RogerBW's Blog

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy Sayers 22 April 2018

1933 mystery, eighth of Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey. Victor Dean, a copywriter at Pym's Publicity, fell down the office's iron spiral staircase and broke his neck. But his sister, with whom he was living, found a half-finished letter to the management that made her suspicious, and Wimsey goes in as a new copywriter to see what he can learn.

This is the Wimsey that is always remembered as "the advertising book"; Sayers knew that world, having worked for Benson's between 1922 and 1931. It's less remembered as "the bright young things and cocaine book", because that side of the story is rather less successful. As Sayers herself said:

The new book is nearly done. I hate it because it isn't the one I wanted to write, but I had to shove it in because I couldn't get the technical dope on The Nine Tailors in time. Still, you never know what people will fancy, do you? It […] deals with the dope-traffic, which is fashionable at the moment, but I don't feel that this part is very convincing, as I can't say "I know dope". Not one of my best efforts.

Indeed, a central plot point and the reason the two worlds intersect doesn't really hold together on closer inspection: jung vf gur cbvag bs xabjvat guerr qnlf va nqinapr juvpu cho lbh'yy or hfvat gb qvfgevohgr lbhe qbcr, jura lbhe pbhevre naq nyy lbhe qrnyref nyernql xabj gurl fubhyq fvzcyl tb gurer naq tvir, be yvfgra sbe, gur pbqr jbeq? Jul fubhyqa'g obgu qrnyref naq pbhevre whfg frr gur nqiregvfrzrag ba gur qnl vg'f choyvfurq naq npg ba vg?

"I think this is an awfully immoral job of ours. I do, really. Think how we spoil the digestions of the public."

"Ah, yes — but think how earnestly we strive to put them right again. We undermine 'em with one hand and build 'em up with the other. The vitamins we destroy in the canning, we restore in Revito, the roughage we remove from Peabody's Piper Parritch we make up into a package and market as Bunbury's Breakfast Bran; the stomachs we ruin with Pompayne, we re-line with Peplets to aid digestion. And by forcing the damn-fool public to pay twice over — once to have its food emasculated and once to have the vitality put back again, we keep the wheels of commerce turning and give employment to thousands — including you and me."

But that's not the point of the story; that is Dean's possible murder, and the fact that if it was murder one of the people in the agency must have been responsible. Sayers catches the essential wickedness of advertising, but also does a good job of portraying the technician's contempt for the clients who think they can do the thing better than the experts but have to be kept sweet; it'll be familiar to anyone who's worked in a job with complex technical elements.

"Your story is, of course, that Dairyfields' 'Green Pastures' Margarine is everything that the best butter ought to be and only costs ninepence a pound. And they like a cow in the picture."

"Why? Is it made of cow-fat?"

"Well, I daresay it is, but you mustn't say so. People wouldn't like the idea. The picture of the cow suggests the taste of butter, that's all."

But all these people are subtle, most of them probably drawn from the life (and one very blatantly inspired by Sayers herself).

"You see, she knew X. He tried to blackmail her once, about some man or the other. You wouldn't think it to look at her, would you?" said Y, naïvely.

On the cocaine-and-parties side, the Bright Young Things are all a bit flat, and although the contrast of two worlds equally unreal but in different ways is well done, even some Simon Templar-like antics from Wimsey can't really salvage these sections.

"But you know Dian de Momerie. She gets more kick out of corrupting the bourgeois — she enjoys the wrestle with their little consciences. She's a bad lot, that girl. I took her home last night, so I ought to know."

All right, Wimsey is perhaps a bit too perfect at times; but even he is stymied once he's worked out the mechanics of what's gone on but can't bring it back to a specific culprit. And there's rather a fine cricket match; Sayers, like Wodehouse, has the knack of writing about sports in a way I can find interesting, primarily by making it about the people rather than the play of the game.

And in fact that's what Sayers does in the book in general, and why these stories remain favourites of mine: they are about people, who are involved in a murder investigation, rather than about a complex murder-puzzle that happens to have people in it.

Followed by The Nine Tailors.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:21pm on 22 April 2018

    I remember finding the Harlequin sequences of the Ian Carmichael television adaptation very eerie and not at all what I would have expected from a Wimsey story.

    Harlequin is a very cruel persona especially towards the awful Dian and not at all consistent with Wimsey's normal gentlemanly character.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:35am on 23 April 2018

    Dian seems at first as though she might be the sort of person Peter would normally take steps towards redeeming; instead we get a very Production Code sort of attitude to everyone involved in the trade. (At least it's not just Dian, I suppose.)

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