Richard's Retirement Blog

Five Red Herrings

March 2011

In the Steps of Lord Peter Wimsey

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Spoiler warning

This photoset is of locations referred to in Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy L. Sayers, first published in 1931 by Gollancz. The book is one of my favourite who-dunnits. I won't give away who did it, but I'm bound to refer to some of the plot (that's the point), so if you haven't read the book (and I recommend it) and you want to come to it fresh, maybe you'd prefer to come back later?

The Victim

Sandy Cambell of Gatehouse-of-Fleet, artist, fisherman and thoroughly unpleasant and unpopular (if misunderstood) character, was found dead one Tuesday morning in the Minnoch (below). Above, on the top of the steep bank, his easel stood, with a painting still wet. It seemed like a simple accident - a slip, a fall, a bang on the head and an unconscious man drowned in the river. But - an item of some significance was missing from his equipment, his stomach was empty and he had been dead since long before the picture was painted. The hunt was on for a murderer, and one who had gone to a lot of trouble to fake an accident. If only he had not carried away that one essential item, raising Lord peter Wimsey's suspicions, he might have succeeded.

The Clues

A witness - Helen McGregor of Auchenhaye (between Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse), age 10, "out stravaiguin' about the country wi' the laddies" from the nearby farm on Monday evening "when she should be in her bed" - was badly frightened to witness a fight in the road between two men, one of whom carried off the body of the other over his shoulder. She was almost struck by a spanner that was thrown, which turned out to match a (non-fatal) bruise on the face of the corpse. It even bore a fingerprint - sadly, that of the corpse.

This could well be the place - the cottage ahead on the right; the main road has been widened and straightened at Auchenhaye, and the lay-by is the original road.

Although Campbell had been killed on the Monday night, someone had slept in his bed and eaten his breakfast.

There was a bicycle missing in Gatehouse, and a bicycle mysteriously sent from Ayr to London. But one of the suspects was missing with his bicycle too! Was either of them used to help establish an alibi?

Over the next week or so, the suspects were traced and their movements clarified. The police investigation was based in Kirkcudbright Police Station, whilst Wimsey had rented "a small studio at the end of a cobbled close (off the) High Street" (this is one of several such; which was Sayers' Blue Gate Close I could not say).

The Suspects

The murderer had to be an artist, good enough to imitate Cambell's style. Lord Peter Wimsey made a list of six suspects, all known to have quarrelled with Campbell. Living in Kirkcudbright: Michael Waters, Hugh Farren and Matthew Gowan; and lining in Gatehouse-of-Fleet: Jock Graham, Henry Strachan and John Ferguson. Several of these men had disappeared, and of the rest, not one could offer a satisfactory alibi. These were their stories:

Waters

Fought with Cambell in the McClennan Arms, Kirkcudbright, on the Monday night. Wimsey saw him home about 10:30; then he disappeared. At first it was thought he had gone to an art exhibition in Glasgow. When that was disproved, further enquiry at his lodgings revealed that he had had a visitor very late on Monday night, and that his landlady has not actually seen him - only heard him - on Tuesday morning. Had Cambell come back looking for trouble, and found it? When Waters eventually turned up several days later, he claimed that the visitor was a friend who had taken him on a yachting trip. But could any independent corroboration of this be found?

The McClennan Arms, if it exists, I did not find (perhaps the Selkirk Hotel ?); but the Clan McClennan gave its name to the castle.

Farren

Was jealous of Campbell's visits to his wife, who felt sorry for Campbell because he was so unpopular. Farren was out all Monday night (although his wife denied it) and was thereafter simply missing. It was feared that he had killed Campbell then committed suicide. When traced eventually to Brough, Westmorland, he claimed to be escaping his troubles, and was deeply upset to have to go back to Galloway. He had, in fact, gone looking for Campbell on Monday night, but claimed not to have found him; he had then gone up to the disused mines at Falbae with suicide in mind, where he was approached by Strachan and fought off Strachan's attempts to take him home; then he slept rough (he had been drinking heavily). When he awoke, he decided simply not to go home, and hitched lifts south to England.

Gowan

Was a very successful artist, who lived in some style in the High Street. He had been publicly insulted by Cambell. He had gone to London, according to his servants, by train on Monday evening. However, it was clear that someone was being concealed in his house, and there was a surreptitious departure from there on Wednesday night (Wimsey fell over a protruding step in his haste to see what was afoot). Subsequently Gowan's manservant, chauffeur and car all disappeared, but were found at Bridge of Dee: they explained (and showed the letter) that Gowan had written from London giving them permission to take a holiday and use the car. When Gowan was traced in London by Scotland Yard, his famous full beard had been shaved. He explained that it was he who had been attacked by and fought Campbell on the road at Auchenhaye, but that he was the "corpse", and that Cambell had forcibly cut off his beard and eyebrows, causing him to stage a disappearance to avoid appearing ridiculous in public.

Graham

Had had several rows with Campbell over fishing the Water of Fleet below Campbell's house. Campbell had attempted to duck him in the Fleet, but got ducked himself instead. At first, he "categorically refused" to say where he had been. A witness came forward - a lady - to claim that Graham had been with her. This improbable story ("I have known you do many rash things, but I give you credit for seeing through Mrs. Smith-Lemesurier") nevertheless forced Graham into another alibi: he claimed to have been poaching at Bargrennan with a group of friends. This story too was less than satisfactory, for the men involved were not of good character, and anyway it was not impossible that Graham could have left them for a while without their realising.

Strachan

Was Secretary of the Golf Club, and had had a row with Campbell on the course and demanded his resignation. He was shown to have been out all Monday night, and had a black eye for which he gave an obviously false explanation. He was clearly concealing something. Supposedly, he had spent Monday afternoon painting on the coast, and the evening fishing at Tongland (left). Eventually, he was persuaded to admit to being worried about Farren's involvement: he had called at Campbell's cottage and left a written warning that Farren was looking for trouble, then gone to Falbae where he found and fought Farren; then he fell into one of the mine shafts, from which it took him quite some time to escape. Although he would not admit it, it was clear that he was afraid of Farren's being involved in Campbell's death. Was he also an accomplice?

Ferguson

Was Campbell's neighbour, and the two were on notoriously bad terms, especially after Cambell knocked down Ferguson's wall whilst reversing his car carelessly. He was at home on Monday evening, and heard Farren rampaging around. Later, he heard Campbell come home (who must presumably have gone out again, before Strachan's visit, without waking Ferguson). He went alone to Glasgow by train on Tuesday morning from Gatehouse Station (left), but he was seen in Glasgow by two neighbours. But (given that the murderer must have visited Campbell's cottage at least once and possibly twice) does he know more than he's saying?

The line through Gatehouse Station, a record six miles from the town, was closed in 1965, and the somewhat dilapidated-looking station building is in private hands.

The Solution

Who did it? How? Ah ... not telling you. Read the book. It's worth the trouble. Suffice to say, it involves murderer in the construction on an elaborate alibi by car, bike, train and on foot, the painting of a picture in a pastiche of the victim's style and the forging of railway ticket punch marks, and in one would-be fatal mistake which, by extreme good luck, he is able to turn to his advantage in achieving the apparently impossible.

Extra photos

Kirkcudbright

The Parish Church, and a view of the town across the Dee.

Gatehouse-of-Fleet

The main street seen from outside the Ship Inn across the bridge; the Ship Inn itself appears in the story under its name at the time, the Anwoth Hotel; and it was there that Sayers wrote the book.

Waters' studio in Kirkcudbright was "in a happy backwater, with an ancient overshot watermill, a few cottages and a wide open space". This isn't it - it's in Gatehouse - but it's too pretty not to be photographed.

Bridge of Dee

Worth a photo, and gets a reference in the story: it's where Gowan's servants went on their fishing trip. There's now a big modern bridge just upstream.

Carrick

Strachan was painting the Isles of Fleet from the Carrick shore when Wimsey interviewed him. He became excited and tried to knock his interlocutor into the sea. This very beautiful coastline also deserves to be photographed, even if its place in the story is minor.

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