Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Raw Manners

A review I wrote several years ago and just found:

"Five Red Herrings" (1975)

a review 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

"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.

* * *

Five Red Herrings, like Clouds of Witness (1926), is about the
tragic toll taken on individuals by bad manners.

W. H. Auden wrote an essay in 1938 called "The Guilty Vicarage" in which
he said that murder mysteries recapitulate the Biblical story of the
fall, hence their popularity with godless modern readers, apparently.
This sounds like the special pleading of smart people who need an
intellectual justification for reading popular fiction instead of taking
another futile stab at the first few pages Moby Dick. 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.

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.

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