Saturday, August 25, 2018

Five Red Herrings - Dorothy L. Sayers

'Five Red Herrings' was mentioned on the Tea and Books podcast recently. I knew I had had it, but I couldn't remember anything about it, the Dumfries and Galloway setting appealed to me though, even more so when I saw it was specifically based around the artists community in Kircudbright.

I found Dorothy L. Sayers through the TVs adaptations of 'Strong Poison', 'Have His Carcase', and 'Gaudy Night' with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter in 1987. I was just in my teens so the romantic element of Peter and Harriet's relationship appealed to me. I bought the books and loved them. Then I collected the rest of Sayers books.

Looking at this one it was clear I never finished it - I gave up somewhere around two thirds of the way through (I know this because I dog ear pages to mark my place - do not judge me, it's a bad habit  with the one bonus of being able to record how I've read books in the past). Having finished it this time I think my teenage self was quite right to call it quits.

As far as I'm concerned age has withered Sayers to the point that I find her books quite problematic. It always surprises me how little Sayers is criticised for her high Tory politics, snobbery, anti semitism, and racism - especially considering just how much criticism some of her contemporaries recieve. To quote from the second page "Waters was an Englishman of good yeoman stock, and, like all Englishmen, was ready enough to admire and praise all foreigners except dagoes and n*****s..."

Quite apart from this not being a notable characteristic of the English it's a statement that seems unnecessarily offensive even for 1931. Moving in from the racism there's the disdain for anyone who isn't an aristocrat, intellectual, or artist - working class characters, when they appear, are charicatures.

The remaining female characters get short shrift too, there's a wife who might be a motive for murder, described as stupid and dangerous. Lord Peter occasionally descends to insult her at length, and everyone seems to bemoan the fact that her husband doesn't manage to escape her. Another woman provides a dodgy alibi, apparently for the purpose of trying to trap someone into marrying her (top tip - however desperate for a husband you might be, do try and make sure the prospective man isn't a murderer). The men gather around to discuss what a piece of work she is - giving the impression that Sayers really doesn't much like women at all (from memory this is fairly typical of her books).

Then there's the witness who's Jewish, I think he's meant to provide a comic turn, I can think of no
other reason why he's given an almost incomprehensible lisp, but it makes tedious reading as well as offensive caricature. I'm not keen on the very broad Scottish accents she writes either, but by now I'm in the mood to be annoyed.

Plot wise a really objectionable artist, drunk and set in committing acts of grevious bodily harm on everybody he meets, is found dead in a river, a half finished canvas in the bank above. It looks like an accident, but there's something missing that makes Lord Peter suspect murder. The doctor's report bears out his suspicions, but there are 6 possible suspects - 5 of them red herrings. Quite a long time, and a lot of train timetables later all is revealed. There are some ingenious clues, and bits that are fun, but such a lot that's not.

This definitely isn't Sayers best work (I'm beginning to think her best work is her book reviews, which are great) and I'm rather wishing I hadn't read it. It's going to cast a long shadow over the rest of her books for me from now on.

Rather more enjoyable was searching for Kircudbright related artists, who's work more or less corresponds to Sayers descriptions. There are a lot more to choose from, it's worth a google.
E A Hornel 

Samuel Peploe

Charles Oppenheimer 

William Hanna Clarke


  1. I did an online course based round Sayers work a couple of years ago and was looking forward to re-reading all her books, but like you I failed to finish this. NineTailors was another that simply didn’t live up to my teenage memories.

    1. I realised yesterday, after seeing it in Waterstones, that I don't have Unnatural Death - and was mildly excited for a bit, but when I looked at Amazon reviews I see there are several mentions of racism again, and now I'm not sure I can be bothered. I don't think I take offence particularly easily but Sayers seems to go out of her way to draw attention to her prejudices, and there are such a lot of them. It's a long time since I've read Agatha Christie, but I don't remember her doing this. I don't get why Sayers seems to get a relatively free pass for it compared to writers like georgette Heyer, or Angela Thirkell get such a drubbing.

  2. Oh no! I brought all my Sayerses, this one included, back from England last month. Perhaps I should have saved the space in my suitcase for something else...

    I did reread Gaudy Nights just a few years ago and I think it stood up better than this one by the sounds of it. I've always had a soft spot for Sayers but haven't ever really understood the adulation some give her. Also I don't like Lord Peter very much. I'm such an old crab.

    I've reread some Christie quite recently and they were still excellent.

    1. I first read her in my early teens in the eighties when the racism etc would not have jumped off the page in quite the same way and more of it would have passed over my head. I doubt I'd have questioned what a snob she was when I was 13 either. I fell in love with the idea of university life through Gaudy Night, and again was more or less oblivious to just how much she talked about sex. Also as a teenage girl I took her vision of Lord Peter very much for granted - so altogether they're just not really the books I thought I remembered.

      On the other hand I read The Unpleasentness at the Bellonia club a couple of years ago and liked it a lot. There are things she does which are amazing - all the stuff about equality in relationships in Gaudy Night was good stuff for a young girl to read, and Peter's shell shock and struggle with the consequences of his actions is really interesting. The emphasis she puts on intellectual integrity as well - and then she floors me with some pointless bit of anti semitism.

      The short version of all that is that I could have managed my expectations better.