Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Month of Mysteries: Murder Comes Ringing in "The Nine Tailors"

The quaint English town of Fenchurch St. Paul hardly seems like the proper place for two connected crimes—involving the theft of an emerald necklace and a mutilated corpse—committed over a decade apart. But then, there are many surprises awaiting mystery fans in the BBC’s 1974 adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

Sayers wrote eleven novels and several short stories between 1923 and 1939 featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, a well-to-do amateur detective, assisted in sleuthing by his butler Bunter. Peter Haddon played Wimsey in the now-obscure 1935 British film The Silent Passenger and Robert Montgomery was the aristocratic detective in 1940’s Haunted Honeymoon (which Sayers refused to see). Edward Petherbridge played a married Wimsey in three limited-run television series in the late 1980s. But the most famous of all Wimsey interpreters is Ian Carmichael, who starred in The Nine Tailors and four other BBC Wimsey mysteries that played stateside on Masterpiece Theater: Clouds of Witness (1972); The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1973); Murder Must Advertise (1973); and The Five Red Herrings (1975). All five adaptations are first-rate television, but my favorite is The Nine Tailors.

The first of the four 50-minute episodes is an extended prologue set on the eve of World War I that finds Lord Peter subbing for his brother, the Duke of Denver, at the Thorpe family wedding in Fenchurch St. Paul. That night, an emerald necklace worth over 60,000 pounds is stolen from Mrs. Wilbraham, a wedding guest. The culprits, the Thorpe’s butler and a professional jewel theft, are captured quickly—but the necklace is never found. Learning that the insurance policy has lapsed, Mr. Thorpe reimburses Mrs. Wilbraham for the cost of the necklace, an honorable act that brings near-financial ruin on the family.

Over a decade later, Lord Peter and Bunter get stranded in the countryside when their auto slides off an icy road while en route to a Wimsey family New Year’s gathering. The nearest town turns out to be Fenchurch St. Paul, whose residents are coping with an influenza outbreak. Lord Peter and Bunter spend the night at the home of the local vicar, who now lacks enough healthy men to set a new record by ringing the church bells for nine hours. Lord Peter professes some knowledge of bell ringing and steps in to assist. When he and Bunter depart the following day, they learn that Mrs. Thorpe (the bride from the earlier wedding) has died from the flu. When her husband also dies a few months later, an unidentified man’s corpse is discovered in Mrs. Thorpe’s grave…the face has been mutilated and the hands removed. Needless to say, that brings Lord Peter back to Fenchurch St. Paul for his third and final visit.

The unraveling of the multiple mysteries in The Nine Tailors keeps the series engrossing from start to finish. Some Sayers enthusiasts argue that one of the twists is revealed in the prologue. While that’s true, it doesn’t detract from the main questions: Where is the emerald necklace? Who killed the victim, why, and how? It’s the “how”—revealed in the final ten minutes of the series—that make The Nine Tailors both memorable and satisfying.

Carmichael sparkles as Lord Peter, capturing both his upper crust manner and his genuine concern for others. If there’s a quibble with The Nine Tailors, it’s that Glyn Houston, as Bunter, has less to do than in other adaptations in the series. On the bright side, the prologue includes a couple of rewarding scenes between Major Wimsey and Sergeant Bunter during the war. Plus, it also explains how Bunter came to work for Lord Peter.

The BBC produced some of its finest productions in the 1970s, to include Upstairs, Downstairs, The Pallisers, Poldark, and I, Claudius. All of these series exhibited first-rate production values and impeccable casts (including many London stage veterans). The Lord Peter Wimsey series is another fine representative of the BBC’s “Golden Era.” So, brew yourself a cup of stout tea (with sugar and milk), grab some biscuits (cookies for us Yanks), and cozy up for a classic Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. (By the way, the title has nothing to do with tailors!)


  1. I have seen THE NINE TAILORS and enjoyed it immensely, but it's the only one I've seen with Ian Carmichael as Wimsey. You said this one is your fave, but which of the other four would you most recommend (if not just all of them)? By the way, I'll take my tea without sugar and milk, please.

  2. Rick This series lead me to read the Lord Peter Books One of the BBC's best along with Poldark and of my Christmas gift from my wife I Claudius, which I had on Beta. BTW the new box set remastered edition has stuff "cut out" from the broadcast version "For PC Reasons".

  3. Sark, after THE NINE TAILORS, I'd go with THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB (love the title...the "unpleasantness" is a murder). But all the Carmichael Wimseys are fun. MURDER MUST ADVERTISE also stars Christopher Timothy (James Herriot on ALL CREATURES AND SMALL) and the always busy, always reliable Peter Bowles.

    Paul, my wife and I saw I, CLAUDIUS on DVD. Derek Jabobi was wonderful as always and Sian Phillips ranked with the best villainesses in TV history. POLDARK is one of our all-time faves, have seen both series multiple times, and read all 12 books. Did you know POLDARK author Winston Graham wrote the novel MARNIE?

  4. Superb review of a superior series! This is Lord Peter Wimsey at his best. It is heartwarming to see how Bunter came to attend him; they have such remarkable chemistry together. Dorothy L. Sayer's mystery is quite intriguing, too.

    Paul, I am also a huge "Poldark" fan! My husband and I first saw Wimsey and Poldark in the 1980s. McDonald's had 29 cent sundaes on Sunday and this would be our routine that evening.

    Great post, Rick! And I enjoy my tea with heavy cream and sugar.

  5. I'm thinking a POLDARK review is now in order for next month. Nice to see that you're a Lord Peter fan, too, Toto.

  6. Rick, Oh my gosh! I have not heard of this movie.. I will put it on my list of "gotta see" movies. Wonderful review!!

  7. Love your Blog - just my cup of tea (and biscuits,) but have to apologise for being pedantic and putting right one teeny-tiny detail. 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' was in-fact, produced by LWT (London Weekend Television) a then subdivision of ITV, and was not a BBC production.

  8. Thanks, Lisa, for the clarification on the network that originally showed the remarkable UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS.