelsea-on-Sea.”

With these two best-selling series under his belt, Jim Kelly would have been forgiven if he had played safe and simply ping-ponged Dryden and Shaw in his future novels. But, like Ulysses of old, he has given us a new character.

“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset …….”

I am not suggesting for one second that Jim Kelly is anywhere near his metaphorical sunset but, just as Ulysses pushed his boat off into unknown waters, so Kelly begins a voyage that takes us to Cambridge in the golden autumn of 1939. Britain is officially at war with Germany, and Detective Inspector Eden Brooke has mysterious deaths to solve. Set in the glorious university town – yes, ‘town’, as Cambridge did not become a city until 1951 – The Great Darkness will enthral Kelly fans and new readers who like the landscape to be a significant character in their fiction.

The Fully Booked review of The Great Darkness will be available in the next couple of days, but here are several links to features on Jim Kelly and Phil Rickman.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman

Jim Kelly – A Landscape of Secrets

The Seaweed That Started A War

Books Of The Year 2016

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JIM KELLY … A landscape of secrets

jim kelly Small_0JIM KELLY (above) grew up in the shadow of some of the worst criminal misdeeds the country had ever experienced and, as his childhood progressed, the evil that men do was seldom far away from the Kelly family. So, he had a brutal and disadvantaged upbringing? No, far from it – just the opposite. His father Brian was a top detective in the Metropolitan Police, and his maternal grandfather, too, had a background in keeping the peace as a special constable – he actually was there on the street, as it were, in 1911, when Home Secretary Winston Churchill and others managed to turn a hunt for anarchist criminals into the expensive and bungled farce that we know as the Siege of Sidney Street.

 Kelly was born in Barnet, originally a small Hertfordshire town, but now a borough long since absorbed into the suburban sprawl of north London. It was near Barnet on 14th April 1471, that one of the most influential battles of the Wars of The Roses secured the throne for the Yorkist King Edward IV. The only battles that Kelly recalls were, however, between his beloved Barnet Town Football Club and their rivals. ‘The Bees’ have been back and forth between league and non-league football over the years, with all the regularity of a fiddler’s elbow, but as long as hope springs eternal in the human breast, Barnet can be sure of at least one man’s loyalty.

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After several years in journalism, which culminated in writing for The Financial Times, Kelly decided to put his skills to the ultimate test. He would become a full time novelist. By this time, he and his family had moved to the beautiful Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely, which had all the advantages of wide open spaces as well as the crucial railway connection to London. Before we continue, a word from one who knows. Ely is, geographically, in Fenland – an area of such fertile soil that it is said that a man only has to spit on the black soil for it to start growing into something productive. But Ely, with its tea-rooms, artisan bakeries, arts centre and elegant cafés may be in The Fens, but it is certainly not of The Fens. To explore the real Fenland, the traveler must visit such hard-scrabble towns and villages as Wisbech, Chatteris, March, Welney and Three Holes. It is among these sometimes insalubrious settlements that Kelly sets the series that first brought him to public attention.

Philip Dryden is the editor of Ely’s local newspaper. When he was first introduced, in The Waterclock (2002), local ‘rags’ had yet to feel the full force of digital competition, but they were already on the rocky road of no longer charging a cover price, but giving themselves away for nothing, hoping to cover costs from advertising revenue.

In Kelly’s books there is always a sense of déjà vu, of history coming back to bite people on the bum, and a telling awareness that despite tomorrow being another day, it is yesterday that casts the longer shadow on people’s lives. This is even evident in the fact that Dryden’s exotic wife Laura is lying alive, but insensate, in an Ely hospital. She is there as a result of a catastrophic road accident when she and Dryden ended up in a deep Fen ditch late on a winter’s night. When I first met Kelly, he came and spoke about his books at my local library. He revealed that one of his favourite authors is Dorothy L Sayers. And how does her most celebrated book begin?

“That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch,
her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank,
as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth
and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifting snow.

Thus Lord Peter Wimsey and the faithful Bunter have to seek the help of the inhabitants of Fenchurch St Paul and, in doing so, become involved in the celebrated mystery of The Nine Tailors. The Sayers connection is further developed by Kelly in his novel The Funeral Owl (2013), the most recent Philip Dryden mystery, where much of the action is centred in the Fen village of Brimstone Hill. This village is easily identifiable on the ground as Christchurch, which is little more than a huddle of houses in the lonely expanse of flat farmland between March and Ely. And who was the Rector of the little Victorian church in the village (below), between 1917 and 1928? The Reverend Henry Sayers, whose daughter went on to become one of the great literary figures of her day, and also a member of the elite writers of Golden Age crime fiction.

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Like all amateur detectives, Dryden sticks his nose into places where it is likely to get stung or at least severely nipped. The fact that he lives on a houseboat moored on Ely’s River Great Ouse always adds a touch of the exotic, but his day job as newspaper man allows him access to places that mere interested passers by could never penetrate. After refusing ever to drive again after the accident which left his wife paralysed, Dryden relies for transport on an obese and sedentary taxi driver called Humph. Humph serves several functions, including playing the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on and observing at a small distance the complications and dramas with which his regular customer involves himself. On a less cerebral level Humph has an inexhaustible supply of snacks, as well as an impressive collection of spirit miniatures harvested during his frequent trips to Stansted airport.

Kelly’s other crime fiction series hovers closer to the police procedural landing strip than the Philip Dryden novels. Peter Shaw is a high-ranking detective based in King’s Lynn. He too has his Watson, but in this case it is in the form of the taciturn and misanthropic copper, Sergeant Valentine. Kelly’s portrayal of King’s Lynn is as accurate and revealing as his frank picture of the bleak, inhospitable, historically incestuous and endlessly resentful villages of Fenland. Lynn, as it is known to locals, is also a paradox. On the one hand we have the magnificent churches, the prestigious Festival, and the unbreakable connection with a certain family who have a country home just up the road in Sandringham. But we also have the rough estates, the ill-at-ease migrant workers, and the tough-as-teak descendants of the fishermen who once sailed out of Lynn in search of seafood for the tables of rich men in their castles.

Like Dryden, Shaw is a complex character. He conceals from his bosses the fact that he may be losing his sight as a result of an old injury. His father – like Kelly’s – was a hugely respected policeman. Unlike Detective Superintendent Brian Kelly, however, Shaw père may not have been as honest as the day is long. In recent Peter Shaw novels, readers have been taken away from King’s Lynn and led up the Norfolk coast to such places as Brancaster and Holme. This part of Norfolk has been called Chelsea-on-Sea, due to the rising numbers of wealthy second-homers who have invested money, if not time, in the area. Shaw’s beautiful wife, who runs a beach shop and store at Hunstanton, and our man’s part-time job as a member of the local lifeboat crew, certainly add depth to the character.

As a master of landscape and what has been called pyschogeography – the invisible pull that past deeds, embedded in the fabric of buildings and streets, exert on modern day events – Jim Kelly has only one equal, and that is Christopher Fowler, whose elderly detectives Bryant and May are always jerked this way and that by the powerful magnets of history which lie beneath the streets of London.

If you are yet to read one of Kelly’s novels, then you should do so as soon as possible. If, like me, you are a devout disciple, then I hope that I have summed up just a hint of the man’s magical writings.I am presenting the two series of novels as separate graphics, but you can find out more by visiting Jim Kelly’s Amazon page.

PHILIP DRYDEN NOVELS

Dryden

PETER SHAW NOVELS

Peter Shaw

 

 

REVIEWS 2016

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Murder In Mt Martha by Janice Simpson 20 December 2016

The Domino Killer by Neil White 8 December 2016

Scared To Death by Rachel Amphlett – 4 December 2016

The Iron Water by Chris Nickson – 29 November 2016

The Book of Mirrors by E O Chirovici – 25 November 2016

Truth Will Out by AD Garrett – 11 November 2016

House Of Bones by Annie Hauxwell – 8 November 2016

The Missing Hours by Emma Kavanagh – 5 November 2016

Moskva by Jack Grimwood – 1 November 2016

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake – 25 October 2016

The Black Friar by Shona MacLean – 5 October 2016

The Trespasser by Tana French – 23 September 2016

Home by Harlan Coben – 17 September 2016

Beneath The Surface by Jo Spain – 8 September 2016

Death Ship by Jim Kelly – 1 September 2016

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid – 31 August 2016

Stop Press Murder by Peter Bartram – 30 August 2016

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley – 14 August 2016

The History Of Blood by Paul Mendelson – 10 August 2016

When The Music’s Over by Peter Robinson – 3 August 2016

The Dead House by Harry Bingham – 29 July 2016

The Monster’s Daughter by Michelle Pretorius – 23 July 2016

So Say The Fallen by Stuart Neville – 11 July 2016

 Deadly Deceit by Jean Harrod – 6 July 2016

Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie – 4 July 2016

FEATURES

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (4): The Natchez Trilogy by Greg Iles

THE AMERICAN SOUTH. . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (3): The Dead Are Still With Us

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (2): Tropes, Tribes and Trauma

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey: Introduction

LAUGH LINES . . .By Peter Bartram

CALLAN . . . A forgotten hero

Past Times – Old Crimes (4): PB Yuill and Hazell

Past Times – Old Crimes (3): A Hive of Glass by PM Hubbard

Past Times – Old Crimes (2) :Best of A Winter’s Crimes

Past Times – Old Crimes (1): The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill

Jim Kelly: Landscape, memory – and murder

Vehicles For The Violent by Frank Westworth (part two)

Vehicles For The Violent by Frank Westworth (part one)

Back To The Fen – a short story by Alex Mitchell (part two)

Back To The Fen – a short story by Alex Mitchell (part one)

The Flaxborough Chronicles of Colin Watson (2)

The Flaxborough Chronicles of Colin Watson (1)

The Nero Wolfe Novels of Rex Stout (2)

The Nero Wolfe Novels of Rex Stout (1)

The novels of PM Hubbard (2)

Making Characters Genuine by Cheryl L Reed

The novels of PM Hubbard (1)

The Music of Crime Fiction 4: Scherzo

The Music of Crime Fiction 3: Rondo

The Music of Crime Fiction 2: Marche Funebre

The Music of Crime Fiction. I: Prelude and Fugue

Author Spotlight – Brian Stoddart

Killing Goldfinger by Wensley Clarkson

I Was Dora Suarez … read by the author, Derek Raymond

Sins Of The Father

Rachel Amphlett’s Dazzling Debuts

Everyone Loves A List!

The Great War and Crime Fiction – part 2

The Great War and Crime Fiction – part 1

The Great War and Crime Fiction – an introduction

WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (5) A Man Without Breath

An extract from Poisonfeather by Matthew Fitzsimmons

My Top Five Fictional Villains by Kate Moretti

Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside by Peter Bartram

The Journey of Michael Parker – An American Odyssey

Killing Me Softly – a guide to murder, by Frank Westworth

WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (4) The Dead of Winter

Books Behind Bars – The Story of Roy Harper (2)

Books Behind Bars – The Story of Roy Harper (1)

The Seaweed That Started A War

WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (3) The Pale House

Jim Kelly – A landscape of secrets

Walter Mosley Competition

Joint Judgment – a lovely freebie!

WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (2) A Coin For The Hangman

WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (1) A Lily of the Field

Testing The Waters of Noir

The Poet and the Noir novelist

The Black World of Derek Raymond

REVIEWS 2018

2018
The House On Downshire Hill by Guy Fraser-Sampson – 19th December 2018

The Rumour by Lesley Kara – 17th December 2018

The Boy by Tami Hoag – 4th December 2018

We Can See You by Simon Kernick – 28th November 2018

Kingdom of The Blind by Louse Penny – 24th November 2018

The Mother’s Day Mystery by Peter Bartram – 11th November 2018

A Greater God by Brian Stoddart9th November 2018

The Sentence Is Death by Anthony Horowitz 31st October 2018

No Time To Cry by James Oswald – 28th October 2018

Kith and Kin by Jane A Adams –  18th October 2018

Broken Ground by Val McDermid – 13th October 2018

Stealth by Hugh Fraser – 1 October 2018

The Ring by MJ Trow – 25 September 2018

The Hanging Psalm by Chris Nickson – 20 September 2018

What Falls Between The Cracks by Robert Scragg – 16 September 2018

The Darkest Place by Jo Spain – 15 September 2018

The Gilded Ones by Brooke Fieldhouse – 22 August 2018

The Liar’s Room by Simon Lelic – 19 August 2018

The Mosul Legacy by Christopher Lowery – 12 August 2018

The Break Line by James Brabazon – 2 August 2018

The Polish Detective by Hania Allen – 30 July 2018

Morte Point by Robert Parker – 22 July 2018

A Gentleman’s Murder by Christopher Huang – 17 July 2018

Watching You by Lisa Jewell – 6 July 2018

The Dead On Leave by Chris Nickson – 29 June 2018

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware – 22 June 2018

The Hidden Bones by Nicola Ford21 June 2018

Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager11 June 2018

Kill The Angel by Sandrone Dazieri – 29 May 2018

The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham – 22 May 2018

Corrupted by Simon Michael – 15 May 2018

You Were Gone by Tim Weaver – 9 May 2018

Body and Soul by John Harvey – 5 May 2018

Savage Liberty by Eliot Pattison – 4 May 2018

The Tango School Mystery by Peter Bartram – 27 April 2018

The Woman In The Woods by John Connolly – 17 April 2018

Restless Coffins by MP Wright – 17 April 2018

The Long Silence by Gerard O’Donovan – 11 April 2018

Bad Cops by Nick Oldham – 8 April 2018

Mind Of A Killer by Simon Beaufort – 5 April 2018

The Tin God by Chris Nickson – 2 April 2018

Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr – 1 April 2018

Hall of Mirrors by Christopher Fowler – 21 March 2018

Only The Dead Can Tell by Alex Gray – 7 March 2018

Panic Room by Robert Goddard – 28 February 2018

Crook’s Hollow by Robert Parker21 February 2018

The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox20 February 2018

Girl On Fire by Tony Parsons 18 February 2018

Insidious Intent by Val McDermid 13 February 2018

The Great Darkness by Jim Kelly9 February 2018

Sepultura by Guy Portman – 27 January 2018

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd – 22 January 2018

Look For Me by Lisa Gardner11 January 2018

The Confession by Jo Spain – 3 January 2018

Robicheaux:You Know My Name by James Lee Burke 2 January 2018

REVIEWS 2019

Their Little Secret by Mark Billingham – 29th April 2019

Night Watch by David C Taylor 23rd April 2019

A Book Of Bones by John Connolly – 15th April 2019

Bones Of The Earth by Eliot Pattison – 11th April 2019

Slow Motion Ghosts by Jeff Noon – 9th April 2019

One More Lie by Amy Lloyd – 8th April 2019

Metropolis by Philip Kerr – 3rd April 2019

The Lonely Hour by Christopher Fowler – 22nd March 2019

The Leaden Heart by Chris Nickson – 15th March 2019

Marked Men by Chris Simms – 12th March 2019

The Boy In The Headlights by Samuel Bjork – 6th March 2019

Hardcastle’s Quandary by Graham Ison – 28th February 2019

Runaway by Harlan Coben – 25th February 2019

#Taken by Tony Parsons – 20th February 2019

The Mathematical Bridge by Jim Kelly – 18th February 2019

Curtain Call by Graham Hurley – 8th February 2019

Cold As The Grave by James Oswald7th February 2019

The Familiars by Tracey Halls – 4th February 2019

Severed by Peter Laws – 28th January 2019

Dangerous Deceits by Cherith Baldry – 22nd January

Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain – 16th January 2019

The Suspect by Fiona Barton – 13th January

The Man With No Face by Peter May – 8th January 2019

Rough Music by Robin Blake6th January 2019

Gone By Midnight by Candice Fox – 4th January 2019

THE MATHEMATICAL BRIDGE . . . Between the covers

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“Detective Inspector Eden Brooke trudged into Market Hill, the city’s great square, as snowflakes fell, thick and slow, each one a mathematical gem, seesawing down through the dead of night. Every sound was muffled, a clock striking the hour out of time, the rhythmic bark of a riverside dog, the distant rumble of a munitions train to the east, heading for the coastal ports. The blackout was complete, but the snow held its own light, an interior luminescence, revealing the low clouds above. Brooke stopped in his tracks, his last crisp footstep echoless, and wondered if he could hear the snow falling; an icy whisper in time with the sparkling of the crystals as they settled on the cobbles, composing themselves into a seamless white sheet.”

TMB“Begin as you mean to go on” says the old adage, and Jim Kelly sets himself a hard task with the brilliant and evocative first paragraph of The Mathematical Bridge. The beautiful use of language aside, Kelly’s first 126 words convey a wealth of information. A country at war. Midwinter. A city preparing for an attack from the air. A policeman out and about when honest men are abed.

Eden Brooke first appeared in The Great Darkness (2018) and you can read my review by clicking the blue link. A copper in the university city of Cambridge, he is a war veteran, not of the Western Front, but of the desert campaign, one of ‘Allenby’s Lads.’ We join him in that first winter of the Second World War, when German bombers have yet to inflict their terror on the houses and streets below them. Tragedy strikes when a boy, evacuated from his London home to the relative safety of a Roman Catholic community in Cambridge, is feared drowned in the fast-freezing River Cam. His body is eventually recovered, but not before Brooke has unearthed a plot to bring death and destruction to the streets of Cambridge.

The conspirators are not Germans but people from much nearer home who firmly believe that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. With two Irish republican conspirators sitting in a Birmingham jail, sentenced to death for a 1939 bomb atrocity in Coventry, Brooke realises that the next potential target for the IRA is Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother to the King. Henry is due to make a morale-boosting visit to Cambridge to boost the war effort, and Brooke is desperate to find the link between the dead boy in the river and the Irish community who worship at St Alban’s church.

Eden Brooke is an engaging character. Blighted by vision problems and chronic insomnia – both the result of his wartime treatment at the hands of brutal Turkish captors – he goes about his work with a steely intensity, much to the despair of his wife and daughter. Kelly’s portrait of provincial England in the first months of WW2 is mesmerising, more so given the added piquancy of our knowledge of what will happen, contrasted with the uncertainty of the characters in the novel.

Give Jim Kelly a landscape, a town, a city, an isolated village, and he will mobilise and send it off to war. Fans of his Philip Dryden novels will know the dramatic chiaroscuro he paints that shows how the comfortable middle-class cathedral city of Ely sits surrounded by dark and broken hard-scrabble villages out in the Fen. His Norfolk copper, Peter Shaw, knows only too well the contrast between the rough estates of King’s Lynn and the Chelsea-On-Sea second homes further up the Norfolk coastline. Eden Brooke’s Cambridge is a vivid and vital character in The Mathematical Bridge. Kelly makes it, despite the murders, an island of relative calm and rationality, for beyond it, out there in the flat darkness, lies The Fen.

doublesmallmathematicalbridgeThis is writing of the highest quality. Not just with the lame caveat ‘for a crime novel’ but writing with a touch of poetry and elegance gracing every line. Even when the crime is solved, the perpetrators are behind bars, and the delightfully complex contradictions of the plot have been explained, Kelly (right) still has the emotional energy to give us a last scene which manages to be poignant but, at the same time, life-affirming.

The Mathematical Bridge is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 21st February. For more about Jim Kelly and his writing click this link.

 

A&B

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Nine Tailors

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I’ll start by being mildly controversial; I have been reading crime fiction for sixty years, and I can’t think of another novel which has such a complex plot. Another masterpiece, Chandler’s The Big Sleep certainly has its moments (after all, who did kill the chauffeur?) but even having read The Nine Tailors more than once I would still struggle to write a concise bluffers’ guide to exactly what happens from memory alone. This is neither criticism nor praise; it simply is what it is.

dorothy-l-sayers-grangerLet’s look at a few relatively simple background facts, and I apologise to fans of the author for whom this may be tedious. Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893 – 1957) was a notable English writer, poet, classical scholar and dramatist. She introduced the aristocratic private detective Lord Peter Wimsey in her 1923 novel, Whose Body? and by the time The Nine Tailors was published in 1934, Wimsey and his imperturbable manservant Bunter were well established.

The story begins in the depth of the English winter.

“That’s torn it! said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth, and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow……right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.”


Their journey through the Cambridgeshire fens rudely interrupted, Wimsey and Bunter seek help from the nearby village of Fenchurch St Paul. With this simplest of literary devices, Sayers gives Wimsey a perfect excuse to stay overnight, courtesy of the amiable vicar; one of Wimsey’s many skills is bell-ringing and so he joins the church team in their traditional New Year peal, thus embedding him in a labrinthine set of circumstances involving robbery, missing jewels, coded messages, bigamy, deception and murder.

The Nine Tailors are not people, but the ancient bells hanging in the church tower, and Sayers endows them with mystical significance both to the readers of the novel, and to the people in Fenchurch St Paul. Her father was a clergyman, but Sayers later claimed to have had no particular previous knowledge of the arcane lore of church bells. The novel is, however, shot through with references to the bewildering mathematics involved in change ringing. Too much so, for some critics: HRF Keating wrote that Sayers had;

“incautiously entered the closed world of bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors on the strength of a sixpenny pamphlet picked up by chance.”

I am not sure if a book over eighty years old can be subject to plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that, among the several criminals features in the story, the bells do not escape without blame.

So, why is it such a good book, always in print, and often dramatised on screen? Wimsey himself, although deprecatingly described by his creator as a mixture of Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire, is perhaps the greatest of the gentleman detectives of The Golden Age. He does not patronise the rougher folk of Fenchurch St Paul; he wears his breeding and education lightly and, like Kipling’s ideal man, he can talk with crowds and keep his virtue, and walk with Kings without losing the common touch. Wimsey is a hero of the Great War; this much we know from earlier novels, although his history is alluded to with some subtlety in The Nine Tailors. He has seen the best and worst of men, survived shell shock, and felt the bond between fighting men that transcends class barriers. Sayers was acutely aware of the fact that the horrors of 1914 – 18 pursued men long after the guns fell silent, and incidents in the war play a significant part in the story of The Nine Tailors.

Sayers gives landscape a greater significance in The Nine Tailors than in any of her other books. She was no stranger to Fenland. Her father was rector of Bluntisham, a prosperous village on the edge of the fens, and if you walk in its churchyard, you will see several surnames borrowed and given to characters in The Nine Tailors. The Rev. Henry Sayers later moved to the much more modest parish of Christchurch, slap dab in the middle of the Cambridgeshire fens. Incidentally, that fine writer Jim Kelly happily admits his admiration for Sayers, and set his own novel The Funeral Owl in Christchurch, which he renames Brimstone Hill.

Dorothy

What can the literary traveler find in today’s Cambridgeshire? The fictional Fenland in The Nine Tailors features everything the actual Fenland does. It has drainage rivers named after their width such as The Thirty Foot, back roads called Droves, and clusters of villages with the same name, but modified by the patron saints of their respective churches. Just as she gives us Fenchurch St Paul and Fenchurch St Peter, in real life we have Terrington St Clement, Terrington St John, Wiggenhall St Peter and Wiggenhall St Mary. Sayers takes all the familiar topographical features of the Fens and rearranges them into an authentic but original pattern.

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She also teases us with her place names. When we think we have matched Van Leyden’s Sluice with Denver, she confounds us by mentioning that Denver Sluice is much bigger. When you feel certain that Leamholt must be one of the bigger towns such as King’s Lynn, she introduces the actual King’s Lynn in a passing reference.

Here in the Fens, we love our skies and churches
while treating with respect the long, arrow-straight, deep black drains which keep our feet dry. Given that large parts of the fens are only inches above sea level we still have cause to fear tidal surges down the Great Ouse and the Nene. No author has ever rivaled Sayers in describing with such power the sheer devastation that the angry waters can bring. Having narrowly escaped death by the bells, Wimsey claws his way to the relative safety of the top of St Paul’s church tower, and looks out on a drowned land:

“The whole world was lost now in one vast sheet of water. He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon. To the south-west, St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship. Every house in the village was lit up: St Stephen was riding out the storm. Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged. Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire etched black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere. Close beneath the tower, the village of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate … outward and eastward the gold cock on the weathervane stared and strained, fronting the danger, held to his watch by the relentless pressure of the wind from off The Wash. Somewhere amid that still surge of water, the broken bodies of Will Thoday and his mate drifted and tumbled with the wreckage of farm and field. The Fen had reclaimed its own.”

Read the novel. Absorb the period details and accept the leisurely pace. Hold on firmly to Wimsey’s great sense of compassion and humanity. Wonder at the language and allow yourself a thankful shudder that you are safe at home, dry and warm. I can’t think of a more gripping description of a watery hell, unless it lies in the words of Herman Melville’s Ishmael, clinging to his wooden spar at the end of Moby Dick:

“…his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its watery sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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