A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.
Bells For Her
Every vocabulary is sprinkled with words and expressions whose origin the speaker does not know or does not trouble to know, and my vocabulary is no different. I have, for example, on many occasions “rung in the new year,” but until recently, it had for some reason never occurred to me that such an activity was rooted in a very literal pursuit.
Enter Dorothy Sayers, and her excellent mystery The Nine Tailors.
On New Year’s Eve, Lord Peter Wimsey is waylaid in a small town in East Anglia when he runs his car off the road during a heavy snowfall. Taken in by the kindly rector of the parish church, Lord Peter’s arrival is seen as providential. For when he turns out to be a keen and experienced bell-ringer, he is asked to stand in for one of the bell-ringers in a historic New Year’s peal, the absent man having been laid up with an extremely virulent bout of influenza. His lordship obliges (he is a very obliging gentleman), and takes part in the nine-hour performance to ring in the new year. From there, the mystery grows ever more entwined with the intricacies of campanological lore, and the reader finds themself becoming a peculiar kind of expert on a topic they never expected to encounter—let alone know anything of substance about.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The best books lead us on to new things. Knowing nothing about change-ringing, a style of bell-ringing particular to Britain and the center-piece of Sayers’ mystery, I found myself pausing at intervals to look things up: the origin of the phrase “nine tailors make a man,” the components of an assortment of traditional peals (Kent Treble Bob Major, Grandsire Triples, Stedman’s Triples, etc.), the science of bell-making and -ringing, and the sight and sound of the practice itself. In this glorious age of the Internet, it’s no difficult feat to find audio and video examples of the peals online. Given the sonorous nature of change-ringing, however, disguising such investigations is more of an undertaking.
As I sat, rapt, in front of a twelve-minute video of change-ringers performing an untitled peal, my housemate’s eyebrows climbed higher and higher. I felt that some sort of explanation for this heretofore unexhibited behavior was necessary. “Change-ringing is a major component in the mystery novel I’m reading,” I told her.
“Oh, well,” she said, “if you’re reading a mystery about change-ringing, you’ll love this episode of Midsomer Murders; it’s about a bunch of competitive bell-ringers who start getting killed off…”
And so—in a rather unexpected turn of events—I found myself watching the second episode of series five, “Ring Out Your Dead.” (It’s on Netflix.) It was a sad story, as many mysteries are, with a cast of pitiable people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many victims are, and a horrifyingly human perpetrator, as many murderers are. A prosaic, if unsettling, solution.
The solution to Sayers’ murder is far more poetic.
O Hear the Bells!
There’s a moment in The Nine Tailors when the solution to the mystery becomes inescapably clear. It takes Lord Peter several more chapters to winkle it out, however, and when he does you almost wish—for his sake—that he hadn’t. In fact, you’ve spent those last few chapters rather hoping he won’t. It’s a solution that’s been challenged by some as scientifically implausible, and accepted by others as a stroke of proverbial genius, but it makes a strong impact whether you find it plausible or not. I won’t spoil it for anyone unfamiliar with the tale. Suffice it to say, however, that Sayers’ victim is not at all pitiable, and his killer (though lacking in mercy) is not without justice.
And still, it is a horrible way to go…
…but bells bring more than misery to their admirers. Though we have nothing like change-ringing anywhere nearby (that I know of), there is a very lovely bell-tower carillon in a park not far from here. Every Sunday in the summer there is an hour-long concert of carillon music, and it is free and open to the public—another thing that I knew absolutely nothing about until my recent forays into the mysteries of bell-ringing made it a worthy topic of conversation around the house. I went this evening and found the experience absolutely rapturous.
I suppose that, as with coins, there are two sides to every bell.