Sunday, April 7, 2013

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Set in the world of advertising, where Sayers herself worked as a copywriter for close to a decade, Murder Must Advertise is a quick paced ride that is expertly organised and highly entertaining.

Detective fiction has never really been my cup of tea, but I read a synopsis of Murder Must Advertise in 1000 Books You Must Read Before You Die and I found it quite appealing. In a rather desultory fashion, I’ve been looking for novels that are set in the workplace, so this seemed worth a look into. Sayers worked as a copywriter between 1922 – 1931 for the firm S. H. Benson in London and chose to set this 1933 novel in an advertising agency. A wealth of first-hand knowledge of the industry informs the text.

The star of the novel is detective Lord Peter Wimsey, a mix of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster according to Sayers herself. This is quite true. The aptly named Wimsey is rather like something out of P. G. Wodehouse. He has a lightness and boyishness – everything is a bit of a cheerful game and nothing much disturbs him. During Wimsey’s detective work, he adopts several disguises, one of them as a fully masked harlequin. This is a nice effect that gives these sections of the novel a shimmering effect, portraying Wimsey as an almost transcendental, magical figure, like something out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

The plot, naturally enough, involves a murder. Copywriter Victor Dean has been found dead at the base of a spiral, iron staircase. Did he fall, or was he pushed? Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover as Death Bredon (unbelievable name, yes; it’s actually his two middle names) and works as a copywriter. After a bit of snooping and liaising with his brother-in-law Chief Inspector Parker, Wimsey uncovers a drug ring operating within the advertising agency, responsible for a series of murders.

Sayers herself was not overly fond of Murder Must Advertise. She dashed it off quickly to fulfil some contractual obligations and felt the bits dealing explicitly with the dope ring were unconvincing. This is fairly true for these seedy parts of the story. But the rest of it goes at a cracking pace and is very well constructed. The pacing and unfolding of events happens in a remarkably smooth manner. The sections that deal with contemporary London life in the 1930s are highly enjoyable, with lots of chatty dialogue between office boys and girls of the time. You feel like you’ve been transported back in time.

My favourite parts involved Sayers’s somewhat jaded looking back on her nine year career as a professional copywriter. She gives a real insider’s account of what it was like to work as a copywriter in 1930s London, with plenty of uncanny details. For example, she notes that copywriters never use the products they so fervently write copy for. In a brisk analysis Sayers writes that the modern economy is quite mad, as it is propped up by these busy copywriters making up jingles and catchy lines to sell products they don’t really believe in.

She also notes that the whole advertising industry in really just a machine to create mass anxieties in the public, anxieties that can then only be soothed by buying the commercial products that provoked all the worry in the first place. In one detailed section a cigarette campaign is described as almost legalising drug pushing – interesting, considering the novel deals with the illegal trade in drugs.

I did enjoy this quick paced whodunit very much. My only caveat was that it was perhaps a little long (390 pages), and agreeing with Ms Sayers’s own criticism, the sections dealing with the drug ring did read as a tad contrived. But these are small complaints. Readers of classic crime should give it a whirl.

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers. Published by Hodder Paperbacks. ISBN: 9780450002427  RRP: $19.99