Monday, November 28, 2011

The Five Red Herrings: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery / by Dorothy Sayers

All Lord Peter Wimsey wanted for his holiday in the highlands was to sleep late, reflect on his misspent youth, catch some trout and possibly fit in a round of golf. The quaint village that he and Bunter take up residence is actually a type of artist colony where an assortment of painters--all a bit odd but talented in their own way--have set down roots. One among them isn't really odd though, he's just mean. Campbell Quick is a barrel-chested, red-bearded Scotsman with a temper to match his drinking habits and a peevishness overshadowing any artistic skill he possesses. "He's a devil when he's drunk and a lout when he's sober", they all say. So when he turns up dead in the river the day following an evening in which he rowed with six of his fellow artists, the question for Lord Peter is to find out which one of them murdered Campbell, a man best characterized by Wimsey's eulogy, "Nothing in his life quite became him like the leaving of it." To do so the gentleman sleuth and his crafty manservant will need to eliminate the five artists,  the "five red herrings", who had the motive and possibly the means but not the opportunity to dispose of the undesirable Campbell.

If you didn't know him, it might be easy to overlook Lord Peter Wimsey as a minor fictional sleuth from the golden age of mystery fiction. The amateur "gentleman detective" is nothing like the big names of the period--Poirot, Maigret, Mason, etc.--who are all 'in the business' so to speak, all detectives by trade with solid credentials and proper training. And though he usually shirks the perception as quickly as it's made, Wimsey can come off as something of a nosy, entitled aristocrat. He doesn't work at job or need money, his butler does everything for him short of clip his toenails and though he's an amateur criminologist of the highest order, he has no real reason other than avid interest to associate himself with crime and murder. But while not featured in the sheer volume of fiction occupied by a Poirot or a Perry Mason, he's aged as well as any of them, his "mind like a razor", discernible eye for detail and inimitable charisma winning over hoards of readers. Always the bon viveur with an incurable optimism and contagious confidence, Wimsey can't help but, well, project 'whimsy' everywhere he goes, winning as much respect as admiration and garnering appeal with his sophisticated charm and personality. It's here where Sayers, with her manifestation of the 'gentleman detective,' really distinguished herself, managing to create an admirable, truly estimable character from someone with a manservant, lots of money and lots of free time--later works would see Wimsey take a seat in the House of Lords but for the most part he's just another member of the idle rich set bouncing around Europe's glamorous hotspots. It's harder than it looks because with a few discrepancies, the svelte, polished protagonist might have easily become a buffoon like Bertie Wooster or even a distancing snob, something like James Bond maybe. But it's nothing like that. When people are difficult, Wimsey is class and composure personified. Where they might feel inferior, he deftly erases social barriers. Where there's a case to be solved, he never oversteps his authority but never capitulates to official crime solvers who sometimes resent the butting-in of a posh member of the nobility. He may not be officially affiliated with law enforcement, but he's amply capable, has a free maneuverability, abundant resources and is never afraid to get his hands dirty--all things which make the books, every one of them, serious fun. (MYS SAYERS)

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