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

Garage Lit: The Poems of Robert Browning

“Garage lit” isn’t a garage band.  It’s lit you keep in the garage.

We keep mostly genre stuff in the garage: Ngaio Marsh…Dashiell Hammett…Francis Iles… Simenon…Clifford D. Simak…Joanna Russ… Sheridan le Fanu…  Mary Braddon…

And then I found two copies of Poems of Robert Browning. My husband and I had the same text in college.

We read a LOT of Browning in Victorian lit.  I underlined almost the entire Table of Contents.  I  also inscribed “Oct. 19 midterm” on the flyleaf. I do hope the exam’s emphasis was on Browning, since the book doubled as my syllabus.  Where was my friggin’ notebook?

And so I have fallen in love with Browning…again!

Every garage should have a copy of Browning.

I sat in the garage (it was raining outside) and opened the book to the famous poem “My Last Duchess.” Written in iambic pentameter couplets, this elegant monologue has a Gothic twist. The persona of the poem,  a sixteenth-century Duke of Ferrara, begins by pointing out a painting of his late wife, his Last Duchess.  His auditor, ironically, is an envoy making the arrangements for his marriage to a  young bride.

The poem begins:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

The Duke is a head case.  He implies that Fra Pandolf, an artist and monk, also “worked” his hands “busily” on the duchess.  In the Duke’s paranoia, every one of her smiles or blushes is the sign of infidelity.   By the end of the poem, we realize that the duke’s pathological jealousy ended in her death at his command.

If you like horror, do read My Last Duchess.

Browning was a master of the dramatic monologue. The persona, or speaker, of a dramatic monologue reveals  his thoughts, feelings, and psychological motives to an unheard auditor.

There is much to analyze in Browning’s poesy, but I am here only  to cheer you on!

I Finish “Vanity Fair” & Dobbin Writes His Name in a Dictionary

Dobbin reading in “Vanity Fair”

The other day I raised the question of whether we should write our name in books.  While I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an  urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  I did write my name in my Latin dictionary.

I was finding VF a bit of a slog until I wrote my name.  Is it magic?  Then I began to enjoy it.

Thackeray spins a rip-roaring story of love and war.  His whimsical style can be a little coy,  but the characterization is peerlessly vivid.   I relished the wit of Becky Sharp, an artist’s daughter and con artist who rises from governess to a belle of high society.  Becky seems extraordinarily modern.  Today, with her business sense, she would control Wall Street.   She has a knack for twisted economics, as she schemes to cheat creditors and friends.   She might have survived the financial crash of 2008. There is even a bit of #metoo exploitation about Becky:  she spins convincing tales about being victimized by men she victimizes. (Yes, they say you must believe what people tweet, but you can’t believe Becky!)  My favorite character is her husband, Rawdon Crawley, a gambler and a libertine who eventually reforms for the sake of their son.

Sometimes Thackeray’s satire is a little too 18th-century.  (N.B.  He is a Victorian writer.)   And I tired of his authorial asides as he skewers the Vanity Fair of life.  Still, he satirizes all the characters.  Even the morally upright William Dobbin, a Major in the Army,  goes too far in his idealization of sappy Amelia, the widow of his best friend, George Osborne.  And Amelia foolishly idealizes George, who, unbeknownst to her, did not just flirt with Becky but wanted to run away with her.

And then in the last chapter, after Dobbin quarrels with Amelia, we learn the most important fact.  Dobbin writes his name in books!

Some books still subsisted, after Dobbin’s departure, with his name written in them:  a German dictionary, for instance, with ‘William Dobbin, – th Reg.’, in the flyleaf; a guide-book with his initials, and one or two other volumes which belonged to the Major.

I mentioned that I’d written my name in a Latin dictionary.  Dobbin writes his name in a dictionary too–my doppelgänger!

Mellie (Olivia de Haviland) and Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) in “Gone with the Wind”

By the way,  I recommend VF to fans of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Mitchell obviously lifted signficant bits from Thackeray:  Scarlett O’Hara has a lot of Becky in her, and Amelia is Mellie.

Hardcover Collections & Paperback Allergies

Do I collect books?  No, but I have a lot of books.  And I do own four copies of each of the Brontës’ seven novels, bought for the cover art.

I usually prefer paperbacks. They’re light and portable, and somehow feel more daring.  I love lounging on the sofa and reading a nearly weightless paperback.

But lately I’ve switched to hardcovers.  Have I stopped lounging?   No.  Wait for it…  I AM ALLERGIC TO PAPERBACKS.  And I wonder:  should this be happening outside an underground comic book?

Much to my chagrin, a strong bleach-based spray cleanser gave me a case of contact dermatitis.   And that’s why I was reading Vanity Fair in a Penguin hardcover, because my the paper in the old paperback is too acidic.

The rash has  cleared up.   It’s enough to make me a collector of hardcovers, though.

I do enjoy other people’s book collections, even though I’m not a collector.   In  the latest issue of the TLS, Nicholas Murray writes about collecting the original World’s Classics hardcover series. He says these tiny books were “launched in 1901 by Grant Richards and bought by Henry Frowde of Oxford University Press in 1905. It ran until the mid-1970s, publishing well over 600 titles. The name survives in OUP’s current paperback library of classic editions, originally ‘World’s Classics’ and renamed Oxford World’s Classics in 1998.”

I  have the World’s Classics hardcover edition of George Moore’s Esther Waters.  I found it years ago at a used bookstore.

I certainly would like that edition of Katherine Mansfield!  But I already HAVE a Katherine Mansfield.  (You can buy it for about $10 on Etsy..)

Do You Write Your Name in Books? On Rereading Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”

The other day, while I was reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I had an irresistible urge to write my name on the flyleaf.  I hadn’t done that in years.  At 12, I scribbled my name in Jane Eyre.  I also wrote it in  my Latin dictionary.

Then I broke the habit. Some years ago, I was irritated when a librarian wrote my name in a  novel I’d lent her.  It seemed impudent, because it wasn’t her book.

Perhaps I wrote my name in Vanity Fair because I was enjoying it less than I hoped. When I first read it at 17, I  found Becky Sharp hilarious and Dobbins charming, but I was disappointed in the book.   I was a Victorian novel nut, but I  preferred Dickens’s  pyrotechnics and Trollope’s plain style to Thackeray’s pointed wit and stylistic bibelots.  In  the introduction to the Penguin, John Carey compares Vanity Fair to War and Peace.  I do not see the similarities.

I enjoyed Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon and The Newcomes.  So why  does the clever, nimble prose of Vanity Fair not delight me?

I wrote my name in the book, so now I have to like it.

Do you write your name in books?

Are You a Russian Lit Geek? Rereading Goncharov’s “Oblomov” and Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks”

Are you a Russian lit geek?  I love Russian classics.  I even saved my adorable notes from a long-ago Russian Literature in Translation class.  And I  recently reread two 19th-century Russian novels, Ivan Goncharov’s comic masterpiece, Oblomov, and Tolstoy’s short novel, The Cossacks.

I have never read a funnier novel than  Oblomov. The enchantingly slothful hero, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, prefers sleep to action.  He naps and lazes all day in his dusty apartment, where his servant Zakhar does as little as possible.  In the opening chapter, the two quarrel about the housekeeping.  Zakhar claims he can’t dust or sweep the cobwebs unless Oblomov goes out for a day.  The prospect horrifies Oblomov. “Good lord! what next?  Go out indeed!  You’d better go back to your room.”

Nothing can wake up Oblomov:  neither his bailiff’s cheating him of money,  nor  the landlord’s eviction notice.    But when his energetic half-German friend Stolz shows up, Oblomov reluctantly make the rounds of social visits. But he doesn’t truly wake up tills he falls in love with  Olga, a young woman determined to direct his life:  she  insists that he read books and  take long walks.  The romance  can’t last, of course.  Oblomov becomes sluggish in the fall.  And he  suffers from what he calls “Oblomovism.”

One of the most famous chapters is “Oblomov’s Dream,” the longest single scene in Russian literature, according to critic Richard Freeborn.  Oblomov dreams of his  idyllic childhood  and future with a wife and children on his beautiful country estate.  The power of Oblomov’s imagination radically changes our attitude toward his sleepy mode of living.  Critics in the 19th century interpreted “Oblomovism” as an illustration of the  Russian character flaw that prevented reform and revolution.  Stolz is successful only because he is half German.  But Goncharov also believed the artist must be a passive vehicle, “an artist of the eye” who relies on his subconscious. And Oblomov fits that description, I think on a third reading.  Yet such an interpretation is out of context.

I have read and loved David Magarshack’s translation of Oblomov (Penguin) and Natalie Duddington”s (Everyman’s Library).

Tolstoy wrote The Cossacks, a partly autobiographical novel, over 10 years.  He  traveled to the Caucasus in 1851 and in 1852 joined the army as a cadet.  Writing The Cossacks was Tolstoy’s attempt to deflate the romantic view of the Caucasus. It was published in 1863.

The Cossacks begins as the story of  Olenin, an upper-class young man who wonders “how to live.”  He leaves Moscow for the Caucasus, because he seeks a new kind of life.  In the Caucasus he is overwhelmed by the beauty of the mountains.  And he becomes infatuated with the simplicity and naturalness of the Cossacks.

The most interesting part of the book is a series of sketches of Cossack characters. The women farm and do the work; the men hunt, drink, and fight.   Tolstoy focuses on three characters:  Lukashka, a fearless Cossack soldier who does exactly what he wants, Maryanka, a gorgeous young woman who is understood to be engaged to Lukashka, and “Uncle” Yokashka, an old man who tells stories and drinks to excess.  Olenin falls in love with Maryanka. He wants to be a Cossack, but in the end realizes he will never fit in.

It is not my favorite Tolstoy, but he could not have written War and Peace if he had not written stories about the Caucasus and Crimea.

I have two good translations of this:  David McDuff’s (Penguin) and Aylmer and Louise Maude’s in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy. As so often, I preferred the Maude.

The Tyranny of Routine & Three Literary Links

A scene from “The Jane Austen Book Club”

You need to follow a routine.  That’s what they tell insomniacs.  Get up at the same time every day.  Oh, sure, set that alarm for 6 on the weekend.  That will regulate your sleep patterns.

I used to be an insomniac.  I seldom slept more than four hours a night.    In a sitcom,  everyone laughs when the “insomniac” is caught snoring, because it proves that he or she does sleep.   But I used to stay up and read till 1 or 2, and then get up at 5:30 to get to work by 7:30.

My insomnia stopped when I began to work at home.  So the problem was simple:  I  wasn’t a morning person.  Now I get my sleep, and my schedule is flexible.  My motto is,  Get it done.  The time of day doesn’t matter.

Because of the tyranny of routine in the workplace,  I very much enjoyed John Stilgoe’s column in The Guardian, “Is a daily routine all it’s cracked up to be?”  Routines are said to help creativity and productivity, but a study of academic writing habits proved that it isn’t always helpful to write every day.  You may lose your motivation.

Stilgoe writes,

Routines are good. It’s easier to make something a habit if you plan it in advance and do it daily; plus there’s the (controversial) phenomenon of “decision fatigue”, which implies that you should “routinise” as many choices as possible – such as when to get up and what to do first each day – to save energy for others. Some people are so disorganised that a strict routine is a lifesaver. But speaking as a recovering rigid-schedules addict, trust me: if you click excitedly on each new article promising the perfect morning routine, you’re almost certainly not one of those people. You’re one of the other kind – people who’d benefit from struggling less to control their day, responding a bit more intuitively to the needs of the moment. This is the self-help principle you might call the law of unwelcome advice: if you love the idea of implementing a new technique, it’s likely to be the opposite of what you need.


1  Gene Wolfe, a literary science fiction writer, died on April 21.  Last year I wrote at my blog Mirabile Dictu (here) about  The  Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s award-winning quartet, The Book of the New Sun.

And in an article in The New Republic, Jeff Heer calls Wolfe the Proust of science fiction.   He writes,

Wolfe, a celebrated writer of science fiction and fantasy with a deeply Catholic imagination, died on Sunday at age 87. Wolfe was a writer who occupied a unique niche by fusing together three seemingly divergent strands: pulp fiction, literary modernism, and Catholic theology. His four-volume masterpiece The Book of the New Sun (of which The Shadow of the Torturer is the first tome) is an almost indescribable combination of speculative Christian eschatology with a Conan the Barbarian adventure story, written in a prose that can fairly be described as Proustian.

3.  Have you read the 11th-century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu’snovel, The Tale of Genji?  That was my summer project a few years ago.  In The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about the Tale of Genji exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.