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…

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published 1930
Lord Peter Wimsey #6
Preceded by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Followed by The Five Red Herrings

The Blurb

Lord Peter Wimsey comes to the trial of Harriet Vane for a glimpse at one of the most engaging murder cases London has seen in years. Unfortunately for the detective, the crime’s details are distractingly salacious, and there is little doubt that the woman will be found guilty. A slightly popular mystery novelist, she stands accused of poisoning her fiancé, a literary author and well-known advocate of free love. Over the course of a few weeks, she bought strychnine, prussic acid, and arsenic, and when her lover died the police found enough poison in his veins to kill a horse. But as Lord Peter watches Harriet in the dock, he begins to doubt her guilt—and to fall in love.
 
As Harriet awaits the hangman, Lord Peter races to prove her innocence, hoping that for the first time in his life, love will triumph over death.

The Verdict

This successfully introduced some elements that would benefit later stories. Unfortunately the case feels padded, unremarkable and overrated.


My Thoughts

Revisiting the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries in order has been quite instructive for me as I have come to appreciate the evolution of the character. In my review of his first adventure, Whose Body?, I noted that while the affectations and core personality traits were all basically there, the character often read as flippant and tiresome. Those traits were gradually toned down in the subsequent stories as it was made clearer that this personality has been, at least to some extent, cultivated to make him appear less threatening.

The previous story in the series, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, had presented readers with a more sharply defined and sympathetic version of the character. While he was still capable of flippant witticisms, there we saw him act out of care for another, fighting on their behalf rather than just engaging in criminology as a hobby. This book takes that idea one step further, seeing him become involved to save a young woman he has fallen in love with from the gallows.

That character is, of course, the mystery novelist Harriet Vane who will go on in subsequent novels to become his partner in detection. This change significantly alters the tone and themes of the series in those books but that of course will be a discussion for later reviews. Here she plays only a limited role, briefly appearing in just a couple of chapters and to provide inspiration for Lord Peter’s efforts to uncover the truth.

The reason for this is that at the start of the novel Harriet is on trial for murder. She is suspected of having poisoned her former lover, the novelist Philip Boyes, using arsenic. Her supposed motive is that she had agreed to live with him without being married having been convinced of his opposition to the institution, only for him to subsequently offer her marriage after all. She clearly felt angry and betrayed, leaving him.

The problem for Harriet is that she had been identified buying arsenic, apparently to test to see how easily it could be procured for a future novel and no one else seems to have a clear motive. Lord Peter refuses to believe her guilty, not based on any evidence but based on his instinct and strength of feeling about her and tells her that he will work on her behalf to find evidence to acquit her, telling her that he wants to marry her when it is all over.

This initial point of attraction is, for me, the weakest part of the story as I think Peter’s attraction to her has to be quite superficial. I think it could be fairly categorized as an example of the love at first sight trope as he wants to marry her before he has ever spoken with her himself. Sayers even seems to draw a parallel between Peter and other men, noting that Harriet has already received a number of other offers of marriage since being arrested. Still, I think the reader can infer reasons for that attraction based on his perception of her character and smartly the author does not give us the gratification of a quick acceptance of his affections.

While the initial attraction may be superficial, I love the way these characters verbally tease and play with each other. Some of those moments are quite sharp and witty – a favorite exchange comes when Harriet suggests that he is overlooking that she has had a lover to which he replies that he has had several himself and can ‘produce quite good testimonials’. These moments have a charm and energy to them that lifts the piece and I enjoy any moments the pair are together.

Which helps make up a little for the rest of the book. As appealing as Lord Peter’s flirtations with Harriet are, I find the mystery plotline here to be rather underwhelming.

Part of the problem I have with this is that the killer’s identity is quite clear from early on in the novel. This is not because there is much reason for the investigation to settle on him but rather because there is simply no other suspect. Now, I’m the last person to complain about knowing the killer’s identity but if you are going to make their identity clear then you might as well commit to the inverted form properly as in Unnatural Death and either give us greater access to their thoughts or more directly establish a relationship between them and the sleuth.

A game of cat and mouse is only really fun if both parties are aware that they are playing. While there are a couple of moments where criminal and sleuth interact, there is not much back and forth or manipulation to be had here. Instead a lot of time is spent in what I consider filler material, with characters working to secretly obtain information. Those sequences are often quite memorable and entertaining such as a very clever seance sequence or the visit to a rather unorthodox Christian fellowship meeting but these passages move very slowly and little of what we learn will surprise.

In addition to learning the killer’s identity, the reader will also need to detect a motive and understand how they did it. The killer’s motive is, once again, relatively straightforward though I appreciate it does convincingly explain why the killer needs to act at that precise moment. A problem is that, as with proving the killer’s identity, the process by which we learn the killer’s motive feels strung out. Another is that surely almost everything that gets found would be inadmissable because of the way in which the information is gained (though perhaps the law on that point was very different in Britain in the early 30s).

Which brings me, finally, to the means by which it is managed. This is perhaps the book’s most creative idea, though it probably wouldn’t work in reality. While I think some parts are basically not guessable because they rely on prior knoweldge, the reader should be able to work out the significance of some key bits of information and start to piece those ideas together to at least give a general idea of how the poison must have been delivered. Those ideas are clever and exciting. I can certainly understand how it might work for others.

So overall then I found this to be rather a mixed bag (and that’s not even touching on the rather uncomfortable paragraphs where characters discuss Jewish bankers). The good bits of the story are both successful and interesting but I struggled with how bland the novel’s villain felt and had problems with the general pacing of the tale. Sayers was certainly capable of better and I think, were Harriet not introduced in this story, it would not be remembered anywhere near so fondly.

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Murderous Methods category as a Golden Age read.

Further Reading

Curious whether the method used here would work? Several years ago The Guardian published a story discussing it, basically saying that while the science was credible in 1930s understanding, it doesn’t stand up today. Be warned that the article does give the solution away so read at your own risk.

Nick at the Grandest Game in the World considers this one of Sayers’ best, appreciating the witty writing and the inclusion of Miss Climpson who, yes, is ‘as splendid as ever’.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers

Book Details

Originally Published in 1928
Lord Peter Wimsey #4
Preceded by Unnatural Death
Followed by The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Blurb

Some aristocrats spend their lives shooting, but Lord Peter Wimsey is a hunter of a different kind: a bloodhound with a nose for murder. Before he became Britain’s most famous detective, Lord Peter contented himself with solving the crimes he came across by chance. In this volume of short stories, he confronts a stolen stomach, a man with copper fingers, and a deadly adventure at Ali Baba’s cave, among other conundrums. These mysteries tax not just his intellect, but his humor, knowledge of metallurgy, and taste for fine wines. It’s not easy being a gentleman sleuth, but Lord Peter is the man for the job.

The Verdict

A disappointing collection that focuses on the whimsical at the expense of detection.


My Thoughts

The short story is a decidedly different beast from the novel and requires a different set of writing skills. While there are some writers who seem equally capable at both, some clearly are more suited to one form than the other. To give some examples I have mentioned on this blog before, I think Conan Doyle wrote the short story much better than the novel while Agatha Christie was much more accomplished with long form work.

While I have been well acquainted with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, I have had much less experience with her short stories. With the exception of one or two stories that have been reprinted in British Library Crime Classics anthologies, one of which comes from this collection, I had not really come across her short stories until now. Based on that small sample I was hopeful about this collection but I am disappointed to report that I found this made for uninspiring reading.

My first observation is that this collection is misnamed. While there are a couple of deaths in the stories here, most of tales focus on some sort of treasure hunt and feel more like adventure stories than detective fiction. That focus on less violent crimes is not uncommon for short stories given the limitations of the page count but few show Lord Peter’s intellect and deductive skills to their fullest extent.

The focus in many of these stories is on the bizarre and often the grotesque with stories like The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers and The Fantastic Horror of the Cat in the Bag offering memorable ways to discover a body. While both cases have memorable images, neither have particularly interesting investigations.

Some stories focus more on the whimsical and comedic such as The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question and The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach. Those comedic elements tended to miss for me, perhaps because so many of them come out of Lord Peter’s own flippant attitude (and conservatism), but some will no doubt delight others.

Only a couple of stories really hit the mark for me. The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention makes use of the idea of a Phantom Carriage that portends one’s doom, using it quite cleverly. This is one of the longest stories in the collection but I appreciated its atmosphere and was intrigued to find out the explanation for the carriage that characters, including Lord Peter, see.

I also really enjoyed The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, the story I had read previously. It concerns an unidentified man who is found dead on a beach wearing his bathing suit. I enjoyed the mystery of who the man was (cuts to his face disguise his identity) and felt it stood up to a second reading – something I find hard to imagine of many of the stories here.

One story here is utterly bizarre however – the final one, The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba. This tale is yet another variation on the secret criminal organization trope but it manages to make Agatha Christie’s The Big Four look grittily realistic and credible. Something which I feel is quite an achievement. The plot is absolute nonsense.

So, overall not a great collection. Based on this sample I am inclined to think that the short story was a form that really didn’t play to Sayers’ strengths – Lord Peter as a character probably needs more space to breathe and show off his personality. The one story that is noticeably longer is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a much richer reading experience.

On the positive side, now I have this one out of the way the next book is one I remember as one of my favorites. Expect thoughts on The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club soon! In the meantime, click below to see my thoughts on each individual story in this collection.

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