This book has a fun setup, from a mystery aspect: in a small artist’s community in Scotland, a man named Campbell is found dead at the base of a cliff, having apparently fallen to his death. But it wasn’t an accident, obviously, and soon the local police, aided by his wonderfulness Lord Peter Wimsey, are on the case. There are some complications: Campbell has multiple enemies in the town, the six most likely suspects all have alibis for the time of death, and although Campbell was killed sometime on Monday night, multiple witnesses saw him painting on the cliff the next day.
The investigation isn’t terribly compelling. Dissecting the multiple alibis involves a lot of discussion about trains and schedules, which becomes mind-numbingly boring and impossible to follow after the second paragraph. Other reviews tell me that when The Five Red Herrings was written, so-called “train timetable” mysteries were all the rage, and Dorothy Sayers wrote this book mainly to prove that she could do the same. She shouldn’t have bothered – the constant, lengthy monologues about “Well, if he took the 2:35 to Blahdiblah, that would give him just enough time to catch the 4:15 out of Whocares, but if he took the 1:55 like he said, that would mean it would take him nearly two hours to reach Nobodygivesafuck! Great Scott!” are boring, and I still have no idea how the various timetables worked out. The six suspects are pretty much interchangeable, to the extent that any one of them could have been named as the murderer and it wouldn’t have changed anything. Also, there’s a frustrating bit at the beginning when Wimsey examines the crime scene. Something is missing from the scene, Wimsey declares, and it’s because of this object’s absence that he knows the death was murder. What is this object, you ask? Here’s what Dorothy Sayers says, right after Wimsey’s revelation: “(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are emitted from this page.)”
Come on, Sayers! Okay, obviously we aren’t actually expected to know what the missing object is (otherwise she would have just told us, because if it was that obvious there wouldn’t be any reason to hide it), but couldn’t she have chosen a less-frustrating way to keep the information from the readers? I was actually able to guess what the missing object was by the time I was 2/3 through the book, but to be fair, Sayers drops some pretty big hints about what we should be looking for. So ultimately I guess the missing clue was a good choice, because it gave me a little side mystery to work on in my head while I read the book, but it was still irritating.
Normally, a book with this many issues would get less than three stars from me, but this is Dorothy Sayers, who can do no wrong in my eyes. And the reason for this is, even if the mystery is confusing and dull, it’s still being investigated by Lord Peter, who continues to delight in everything he does. Also, Sayers’s characters all have a working knowledge of detective stories and their tropes, and the genius of Sayers is that she has her characters point out how well they’re fulfilling these common tropes throughout the investigation. It’s very meta, and very amusing:
“‘They want to find the last person who saw the man alive,’ said Wimsey, promptly. ‘It’s always done. It’s part of the regular show. You get it in all the mystery stories. Of course, the last person to see him never commits the crime. That would make it too easy. One of these days I shall write a book in which two men are seen to walk down a cul-de-sac, and there is a shot and one man is found murdered and the other runs away with a gun in his hand, and after twenty chapters stinking with red herrings, it turns out that the man with the gun did it after all.'”
You can’t not love that. In fact, I’m going to now disregard the review format completely and just post a bunch of delightful Peter Wimsey quotes from this book, because that’s really the best part. Enjoy the delight of Lord Peter Wimsey…
Discussing his particular method of detecting:
“An official personage like you might embarrass them, don’t you know, but there’s no dignity about me. I’m probably the least awe-inspiring man in Kirkcudbright. I was born looking foolish, and every day in every way I am getting foolisher and foolisher.”
Breaking up a bar fight:
“‘This won’t do,’ said Wimsey, ‘this isn’t the League of Nations. A plague on both your houses! Have a bit of sense.'”
Talking with Bunter, the Alfred to his Batman, after chasing a suspect:
“Somebody’s just made a moonlight flitting,’ said Wimsey. ‘I’ve been round to tell the police. At least,’ he corrected himself, ‘not moonlight, because there is no moon; in fact, it’s beastly dark and I fell over some confounded steps, but the principle is the same and have you got any arnica?’
Bunter’s reply was memorable.
‘My lord, I have already taken upon me, in your lordship’s absence, to acquaint Sir Maxwell Jamieson with Mr. Gowan’s project of escape. I have every reason to anticipate that he will be detained at Dumfries or Carlisle. If your lordship will kindly remove your garments, I will apply suitable remedies to the contusions.'”
The defense rests.
Verdict: three out of five stars