Nancy McKibben's Reviews > Five Red Herrings

Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
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really liked it
bookshelves: favorites, mystery, reviewed
Recommended for: lovers of British mysteries
Read 2 times. Last read January 13, 2013 to January 14, 2013.

The Five Red Herrings
By Dorothy L. Sayers

How can the reader not enjoy a mystery whose protagonist is thusly introduced:

It was a marvelous 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.


As the victim in this mystery is universally loathed, we can proceed to solving the mystery of his death with a clear conscience. (The drawback of any murder mystery, of course, is that our enjoyment must derive from a murder, albeit a fictitious one.)

The book is set in a Scottish village whose spectacular landscape and fabulous fishing attracts its share of tourists who paint or fish or both. Sayers hits upon the happy inspiration of presenting us with six artists with shaky alibis, five of whom are the red herrings of the title, and one of whom is the murderer, and they are an agreeably eccentric and entertaining lot.

Lord Peter is assisted in his detecting by an array of inspectors and constables, most of whom are Scottish, and whose speech Sayers records in dialect, scorning the warnings of all writer’s guides never to do so. Sayers does as she likes, and the results are stunning, but some readers may not wish to struggle through paragraphs full of sentences like this one: “‘The folk at the Borgan seed him pentin’ there shortly after 10 this morning on the wee bit high ground by the brig, and Major Dougal gaed by at 2 o’clock wi’ his rod an’ spied the body liggin’ in the burn.’” These passages lend charm and humor to the story, but they do read more slowly.

The murderer’s trail involves a number of mysterious bicycles and too many train schedules (skim that part, unless you really like working out whether the murderer could have boarded the train at point A or B while still having time to cycle five miles and eat breakfast at another man’s house.) There is also the complete reconstruction of the murderer and getaway by Wimsey and the other detectives. Here the Chief Constable acts as victim:

“Now, corpse,” said Wimsey, "it’s time I packed you into the car . . . Come and take up your pose again, and remember you’re supposed to be perfectly rigid by now."

Wimsey seized the Chief Constable’s cramped and reluctant body and swung it into the back seat of the Morris . . . ruthlessly ramming his victim down between the seat and the floor. "I hope you aren’t permanently damaged, sir. Can you stick it?" he added, as he pulled on his gloves.

"Carry on," said the corpse, in a muffled voice.


The murderer is eventually uncovered in the most sporting way possible, reminding us again why British mysteries from the thirties, with Lord Peter leading the way, are so much fun to read.


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