I think it would be fair to say that Dorothy L Sayer’s book Five Red Herrings isn’t one of the best or most well-loved of her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels.
It’s certainly not one of her books that I had read until very recently, but a repeat of the Ian Carmichael radio adaptation on BBC Radio 4 Extra the other week prompted me to turn to the novel – since I kept falling asleep listening to the late night radio repeat and soon didn’t have a clue what on earth was going on! While dropping off was entirely my fault and casts no aspersion over the radio version, it soon become clear that this is a mystery that simply has to be read first on on the page if one is to have any hope of following the plot.
Even then, this is a flawed book. Usually Sayers’ strength is to take us to places we’ve never been and bring them beautifully to life, whether it’s the flat lands of East Anglia or the cloisters of an all-women’s college, and to fascinate us with an education in the unlikeliest subjects (from bell ringing to 1930s advertising and the intricacies of inheritance law), she’s also able to bring characters to life and tell a beguiling tale at the same time. And in those last two respects, Five Red Herrings – the sixth of her novels featuring the aristocratic detective – rather fails to make the usual grade.
Instead the story becomes overwhelmed by minutiae, with page after page given over to study of local railway timetables in Scotland to the west of Dumfries and discussion over how long it would take someone to walk or bicycle or drive from one point to another. There’s a map provided at the front of the book but it won’t help you get much of a feel for the landscape which means it’s all very abstract and not hugely gripping, but feels more like a school maths exam to make sure you’ve understood this week’s lesson.
The characters are also overrun by the plot: the six suspects (five red herrings and one actual culprit) first go suspiciously missing allowing for much wild speculation and conjecture, then they turn up with stories that don’t hold up under examination, and finally they come up with even more outlandish explanations almost none of which confer any sort of alibi on them. If you manage to keep all these multiple moving pieces in your head for very long without getting hopelessly confused then you deserve a medal. Even so, it probably won’t help you solve the mystery of the death of despised local painter Sandy Campbell since Sayers rather unforgivably conceals key clues such as the basic reason why Wimsey alone suspects that Campbell’s death is not an accidental fall but cold blooded murder, at which point Sayers coyly writes: “Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the sergeant what to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.”
Excluding the reader from such information (since working it out is not entirely obvious and requires some knowledge of oil painting) is a really low move by Sayers in my view, although not as low as pet hate of mine in the form of huge blocks of dialogue rendered phonetically in a broad Scottish accent (we’re told the victim “juist tummled intae the burn an’ drooned himself” for example) that is even more impenetrable to read on the page than it is for the soft southerner to decipher in person by ear. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Sayers throws in testimony from a witness who for absolutely no apparent reason has a therioth lithp which is also conveyed phonetically in the text. (I could add that there are a few racial terms in the text as well that wouldn’t be permissible today; however these aren’t meant offensively and were simply terms in use in Sayers’ social circles in the day, for the same reason that Agatha Christie’s original title for And Then There Were None was also what would now be deemed extremely politically incorrect.)
All that said, Sayers strengths inevitably continue to shine through: by the time you get to the end of the book you certainly feel you’ve spent a few days immersing yourself in this part of the Scottish countryside; and you’ll have an extraordinary knowledge of how the little 1930s railway branch lines worked and how bicycles were ticketed through to their destination. Does that sound thrilling and appeal to you? Then this is the book you shoudl ready, because in many ways that really is the core of Five Red Herrings’ charm especially since these lines were later all swept away in the 1950s and 1960s by Beeching’s reforms. As a result, this remains one of the most evocative records of a time and place now long gone.
As for the puzzle, I do think it’s almost impossible to hold all the necessary facts and figures in your head to fully solve the crime, at least not without time-travelling back to the scene and staging your own full construction of the various theories of the crime in situ to work out which one actually holds water – which is actually what Wimsey and the police do in the concluding chapters. I suspect Sayers travelled these roads and rails many times conducting her own similar research. T
The police here are surprisingly adept and sensible in this story compared with most in amateur detective fiction of the period, but that means Wimsey is reduced to being at the head of an ensemble cast – albeit the one with the wit and imagination to deliver the correct solution at the end where the police are being rather more literal and linear. Even so he’s markedly less of the star or centre of attention here than in his other outings and we tend not to get the same insight into his thought processes and feelings as usual. As for recurring characters in the series like manservant Bunter and Chief Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, they get little more than cameo appearances here.
Now it might seem that my griping about the book being unfair is because I didn’t work out the solution and am therefore sulking. But you’d be wrong: actually – and I was quite startled by this myself – I got it absolutely right. More right than I usually get whodunnits in fact. I could pat myself on the back for how wonderfully clever I’ve been, but I have to concede that maybe it was also down to Sayers’ writing being so beautifully pitched that while you feel this miasma of detail is completely impossible to sort out while you’re in the thick of it, actually she plots the path through it all for you with elegant efficiency. Who knows?
I cottoned on to what I felt was the solution quite early on – well, halfway through – and didn’t budge from that point of view and as a result had some sort of framework throughout with which to evaluate and appreciate all the red herrings that were flying around that could otherwise have been exasperating. It’s probably a story that will grow with the re-reading of it once the mystery aspect is out of the way; not unlike the way Fight Club becomes a totally different film when you know the secret and can sit back and watch it with fresh, uncluttered eyes.
When all is said and done, the title of the book is very appropriate: this is a story of the Five Red Herrings with their dozen different misleading stories, motives and alibis between them. Whodunnit and how at the end of all that is actually rather secondary to relishing the chaos and confusion of information overload about types of bicycles and cars and who went by which train to Glasgow that day and with whom and when. But even so, I did feel I deserved top marks at the end of the exam for not getting the right answer but merely getting to the end in the first place.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Five Red Herrings is available from all good bookshops and as an ebook. The BBC radio adaptation is available on CD and as of time of writing can he heard on the BBC iPlayer.
[SPOILERS: For the record (and to jog my future memory as much as anything) here were the primary clues I fixed on very early that led me to the right conclusion. Obviously, don’t read on if you don’t want to have the story significantly spoiled, although I still won’t be naming names… Ready? The first question the reader should ask themselves is: why did the killer go to such extraordinary lengths – standing on a hillside for an hour and a half painting a picture while the corpse lay at his feet – to change the apparent time of death if it still doesn’t give anyone a proper alibi? The vital clue Sayers hides from the readers early on is a missing tube of paint (which fortunately I did surmise at the time), and it’s worth asking how the killer could have ended up walking away with it in the first place. Also note how many police theories are shown to be unworkable by one particular person being at home during the night. Finally, any theory that doesn’t explain why it took such a strangely long time for the killer to get the corpose from his cottage to the river in the morning, and the part played by the Euston-bound bicycle, is clearly insufficient. Hope that helps!]