This novel, Dorothy L. Sayers' best-known, is, without doubt, one of her best-if not the best. Sayers takes the customary English village, and makes something new of it, by setting it in the Fen country, and by giving to it a church, which, as the well-drawn rector describes, "East Anglia is famous for the size and splendour of its parish churches. Still, we flatter ourselves we are almost unique, even in this part of the world." The church services show great feeling and power, and neatly tie in with the theme of religion. The church possesses bells, the book being best-known for the bell-ringing, described in such powerfully beautiful descriptions as:
"Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells-little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity and old Batty Thomas, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. Up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the shadows of the ringers upon the walls, up and down went the scarlet sallies flickering roofwards and floorwards, and up and down, hunting in their courses, went the bells of Fenchurch St. Paul."
The bells are also eerily threatening-"Bells are like cats and mirrors-they're always queer, and it doesn't do to think too much about them."-which is fitting, as the plot hinges on bells: both an ingenious cryptogram (again, to quote the rector, "I should never have thought of the possibility that one might make a cipher out of change-ringing. Most ingenious."), and an ingenious murder method.
The whodunit aspect of the story is not neglected; for once, it is a genuine problem. The body is buried in a grave, and involves a complicated problem of identity, and an unknown method. The victim, as Wimsey describes, is "a perfect nuisance, dead or alive, and whoever killed him was a public benefactor. I wish I'd killed him myself." Wimsey is engaging here, and not the parody of Bertie Wooster he sometimes is-he is a human being, without being the equally obnoxious creature found in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon. The detection is excellent, and, as was to be the trend in nearly every detective story following (especially Nicholas Blake's), the detective "felt depressed. So far as he could see, his interference had done no good to anybody and only made extra trouble. It was a thousand pities that the body of Deacon had ever come to light at all. Nobody wanted it." These tie in with the burden of guilt and innocence, redemption and repentance.
Finally, the book comes to its powerful climax in a flooded village, "with an aching and intolerable melancholy, like the noise of the bells of a drowned city pushing up through the overwhelming sea."
This is not a detective story-this is, if anything, a novel.