The Five Red Herrings

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The Five Red Herrings
Red herrings.JPG
First edition
Author Dorothy L. Sayers
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Lord Peter Wimsey
Genre Mystery novel
Publisher Victor Gollancz (UK)
Harper & Row (US)
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 284 pp (1972 ed.)
Preceded by Strong Poison
Followed by Have His Carcase

The Five Red Herrings (also 5 Red Herrings) is a 1931 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers. It was retitled Suspicious Characters for its first publication in the United States, but reverted to its original title in subsequent printings.

Sayers points out in the preface that all the places in the story are real places, and it is a fact that almost all the locations can be recognised and visited to this day. She also points out that all the trains and buses on which the characters travel are real, or rather were so at the time. (The plot is in fact dependent on such technical details, which could not be reflected in later audio and video adaptations).

Some editions include as a foreword a letter written by Sayers "To my friend Joe Dignam, kindliest of landlords," which suggests that she was in the habit of taking holidays in Galloway – a habit attributed to Wimsey in the book – and that on one of them she promised her landlord to write a detective novel set in this area: a promise that this book fulfilled. Joe Dignam was the landlord of the Anwoth Hotel at Gatehouse of Fleet, since renamed The Ship Hotel. Sayers' residence there is commemorated at the hotel, though it is wrongly stated that she wrote the novel there, when it is quite clear from the foreword that she did not.

Plot summary[edit]

The story is set in Galloway, a part of Scotland popular with artists because of its landscapes, and with fishermen because of its abundant trout streams. Many visitors do both. Sandy Campbell is a talented painter, but also a notoriously quarrelsome drunkard. When he is found dead in a stream, with a half-finished painting on the bank above, it is assumed at first that he fell in accidentally, fracturing his skull. Lord Peter Wimsey, who is in the region on a fishing holiday, points out an inconsistency that makes it impossible for Campbell to have worked on the painting. (Sayers leaves the reader to work out what exactly the clue is.) Campbell's death is now a murder case.

Whoever killed Campbell also executed the painting in Campbell's distinctive style, to contrive the appearance of an accident. Six other nearby artists are talented enough to achieve this and also had recent public brawls with Campbell. Now Wimsey must figure out which of the six suspects is the criminal and which the five red herrings. This is difficult, because almost all the suspects behave suspiciously: some leave the district unexpectedly and without explanation, others give obviously inaccurate statements or conceal facts. The policemen investigating other aspects of the case come up against inexplicable dead ends.

The Five Red Herrings is the Peter Wimsey story most obviously set as a puzzle for the reader. There is only a closed circle of suspects to deal with, and Wimsey has no emotional involvement — though, having alerted the police to Campbell's murder, he reflects that Campbell was a man anyone might feel justified in killing, and that the six suspects are all generally decent people. He nevertheless resolves to uncover the truth, so that the five innocent artists should not live under lifelong suspicion.

The plot is told from the viewpoint of Wimsey, and of the various police investigating the case, including Wimsey's brother-in-law Charles Parker. Parker is involved because a suspect is in hiding in London. Large parts of the book follow the various Scottish police officers, who are shown as on the whole intelligent and competent, though subject to common failings such as short temper and a tendency to jump to conclusions. For a time indeed they seem to overshadow Wimsey. In contrast, Bunter (Wimsey's manservant) plays a smaller role in this than in other Wimsey novels. Wimsey works in close co-operation with the police throughout the book; indeed, in one episode a character angrily accuses him of "...entering people's homes as a police spy."

The six suspects are all eventually traced and give statements in which they deny killing Campbell. Some have convincing alibis, others have none. Finally, Wimsey, the Procurator Fiscal, the Chief Constable and the police officers involved in the investigation meet to review the evidence. Working from the knowledge the reader has been given, the police put forward several theories, implicating all of the suspects either as the killer or as accessories. Asked for his opinion, Wimsey finally reveals to them who was the true killer and what alerted him to the truth. The police are sceptical, but Wimsey offers to reconstruct the crime, and over the course of twenty-four hours' strenuous activity demonstrates how the killer contrived the scene above the stream and established an apparent alibi suggesting that he had been away in Glasgow at the times that mattered.

The killer finally realises that the case against him is unbreakable and confesses, but pleads that he killed Campbell in self-defence. When the case is tried, the jury decide that he is not guilty of premeditated murder, which at the time would have attracted the death penalty, but of manslaughter, with a strong recommendation to mercy.

Literary significance[edit]

"A work that grows on rereading and remains in the mind as one of the richest, most colorful of her group studies. The Scottish setting, the artists in the colony, the train-ticket puzzle, and the final chase place this triumph among the four or five chefs d'oeuvre from her hand."[1]

List of characters[edit]

  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Mervyn Bunter: Wimsey's valet, who also assists in his investigations
  • Sandy Campbell: artist
  • Hugh Farren: artist and suspect
  • Gilda Farren: Hugh Farren's wife
  • Henry Strachan: golf club secretary, artist and suspect
  • Matthew Gowan: wealthy artist and suspect
  • Alcock, Mrs. Alcock, Hammond, Betty: Gowan's domestic staff
  • Jock Graham: rogue, artist and suspect
  • Michael Waters: English artist and suspect
  • John Ferguson: Campbell's next-door neighbour, artist and suspect
  • Miss Selby, Miss Cochran: artists who substantiate or break several alibis
  • Sir Maxwell Jamieson: Chief Constable
  • Inspector Macpherson: Kirkcudbright Police CID
  • Sergeant Dalziel: Newton Stewart Police
  • PC Ross, PC Duncan

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

The Five Red Herrings was adapted for television in 1975 as part of a series starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and Glyn Houston as Bunter. In 1978, an adaptation was made for BBC Radio 4 starring Carmichael as Lord Peter and with Peter Jones as Bunter.


  1. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8

External links[edit]