Sarah Drew

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The Five Red Herrings

by Dorothy Sayers

Cover to Five Red Herrings

Lord Peter Wimsey is on holiday in Kirkcudbright in South West Scotland, and on good terms with the artistic and local community there. When Campbell, a unpopular & quarrelsome landscape painter, is found dead in a burn near Newton Stewart (the Water of Borgan) it seems he must have accidentally slipped whilst painting near to the edge of a ravine.  But Wimsey is convinced the death wasn’t accidental and indeed an autopsy reveals that Campbell was dead before he fell into the burn.  There are six possible suspects, each with an alibi of sorts and all of whom had quarrelled with or been assaulted by Campbell, all of them artists.  The five innocent suspects are, of course, the five red herrings.

What follows is an intricately plotted story as Wimsey and the police investigate the mystery, culminating in Wimsey’s re-enactment of the crime from beginning to end to show how it was carried out.

This review is based on a talk I gave in November 2020 as part of an evening on the Geography of Literature.

The birth of Lord Peter Wimsey

In 1923, Dorothy Sayers launched into the world my first love, her aristocratic amateur detective–Lord Peter Wimsey.  With straw-coloured hair, a beaked nose, and a vaguely foolish face, Wimsey’s a casual detective, helped enormously by his loyal valet Bunter, and a very healthy private income.  Sayers has this lovely account of how she used Wimsey to live vicariously.

“Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.”

Wimsey was an instant success, and has remained popular ever since, with frequent TV & radio adaptations bringing his charm and intelligence to fresh audiences.

Following the success of Strong Poison, in which Lord Peter fell unrequitedly in love with Harriet Vane, Sayers published The Five Red Herrings in 1931, the sixth Wimsey murder mystery.

Reactions to The Five Red Herrings

But not everyone approved.

I cannot love Five Red Herrings*,” declared an irritated blogger at the Wigtown Book Festival.

This book will be appreciated,” wrote Spectator reviewer M.I. Cole in 1931, by “the type of mind that goes on solving crossword puzzles for ever and ever.”

Why the bad press?

Well, for a start, the book does not feature Wimsey’s stuttering romance with Harriet Vane at all. Indeed, other than Wimsey himself, there are few memorable characters. Instead, the book’s characterised by immense & complicated detail about train times, routes, bicycles & moving the body and the poor reader is expected to be well versed in the techniques of oil-painting. Sayers wrote trenchantly to her publisher, Victor Gollancz, “no-one falls in love …and every sentence is necessary to the plot.  Much good may it do ‘em!

Not only does this mean lists of railway times and connections on every other page, it produces scenes set at drinks parties where characters earnestly discuss why they ought to have caught the 7.30am express from Dumfries, rather than the ghastly 11.22am.  As Sayers’ critic A.J. Hall commented, “Though we’ve all been to parties like that, they don’t tend to be either lingered over at the time or fondly remembered in retrospect.”

* [The book is referred to in different places as “The Five Red Herrings” and “Five Red Herrings”; same book, either way!]

A love letter

But Sayers had a deeper purpose in writing the book: it’s actually a love letter to the Galloway region. Sayers and her husband “Mac” Fleming, a Scottish journalist, first came to Galloway in 1928, staying at the Anwoth Hotel in Gatehouse of Fleet (now the Ship Inn). From 1929 they rented a studio in The High Street, Kirkcudbright, next door to the well-known artist Charles Oppenheimer, and became well acquainted with the artistic community there. Here’s Sayers dedicating the book to Joe Dignam, the owner of the Anwoth Hotel.

Dear Joe,

Here at last is your book about Gatehouse and Kirkcudbright. All the places are real places and all the trains are real trains, and all the landscapes are correct…Give my love to everybody and we shall come back next summer to eat some more potato-scones.

Sayers notes that whereas normally she invented a landscape to serve the plot, in The Five Red Herrings, she’s invented the plot to fit the landscape. Thinking about it, the book’s affectionate descriptions of the countryside, its roads and trains seem to me to stand in for that absence of “real” emotions which reviewers had noted. Take, for example, this extract from a long and evocative description of Wimsey heading west from Gatehouse.

“He passed through Gatehouse, waving a cheerful hand to the proprietor of the Anwoth Hotel, climbed up beneath the grim blackness of Cardoness Castle, drank in the strange, Japanese beauty of Mossyard Farm, set like a red jewel under its tufted trees on the blue sea’s rim, and the Italian loveliness of Kirkdale …The wild garlic was over now, but the scent of it seemed still to hang about the place in memory, filling it with the shudder of vampire wings and memories of the darker side of Border history.”


So why are maps absolutely critical to an understanding to the book? Because Sayers uses the Galloway landscape in two ways. As we’ve just seen, her lyrical descriptions conjure up the magic and mystery of the region. She also makes it fundamental part of each suspect’s alibi, where you really need to know your way around the landmarks to appreciate what’s going on. Here’s Wimsey again in a fairly typical extract, speculating on a suspect’s movements. Just try to imagine this without any knowledge of the geography.

“There’s nowhere much for him to go… He could go up to Glen Trool, but … he’d only have to come back the same way. He might, of course, follow the Cree back …as far as Minnigaff… and strike across country to New Galloway, but it’s a long road and keeps him hanging about much too close to the scene of the crime. In my opinion, his best way would be to …go north-west …, and strike the railway at Barrhill. That’s about nine or ten miles by road. [On a bicycle] he could do it, going briskly, in an hour, or, as it’s a rough road, say an hour and a half. …That brings him to Barrhill at 12.30.”

Reading that, I got lost somewhere near Minnigaff.

Working out the solution to Sayers’ puzzle requires a rigorous attention to detail, infinite leisure—plus probably half a bottle of whisky—and, above all, a really excellent map.  Interestingly, as Sayers-specialists Geraldine Perriam and Paul Bishop have pointed out, Sayers herself stipulated that she would not have anything but the best, citing a book by a rival in which Collins had:

“…furnished [the author] with the most mean, miserable, potty, small, undecipherable and useless map, scrim-shanking, feeble and unworthy to the last degree. Possibly he drew it himself, but in that case they ought to have taken it away from him and given him something better.”
“I look to you
[she wrote to Gollancz]… to allow me a large, handsome, clear, well-executed, generous and convincing map,… with a proper scale of miles and everything handsome about it…. Whatever happens, we must go about ten better than the intolerable Collins!”

Map of Dumfries & Galloway used as end paper in "Five Red Herrings"
End paper of the first edition of The Five Red Herrings

Gollancz duly obliged. Their model, probably based on the ‘Galloway and South Ayrshire’ sheet of The Graded Road Maps is more than sufficient for the casual reader.

But it wouldn’t be nearly detailed enough for the guilty party to plan their false alibi with. What would he have used?

The two most likely candidates (click the images below to enlarge) are firstly a gorgeous 1911 cyclists’ map of the region. (I do like the aesthetic of the cover.) The map itself is based on the 1906-07 Ordnance Survey edition; it’s functional, though a cyclist with—at best—a three-speed bike might find the contouring detail limited.

The second is a straightforward 1923 Ordnance Survey map; this is much more detailed and incorporates post-war revisions to the road and crucial rail networks.

Railways in Dumfries & Galloway

I’ve highlighted in lurid purple on the 1923 map the railway lines covering the region since (as the extract above makes plain) trains, bikes and automobiles together with the many stations and branch lines of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway form a key part of the book.

1940 edition of 1923 Ordnance Survey map of Dumfries & Galloway, showing train lines.

At this time, trains ran from Dumfries to Portpatrick, (then the principal port for crossings to Northern Ireland) with branch lines going off to Kirkcudbright & Whithorn. Glasgow trains came down the coast via Ayr and Barrhill, intersecting at Stranraer.

The line swerves south to avoid the granite mass of Cairnsmore of Fleet, which explains the apparently illogical route from Castle Douglas. Given the principal economic motive for the line was the direct connection to Portpatrick, it really wasn’t profitable to duck down to all the coastal towns, so the line serves only those towns (such as Gatehouse) that could justify an outlying station.

You’ll find Sayers’ suspects leaping on and off trains at Gatehouse, Barrhill, Castle Douglas, Dumfries, and generally contributing significantly to the profits of the London, Midland and Scottish Railways.

Sayers would have been familiar with Norman Wilkinson‘s iconic 1927 poster (left) romanticising the region & produced for the LMS to promote rail travel to the Southern Highlands of Scotland. Although eventually British Rail closed all Dumfries & Galloway’s branch stations as part of the 1965 Beeching cuts, it did at least use Kirkcudbright artist Charles Oppenheimer’s gorgeous watercolour (right) to produce a deeply nostalgic poster for travel to the region.


A sense of nostagia pervades the book, a sense that Sayers knows she’s writing about a period that’s nearly over, and about a place on the point of change.  It’s there in the foreword to Joe Dignam:

“…Please tell Provost Laurie that though this story is laid in the petrol-gas period, I have not forgotten that Gatehouse will now have its electric light by which to read this book.” 

Nearby the Galloway hydro-electric power scheme (immortalised here by Oppenheimer) began construction in 1929 and was operational in 1935.

Sayers pens a hugely affectionate portrait of Kirkcudbright’s artists (with the possible exception of the unpleasant character, Gowan, said to be modelled on Hornel).  But nevertheless, as her London-centred books make clear, elsewhere Surrealism is in full swing.  Dali and Magritte live in a different world from Oppenheimer.  Though the Kirkcudbright colony seems thriving, Sayers is well aware its days are numbered.  

Yet the book’s a happy one warmed by Sayers’ evident fondness for the region. Her first-hand knowledge of the inhabitants and their occupations, the landscape and countryside shines through every page. The clear, accurate and affectionate descriptions given by the author allow one, over ninety years later, to drive, cycle or walk over each scene in the book, including the famous bicycle ride to Barrhill.  

Yes, it’s true, as one blogger commented ruefully, by the time you get to the end of The Five Red Herrings you’ll have an extraordinary knowledge of how the little 1930s railway branch lines worked and how bicycles were ticketed through to their destination.  But more importantly, you’ll also feel you’ve spent a few days immersing yourself in this part of the Scottish countryside; and in an evocative record of a time and place now long gone.

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