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Title: Five Red Herrings
Series: Lord Peter Wimsey #7
Author: Dorothy Sayers
Rating: 3 of 5 Stars
The novel is set in Galloway, a part of Scotland popular with artists (Kirkcudbright Artists’ Colony) and fishermen. Sandy Campbell is a talented painter, but also a notoriously quarrelsome drunkard. When he is found dead in a stream, with a still-wet half-finished painting on the bank above, it is assumed that he fell in accidentally, fracturing his skull. Lord Peter Wimsey, who is in the region on a fishing holiday, suspects murder when he realises that something is missing from the scene which makes it impossible for Campbell to have worked on the painting. Sayers includes a parenthetical note at this point: “Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was looking for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page”. A local doctor believes that the degree of rigor mortis suggests that Campbell died during the previous night.
Whoever killed Campbell also executed the painting in Campbell’s distinctive style, to contrive the appearance of an accident. Six artists in the area are talented enough to achieve this: Farren, Strachan, Gowan, Graham, Waters and Ferguson. All had recent public brawls with Campbell. One of the six is the criminal, and five are red herrings.
All the suspects behave suspiciously: some leave the district without explanation, others give obviously inaccurate statements or conceal facts. Wimsey investigates, with some assistance from his friend in London, Charles Parker. The task of identifying the culprit is made more difficult because of the complexities of the local train timetables, the easy availability of bicycles, and the resultant opportunities for the murderer to evade notice.
All six suspects are eventually traced and give statements in which they deny killing Campbell, but none are entirely satisfactory. The Procurator Fiscal, the Chief Constable and the investigating police officers meet with Wimsey to review the evidence. The police put forward several theories, implicating all of the suspects either as killer or as accessory. Asked for his opinion, Wimsey finally reveals that the true killer was in fact Ferguson, the only one of the artists who while painting often kept spare tubes of paint in his pocket and who absentmindedly pocketed a tube of white while creating the faked painting. It was the absence of that tube that Wimsey had noted at the start. The police are sceptical, but Wimsey offers a reconstruction, and over the course of twenty-four hours demonstrates how the killer contrived the scene above the stream and also established a false alibi.
Ferguson confesses, but states that Campbell’s death happened accidentally during a fight, and was not murder. When the case is tried, the jury brings in a verdict of manslaughter, with a strong recommendation to mercy on the ground that “Campbell was undoubtedly looking for trouble”.
Dear Lord in Heaven, WHY does Sayers do this to me? I’m beginning to think maybe she was a spiritualist who looked into the future and decided to write books that she KNEW would annoy me personally.
This whole book revolves around train schedules. It’s not that the mystery is bad, but we get in depth, detailed and stultifyingly dull descriptions of almost every possible scenario by which the murder could have happened. And Lord Wimsey spends an entire day recreating the scene and hop scotching about like a mad giraffe, to illustrate why HIS theory of the murder is correct. I skimmed PAGES!
I’m beginning to wonder if maybe this series isn’t for me. I simply don’t care about how the little puzzle pieces all fit together. I am not interested in figuring out the crime, I don’t want to figure out the crime, I want the fething detective to do his fracking job and the frelling author to do hers, which is to entertain me, not bore me to tears.
I’m going to be put the rest of the Lord Peter Wimsey books back on my tbr and hold off for a while before trying this again. I don’t dislike the characters or the stories or the crimes, there are just certain aspects in each book that drive me batty.