Saturday, September 17, 2011

Five Red Herrings: Review

Five Red Herrings (aka Suspicious Characters when first released in the States) is Dorothy L Sayers' flirtation with a railroad tables crime. The first time I read it I spent a great deal of brain power trying to keep up with all the times and trains and didn't get it at all. In all subsequent readings (including this one), I take the times and trains and tickets as read and just sit back and enjoy the ride.

What we have is an apparently very simple death in Kirkcudbright, Scotland. After a night that well represents his life--quarreling with just about everyone he meets--Sandy Campbell, a local hot-headed artist, sets out for a little morning painting at one of his favorite spots. Later that afternoon his body is found lying on the pointed rocks along the stream just below his painting gear. It looks as though Sandy stepped a little too close to the cliff's edge while scrutinizing his morning's work and took a fatal tumble onto the rocks below.

But our favorite aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, is on the spot enjoying a bit of holiday himself. One that turns into a busman's holiday when he can't stay away from the scene of the crime. It's Wimsey who first suggests that it might not be the simple accident that it appears. He first senses that something is wrong when an item very vital to the scene that has been set cannot be found--not among the dead man's gear nor anywhere in the area surrounding the "accident." There is also the fact that rigor would seem to indicated that the man has been dead long before the morning's painting. When all is said and done, there are six suspects--all fellow painters with reason to wish Campbell dead--it is up to Lord Peter to separate the five red herrings from the fish that must be netted for the crime.

Pairing a reading of this book with the filmed version starring Ian Carmichael is an absolute must at some point. In fact, this is one of the rare times that I would say that the filmed version outshines the book. In the novel Sayers goes through a very long and labored process at the end--taking the reader through every shred of evidence and showing how it might (or might not) apply to every single suspect. The film version condenses things down very nicely without losing any of the mystery. And it's worth the price of admission to see Wimsey recreate the murder using Bunter as the corpse (although the part of the corpse is played by Sir Maxwell in the book). "'Hi!' said the corpse. 'You shut up,' said Wimsey, 'you're dead.'

Another slightly tiresome bit is the dialect. After reading this one several times, I'm better able to sail through the broad Scots dialect...but, if that weren't enough, Sayers also provides us with a traveling salesman with a lisp. A bit too much, DLS, a bit too much. (Fortunately, the filmed version ditches the lisp as well).

Despite these two draw-backs, I still enjoy the story. It's nice to see Wimsey out of his British element (and to see Bunter wrestling with the local terms for various cooking supplies). I have a good time with the various artistic lessons we get--and it's much more entertaining than the education in campanology that we get in
The Nine Tailors (not that I don't enjoy learning about bell-ringing, but it does go on a bit). And I love the reenactment of the crime. Four stars.


Annie said...

I like your review but couldn't read the book : not easy or me to read in English, so in Scottish dialect....

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Hello Bev,

fascinating to go back and thing again about both this book and the old BBC version - it's been a while since I've done either to be honest as it was never one of my favourites in either format (I prefer the Nine Tailors myself). I'll have to dig out the BBC Radio version that Carmichael did to see how the alterations in the ending measure up because you are quite right in that the TV version certainly is an improvement - fascinating stuff.



Carol said...

One of my favorites by DLS, once I did as you and stopped worrying about the timetables. I've never seen the Carmichael versions, but I need to watch them soon.