Dorothy L. Sayers’ Five Red Herrings is the second or third Lord Peter Wimsey novel I read, and the first I owned. I still have my original copy, the 1970s NEL paperback, inscribed to me “on your birthday” (probably my 14th, in 1975) by one of the three people from my old school I’m still in touch with. The last shreds of elderly glue holding the spine together disintegrated during the most recent re-read, so, pending Sellotape, it’s at present a novel in three parts.
In some respects, it’s an odd novel to have been treasured so visibly for so long. Five Red Herrings is one of the least read and least loved of Sayers’ output, despite its intense sense of place and its fabulous, truth-universally-acknowledged, opening sentence: “If one lives in Galloway, one either fishes or paints.”
The general lack of affection for Five Red Herrings may be in part because the book has dated, badly, while somehow resisting making the transition to “period piece”. This is more surprising in that, on the surface, Five Red Herrings has a nostalgic appeal at least as strong as Sayers’ other works.
First, it’s set in a now lost world, the Kirkcudbright artists’ colony of the early 20th century:
There are painters in oils, painters in water-colours, etchers and illustrators, workers in metal; artists of every variety, having this thing in common – that they take their work seriously and have no time for amateurs.
It’s more poignant, because the narrative itself understands that, though the colony seems thriving, its days are numbered. The studio scenes in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and Strong Poison show how the contemporary artistic world is leaving Galloway behind. Down in London, artists paint craggy nudes, or create works such as
a curious statuette or three-dimensional diagram carried out in aluminium, which resembled a gigantic and contorted corkscrew, and was labelled on its base: aspiration. [Gaudy Night, p.9]
The international reputation of the “Spook School” – the uniquely Scottish take on Art Nouveau, led by Frances and Rennie Mackintosh – and of the Glasgow Girls and Glasgow Boys has receded into the pre-War past by the date of Five Red Herrings. The War, too, forms a barrier between those who have fought, like Campbell, the murder victim, and those who have not, such as the 28 year old Waters, the first of the suspects, with whom he comes to blows in the opening pages.
Sayers’ near contemporary, Vera Brittain, observed on her post-War return to Somerville that in the eyes of her juniors
I was now aware that I represented neither a respect-worthy volunteer in a national cause nor a surviving victim of history’s cruellest catastrophe; I was merely a figure of fun, ludicrously boasting of her experience in an already démodé conflict. [Testament of Youth]
Brittain’s sense of having been left behind by the march of history and her resulting bitterness would both have found an echo with the troubled Campbell. His only moments of peace come in Gilda Farren’s blue and green sitting room, itself a carefully staged Pre-Raphaelite anachronism.
The second aspect which gives Five Red Herrings such an air of nostalgia could not have been known to Sayers at the time of writing. Most of the railway lines she describes in meticulous detail fell to the Beeching axe in 1965 (several had ceased to operate earlier). If one goes up to Kirkcudbright these days, one travels through a landscape filled with mysterious earthworks, their slopes overgrown with gorse, dotted with odd remnants of ruined masonry. British Rail blew its bridges behind it when it retreated from Galloway.
The book has also dated in ways which are less likely to evoke a warm nostalgic glow. Within the opening pages two pages, we discover Waters is an unthinking public-school product, far too self-satisfied and something of a young fogey. Probably, these days, he would vote Conservative but think that UKIP had some sensible ideas, if it weren’t for the unfortunate people expressing them. So far, so what I imagine Sayers intended. What I suspect she could not have expected is how far language has changed. Contemporary publishing conventions require her to modify dialogue, even in the context of a barroom brawl, so that Waters is forced to come out with lines like, “I’ll break your qualified neck for this” and “He called me a –”.
Any tendency to laugh at 1930s prudery rapidly dissipates when one realises that the racial epithets used by Sayers to depict Waters’ prejudices could not, now, be quoted in this blogpost without causing enormous offence and, quite possibly, resulting in some firewalls blocking it. The text also includes one of Sayers’ infuriating recurrent stereotypes, the lisping Jewish commercial traveler Clarence Gordon, whose phonetically rendered dialogue maketh him thound ethactly like Igor, the mad profetthorth athithtant.
Phonetically rendered dialogue also dogs the depiction of the Scottish locals, especially the police, who are otherwise some of Sayers’ most nuanced police characters. Numerous pages of Five Red Herrings drown under a flood of “Aye, but I doot it no be there the noo” and similar expressions.
Ultimately, though, with Five Red Herrings the problem is one of structure. For once, Sayers decided that she wanted to attempt a “pure puzzle” detective story, which “turns on actual distances and real railway timetables” and “in which practically every sentence is necessary to the plot”. Not only does this mean lists of railway times and connections on every other page, it produces scenes set at drinks parties where characters earnestly discuss why they ought to have caught the 7.30am express from Dumfries, rather than the ghastly 11.22am, or connected with the 1.46pm by taking the 10.56am from Gatehouse of Fleet. Though we’ve all been to parties like that, they don’t tend to be either lingered over at the time or fondly remembered in retrospect.
Perhaps with reference to her experiment with Five Red Herrings, Gaudy Night includes a digression on the limits of the pure puzzle format. Harriet Vane asks Lord Peter’s advice about her current novel-in-progress, Death ’twixt Wind and Water.
“But why does the whole story sound so dead and alive?” “If you ask me,” said Wimsey, “it’s Wilfred. I know he marries the girl – but must he be such a mutt? Why does he go and pocket the evidence and tell all those unnecessary lies?” “Because he thinks the girl’s done it.” “Yes – but why should he? He’s dotingly in love with her – he thinks she’s absolutely the cat’s pyjamas – and yet, merely because he finds her handkerchief in the bedroom he is instantly convinced, on evidence that wouldn’t hang a dog, that she not only is Winchester’s mistress but has also murdered him in a peculiarly diabolical way.”
Although Lord Peter’s phrasing touches a raw nerve, they (just) avoid a quarrel. Harriet concedes that, “Wilfred is the world’s worst goop” and Lord Peter advises her to “abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”
Five Red Herrings ought really to have been called Six Wilfreds and a Railway Timetable. Unlike her contemporary, Christie, who was expert at manipulating flat (not stock) characters to create a compelling, wholly artificial conceit, Sayers is visibly unhappy with the constraints of the pure puzzle genre. Every so often the characters in Five Red Herrings poke their heads up, demanding their stories be told (Waters and his shady yachting friend Drewitt of Trinity; Farren and his pre-Raphaelite wife, Gilda, who spins symbolic fetters to keep him chained to her side; the raffish Jock Graham who almost falls to the wiles of the widowed Mrs Smith-Lemesurier who, according to the experienced Lord Peter, “is out for blood.”). However, the iron restrictions of the form force them back into the box, and we never discover how their stories turned out.
Not that I cared, when I read it the first time round. My school had been built as a girls’ grammar school in 1908. That was still the era when middle-class girls “were all brought up to dabble a little in watercolours” so the architect had included a purpose-built art room, on the first floor, with a good North light. On a clear day the Lake District fells, blue, distant and not dissimilar to the Galloway hills of Five Red Herrings, would be framed in the art room windows.
With a nice sense of balance between traditional and modern, the school’s builders had also included a purpose-built chemistry lab, its fume cupboard built into the connecting wall with the art room. Art lessons were prone to disruption by noxious fumes, when someone in the chemistry lab failed to seal the cupboard properly. The combination of poison gas and a good North light was an irresistable combination, especially to someone encountering Sayers for the first time.
Furthermore, unlike the rest of the locations in Sayers at that time, Five Red Herrings was based in territory I knew, though not as well as I knew it later, in my thirties, when I sailed that coastline almost every weekend during the summer. Perhaps Beeching did the place a left-handed favour. Even though the artists have largely departed, Kirkcudbright remains curiously isolated in time, with the feel of a lost world about it. One can still follow Lord Peter’s route from Kirkcudbright to the Minnoch, and see
the old Border keep of Barholm, surrounded by white-washed farm buildings; then a sudden gleam of bright grass, like a lawn in Avalon, under the shade of heavy trees. The wild garlic was over now, but the scent of it seemed still to hang about the place in memory, filling it with the shudder of vampire wings and memories of the darker side of Border history. …Then the salmon-nets and the wide semi-circular sweep of the bay, rosy every summer with sea-pinks, purple-brown with the mud of the estuary, majestic with the huge hump of Cairnsmuir rising darkly over Creetown.
Five Red Herrings is admittedly something of a Sayers misfire. But that, to be fair, is a bit like calling St Bride’s a bit of a dud as Wren churches go: “It’s beautifully proportioned, but did it have to look so much like a wedding cake?”
And – equally to be fair – one does not eat wedding cake for its flavour. It exists for the memories.
1. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers 1899–1936: The Making of a Detective Novelist ed. Reynolds. Hodder and Stoughton (1995)
2. Alternative titles actually considered by Sayers included Six Unlikely Persons, There’s One Thing Missing and The Body in the Burn.
3. Miss Climpson, Strong Poison