Book Review: Five Red Herrings

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers (1931)

In short:

  • I don’t care what happens to these people.[1]
  • This isn’t a novel it’s a cross between a railroad time schedule and a crossword puzzle.
  • That isn’t Lord Peter Wimsey–he’s a generic wealthy, privileged member of the upper class who is given unreasonable amounts of access and information by local legal authorities.

Rating: 1-1/2 stars

Warning, past here there be spoilers.

It is difficult to know where to start with “what bothered me” about this book. Instead of just not caring what happened to these people (which might result in me simply not finishing the book) I came to be actively annoyed and resentful of the characters and thus, of course, the author.

First, when last the reader encountered Lord Peter Wimsey (Strong Poison) he had just had what seemed, to readers of the time, a life altering experience. He had finely met a woman (Harriet Vane) he could truly love, proved to the world (and more importantly the English justice system) that she was not guilty of having poisoned her ex-lover, and had his marriage proposal to her turned down. The reader might deduce that a wise man would give Miss Vane some time to recover emotionally from her recent travails and an even wiser man might be endeavouring to solve the problem of removing the shadow of King Cophetua from his sudden attraction to Vane. A few sentences from Sayers would have sufficed to suggest to those who had read the most recently published to Wimsey’s exploits that he has retreated to the artistic colony on Galloway in order to recover from recent events. In fact that ploy (man removing himself from his recent haunts to avoid the pain of love lost) was an extremely common one in British fiction at the time. Alternatively Sayers could have indicated in the text that the events of this book preceded those in Strong Poison.

Second, Wimsey was not a character created new for this book. The reader has had a chance to learn how he entertains himself, what things he finds interesting, what people he likes to be around and what he does with his time when he isn’t solving mysteries. The Wimsey in this book is hardly recognizable as the same man. I prefer to believe that the person styling himself “Wimsey” is actually a young male relative who shares the same first name and enjoys being taken for his more famous kinsman.

Third, the Bunter of this book is not the Bunter of the previous Wimsey books. Nor is he well used. Much of the story surrounds issues of alibis and no one is better situated to confirm (or explode) an alibi than a domestic servant. Yet, with a few exceptions, Bunter’s “way with” female servants is not employed. Further, Bunter’s numerous skills with photography and chemical analyses are not well used either. I prefer to believe that “Lord Peter” has calls to his servant “Bunter” rather his real name as part of the masquerade.

Fourth, I very much dislike the use of the ploy in which the murderer when faced with what the police say is evidence just rolls over and tells the entire story. This is a way for the author to avoid the issue of whether the charges (or the evidence) would have stood up in a court of law. In one of the early Dalgliesh novels P. D. James’ detective is left, near the end of the book, sure that a particular character had committed a crime although he never presses charges. That character later writes to him: They [referring to his superiors] wouldn’t believe you but you were right[2]. Dalgliesh’s thoughts when he read the letter?

She was wrong, he thought. They hadn’t disbelieved him, they had just demanded, reasonably enough, that he find some proof. He had none, either at the time or later, although he had pursued the case as it it were a personal vendetta, hating himself and her. And she had admitted nothing; not for one moment had she been in any danger of panicking. (297-8)

Fifth, the class relationships/privilege that underlie and intertwine with the plot of the book make the “murderer told all” ploy both necessary and extremely unlikely.

  • It was necessary because throughout the novel the police treat members of the gentry with kid gloves. A murder was committed and a very limited number of people (given the theory of the crime) could have done the deed. The police have reason to believe that the murder accidentally took an object from the scene of the crime. Yet at no point are the only individuals that the police consider likely suspects asked to go to the police station, their homes are not searched and (more important to the theory of the crime) neither is their painting equipment searched. I think that Sayer’s herself was aware of that problem and that was one of the reasons that she waited so long to share with the reader what object Wimsey realized was missing even though he shares that information with the police.
  • It was extremely unlikely because the accused man was a member of a class used to being treated with kid gloves by the police. His first response would probably have been to contact the family solicitor. And the family solicitor would have pointed out that there was a perfectly reasonable alternative explanation of the crime.

Sixth, a good lawyer could make a very reasonable case that Lord Peter Wimsey was, if not the actual murderer, an accessory to the crime.

  1. Wimsy had opportunity to remove the missing tube of paint himself from the scene of the crime. Neither the Sergeant nor the Constable were with him as he searched the deceased’s effects. The solicitor might suggest to the police that Wimsey had in fact killed Campbell and now realized that he had a chance to muddy the waters by throwing suspicion on others. Since the police at the scene did not search Wimsey before he left there is no way to prove that he did not exit the premises with the tube of paint in his pocket. He would have no worry that Bunter (or faux-Bunter) would report any smears of white paint that were later left in his pocket.
  2. Wimsey had an opportunity, during his first visit to Ferguson’s place to plant Campbell’s tube of paint in Ferguson’s kit.
  3. We have only Wimsey’s word for it that he cannot paint well. For someone who “doesn’t paint” he knows a lot about painting. And he did, after all, chose to spend his vacation among painters.
  4. How many “lucky breaks” are we to accept in order for Ferguson to have made it to Glasgow in the way Wimsey “proved.” Given how extremely important the creation of his alibi was how likely was it that he wouldn’t notice that his watch had stopped? How likely was it when Ferguson on his bicycle missed the train that a car would have driven by at just the right moment so that he could hold onto the back and make it, with his bike, to the next station in time to catch the train? How likely is it that the driver of the car would have not noticed that he was trailing a bike behind him? How likely was it that not a single person would have noticed the car trailing a bike behind it? How likely was it that a man who had never been involved in crime would have been so successful at forging his train ticket and how likely that the forgery was flawed “just enough” to be noticeable when Wimsey needed it to be noticed?

If Ferguson had just stayed silent I doubt the police would have pressed charges. As for all the details Ferguson supposedly supplied? Well, we only have Sayers’ word for them don’t we?

Me, I have an alternative theory of the crime. Campbell was about to expose the faux “Lord Peter,” they struggled and “Lord Peter” accidentally killed him (much as Ferguson supposedly did.) “Wimsey” and the faux “Bunter” work together to stage Campbell’s accident but when “Wimsey” realized that the police would probably work out that Campbell had died hours before the apparent accident he began to remove and plant evidence that will muddy the investigation. After “Wimsey” and “Bunter” have checked out all the alibis of the six suspects they work together to incriminate Ferguson. The careful reader with notice that “Bunter” is for the most part absent from the later portion of the story as he worked in the background to lay down all the clues for the police to follow.
Why didn’t Ferguson fight harder? Chief Inspector Parker mentioned to his wife (the sister of the real Lord Peter) that her brother was involved in investigating a crime in Galloway. Lady Mary knowing where her brother actually is informs her rather stodgy elder brother. The faux Lord Peter is the black sheep in the family and they are used to paying people off to cover up for his various escapades. Ferguson is offered a very substantial “gift” in return to agreeing to claim guilt. A few words to the wise and the judge in Scotland was happy to lead the jury to return a sentence of manslaughter with a recommendation of mercy. And faux “Wimsey” and faux “Bunter” are on their way to the colonies on the next available ship.

[1] The eight deadly words in any book review. As per Wikipedia: “The phrase was coined by Dorothy J. Heydt in a June 11, 1991, Usenet posting to rec.arts.sf-lovers in reference to The Copper Crown, a novel by Patricia Kennealy-Morrison:

[2] James, P. Shroud for a nightingale. London: Sphere, 1977.


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