The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers
Originally published in 1931
Lord Peter Wimsey #7
Preceded by Strong Poison
Followed by Have His Carcase
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?
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…
The Verdict: The core ideas of the mystery are interesting but I found the telling of it tedious and drawn out.