The Five Red Herrings

The Five Red Herrings (also The 5 Red Herrings) is a 1931 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, her sixth featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. In the United States it was published in the same year under the title Suspicious Characters.[2]

The Five Red Herrings
First edition
AuthorDorothy L. Sayers
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesLord Peter Wimsey
GenreMystery novel
PublisherVictor Gollancz[1]
Publication date
Media typePrint
Preceded byStrong Poison 
Followed byHave His Carcase 


The novel includes a foreword in the form of a personal letter from the author "To my friend Joe Dignam, kindliest of landlords". The letter starts "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, except that I have run up a few new houses here and there".


The novel is set in Galloway, a part of Scotland popular with artists and fishermen. Sandy Campbell is a talented painter, but also a notoriously quarrelsome drunkard. When he is found dead in a stream, with a still-wet half-finished painting on the bank above, it is assumed that he fell in accidentally, fracturing his skull. Lord Peter Wimsey, who is in the region on a fishing holiday, suspects murder when he realises that something is missing from the scene which makes it impossible for Campbell to have worked on the painting. Sayers includes a parenthetical note at this point: "Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was looking for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page". A local doctor believes that the degree of rigor mortis suggests that Campbell died during the previous night.

Whoever killed Campbell also executed the painting in Campbell's distinctive style, to contrive the appearance of an accident. Six artists in the area are talented enough to achieve this: Farren, Strachan, Gowan, Graham, Waters and Ferguson. All had recent public brawls with Campbell. One of the six is the criminal, and five are red herrings.

All the suspects behave suspiciously: some leave the district without explanation, others give obviously inaccurate statements or conceal facts. Wimsey investigates with some assistance from his manservant Bunter and his friend in London, Charles Parker. The task of identifying the culprit is made more difficult because of the complexities of the local train timetables, the easy availability of bicycles, and the resultant opportunities for the murderer to evade notice.

All six suspects are eventually traced and give statements in which they deny killing Campbell, but none are entirely satisfactory. The Procurator Fiscal, the Chief Constable and the investigating police officers meet with Wimsey to review the evidence. The police put forward several theories, implicating all of the suspects either as killer or as accessory. Asked for his opinion, Wimsey finally reveals that the true killer was in fact Ferguson, the only one of the artists who while painting often kept spare tubes of paint in his pocket and who absentmindedly pocketed a tube of white while creating the faked painting. It was the absence of that tube that Wimsey had noted at the start. The police are sceptical but Wimsey offers a reconstruction, and over the course of twenty-four hours demonstrates how the killer contrived the scene above the stream and also established a false alibi.

Ferguson confesses, but states that Campbell's death happened accidentally during a fight, and was not murder. When the case is tried, the jury brings in a verdict of manslaughter, with a strong recommendation to mercy on the ground that "Campbell was undoubtedly looking for trouble".

List of characters

  • Lord Peter Wimsey
  • Mervyn Bunter: Wimsey's manservant
  • Sandy Campbell (deceased): artist
  • Hugh Farren: artist and suspect
  • Henry Strachan: golf club secretary, artist and suspect
  • Matthew Gowan: wealthy artist and suspect
  • Jock Graham: artist and suspect
  • Michael Waters: English artist and suspect
  • John Ferguson: Campbell's next-door neighbour, artist and suspect
  • Gilda Farren: Farren's wife
  • Sir Maxwell Jamieson: Chief Constable
  • Inspector Macpherson: Kirkcudbright Police
  • Sergeant Dalziel: Newton Stewart Police

Literary significance and criticism

The first edition was reviewed in The Spectator of 1931 by MI Cole who found the impregnable alibis of the rather indistinguishable artist suspects, and the elaborate examination of timetables, ticket punches and so on, to be really taxing to the intelligence. He noted that Lord Peter Wimsey and the author's usual pleasant fantasies have retired into the background leaving a "pure-puzzle" book which is disappointing, dry, and dull. He acknowledged, however, that it has been appreciated immensely by puzzle fanatics who possess "the type of mind that goes on solving crossword puzzles for ever and ever".[3]

In their review of Crime novels (revised edn 1989), the US writers Barzun and Taylor called The 5 Red Herrings "A work that grows on rereading and remains in the mind as one of the richest, most colorful of her group studies. The Scottish setting, the artists in the colony, the train-ticket puzzle, and the final chase place this triumph among the four or five chefs d'oeuvre from her hand".[4]


The Five Red Herrings was adapted for television in 1975 as part of a series starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and Glyn Houston as Bunter.[5] It has also been dramatised for BBC Radio with Carmichael as Lord Peter and Peter Jones as Bunter.[6]


  1. "British Library Item details". Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  2. "Suspicious characters, the new Lord Peter mystery". Library of Congress online catalog. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  3. Cole, MI (9 May 1931). "Fiction: The Puzzle of the Puzzle". The Spectator. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  4. Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  5. "Lord Peter Wimsey – Five Red Herrings (1975)". Cult TV Lounge. 12 January 2016. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  6. "Wimsey: Five Red Herrings. Episode 1: The Body in the Burn". BBC. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
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