Book#4 – A book with a colour in the title – The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Murder Mystery/Crime
Country: United Kingdom
Film/TV Adaptations: Adapted for television in 1975. Available for viewing on YouTube.
The plot is deceptively simple – an unpopular town artist is murdered and suspicion falls upon six of his artist peers with whom he had several unpleasant encounters previously. Five of them are red herrings (or distractions) to keep the authorities from finding out who the real murderer is.
The setting is breathtaking. The adjacent towns of Kirkcudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet and Newton-Stewart with quaint cottages, rolling hills, ramshackle castles and rocky creeks which are part of the Galloway countryside in Scotland provide the handsome premises of the story.
In the beginning, we are introduced to a very drunk and arrogant Campbell in a local pub who provokes a fellow painter, leading to a physical brawl. Several other townsfolk who also find Campbell insufferable, bear witness to this disagreeable situation. Among the people present, is also Lord Peter Wimsey, an Englishman and a fairly newer member of the Galloway community.
The next afternoon brings some unfortunate news. Campbell is found dead by the river Minnoch, in the hills near Newton-Stewart. Luckily, a good old-fashioned mystery is right up Lord Peter Wimsey’s alley and he sets off gleefully in his large Daimler Double-Six to assist the local authorities in solving this case.
Despite the straightforward scenario, the book is utterly maddening, infuriating and exhausting to say the least.
Many difficult elements in this book made for a very laborious read. Too many things were happening at once, creating a tangled web of confusion. Train schedules and routes were so excessively mentioned that it became apparent that the author spent too much time at railway stations poring over train timetables rather than creating a lucid plot. Coupled with that were sudden disappearances of five of the six suspects and quite a few bicycles that dragged the story unnecessarily to the point of sheer frustration.
In fact, the author too shares the same opinion when a dialogue is shared between Wimsey and his faithful manservant.
“Bunter,” said Wimsey, “this case resembles the plot of a Wilkie Collins novel, in which everything happens just too late to prevent the story from coming to a premature happy ending.”
The heaviest use of Galloway slang and accent, although very intriguing in the beginning, slowed down the reading process considerably and I found myself reading these dialogues aloud (in what I considered to be a very good Scottish accent) to get the gist of the conversations.
Like an overcooked melange of conflicting textures and flavours, the involvement of too many characters than was crucial to the plot, completely spoiled the broth. These included Wimsey, seven official investigators, six suspects and their families, friends, housekeeping staff, neighbours and several other witnesses. It seemed that the whole country was involved in this village mystery.
What was absolutely the last straw was when each official would reconstruct the crime each time a small clue was found and endless possibilities and theories were made to be proved. This must have easily happened at least 15 times in the whole novel. In the end, all seven of the officials and Wimsey gathered to tell their own versions of the sequence of events. It was like swimming through a muddy river with nothing in sight.
Sayers mentions in the beginning of the book that every place described is real (even the irksome train schedules). When Wimsey finds out about the murder, he sets off in his car to the scene of the crime, which is some distance away from the towns. His journey is through a beautiful part of the countryside but it was difficult for me to picturise it due to the overly-described sceneries to the point where I felt like a lost tourist. I felt it was necessary for me to be acquainted to some degree with what was being described about. Google came to my rescue and I found a blog post where the blogger had actually followed Wimsey’s journey in person and posted pictures of the same. You can find the blog post here.
This book took me the LONGEST time to get through and to abandon it held a strong appeal. Several times I had the urge to press delete (since I was reading an ebook version) and start reading another one. However, since I had publicly declared it on Instagram that this would be my next read, I was determined to see this book through even though it literally put me to sleep each time.
This book is NOT an exciting page-turner in my opinion, in spite of the beauty of the locale and the plot. Google also tells me that many Dorothy fans share the same opinion that this wasn’t her best work.
Some of my favourite parts of the novel, including a lovely typically English breakfast description are:
1. It was a marvellous day in late August, and Wimsey’s soul purred within him as he pushed the car along. The road from Kirkcudbright to Newton-Stewart is of a varied loveliness hard to surpass, and with a sky full of bright sun and rolling cloud-banks, hedges filled with flowers, a well-made road, a lively engine and the prospect of a good corpse at the end of it, Lord Peter’s cup of happiness was full. He was a man who loved simple pleasures.
2. ‘It depends on how clever you are,’ replied Wimsey, coolly. ‘You remember Poe’s bit about that in The Purloined Letter. A very stupid murderer doesn’t bother about an alibi at all. A murderer one degree cleverer says, “If I am to escape suspicion I must have a good alibi.” But a murderer who was cleverer still might say to himself, “Everyone will expect the murderer to provide a first-class alibi; therefore, the better my alibi, the more they will suspect me. I will go one better still; I will provide an alibi which is obviously imperfect. Then people will say that surely, if I had been guilty, I should have provided a better alibi. If I were a murderer myself, that is what I should do.” ’
3. After a further interval came a large and steaming tea-pot, a home-baked loaf, a plate of buns, a large pat of butter and two sorts of jam. Finally, the landlady reappeared, escorting the ham and eggs in person.