A bunch of smelly fishes and one maguffin: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Five Red Herrings

Five Red HerringsI love Dorothy L. Sayers but not really for the mysteries she wrote. I feel certain she could have written anything in the world and I would want to read it, all of it. Sayers was a great stylist, she was brilliant at creating really engaging dialogue, and she was funny. The complete package, really. I like her mysteries because she wrote them, not because they’re mysteries, is what I’m trying to say here.

I finished Five Red Herrings last week. It was alternately delightful, because of Sayers’s sheer massive talent, and dull, for the minutiae of the plot. You see, the murder in this one–more precisely, the murderer’s alibi–had a great deal to do with train timetables. The novel is filled with policemen at myriad levels of promotion and social status, along with Lord Peter Wimsey, writing out elaborate possibilities for how the deed could feasibly have been done. I didn’t even try to follow this stuff; my eyes passed over those sections and acknowledged the words, but I can’t say I properly read them.

(Question for true mystery fans: Why bother trying to solve the mystery yourself when you know all will be revealed in the end? Answer: If you need to ask that question, you’ll never understand the answer.

Ah, well, you know. Fair.)

All was, of course, revealed and while the correct answer to the riddle of whodunnit did occur to me, I didn’t much care. Like I said, I care about how Sayers did what she did, not what she did. One can’t help admire how cagey and self-referential and self-mocking she was. I think all of the novels of hers I’ve read have contained at least a little irony directed at the very genre in which she was writing, but I’ve never seen one so meta-everything, all day and all night, as this one is.

Early in Five Red Herrings–right after the body is discovered, in fact–the following passage appears:

‘It’s not here,’ [Wimsey] said, ‘and I don’t like the look of it at all, Dalziel. Look here, there’s just one possibility. It may have rolled down into the water. For God’s sake get your people together and hunt for it–now. Don’t lose a minute.’

Dalziel gazed at this excitable Southerner in some astonishment, and the constable pushed back his cap and scratched his head.

‘What would we be lookin’ for ?’ he demanded, reasonably.

(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 omitted from this page.)

‘It’ll be important, then, to your way o’ thinking,’ said Dalziel, with the air of a man hopefully catching, through a forest of obscurity, the first, far-off glimmer of the obvious.

‘Important?’ said Wimsey. ‘Of course it’s important. Incredibly, urgently, desperately important. Do you think I should be sliding all over your infernal granite making a blasted pincushion of myself if it wasn’t important?’

Sayers, you saucy minx! I, of course, had no idea what the sergeant ought to have known to look for–my education making it rather unlikely that I would. I’m not sure that matters, though. Now that I’ve finished the book, those who would have realized what was missing wouldn’t have been much further ahead. The missing object’s power to identify what kind of person must have committed the murder is easily determined based on other pieces of evidence. All of the evidence leads to a whole clutch of suspects, never pointing definitively at just one, and this one piece wouldn’t have made a difference.

There are five suspects and one murderer in this novel–five red herrings, officially. But the novel is simply bursting with others of the inanimate variety. Chekhov would have had a fit reading this novel; it’s positively bursting with unfired guns. One gun continues to fire, however, and that’s Sayers’s canon of playful references to how silly, inadequate, predictable, and unreal detective novels are.

Lord Peter spends a great deal of time musing on how ridiculous and unhelpful such damned books are in the face of real crime–but then, of course, the murderer draws his entire alibi structure from a novel that, ill luck for him, Wimsey has also read. Sayers was the Alan Moore of her chosen subject (but reverse these, as she was clearly born first), managing to both send up her genre and doing it better than anyone ever had before. There’s this:

‘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.’

And this:

‘You remember Poe’s bit about that in The Purloined Letter. A very stupid murderer doesn’t bother about an alibi at all. A murderer one degree cleverer says, “If I am to escape suspicion I must have a good alibi.” But a murderer who was cleverer still might say to himself, “Everyone will expect the murderer to provide a first-class alibi; therefore, the better my alibi, the more they will suspect me. I will go one better still; I will provide an alibi which is obviously imperfect. Then people will say that surely, if I had been guilty, I should have provided a better alibi. If I were a murderer myself, that is what I should do.”‘

Also this:

‘This,’ said Lord Peter Wimsey, ‘is the proudest moment of my life. At last I really feel like Sherlock Holmes. A Chief Constable, a Police Inspector, a Police Sergeant and two constables have appealed to me to decide between their theories, and with my chest puffed like a pouter-pigeon, I can lean back in my chair and say, “Gentlemen, you are all wrong.”‘

‘Damn it,’ said the Chief Constable, ‘we can’t all be wrong.’

‘You remind me,’ said Wimsey, ‘of the steward who said to the Channel passenger, “You can’t be sick here.” You can all be wrong and you are.’

‘But we’ve suspected everybody,’ said Sir Maxwell. ‘See here, Wimsey, you’re not going to turn round now and say that the crime was committed by Mrs. Green or the milkman, or somebody we’ve never heard of? That would be in the very worst tradition of the lowest style of detective fiction. Besides, you said yourself that the murderer was an artist, and you even picked out those six artists yourself. Are you going back on that now?’

‘No,’ said Wimsey, ‘I wouldn’t do anything quite so mean as that. I’ll qualify my original statement. You are all wrong, but one of you is less wrong than the rest…’

And a whole slew of moments like these which I haven’t quoted. Sayers simply will not allow her readers ever to forget what kind of book they’re reading; yet, by doing this, she’s actually writing a book of a kind other than what she claims to be writing! I think.

This is how Five Red Herrings is detective fiction in the very worst (or, let’s say, recognizable) form: one man murders another man. All the suspects are men, even though the criteria for suspicion, based on the evidence, doesn’t automatically exclude women–indeed, there are two women who fit all the criteria but are never suspected for even one tenth of a second. They, and the other female characters who are never suspected, are placid, weak, feminine, cliched, and generally uninteresting.

Two things lead me to the detection of one narrative maguffin (I say narrative, because this isn’t Wimsey‘s maguffin–this isn’t something he pursues). First, all the male characters are actually rather dull, too–except for Wimsey, of course, who is almost always charming and funny and silly. But he is, always, the most compelling version of himself when he’s either away from the actual business of detecting, or when he’s discussing it. Those train timetables: I think they might have been just that dull on purpose. Or, they were meant to be dull for readers who were interested in interrogating the detective fiction genre? I have, maybe? Something’s wrong with them in any case; they’re too damned dull to be there unless Sayers wanted them to be there, like that.

Here’s the second part, the revelation, of the maguffin. There are two major questions in this novel: Who killed the victim? Where are the women who aren’t merely ciphers? The answer to the second question, in true maguffin fashion, is picked up early and dropped (which is at least a partial answer in itself to a question like this). The following scene happens very early in the action, when Wimsey finds himself in conversation with a young girl whose father briefly looks rather red around the gills:

‘Young women oughtn’t to fight,’ said Wimsey, reprovingly, ‘not even modern young women.’

‘Why not? I like fighting. Oo! look at the cows!’

Wimsey trod hastily on the brake and reduced the Daimler to a lady-like crawl.

‘All the same, I believe he was fighting,’ said Myra. ‘He never came home last night, and Mummy was ever so frightened. She’s afraid of our car, you know, because it goes so fast, but it doesn’t go as fast as yours. Does that cow want to toss us?’

‘Yes,’ said Wimsey. ‘It probably mistakes us for a pancake.’

‘Silly! Cows don’t eat pancakes, they eat oil-cake. I ate some once, but it was very nasty, and I was sick.’

‘Serve you right,’ said Wimsey. ‘I’d better put you down here, or you won’t be back by bed-time. Perhaps I’d better run you part of the way home.’

‘Oh, please do,’ said Myra. ‘Then we can drive the cows and make them run like anything.’

‘That would be very naughty,’ said Wimsey. ‘It isn’t good for cows to run fast. You are an impertinent, bloodthirsty, greedy and unkind young person, and one of these days you’ll be a menace to society.’

‘How lovely! I could have a pistol and a beautiful evening dress, and lure people to opium-dens and stick them up, I think I’d better marry you, because you’ve got such a fast car. That would be useful, you see.’

‘Very,’ said Wimsey, gravely. ‘I’ll bear the idea in mind. But you might not want to marry me later on, you know.’

Myra, what are you doing here? I can’t believe this scene is just hanging around to show off Sayers’s talent for charming banter (although it certainly does that). Was Sayers taking a little dig at what was still, in 1931, a mostly male-authored genre? Was she taking a dig at those who believed women were constitutionally unable to do something so active and independent as bash someone’s head in or shoot them in the heart?

Harriet Vane made her first appearance, in Strong Poison, the year before Five Red Herrings was published (that’s 1930 and 1931, respectively). These questions are not answered in either novel. Strong Poison introduces us to Ms. Vane when she’s on trial for murder, but of course she didn’t do it; she’s merely a writer of detective fiction. And Myra? Myra exits stage left and nothing of her adult life can be known; but it seems unlikely, if the other women in Five Red Herrings are any indication, that she’ll get her pistol, her evening gown, or her rich husband. Given the zest with which that little scene was clearly written, I think Sayers was maybe a little maudlin about that; I know I am.

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4 thoughts on “A bunch of smelly fishes and one maguffin: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Five Red Herrings

  1. Love this! I too find this Sayers a strange blend of intolerable and delightful (if that’s a fair summary of your more thoughtful comments). When I’m explaining about the conventions of the ‘puzzle mystery’ to my students in the Detective Fiction class, and how they turn the novels into games of wits between author and genre-savvy readers, I always read them that excerpt with the blank space in it.

    • You know, it’s heartening to know I wasn’t just imagining all this!

      I think it’s taken me five or six of her novels to see what she was doing…the genre is so alien to me. Or, it was. I’m starting to see patterns now but coming to it in my middle 30s has proved to be a steeper learning curve than it probably should have been.

  2. I am just pleased that there are people who still read Dorothy L Sayers. I don’t read her books because of the plot, I really read them because of the characters and the fact that she transports you so effectively to another era.

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