Golden Age Detective Fiction: Dorothy Sayers’s “The Five Red Herrings”

“IF ONE LIVES IN Galloway, one either fishes or paints. ‘Either’ is perhaps misleading, for most of the painters are fishers also in their spare time. To be neither of these things is considered odd and almost eccentric.”
The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy Sayers

If you are a fan of Golden Age Detective Fiction, you are familiar with Dorothy Sayers’s  Lord Peter Wimsey series.  If you are like me, you have read her books over and over.  And there’s something singular about The Five Red Herrings.  This crime classic delineates Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigation of a murder in an artists’ community,  involving troublesome train time tables, stolen bicycles, and faking another artist’s style.

I settled into a rereading of this cozy novel with great pleasure because Sayers outdoes herself in her description of Galloway, a community of artists and fishermen in scenic Scotland.  The amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey is not an artist, but he loves puttering around Galloway on vacation   He is popular with fishermen and artists alike because “he could make a reasonable cast, and he did not pretend to paint.”

He also appreciates the scenery.  The passage below reflects Wimsey’s enjoyment and observations of the countryside.

He passed through Gatehouse, waving a cheerful hand to the proprietor of the Anwoth Hotel, climbed up beneath the grim blackness of Cardoness Castle, drank in for the thousandth time the strange Japanese beauty of Mossyard Farm, set like a red jewel under its tufted trees on the blue sea’s rim, and the Italian loveliness of Kirkdale, with its fringe of thin and twisted trees and the blue Wigtownshire coast gleaming across the bay. Then the old Border keep of Barholm, surrounded by white-washed farm buildings; then a sudden gleam of bright grass, like a lawn in Avalon, under the shade of heavy trees.

And even in the wilds of Scotland, Wimsey can sniff out a crime. When Campbell, a loud-mouthed, belligerent, red-haired Scottish artist, is found dead at the bottom of a steep slope, the police assume it was an accident.  Campbell had been painting, and apparently stepped back on the steep granite scarp and tumbled down into the burn.

But Wimsey spies a problem.  After inspecting Campbell’s gear, including the tubes of paint, he notices that  the tube of white paint is missing.   And so the sharp-witted Wimsey realizes  Campbell has been murdered, and the tube of white paint accidentally pilfered by the murderer.  The degree of rigor mortis confirms Wimsey’s theory that Campbell was murdered the night before the body was found.   But who is the killer? Everyone has a motive.   Campbell antagonized most of the artists, and was actively feuding with many.  And no one has a perfect alibi.

Sayers is a brilliant writer,  a master of plot and witty dialogue. She was also a scholar who translated Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Writing perfectly-plotted, entertaining mysteries was her idea of fun.   And what talent that takes:  almost as much as translating Dante.  Usually I’m not keen on train time tables–I snoozed through time tables in various Agatha Christies–but Sayers makes resplendent and fascinating what would be dull (and indecipherable) in another writer’s hands.

The still below is from a BBC adaptation of The Five Red Herrings. I always thought Ian Carmichael (left), who plays Wimsey, was whimsical and perfect for Wimsey.   But now that I look more closely, he is almost handsome.   Is it just because I loved him in the role of Wimsey?  Who else could do Wimsey?

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey (left) and David McKail as Ferguson (right) in The Five Red Herrings

2 thoughts on “Golden Age Detective Fiction: Dorothy Sayers’s “The Five Red Herrings””

  1. This was my quiet favorite of the film adaptations and books too until I read the Harriet Vane books. I know my fondness for it was from where it was situated, the descriptions of Scotland.

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    1. Yes, the gorgeous setting and atmosphere of the artists’ community make all the difference here.

      On Sun, May 5, 2019 at 6:16 AM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:

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