Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Dorothy L. Sayers: Murder Must Advertise (1933)

Edition: Gollancz, 1971
Review number: 1393

There are several Dorothy Sayers novels which have an unusual background: bell ringing in The Nine Tailors, the Bohemian London intelligentsia in Strong Poison, and so on. This idea is not that uncommon in crime fiction since her day, but she makes her backgrounds more closely integrated with the puzzle than is often the case. Murder Must Advertise is the best of these in many ways. Like Gaudy Night (Oxford womens' college), it uses a setting extremely familiar to the author, that of the adverstising agency, similar (one assumes, but for the likelihood of violent death) to the one in which she worked. It even has a character, a copy writer named Miss Meteyard, who is clearly something of a self-portrait.  Advertising has obviously changed since the 1930s, so this makes Murder Must Advertise something of a historical record, particularly with episodes such as discussions about how to encourage more women to take up smoking which would be viewed rather differently today.

The novel begins when a new copywriter arrives at Pym's agency, to fill the place of a man who died falling down the stairs. The new man signs himself Death Bredon, and the reader is likely to realise very quickly that these are the middle names of Lord Peter Wimsey, undercover to unravel a death more suspicious than it first appears.

One aspect of the novel doesn't really work at all. As part of the investigation, Lord Peter needs to charm a wild young woman, a rich society party-goer who is involved with a set connected to drug smuggling. He does this - rather bizarrely - by dressing up as Harlequin and playing silly but mysterious games to tantalise her. This includes physical feats unlikely to be carried out by a twenty year old (unless a circus acrobat), let alone Lord Peter, who is described as being about twice that age. The contrast between these sections and the rest is rather jarring, and doesn't encourage belief in Lord Peter as a character. I also felt that it was unlikely that Lord Peter, who is supposed to be so well known to the public, was not recognised in what seems to have been a playing of a role with no real disguise of his features - he is nearly discovered at one point because he is still wearing tailored clothes which would be far beyond the means of the man he is supposed to be.

On the other hand, one literary trick does work, even though it must at the time of publication have seemed out of place in a crime genre novel. At several crucial points in the novel, Sayers places paragraphs which consist solely of advertising slogans (for the made up products of Pym's clients). Apart from punctuating the narrative, they provide a particular kind of background, due to the all pervasive nature of advertising in the twentieth century. A successful advert needs to catch the mood of the moment, and feed off it, or else it won't be able to capture the imagination of the consumer - they are in a way the essence of popular culture. This means that the style of adverts is instantly evocative of the time of their creation, and makes these paragraphs in Murder Must Advertise redolent of the early thirties.

Flawed, but still one of the best classic crime novels - 8/10.

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