15 April 2009 | jayroth6
"Five Red Herrings" (1975)
"Five Red Herrings" (1975)
reviewed by Jay Rothermel
By the early 1940s many creative artists were pushed toward defeatism, capitulation to the bourgeoisie, and sometimes outright reaction.
The rise and triumph of fascism in Germany, the class collaborationist policies of the Stalin leadership in the USSR, and the fall of republican Spain were all prelude to September 1, 1939. In Dorothy L. Sayers this is seen in her complete abandonment of novel writing after Busman's Honeymoon (1937) and embrace of religious obscurantism. Her play cycle The Man Born to be King (1941) and the later Dante translations are today a mere pendant, ignored completely by those who know her true faith in craft and social life was best expressed in the Wimsey stores, filled with life and exalted aestheticism.
The contempt and dismissiveness leveled at Dorothy l. Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey runs like an unbroken thread through most criticism of the genre. Damned by damns and faint praise, Sayers is depicted as a woman who made a fool of herself over the detective in her novels.
"Falling in love with her hero" is a commonly used phrase, and an undeserved one. Sayers, unlike most crime novelists, developed splendid gifts as a writer in exploring Wimsey, bringing him forth as a real character and not the usual genre stereotype.
Wimsey is a hard, harsh and haunted man. Like many who came through the Great War, he could not find a proper use for the rest of his life. Over the no-mans-land of his mind, Wimsey was able to spread a thin patina of simulated humanity: interest in incunabula and detection; a passion for "butting in" and correcting the fortunes and destinies of others. He mastered the fine psychological art of silly-ass self-deprecation which harried opponents and friends alike.
All but four of the novels feature Wimsey in his bachelor days, before falling in love with accused poisoned and novelist Harriet Vane. While the Vane novels are not inferior to the others, or to the wonderful short stories collected in Lord Peter Views the Body (1928), they do suffer a certain limitation of scene compared to the open air and rude good health of Unnatural Death (1927) and The Nine Tailors (1934).
In the early 1970s the BBC made a series of adaptations of the non-Vane Wimsey novels. They starred Ian Carmichael, who had previously donned the monocle in The World of Wooster. Each production has been released on video and DVD, and the DVDs are also presented as a box set.
In TV mysteries, pacing is all. Carmichael's performance as the brittle, bracing aristocrat pushes the plot forward beyond all the patent absurdities of the mystery genre. Why would the police tolerate an amateur sleuth bulling his way through a murder investigation? Always steps ahead, Wimsey leaves neither police nor viewer time to reflect upon the question. The pleasures of language, character, and mis en scene take care of the rest.
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Well-written mysteries are as enjoyable as any other well-wrought fiction. It was P.D.Q. Bach composer Peter Schickele who famously said of music: "If it sounds good, it is good."
Puzzle mysteries are said to appeal to snobbish intellectuals who want to put their reasoning to a test, much like scrabble or chess players or people who work newspaper crosswords each day. The smug certainly want to justify reading mysteries by equating them with some form of august mentation. Such comparisons usually smack of sham or guilty conscience. When Edmund Wilson wrote "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" (1945) he was declaring independence from rationalizing readers who tried disguising their desire to be titillated as though it were a date with Finnegan's Wake.
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Five Red Herrings takes place in and around an artists' colony in wildest Scotland, near Gatehouse and Kirkcudbright. The area is a raw St. Ives of the north, populated by various bohemian painters. Fine exterior photography lends the cold, unforgiving sky and clear waters of frigid trout streams a vivid and almost palpable life. When Wimsey dons thick gauntlets before driving in his open car, one's own hands begin to ache of cold.
Scottish painter Sandy Campbell (Ian Ireland) is the terror of the colony. A "maudlin brute," he bullies and terrorizes the men who become suspects in his murder. His explosive temper and bloody-minded contrariness have alienated fellow artists who would normally be natural allies and confidantes. He takes any comment as just cause for battle. His most obscene outrage is taking a cut-throat razor to the beard and scalp of a fellow painter (Russell Hunter) he has waylaid one night on a lonely road. Justifiable homicide never had more justification.
Most murder mysteries deal with social humiliation, vigilante retribution, and redress of balance: all pragmatic expressions of bourgeois ideology that disguise and make bearable the unpredictable violence bred by the workings of the law of value. The Wimsey stories are no different. The enjoyment resides in how the changes are rung.
The "puzzle aspect" of Five Red Herrings is Lord Peter's demolition of the murderer's alibi. It is a buoyant, open-air series of deductions, a far cry from the stereotypical "gathering of suspects" which sinks the ending of so many Golden Age of Mystery novels and their film adaptations. One of the great strengths of any Dorothy L. Sayers novel is variation of setting, and the BBC version of Five Red Herrings replicates this perfectly.
The pleasures of Sayers' Wimsey stories and novels are many. Freshly imagined and ingeniously presented characters, evocative locations, logical scene building, consistent and clever handling of point of view (one thinks of Miss Climpson's letters in Unnatural Death) are all Sayers strengths. "Simplicity itself," as the saying goes.