RogerBW's Blog

The Five Red Herrings, Dorothy Sayers 25 March 2018

1931 mystery, sixth of Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey. In Galloway, one fishes or one paints, ideally both; but one of the more offensive painter-fishermen has apparently fallen off a cliff. Wimsey is unconvinced.

For me this has always been Sayers' least engaging book, and I think it's because the workings of the plot are very much exposed. There are six suspects, and none of them has a plausible alibi; most of them lie to the police, for unconvincing reasons; it becomes difficult at times to remember which of them is which. (And, in order to stage the scene in which each of the investigators in turn puts his preferred suspect in the frame, there are rather too many policemen too.) This is the sort of book in which people have conversations like:

'Something went wrong with my magneto, otherwise; I should have got up early and run over to catch the 7.30 express from Dumfries, instead of waiting for that ghastly 11.22, which stops at every station.'

'Rather than travel by a confirmed stopper,' said Wimsey, 'I'd have waited a little longer and gone by the 1.46.'

'Taking the 10.56 from Gatehouse, you mean?'

'Or the 11 o'clock 'bus. It gets you in to Dumfries at 12.25.'

'No, it doesn't,' said Strachan. 'That's the Sunday 'bus. The week-day 'bus goes at 10.'

and the exact mechanics of ticket collection and bicycle transport are discussed in depth. And it's a book that cheats just a little, since in an early chapter:

(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.)

The description of what has drawn Wimsey's attention is complete, but the reader is placed at even more of a position of disadvantage than are the police; it's a cheat, because if the experienced mystery-reader had that information he'd easily be able to spot the one relevant fact in the mess of irrelevancies that follow. A better book would have avoided having such a blatant clue in the first place, and so wouldn't have had to hide it.

So for me at least the detection plot falls down. What's left is the characterisation, but with all that consulting timetables and gadding about there's less room for it than usual. Bunter and Chief Inspector Parker have small parts, and none of the other recurring characters shows up at all; even Wimsey himself is off the stage for quite a bit of the time, as the various Scottish policemen track down details. What is there is excellent, in particular when dealing with the wife of one of the suspects, who clearly knows more than she's telling, but who is also suspected of infidelity – and who manages to use this as a lever against her husband. Wimsey comments:

'I shan't necessarily be unfaithful to my wife, but I shall know enough about infidelity to know it when I see it, and not mistake other things for it. If I were married to you, for example, I should know that under no circumstances would you ever be unfaithful to me. For one thing, you haven't got the temperament. For another, you would never like to think less of yourself than you do. For a third, it would offend your aesthetic taste. And for a fourth, it would give other people a handle against you.'

There's also the plain Sayers coming out at times, poking gentle fun at the conventions of the detective story.

'They want to find the last person who saw the man alive,' said Wimsey, promptly. 'It's always done. It's part of the regular show. You get it in all the mystery stories. Of course, the last person to see him never commits the crime. That would make it too easy. One of these days I shall write a book in which two men are seen to walk down a cul-de-sac, and there is a shot and one man is found murdered and the other runs away with a gun in his hand, and after twenty chapters stinking with red herrings, it turns out that the man with the gun did it after all.'

The book ends with a protracted reconstruction of the murder, which allows Sayers to describe the mechanics without resorting to reported speech or narration of the event itself.

There's plenty of broad Scots dialect (and one offensive lisper), which along with the broad characterisations of all the people who aren't suspects sometimes makes it feel like caricature; and sometimes the gaps between the good bits of Wimsey are very long. As a puzzle-story it's a failure, and as a Wimsey it's nearly a failure; it feels as though bits of Wimsey had been dropped into a story by a lesser writer.

Followed by Have His Carcase.

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Previous in series: Strong Poison | Series: Peter Wimsey | Next in series: Have His Carcase

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 01:09pm on 25 March 2018

    I took the elided clue a bit better than you did. Perhaps because I had been reading early Ellery Queen mysteries where the narrator would announce: All the information you need to solve the mystery has been given you by this point. You can work it out for yourself.

    The train details are very tedious indeed and I'm not sure how an actual Scot would react to her characters and accents. But then I've never spent many happy holidays in the northern kingdom as she plainly did.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:11pm on 25 March 2018

    It feels like an unreasonable demand on the reader's knowledge; if even fairly normal things to know, like the times of tides or the speed of coagulation of blood, are important to a mystery, they are (in the right sort of mystery) laid out in the book – as they are in Have His Carcase which I'm reading at the moment. This clue is a rather more obscure bit of information, and my feeling is that it should either have been given fairly (so that the reader is on a level footing with the detectives and can make a fair go of solving the mystery) or not used at all.

    I don't mind the explicit announcement of a point at which the reader should commit himself to a solution, though many of these golden age stories do a pretty good job of signalling it in a slightly less blatant manner.

  3. Posted by Chris Bell at 07:41pm on 25 March 2018

    You did read the description of the painting he was working on when he fell? That needs no knowledge of anything obscure whatsoever. The reader is on precisely the same footing as anyone within the book at that scene.

    One thing I will always give Sayers; if you need to know something in order to understand what Wimsey is up to, she makes sure that you do. Unlike Conan Doyle, she plays fair with the reader. On this occasion, she gives every single thing you need to work out what Wimsey was looking for.

    You may have been distracted from the essential clue by everything which came after it, but at twelve, when I first read it, I wasn't!

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