The Five Red Herrings (1931) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on April 8, 2013 by cshmurak

5redherringsThe 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!

Whose Body (1923) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on February 17, 2013 by cshmurak

Whose BodyThis is the the book that introduced Lord Peter Wimsey to the world. It’s fascinating to see how most of the characters who would become a fictional repertory company are here at the start: Bunter, Charles Parker, the Dowager Duchess, Freddie Arbuthnot, even Sir Impey Biggs. Lord Peter already lives at 110 Piccadilly, which would become 110A (half of 221B?) in later books, and is busily collecting rare books and dropping his final G’s (an affectation that he loses as he becomes a more serious character ). It’s worth noting too that Lord Peter’s first words in Whose Body (“Oh, damn!”) are also his last words in the final book, Busman’s Honeymoon.

The plot involves the appearance of a mysterious body in a bathtub and the disappearance of the financial giant, Sir Reuben Levy. Lord Peter knows immediately that the body is not that of Sir Reuben; in Sayers’s original manuscript, it was because the body was not circumcised, but in the published version, his feet provide the evidence that the body was not that of a rich man.  Sayers was almost too generous in providing clues; I guessed the culprit very early on, as well as the motive, so for me the book became a howdunit instead of a whodunit. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that my knowing that Sayers was a big fan of Trent’s Last Case (see my review of that book on this blog) also helped me figure out a bit of the murderer’s modus operandi.

Whose Body has the witty dialogue (especially from Lord Peter and the Dowager Duchess) that Sayers did so well, and it’s full of the literary allusions one expects from her. There’s also the untranslated French and German dialogue that I find so annoying. But I’ve discovered a wonderful website by Bill Peschel ( that is a big help with all the references and foreign languages.

Despite some of the unlikely things that occur in the book, Whose Body is still a delight to read.

Curtain (1975) – Agatha Christie

Posted in Agatha Christie, Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on February 4, 2013 by cshmurak

Curtain2Curtain is Hercule Poirot’s last case. Agatha Christie wrote it during World War II, not sure she would survive the war. She had it locked away, to be published after her death, but in fact, she had it released in 1975, the year before she died. In Curtain, she reunites Poirot with Captain Hastings, now widowed and with a grown daughter. They return to Styles, the site of their first case (in The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Here Poirot tells Hastings about a serial murderer whom he refers to only as X. Poirot has a bad heart and is crippled with arthritis, but he is determined to bring X to justice.

Is it a fitting end to the Poirot series? In some ways, yes. Despite old age and illness, Poirot is his usual smug self, still withholding information from Hastings and from the reader; here he justifies himself that he is protecting Hastings from dangerous knowledge. Poirot succeeds of course, though at great cost to himself. And in many ways, Christie plays fair in presenting many clues while still surprising her readers. There is also one very clever bit of irony near the end, in which Hastings himself is the unwitting perpetrator of a crime.

But there is also a sloppiness here that is not characteristic of Christie at the top of her form. A five letter word in a Times crossword, which feels like it must be a clue, turns out to be “IAGO” — a four letter word. Poirot leads Hasting to what he says is a “logical inference,” but in fact, it’s not really logical at all. And the writing is sometimes repetitive or opaque. Was the editor afraid to change a word of the sacred text?  What’s more, I’m not at all convinced that the murderer’s usual method was feasible in the first place.

But there is  a certain satisfaction in seeing Poirot bring the criminal to justice in his final case.

The Nine Tailors (1934) – Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , , , on November 8, 2012 by cshmurak

I’d like to welcome Donna Fletcher Crow, one of my fellow authors from the brand new e-book 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror, 52 Authors Look Back.  Donna is stopping by as part of the 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror Blog Tour. And I’m guest blogging on Donna’s blog too; we are both talking about Dorothy L. Sayers today. As soon as you finish here, you can read my essay, “Lord Peter and Me,” about how the Lord Peter Wimsey series has influenced my writing, on “Deeds of Darkness; Deeds of Light”:

 Now on to Donna’s review of The Nine Tailors!

In The Nine Tailors, which many of Dorothy L Sayers’ fans consider to be her best book,  the murder and subsequent detecting are intricate. The setting— a small village in the fen country of East Anglia— is atmospheric and developed almost as a character in the story; the information about bell-ringing is fascinating; the characters are developed as living, breathing people and Lord Peter himself is at the top of his literate form.

All very true, but one of my favorite things about the book is what it says about the English spirit. I recently read a fun post on Facebook— A notice posted in war-torn Britain in 1940 for golfers with stiff upper lips. The historical background is that German aircraft from Norway would fly on missions to northern England; because of the icy weather conditions, the barrels of their guns had a small dab of wax to protect them. As they crossed the coast, they would clear their guns by firing a few rounds at the golf courses.

Rules stated that during competitions, during gunfire or while bombs were falling, players could take cover without penalty for ceasing play. The positions of known delayed action bombs were marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance. A ball moved by enemy action could be replaced, or if destroyed, could be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty. A player whose stroke was affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb could play another ball from the same place— penalty one stroke.

The person who posted this concluded: “This is purely wonderful— and says more than anything else I have ever seen about why Hitler lost the Battle of Britain.” And that echoes what I have always said about The Nine Tailors, (written in 1934)— that if Hitler had read that novel he would have known better than to try to break the British spirit with the Blitz.

When the dikes break after torrential rains the village of Fenchurch St. Paul is flooded. Do the villagers panic? No, not in the least. The church, the center of village life, is built on high ground. The villagers calmly and quietly work together. Everyone in the community pitches in rounding up children, cattle, and cookpots and taking them to the church. They set up a schoolroom, arrange space for cooking and sleeping and care for their livestock. In other words, life goes on. And Lord Peter maintains his sense of humor.

I have found this to be so true of the British spirit. I have been there during strikes, shootings and terrorist attacks. Family members would ring from America and ask in worried voice, “Are you all right?” And many times I wouldn’t even know anything was going on. Just as in Fenchurch St. Paul, no one panicked, everyone worked together to do what needed to be done and life went on.

That is just one example of the many things I love about the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers and why, when I began my Elizabeth & Richard romantic suspense series which features a literary figure in the background of each book, the first literary figure I chose was Lord Peter Wimsey.

In The Shadow of Reality, literature professors Elizabeth and Richard attend a mystery week in the Rocky Mountains, fictionally set as an English weekend. The host of the weekend is playing his role modeled on that perfect English gentleman sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. And Elizabeth is captivated:The setting was all her fantasies come true:  an elegant English manor house in the 1930’s. The man was even more than she had dreamed:  Sir Gavin Kendall— sophisticated, brilliant, rich and captivated by her.  Until murder intervened. Will Elizabeth’s lifelong dreams become reality or will she fall prey to the vicious murderer lurking in the shadows at an exotic mystery week high in the Rockies? Will Elizabeth discover the narrow line between fantasy and reality in time to achieve her dreams?

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 40 books, mostly novels dealing with British history.  The award-winning Glastonbury, A Novel of the Holy Grail, an Arthurian grail search epic covering 15 centuries of English history, is her best-known work.  She is also the author of The Monastery Murders: A Very Private Grave  and A Darkly Hidden Truth, as well as the Lord Danvers series of Victorian true-crime novels and the romantic suspense series The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries. Donna and her husband live in Boise, Idaho.  They have 4 adult children and 11 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener. To read more about all of Donna’s books and see pictures from her garden and research trips go to: You can follow her on Facebook at: 

The Will of the Tribe (1962) – Arthur Upfield

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Mysteries with tags , , on October 5, 2012 by cshmurak

I’d like to welcome Beth Kanell, one of my fellow authors from the brand new e-book 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror, 52 Authors Look Back.  Beth is stopping by as part of the 25 Years in the Rearview Mirror Blog Tour. And I’m guest blogging today, about professors as detectives, on Beth’s blog too:

We hope you enjoy our collection of essays, designed to warm your heart, raise your spirits and compel you to examine your own life. Read about school days, quirky jobs, romance, raising a family, hard times, the writing journey, and find out what makes your favorite characters tick. Get a full listing of authors, essay titles and retailers here:

 Now on to Beth’s review of The Will of the Tribe!

Although the dates of his life, 1888-1964, almost coincide with those of Agatha Christie, 1890-1976, “classic” mystery lists rarely mention Arthur William Upfield. Eldest of five sons, he was a prankster and seen as a trouble maker, and his own father exiled him to Australia at the age of 22 to grow up into being a respectable farmer. Instead, he found his way to the Outback and fell in love with what he saw as “the real Australia.” His biographer, Ray B. Browne, saw him as “lured” by “the call of the bush.”

In The Will of the Tribe, his 32nd book – his career would span 34 of them – Upfield’s protagonist, the “half-caste” Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, whose father was European and mother “aborigine” (“abo”), must resolve a murder. He is under unusual orders for the case: The “powers that be” don’t care who killed the man found in Wolf Creek Meteor Crater, and they already know his identity (but won’t tell Bony). On the other hand, they insist that the Inspector find out how the man arrived there without being “telegraphed” among the local farmers and bush stations, and discover what he’d been doing. Making the case yet more complicated, when Bony is called in, it’s already been 14 weeks since the body was discovered.

But Bony’s investigation takes a direction much different from what any other police or local authority would have taken: “The man who could think like an aborigine and reason like a white man proceeded to test the theory that the dead man had been brought over the wall at its lowest point.” Soon he finds where the body had entered the crater – and, more important, strands of Hessian from the cloth used to wrap the boots of those carrying the body, to prevent footprints. In this discovery, Bony moves far ahead of others, as he can definitely narrow the body’s arrival to the action white men. In a landscape where mischief is routinely blamed on “wild blacks” and others seen as only partly civilized, Bony’s just cleard most of the local population of at least the transport phase of the crime.

But it will take reasoning like a native to grasp why the meteor crater would be chosen as the body dump; why the aborigines are stubbornly refusing to disclose anything about the victim or crime, when it’s clear that nothing happens in the region without their attention; and finally, why the killing took place at all. In the process, he confronts “the will of the Tribe”: that powerful force of community and conformity that demands allegiance from aborigines, even as they, like Bony himself, find the white man’s world of increasing concern to them.

What I most enjoy about The Will of the Tribe is the contrast between Upfield’s portrayal of racism and its role in crime and crime solving, and the books now coming out of Africa, where racism and colonialism also dovetailed. Bony is more energetic and more willing to manipulate a situation than, say, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – yet I can picture the two detectives meeting on a train and enjoying each other’s insistence that broad-based knowledge of cultures and people is what it takes to solve a crime.

Beth Kanell is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and makes up half of Kingdom Books, the mystery collectors’ haven she and her husband Dave provide in Vermont. Author of two “young adult” mysteries set in her neighborhood, she is bringing out a third one, Cold Midnight, in November 2012 and is writing a “Vermont Nancy Drew” type series featuring teen sleuth Felicity “Lucky” Franklin. Follow her adventures at, scan all her fiction at once at, or review her reviews at

Light Thickens (1982) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on September 14, 2012 by cshmurak

Does a mystery written in 1982 qualify as a Golden Age mystery? Well, sure – if it’s the final book in a series that was begun in 1934 and still keeps the spirit of the Golden Age alive.

Light Thickens, set in the Dolphin Theatre, where in 1966, Inspector Roderick Alleyn solved an earlier case (Death at the Dolphin aka Killer Dolphin), has some of the same theatrical characters as the earlier book, as well as Alleyn’s usual sidekick Inspector Fox, and his two assistants, Sergeants Bailey and Thompson. Marsh, who had many years of experience as a producer/director of Shakespearean drama in New Zealand, takes the reader through every stage of putting the show together from first rehearsals to opening night and beyond. When the murder occurs, the cast and crew constitute a limited group of suspects, just as one would find in a typical English country house mystery.

Of course, these are theatre folks, people who are trained in the art of deception and who are full of petty motives to do each other in. And the play is MacBeth, a play about murder, long considered an unlucky play to perform. (Reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about Season Two of the wonderful TV series, Slings and Arrows, and the mayhem that MacBeth caused that theatre company.)

Like many Marsh novels, the murder doesn’t occur till late in the story (page 141 in my book of 232 pages), so by the time Alleyn appears, we have had a long while to get to know all the characters. Depending on how interested the reader is in the backstage workings of a play, this can be a plus or a minus. Several people in my readers’ group felt that the first part of the book, which described the intricacies of the putting on the play, was fascinating, but the detective work in the second part was fairly routine; others felt the first part was tedious and the story didn’t come alive until the murder. (I’m one of the first group.)

The murder itself is wonderfully bizarre, in true Marsh fashion, and there are plenty of clues and red herrings. But the solution to the mystery comes fairly abruptly and is less than satisfying. That Light Thickens was written in the last year of her life (and published posthumously) may explain the ending: perhaps Marsh simply didn’t get to revise and elaborate the final chapter.

Overture to Death (1939) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , on July 6, 2012 by cshmurak

     Overture to Death is a perfect example of Golden Age Ngaio Marsh.

     Continuing to play catch-up with Ngaio Marsh after years of neglecting her books — see Clutch of Constables and Surfeit of Lampreys (Death of a Peer) also reviewed on this blog —  I enjoyed this one very much.    
     Like many of Marsh’s books, this one begins with a comedy of manners; this time it is a small group of countryfolk engaged in putting on a play. The interior monologs of all of the players are shown in amusing detail. As in many of Marsh’s books, the death of one of the players doesn’t occur till eighty pages in, and Scotland Yard isn’t called in to investigate till page 93. Enter Inspector Alleyn and his team.
     This being a Golden Age mystery, much is made of timetables; clues like squeaky gates, onions, and phone calls abound. Alleyn even gets to assemble all his suspects in one place and point out the highlights of the case.  Marsh is known for killing characters off in bizarre ways, and Overture to Death is a great example of this. Additionally, I think Marsh plays scrupulously fair with her readers.
     The only thing that surprised me about this book was the totally unsympathetic portrayal of two of the characters who were middle-aged spinsters. Since Marsh herself was a spinster all her life, and was certainly middle-aged by the time she wrote this book, I would have expected a less vitriolic characterization. But perhaps it was only the holier-than-thou, sexually repressed spinster whom Marsh could not bear, and these two certainly fit that description.