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A Brutal British Mystery Novel for Boxing Day
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A Brutal British Mystery Novel for Boxing Day


Now, it's time for You Must Read This - writers talking about the books they love. Jonathan Hayes is a veteran New York City forensic pathologist and the author of a thriller called, "Precious Blood." He remembers the first time he discovered mystery writer Dorothy Sayers.

Mr. JONATHAN HAYES (Forensic Pathologist; Author, "Precious Blood"): One Christmas when I was at medical school in London, my American girlfriend came to visit. On Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, when the 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 roof and a cold snap that had dusted the fields and hedgerows with snow, the temperature in the car 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. So 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 Whimsey in a village in the flat marshlands of East Anglia. The plot's a bit convoluted with stolen emeralds, confused identities and arcane church bell-ringing techniques, but Sayers' evocation of winter in Britain is spare and beautiful and her dialogue keep things moving at a good clip.

In detective fiction, a cozy is a classically English murder-in-the-vicarage-type story. While "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 fĂȘte, et cetera - 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. Murder is reduced to a trite riddle, self-contained and without broader implication. And 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 Whimsey, 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 books.

Of course, by the 1930s, the real world in crime fiction was increasingly a modern American world, with hard-boiled writers like Chandler and Hammett rise into prominence. But I think Sayers deserves 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 party.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Hayes is the author of "Precious Blood." He's also a New York City forensic pathologist. There are more holiday selections from You Must Read This at

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