Sunday, April 8, 2007

Book review: The Five Red Herrings

The Five Red Herrings

By Dorothy Sayers

Since I enjoy both mystery novels and works by modern Christian authors, I was curious about the fiction of Dorothy Sayers. She is well-known for her novels featuring the detective Lord Peter Wimsey. She also wrote Christian essays and plays as well as a translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I picked up The Five Red Herrings at random, not knowing with which Sayers novel to begin. Depending on your point of view, I either made the wrong choice or a very good one. I made a wrong choice since I did not like the novel and found it extremely frustrating and difficult to read. But on the other hand, if this is her worst novel, things can only improve.

The plot involves a murder that takes place in a small town in Scotland in which many artists live and work. One of them, a man named Campbell, is not well liked and quickly turns up dead. Peter Wimsey happens to be staying in the area and comes to the conclusion that Campbell was murdered. Based on the evidence at the scene, one of the local artists committed the murder. Naturally, all of the suspects have a motive as well as an alibi so it’s up to Wimsey to discover the truth.

The biggest problem I had with the novel is Sayers’ choice of phonetically spelling out the heavy Scottish accents of many of the characters. This results in lots of apostrophes and makes reading the dialogue tiresome and difficult. Since the entire novel takes place in Scotland, nearly every chapter is filled with hard to read accents. Robert Louis Stevenson did something similar in Kidnapped, but that novel was a picnic to read compared to Herrings.

Another problem is the use of train timetables as a plot device. There are endless discussions of when this train leaves this town and arrives at the next and which character could have taken which train and how long it would take to get there. It’s all ridiculously confusing. The various stories told by the suspects are lengthy and confusing. Even the real story of how the murder was committed is long and too reliant on a very specific timetable of events thus making it implausible.

Finally, I don’t know how he is portrayed in the other novels, but Wmsey comes across as an arrogant, disagreeable know-it-all. I realize that many of the great fictional detectives, like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are arrogant, but at least I like them. I’m not sure about Wimsey yet.

I read a few reviews on and noted that I’m not the only one who found the accents and timetables frustrating. Apparently, Sayers wrote better mysteries than this one and I won’t let my dislike of The Five Red Herrings discourage me from reading other Sayers’ works.

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