Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reading Hints for Red Herrings

It is a good thing Strong Poison comes before The Five Red Herrings in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, because only a reader borne up on the waves of the former intriguing and somewhat romantic mystery would have the heart to make it through the next book's pages. Herrings is by far the most arduous and unpleasing of the Wimsey canon and a shocking mistake in publishing history.

Nevertheless, when the time came for me to reread The Five Red Herrings in my third venture through the series, I did so with gusto. I carefully examined the indecipherable map at the front of the book. I attempted to remember the characteristics of each suspect introduced so that I could differentiate among them as the story proceeded. By the time I reached the convoluted account of bicycle labelling at some train station or other round about chapter 10, I was hopelessly lost.

Let me stop right here, since I am riled up at just the memory of the experience, to vent my fustration about a book in which the author has her detective discover a crucial clue at the beginning of the mystery but refuses to tell us what it is, instead snottily telling the reader that if he is intelligent, he will deduce it for himself. Additionally, there are none of the entertaining Whimsey-esque flights of prattle and absurdity that would have made the book at least bearable, and Bunter is nowhere to be found. That estimable manservant's place has been taken by a Jeeves-like imposter.

But back to my main point. Hopelessly lost in Galloway, I realized I could continue plunging blindly through the story and hope to find my head above water at the end, give up, or start over. I started over.

I inched through the book, referring frequently to the map and paging back and forth whenever I couldn't remember something that I was supposed to know. I emerged powerfully at the train station with the bicycle label - and knew where I was! I vaulted through the book, springing from train station to train station and following up every detail of every detailed alibi! I understood!

And that, my friends, is what makes this book worth reading. It's like a scavenger hunt. If you can follow the clues, you'll actually kind of have fun. And if you can visualize all of the alibis occurring simultaneously - artist-fishermen scooting energetically all around the country by train and car and sometimes boat - you will even sense a kind of humor in the story.

If you are feeling inspired by this post and wish to test your endurance for a wee Scottish mystery, here are my hints for reading The Five Red Herrings:

1) The map is virtually unreadable, but all you really need to be able to identify are the train routes. They are signified by little train tracks, which are easier to pick out than roads or rivers. Be sure to note where all the train stations are.

2) Keeping track of all the characters is difficult. When you have reached the point at which Wimsey identifies the six suspects, hang onto those. Also, hang onto the various members of the police force. Otherwise it gets super-confusing.

3) Keep track of times, too. Remembering the general schedule of events will help you to fit in all the alibis.


Child of Grace said...

The Five Red Herrings is more of a "whodunnit" than any of the other books in the Wimsey canon. As such, the focus is strictly on the puzzle as puzzle, with less of the wonderful sense of character and setting that make Sayers' writing great.

The suspects are so similar that it is hard not to confuse them, and Sayers never seems comfortable with the Scottish setting. In her best books, the setting is so vividly drawn that it becomes almost a character in itself. Would Gaudy Night or the Nine Tailors be the books that they are without the beautiful rendering of Oxford or an East Anglian village and its ancient church?

However, even though it is far from Sayers' best writing, I would choose to read The Five Red Herrings in a heartbeat over 98% (to give a conservative figure) of the other mystery fiction in the world.

DaughterofGrace said...

Your post has given me hope! I was rather afraid I was losing my ability to follow complicated plot lines sprinkled with unintelligible accents. Sometime in the not so distant future I shall bravely undertake another reading.

AvocadoDiva said...

M and I are in the middle of watching the BBC version of 5 Red Herrings, since we currently don't have the luxury of reading at the moment. We're half way through and neither of us have pinned down the culprit(s) yet. I'm sure the book is LOADS better than the tv production, but we are enjoying it nonetheless.