Monday, October 5, 2009

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

Since my local library did not have Busman's Honeymoon, the fourth and final Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mystery, I had to settle for another Lord Peter mystery that is set sometime during the years he is pursuing Miss Vane. There is only one rather veiled reference to Harriet Vane, however, and it seemed to me that Lord Peter was not quite as much the gentleman in this novel as in the ones where her presence is more pervasive. Nevertheless, the plot in Murder Must Advertise is captivating and witty as I've come to expect from Sayers.

Murder Must Advertise finds Lord Peter using his middle names Death Bredon to pose as a copy-editor in an advertising firm while investigating the strange death of a former employee. In unravelling the mystery he finds a complex web of drug dealing (in 1930's London, lest you think it is only an American problem of later years), blackmail, and murder. Lord Peter is a bit more rakish, a bit less genteel, a bit more unpredictable than I expected from the other three mysteries I have read recently, but it added to the fun of the novel to see these unexpected sides of his character, from dressing as a harlequin with a penny whistle to doing cartwheels down the office corridor. I must admit that I was rather lost during the detailed account of a cricket game, but apart from that the British humor is just delightful!

Sayers accurately and hilariously captures the undercurrents of a typical office with a host of colorful characters who love to chat and gossip in between doing their various jobs. Mixed in with the witty and sometime heated interchanges however, are remarkably astute observations about humanity and subtle (or not so subtle) comments on culture that are still quite accurate 75+ years later. On the morality of advertising, for instance...

"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 u 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 d--n-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." (54)

Or on the effectiveness of public education... "Wild 'orses,' declared Ginger [an office boy], finally and completely losing his grasp of the aitches with which a careful nation had endowed him at the expense of the tax-payer..." (106)

As in Gaudy Night, there is a not unfavorable reference to what, with a view of history, we would consider questionable politics when a character states: "What we want in this country is a Mussolini to organize trade conditions." (18) I find it fascinating to read novels from the '30's when history had not made it's judgment upon foreign dictators. It would be interesting to do a study of British or Continental fiction in the '30's and '40's to see how views changed over a decade or so.

As for the mystery itself, I found this puzzle to be easier to solve than the other Lord Peter/Harriet Vane novels I've reviewed recently. Perhaps that is because I'm more accustomed to Sayers' style, or perhaps it simply was more obvious in this book. At any rate, I'm looking forward to reading Busman's Honeymoon soon, since a friend has been so kind as to loan me her copy.


Calon Lan said...

For some reason, this one wasn't my favorite, although I did enjoy the way that Sayers used her own experience with writing ads to create authenticity in the story.

I'll be interested to read your review of Busman's Honeymoon. It's one of the darker stories, but I think it serves an important purpose in the series by exploring Peter's emotional state.

Page Turner said...

At first, I didn't like this novel either, and I was rather turned off by Peter's quite different demeanor in this one, even thinking what had poor Harriet Vane gotten herself into in agreeing to marry him! Eventually, though, I realized that he was merely playing a part, and immensely enjoying his alter ego. I don't know if that's a proper interpretation, but it helped me to enjoy the book more.

I've just started Busman's Honeymoon. I'm hoping to balance the dark side of this story with Sayers' comment that "to the characters involved, the detective interest might well seem an irritating instrusion upon their love-story."