Five Red Herrings (A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery)

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Five red herrings. I'm a huge fan of Dorothy L. Sayers, my first encounter with her was in the early 1970s, when as a small child, I, and my family, sat enthralled in front of the TV watching Ian Carmichael's brilliant portrayal of Lord Peter Wimsey. Although my favourite novel is The Nine Tailors, the tv adaptation that made the biggest impression on me was Five Red Herrings. Even now I can recall very clearly the discovery of the body, and the striking Scottish scenery of the tv adaptation.

However I've always really struggled with the book. I've read it 2 or 3 times now, and sometimes I've really loved it, other times I've found it very hard going. The plot line is exceptionally intricate - in many ways it's more of a police procedural than some of her other novels, and as such there is a lot of minutiae involved - tracking down train timetables, tabulating evidence, checking up on alibis. Although this should be interesting the plot does sometimes get dragged down by the sheer weight of detail. And ultimately it does seem rather silly, in the same way that the plot is overdetailed, when the murderer and his actions are revealed, I just wanted to tell the stupid clot not to over-complicate things, as there was really no need for it. I know that this is as silly as an American Native shooting the horses attached to the stagecoach (there would have been a lot of extremely short Westerns), but I do like my thrillers to not be overcomplicated to the point of daftness.

I also missed the usual characters surrounding Lord Peter, very little Bunter or Parker, no Harriet, no other members of the Wimsey family, and the Scottish characters often sound as though they've been hired from central casting. It's clearly a setting that although loved by Sayers, is not somewhere that's she naturally comfortable, as she is in the Fens or London or Oxford.

Having said which there are some things going for this novel. The descriptions of Scotland are delightful, in spite of the overly "Scotch" characters. The plot is clever if very contrived. It's also fascinating as a period study of a crime - it would be solvable today but by very different methods. The ticket trick (you'll find out what that is when you read the book) wouldn't be workable any more on British trains, but the breakfast would provide a feast of a different sort for the CSI guys.

Interesting read but still way down my list of recommended Lord Peter's.


Aarti said…
I've only read the first in the Wimsey series, and I admit I wasn't overly impressed by it. It just didn't grab me enough to want to invest in the whole series. I've heard that it only gets better as it continues, though, so maybe I should try again.
Bookhound said…
Yes - the first one is a bit grim - I think the later ones are generally the best. My favourites are Strong Poison, The nine tailors, and Busman's Honeymoon.

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