The Five Red Herrings (Dorothy L. Sayers)

Sayers - 5 Red Herrings
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

By Dorothy L. Sayers

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1931; US, Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1931, as Suspicious Characters

Blurb (US)

It was in Galloway, Scotland, where one either fished, or painted, or both, that Campbell, the landscape painter was found dead half submerged in a stream at the foot of a steep and rocky incline.  On the bank was Campbell’s easel and stool and a half-finished picture on which the paint was still wet.  He had been seen sitting at his easel painting at ten in the morning and again at eleven, and when the body was found it was only two o’clock in the afternoon.  But…rigor mortis had set in to prove that he had been dead for ten or twelve hours.

Sayers - 5 Red Herrings US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Lord Peter Wimsey was convinced from the start that Campbell had been murdered, and after he had studied the half-finished painting he was certain that the murderer was an artist who knew Campbell and his style and could reproduce his work.  Campbell was always a testy, excitable figure who had made numerous enemies, but the painting confined suspicion to the artist colony and eventually to six painters, all friends of Lord Peter’s and of each other’s: Ferguson, Strachan, Waters, Farren, Graham and Gowan.

And there Lord Peter set to work.  Red herrings and blind alleys abound but Lord Peter, alert and determined in spite of his suave manner, weeds out the false evidence and leads the police slowly but surely directly to the murderer.

My review

The five red herrings of the title are five of six artists suspected of the murder of the most unpopular member of an artists’ colony in Scotland; the sixth is, of course, the murderer. (Unusually for Sayers, this is a “whodunit,” rather than a “howdunnit.”) Wimsey, holidaying in Scotland, helps the local police, foremost among them Inspector Macpherson, who, although Scottish, is really French (perhaps he went over after Culloden?). This is fitting, for this, the most Croftsian of all Sayers’ novels, is a map and train puzzle, complete with boats and bicycles. Although slower-moving than other Sayers novels, it is, like all her books, immensely satisfying: she has the rare gift of grabbing the reader’s attention and never letting go. The vanishing beard of Matthew Gowan is an entertaining clue, and there is an excellent scene in which the artist Strachan nearly murders Wimsey on a cliff. In the end, Wimsey, arguing from an object not found at the scene of the crime (although hinted at throughout), is, like the illustrious Dr. Thorndyke, able to deduce four characteristics of the murderer, whose complicated alibi borrows and improves on J.J. Connington’s The Two Tickets Puzzle (not a hard task, mind you!).

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (9th April 1931):

The scene is laid among a community of artists in one of the loveliest parts of Galloway, and the corpse, on whose presence Lord Peter Wimsey (that “lover of simple pleasures”) congratulates himself at the outset of the story, is that of a well-known painter who has, apparently, met with a fatal accident while doing a brilliant little piece of sketching up in the hills.  Astute amateur detective as he is, however, Lord Peter soon comes to the conclusion that foul play has been done and that the sketch, instead of being the dead man’s work, is that of his murderer, who must consequently be one of the victim’s fellow-artists.  Now, as it happens, no fewer than six of the deceased’s associates have been heard on various occasions to utter threats against him, and, by a remarkable coincidence, none of these six is able to produce a “cast iron” alibi, so that Lord Peter finds abundant work for that “inquisitive nose” of his before he at last hits on the true scent.  It is all very neatly and plausibly contrived, but even Miss Sayers’s skill is not quite proof against a certain tediousness that is almost inevitably involved in having to cast backward and forward so many times over the same ground.


Spectator (M.I. Cole, 9th May 1931):

The whole point of Miss Sayers’ new novel has been the breaking of an impregnable alibi by means of an elaborate examination of time-tables, ticket punches, etcetera, which really taxes the intelligence to follow.  Lord Peter Wimsey and the other pleasant fantasies wherewith Miss Sayers is wont to adorn her novels, have retired into the background; and the chief adornment which she here permits herself is a vivid transcription of the local speech of Galloway.

Miss Sayers’ book is perhaps the clearest example of the problem of the “pure-puzzle” book.  Many of her most devoted readers, of whom I am one, have been disappointed by The Five Red Herrings, finding it dry and dull, and realising sadly, after the first few chapters, which of the rather indistinguishable artists was bound to turn into the murderer.  Yet others have appreciated it immensely, and Mr. Michael Sadleir has given it a “boost” which has resounded through every receiving-set in the British Iles.  The explanation, I think, lies in the fact that there are a limited number of possible variants of the pure puzzle; and that when one has read a sufficient number, unless one possesses the type of mind that goes on solving crossword puzzles for ever and ever, one becomes jaded and demands some additional flavouring to the puzzle-dish.  I should therefore recommend both Miss Sayers and Mr. Crofts to the puzzle fanatics, and to others who have not yet read more than two or three books by the latter.


Sat R (H.C. Harwood, 7th March 1931, 80w):

A very good and very complicated detective story might have been improved if Miss Sayers had given to each of the six suspects more distinction.  I found it very hard to know one from another.  But no criminologist can afford to ignore [this book], the very last word in sophisticated murdering.  It may make too much demand on your attention.  Could a fault be more forgivable?



NY Times (Bruce Rae, 13th September 1931, 220w):

Beyond question one of the most skilful of mystery writers is Miss Sayers, who offers a first-rate piece of work in her latest, with Lord Peter Wimsey at his amusing best endeavouring to unravel the tangles of a Scottish mystery…  The book is a treat.


Boston Transcript (16th September 1931, 280w):

The plot uses the familiar devices of such stories and has no new twist.  The story is, moreover, too long and the details too involved.  It also lacks the force, suspense and thrills that one demands in such a story.


Chicago Daily Tribune (Schuyler Van Vleek, 19th September 1931, 180w):

Her story is told with skill.  It is enhanced by a perfectly delightful sense of humour and will interest you simply from the literary point of view, if from no other.


Outlook (W.R. Brooks, 23rd September 1931, 120w):

We might just as well have been reading higher mathematics for all the sense we got out of it.  And we have an unhappy feeling that Miss Sayers, whom we consider one of the three best detective story writers, has this time rather let us down.


Sat R of Lit (W.C. Weber, 26th September 1931, 160w):

Holds the palm for the best all-round mystery of the year.


Bookm (November 1931, 40w):

Logical and keen deductive work make this new Lord Peter story extremely entertaining.


Christopher Morley:

Original, ingenious, delightful.


Bruce Rae:

Suspicious Characters is a treat.