The Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy Sayers

The Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy Sayers January 21, 2014

In Galloway, according to Dorothy Sayers, everyone either fishes or paints or both. This is her introduction to The Five Red Herrings, a fiendish mystery novel involving seven painters and fishers, one of whom is dead, one of whom killed him, and five of whom didn’t. All six of the living painters have alibis, one of which needs to be broken. There are a great deal of cars and trains and bicycles—oh, the bicycles—, far too many train schedules, and a great many investigators, only one of whom is Peter Wimsey.

I first read this book many years ago, and found it a truly nasty slog—and this is precisely what I meant by “fiendish” above. I got through it by dint of sheer force of will and (probably) much skimming. Because I’m trying to read all of the Wimsey novels in order, I attempted it this time with small hope of pleasure; and at first was pleasurably surprised. Sayers’ portrait of Galloway was engaging, and Lord Peter was Lord Peter, and all was good. And then it all went to hell, and by the time I was a third of the way through it I was horribly confused, couldn’t remember who anyone was, and gave it up altogether after avoiding it for a week or so.

I have no doubt that there’s a brilliantly convoluted mystery here, and that by diligent effort, by much taking of notes and drawing of diagrams, the puzzle-minded mystery reader might derive a great deal of pleasure from the careful and intricate construction. Me, I was reminded of nothing so much as one of those puzzles where Mr. Green lives next to Mr. Brown, who lives in the third house in the row, next door to the man who plays the penny whistle and two doors down from the man in the pink house, who lives next door to the man who owns a golden retriever and whose name is the same as the color of the house at the end of the row–except that all of these pertinent details are buried in a mound of surmises, assumptions, lies, and travelogue.

My apologies to any readers who like this book. For my part, I’d give it a miss.

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