The Five Red Herrings is usually considered one of Sayers’s least successful books, and I have to agree. It lacks the wit and colorful characters of most of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. And yet even a lesser Sayers book is worth a look — if the reader can make it through all the Scottish dialect and railroad timetables. This is the book that follows Strong Poison, so Lord Peter has met Harriet Vane and wants her to marry him. Yet there is no mention of her here. Peter has gone off to Scotland to vacation among the artists of Kirkcudbright and is drawn into the mystery surrounding the death of one of them. What was Sayers thinking?
Apparently, she was thinking of her friends and colleagues in the Detection Club; in fact, Lord Peter mentions many of them: Austin Freeman, G.K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Crofts, GDH Cole, and Milward Kennedy. She even has one of the characters make a joke about the lowest form of detective fiction, one that has a murderer who was not introduced until the end of the story (a violation of one of Ronald Knox’s ten rules for detective fiction).
This is a true Golden Age puzzle mystery, and Sayers plays scrupulously fair with her reader. As early as chapter 2, she points to an important clue. She doesn’t hide it; she calls our attention to it. Less than halfway through, she again provides another vital clue, this time more deftly hidden. This is a murder in a small, well-defined community: there are six suspects — one is the murderer, the other five are red herrings. Alibis are checked, lies are uncovered. And in the end, Lord Peter comes up with a brilliant, if far-fetched, re-creation of the crime.
But the six suspects are not especially well characterized, so that it is difficult to remember who is who. When the narrative leaves Lord Peter to follow some of the local policemen in their investigations, the book becomes plodding. And there is one character brought into the story who is depicted in a blatantly anti-Semitic way (which unfortunately is also a feature of many Golden Age mysteries).
I felt as I reread The Five Red Herrings that the proper way to read this book was to construct a chart with six columns, one for each of the suspects, and then to fill in the information about each one as it is given, until all the clues in one column add up to the murderer. Of course, few people today (including me) want to take the time and effort to do this; I wonder if readers in the 1930s did. I did figure out the identity of the murderer about halfway through, though I could never have put together the timetable of events that Lord Peter did. So I enjoyed seeing the solution worked out, and I admired the underlying construction of the book. But as Inspector MacPherson says at one point in the book, there are too many bicycles!