Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers

Six people didn’t regret the death of the victim, one of them committed murder

Five Red Herrings was the sixth
Lord Peter Wimsey novel
Five Red Herrings, published in 1931, has Galloway in Scotland as its backdrop and is peopled by a large cast of colourful characters, many of who are artists who enjoy fishing.

The novel is the sixth by Dorothy to feature her amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is holidaying in Scotland and amusing himself by living the simple life in a cottage, although he is accompanied by his manservant, Bunter, who attends to his every need.

Early in the novel, Wimsey comes across the dead body of an artist in a stream and finds an easel nearby with a half-finished painting that is still wet.

It is assumed that the painter, Campbell, who is a heavy drinker and has quarrelled with most of the other artists in the area, has fallen into the stream accidentally and has fractured his skull, causing his death.

However, Wimsey notices that there is an important item missing from the crime scene and suspects Campbell has been murdered and that another artist has painted the picture, skilfully faking Campbell’s distinctive style.

He shares this information with the police officers who arrive at the scene, but Dorothy doesn’t reveal to the reader the identity of the important missing item, although she puts all the information Wimsey had at the time at the disposal of the reader so they can work it out for themselves.

And so, once again, we’re off! The police know of Wimsey’s reputation and invite the English Lord to join the investigation, giving him full access to all the information they obtain during their enquiries, which Dorothy shares with the reader.

Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC TV adaptations of the stories
Ian Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey
in the BBC TV adaptations of the stories
There are six other artists living in the area who could have painted the picture in Campbell’s style. They are all rather elusive and seem to have something to hide. Wimsey concludes that five of them must be red herrings, but must investigate them all. He visits all six in their workshops and hangs around, watching them work and noting their individual habits.

It is complicated for the reader to differentiate between the six artists and their various homes and financial circumstances. Their alibis involve intricacies such as train timetables, different bicycles, the technicalities of various ticket punchers at stations and railway accounting procedure.

The reader is not helped by Dorothy faithfully reproducing in her dialogue the different Scottish accents and dialect words used by the characters, which sometimes makes the novel a difficult read.

At the end of the story, Wimsey carries out  a reconstruction of the events that take place during the 24 hours leading up to the murder, to try to convince the police that his theory about the identity of the murderer, which differs from their own, is the correct one.

It is a complicated story, with perhaps too many suspects, but Dorothy plays fair with the reader, as always, and makes it theoretically possible to work out the whodunit element of the novel, if the reader is clever enough. She describes the Scottish setting evocatively and convincingly, her knowledge of, and love for the area, shining through.

Five Red Herrings will particularly appeal to readers who enjoy the puzzle aspect of detective novels.

Buy Five Red Herrings fromor