A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in February will be devoted to Dorothy L. Sayers.
WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
The Five Red Herrings (1931), by Dorothy L. Sayers
This will not be a review in the traditional sense; I haven’t re-read this book in some time and prefer not to get into detail about novels upon whose details I haven’t refreshed myself lately.
However, I felt it might be useful to offer a different viewpoint on “my favourite Dorothy L. Sayers title”. Unlike most of my blogfriends and colleagues and fellow Golden Age aficionados, I’m not much on the love story for the ages that is Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I find them hard to take. The most famous of them is Gaudy Night, which is subtitled “A love story with detective interruptions”, and for me that’s a waste of a perfectly good detective story. I don’t object to a small love story running in the background of a detective story, like the ones frequently found in Ngaio Marsh and Patricia Wentworth mysteries. But when I have to wait to find out whodunit while Peter proposes to Harriet in Latin, which seems to me both pompous and arrogant, that makes me very unwilling to re-read the novel.
That being said, then, my favourite DLS work is the one that has the least romance and the most Golden Age detection — and that, to me, would be The Five Red Herrings (also published once in the US as Suspicious Characters). To me, it is her most “pure” mystery. It investigates the case primarily from the point of view of police officers, rather like Freeman Wills Crofts’ novels, and DLS has toned down her insertion of great amounts of excelsior, as I called it in this blog post. To my mind the book benefits from the absence of a lot of burlesquing of the attitudes and manners of the lower classes, which she was wont to include, and there is a stripped-down quality to the amount of writing that turns this from the size of a doorstopper to a manageable novel with a limited cast of characters.
The story of T5RH is set in Scotland, in a kind of artists’ colony frequented by painters. (The area is known as Galloway and specifically the town of Kirkudbright, which I am told is pronounced so as to rhyme approximately with “blueberry”, perhaps Ker-KOO-bree.) The fractious, bumptious, and drunken artist Sandy Campbell is found murdered, and we soon learn that whoever did it had sufficient artistic skill to counterfeit his style of painting. That reduces the suspects to six, and thus means there are five red herrings to muddy the path to a solution.
I mentioned Freeman Wills Crofts, whose Inspector French novels were masterpieces of a sub-category of the Humdrum mystery — the “timetable mystery”. Essentially a criminal sets up a complicated alibi that involves being able to “prove” that he was in a certain place at a certain time, when in fact he was not. Inspector French takes an enormous effort to trace every single little thing that would have happened in the criminal’s timetable, to try to expose any possible flaw that would allow him to break the alibi. And this is pretty much what we have here, although with a little bit more liveliness and élan than the staid Mr. Crofts could usually muster.
In this novel, Lord Peter and his police colleagues first lay out the facts about what has happened, and try to investigate both the circumstances of the crime and the alibis of the six people who could have committed it. Almost immediately upon seeing the corpse in its surroundings, Lord Peter announces that … well, there’s something that he has understood about what he sees that makes this a case of murder, except that the author deliberately does not tell you what this is. Instead you are invited to consider what Lord Peter has realized and you yourself have not. Of course it is explained before the end of the book. Instead of slapping your forehead in dismay at your stupidity, you may well have to be reminded that you should have cared about this, since the entire book has gone forward without your needing to know it. Nevertheless, you should have figured it out, and really one wonders why the murderer overlooked it also, but then there would be no mystery. And if you happen to have picked out one particular paperback to read, there is a great whacking clue in the front cover illustration that will have given away this crucial little point. There is very little you can do mentally to figure out the remainder of the plot in advance of the solution; instead this is one where the solution unfolds organically through the course of the novel and you merely appreciate it without trying to master it in advance.
At the end, Lord Peter gathers together the investigating team, from the local constable to the Procurator Fiscal, and they reconstruct the crime. This is a very pleasant experience to contemplate, I think, since it involves racing around the countryside at breakneck speeds using a variety of vehicles, trying to demonstrate that one specific person could have done everything that needed to be done within the time required. During this process it becomes clear that there is only one of the six individuals under investigation who meets the complete set of criteria that identify the murderer; that person confesses and states that Campbell was killed in self-defence. We learn in the finale that the jury has come back with a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder (and this is rare for DLS, who frequently kills off her criminals).
This is a novel that would have found contemporaneous favour with the fans of the Humdrums, and especially the practitioners of the timetable mystery; Crofts, J.J. Connington, and a few others. Perhaps this was DLS’s experiment with writing the type of mystery that was being written by her friends and colleagues, but instead she returned in 1932 to the burgeoning romance between Peter and Harriet in her next novel, Have His Carcase. From my point of view, that was not necessarily a good idea. Although DLS was certainly a more literate and skilled writer than Freeman Wills Crofts, in terms of the timetable mystery he was the master and she the novice. As timetable mysteries go, it has vivacity and moves at a good clip, but is not all that mysterious. If she had stuck at it, she might have written some awfully good timetable mysteries in the next ten years, but that of course would have been to the great disappointment of the many, many, MANY devotees of Peter and Harriet. My loss is their gain, and I think it’s better that they got the stories they cherish.
My favourite edition
I’m very fond of the very early Avon paperback titled Suspicious Characters. Isn’t it lurid? I love to think of what this would have looked like on the shelves of a New York bookstall in 1943 … and to the unsuspecting purchaser who was looking for something pulpy and violent. Well, it’s a great cover anyway. I’m also fond of the rather garish offering from the late 1950s from Four Square in the UK pictured above, with a rather smarmy picture of Lord Peter surrounded by the tiny heads of the suspects. Sorry I couldn’t find a larger depiction on the internet.
An “excellent” copy (from the Gollancz archives) of the 1931 first edition with the map endpapers, without the jacket pictured at the top of this post, will set you back about US$1,100 as of today. Wouldn’t it be nice? I’d settle for a facsimile dust jacket just to own one of these.