The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Book Details

Originally published in 1931
Lord Peter Wimsey #7
Preceded by Strong Poison
Followed by Have His Carcase

The Blurb

In the scenic Scottish village of Kirkcudbright, no one is disliked more than Sandy Campbell. When the painter is found dead at the foot of cliff, his easel standing above, no one is sorry to see him gone—especially six members of the close knit Galloway artists’ colony.

The inimitable Lord Peter Wimsey is on the scene to determine the truth about Campbell’s death. Piecing together the evidence, the aristocratic sleuth discovers that of the six suspected painters, five are red herrings, innocent of the crime. But just which one is the ingenious artist with a talent for murder?

The Verdict

The core ideas of the mystery are interesting but I found the telling of it tedious and drawn out.

I say – I don’t mind betting this is the most popular thing Campbell ever did. Nothing in life became him like the leaving it, eh, what?

My Thoughts

For years I have held that The Five Red Herrings is one of the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. In fact I can clearly recall doing just that over drinks one evening with a fellow mystery fan during my university days at the student union bar. Having revisited it for the first time in twenty years I feel the need to apologize to that friend if they happened to follow my advice – I don’t know what I was thinking either.

The novel takes place in a Scottish village where a colony of artists reside. Lord Peter happens to be holidaying nearby and so gets to know several of the key figures prior to the case beginning including the victim, a quarrelsome artist by the name of Sandy Campbell. In fact he even was involved in one altercation shortly before Campbell is found dead having apparently slipped in a tragic accident while painting.

Lord Peter quickly notes that the death, while appearing accidental, must almost certainly have been murder. After proving his point he lends a hand with the investigation, looking into the six fellow painters who he considers the most likely culprits.

I found the opening chapters of the novel to offer some points of promise, not least the chapter in which Lord Peter sets about proving that murder was done after all. This is done quite simply and it even involves a fun challenge to the reader in which the narrator tells us that they won’t identify what Lord Peter thinks is wrong with the crime scene immediately as we should be able to guess it for ourselves. They’re right, of course, and the answer is pretty persuasive.

I also think Sayers does a pretty good job of setting up Campbell to be a deserving corpse. It is pretty clear from the moment he first appears why anyone in the village might want to kill him and I appreciate that Sayers offers up some variety among those six suspects, each of whom has experienced a different point of tension with him. The line I quote above from Lord Peter feels decidedly apt.

Most of my problems begin however with the investigation proper. It is, in short, tedious. I know that people love to deride Freeman Wills Crofts as a timetable plotter but this book includes multiple, incredibly dry and detailed timetables. Those who love to painstakingly chart the movements of multiple bicycles and keep track of different train routes may love this – I was just losing my patience.

There is a bit of a brief respite from this when we get a passage narrated by Bunter about his own investigations that Wimsey suggests ‘would do credit to The Castle of Otranto‘ – perhaps overstated but nonetheless I found it to be quite a welcome change. Unfortunately we are soon back to the grind.

And it is a grind. For instance, the chapter titled Farren’s Story contains a page-long paragraph. I made a note in my Kindle edition that this was ‘Too much text’ and I stand by that. Those sorts of long, dense passages often seem to do little to move the plot forward and instead just seem to stretch the story out more and more, as do the several explanations of the crime that are offered prior to Wimsey’s own.

That is not to say that there are not some bright spots. This book contains a number of references to other Golden Age crime novels such as Crofts’ Sir John Magill’s Last Journey and various other works that Sayers clearly felt were of note, many of which might now be considered obscure. Unfortunately there does seem to be a spoiler for Connington’s The Two Tickets Puzzle, though the information given may be less crucial than it seemed here (I own that title but have yet to read it).

I also think that there are a few nice character moments for Wimsey and I did enjoy the material with Bunter, limited though it was. Sadly they couldn’t overcome my complaints about the pace that the mystery unfolded at.

This is a shame because I think that the story isn’t, in itself, a bad one. In fact one of the reasons that this post is coming to you later than planned was that I wanted to listen to the radio adaptation again which was the most recent way I had most recently consumed it. I was pleased to find that it was much closer to my memories of the piece and also a little tighter as well. Perhaps it helps too that I often prefer the softer, more jovial Ian Carmichael rendering of Wimsey to the character I imagine coming from the page. If memory serves (and clearly, mine is questionable), the TV adaptation was pretty decent too.

All in all, I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy my experience revisiting this one and do not anticipate doing so again any time soon. At least, not as the novel. Thankfully the next novel in the series brings back Harriet Vane so hopefully I will find more to like there. I may wait another few months though before settling down to read it…


20 thoughts on “The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

  1. I enjoyed your post. I’ve been a Dorothy Sayers fan since I was a teenager, when I first read what may still be my favorite of her mysteries, Murder Must Advertise. But you are so right: Five Red Herrings is simply boring. I did re-read it once after my initial reading, years later, and barely got through it. Oh, well. All writers have their off-days/books.

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    1. Thanks Kim. I am glad you enjoyed it. I know I have some more great Sayers ahead of me so I am happy to quickly move on from this one.
      The only thing that puzzles me is why I was so adamant that this was one of her best. It may be that knowing the solution worked against this one though that isn’t usually an issue for me. I almost wonder if there was some abridged or edited version I may have read before.

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  2. I think this is one of Sayers’s best orthodox detective stories – timetables, multiple solutions, and more wit than Connington or Crofts – but it is, as you say, a book that needs to be painstakingly charted. I need to write a post on how to read detective stories properly; this is the second post I’ve read this week that’s given me a nudge.

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    1. I do agree that this was often quite witty and amusing. I wish I had enjoyed it more upon revisiting it but I am glad it gives others more pleasure than it gave me.

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  3. I have not yet read this one, but I do have a great appreciation for Sayers and her work. I think both “Murder Must Advertise” and “The Nine Tailors” are supreme examples of the mystery genre.

    It could just be me, but I think that Sayers seems to be falling out of favor in the GAD community, and though she has never been my favorite, as I said, I really do appreciate her work, and her prose is surely some of the best of its time. I do think that her books have not aged as well as her contemporaries; “The Five Red Herrings” being more in-line with the so-called humdrum school of detective fiction of the mid-’20s which – to me, at least – is *really* an acquired taste today. I have not read any of Sayers’ books in order to this point, and will most likely to reach for another of her titles before giving this one a go.

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      1. It’s simply an impression that I have gotten recently. I feel like a lot of the discourse around her work nowadays is that her plotting was never her strong suit, her prose is very dense, the attitudes adopted by her characters do not age well, etc., etc. Though she has been elevated to the status of a Crime Queen, I think a lot more readers of GAD fiction today are more likely to extol the virtues of a writer like Christianna Brand over Sayers (even though I think comparing the two is like apples and oranges). The positivity that sprang up around Sayers for so many years is, I think, right now a lot quieter than it was once was. That is, again only my impression and I could be totally wrong.

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      2. You might be right. A lot of the bloggers don’t pay her much attention; they also seem very plot-oriented in their tastes. And less fond of the English literate / fantastical writers – Chesterton, Innes, Allingham, Mitchell, etc.

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      3. I get the impression from reading GAD blogs, which I mostly discovered by links from one to the next, so all the bloggers seem to know each other to some extent. The downplaying of Sayers seems to be common among them, at any rate. I’ve been a little surprised to see how seldom Sayers is included in their lists of favorite authors in the genre.

        In my own circle of friends, Sayers seems to rank as high as ever (not uncritically, we all have our opinions about weak points) — but again that’s not necessarily valid beyond the dozen of us. It seems to me that she has always inspired great divergence of opinion. One writer (sorry, can’t recall who — Barnard in his book about Christie maybe?) mentions the “longeurs” of Gaudy Night in passing, as if his readers will of course agree with him; but to me that’s a peak of mystery writing, and it has no longeurs for me. So it goes.

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      4. Yes, the “longeurs” of Gaudy Night is mentioned by Barnard in his book about Christie.

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      5. Which is baffling. Is it a generational thing? Is it Snow’s two cultures: humanities vs. science? Does Sayers demand more from her readers than Brand? Not the literary quotations, but an interest in more than the puzzle – in relationships, social and ethical commentary?

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    1. I have both of those titles ahead of me on my reread and I am hoping they hold up to my memories of them.
      As for Sayers’ reputation, it’s tough for me to judge. I was raised in a household that prized Sayers above all so my own circle remains very Sayers positive. While this review wasn’t enthusiastic, I think that is more reflective of a sense of disappointment that it didn’t match my memory. I love many of her other stories and am looking forward to getting to some other favorites.
      I do think though that Sayers is less prominent today than she was a decade or two ago, at least based on my observations of shelf space in book stores and libraries.
      I think that partly reflects the growing awareness of other writers. It also possibly reflects that it has been over thirty years since the last adaptations. Perhaps also a little of the language and perceived social attitudes – this is hardly unique to Sayers and ignores the social issues that she does discuss but I understand why it can be a barrier for some readers.

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  4. I don’t have the citation at hand, but I recall reading that Sayers undertook this as her salute to Crofts and the timetable-alibi-dismantling sort of puzzle novel. Certainly she never wrote another remotely like it. I enjoy it as a one-off genre experiment. But I too would love to know why you once considered it one of her best. And for me the Ian Carmichael tele visualization was no help at all, but then I hated his characterization in that series.

    Also, it may be just that it was reproduced at too small a size for the paperback edition, but the map was no help at all. I needed a map, all right, but with different and more specific details.

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      1. I put it in past tense — I remember having that reaction then, and it was a long time ago. Maybe I would react differently now. But the impression I recall is that he was playing the stereotypical silly-ass upper-class twit of English farce — Bertie Wooster rather than Peter Wimsey. When the series with Edward Petherbridge aired, I recall feeling that at last I was seeing the Lord Peter I knew from the books. I would like to see some of the Carmichael episodes now, and discover if I might feel differently.

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      2. Carmichael’s performance is warmer, more sympathetic – but he is playing the Wimsey of the early-ish books, rather than the more mature, introspective Wimsey of the Vane quartet. Petherbridge seems colder, more aloof.

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      3. Carmichael’s performance is warmer, more sympathetic – but he is playing the Wimsey of the early-ish books, rather than the more mature, introspective Wimsey of the Vane quartet. Petherbridge seems colder, more aloof. But it has been a while since I saw either.

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    1. It absolutely baffles me. I think it might be that I enjoyed the clear challenge to the reader- that is an idea I love and this was probably my first time encountering it. Perhaps that it was set in Scotland added a little novelty for me too. But yes, that question will puzzle me for some time to come!

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