Saturday, March 12, 2022

Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise


Opening Passage:

"And by the way," said Mr. Hankin, arresting Miss Rossiter as she rose to go, "there is a new copy-writer coming in today."

"Oh, yes, Mr. Hankin?"

"His name is Bredon. I can't tell you much about him; Mr. Pym engaged him himself; but you will see that he is looked after." (p. 1)

Summary: Death Bredon is the new copy-writer at the advertising agency of Pym's Publicity Ltd, a replacement for the previous copy-writer, Victor Dean, who had fallen down an iron stairway in the building and died. Bredon is actually Lord Peter Wimsey, who has been brought in by Mr. Pym to investigate the matter; Pym is a cautious man who wants to avoid anything that could reflect badly on the company. And it becomes clear quite quickly that there is something fishy about Dean's death. As Bredon, Wimsey slowly gathers relevant clues: a partly finished letter suggesting the possibility that Dean was blackmailing someone; a carved stone scarab; a slingshot; various bits of office gossip and side scandals that might or might not have some relation to the main problem. Following up on these clues will lead him to a drug ring and all the concomitant murders that go with that, and he will have to discover exactly what role Pym's Publicity plays in all this, and who at Pym's is involved.

The detective story, which is cleverly done, doubles as a satire of advertising, which is brilliantly done. Advertising has many similarities to drug dealing, a similarity that becomes very obvious when it comes to something like cigarette advertising; in both your concern is to convince people that they might need something that they don't particularly need and that might actually be bad for them, and the best successes are when you turn one purchase into a gateway purchase: you convince people to buy something that causes a problem for which you can convince them to buy something else. There is also an inherent hypocrisy -- advertisers rarely have any commitment to the products for which they are advertising, just as successful drug dealers generally do not indulge in the drugs they sell. But advertising is a much wittier profession than drug dealing, which allows any number of puns and jokes, culminating in Bredon developing a campaign for Whifflets cigarettes. The campaign, one character says, will be the biggest thing since the Mustard Club -- a bit of self-reference, since one of Sayers's biggest successes as an advertisement copy-writer was the Mustard Club, a campaign for Colman's Mustard, a fictional club that was treated as if it were real, with spoof newsreels, membership handbooks, and humorous characters who would pop up in different contexts.

The book figures as an example in Sayers's The Mind of the Maker in a way that I think is interesting:

In Murder Must Advertise I undertook (not very successfully) to present a contrast of two “cardboard” worlds, equally fictitious — the world of advertising and the world of the post-war “Bright Young People”. (It was not very successful, because I knew and cared much more about advertising than about Bright Youth, but that is by the way.) I mentioned this intention to a reader, who instantly replied: “Yes; and Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never appears in either world except in disguise.” It was perfectly true; and I had never noticed it. With all its defects of realism, there had been some measure of integral truth about the book’s Idea, since it issued, without my conscious connivance, in a true symbolism

While it gives some insight into the aleatory aspect of fiction-writing, it also tells us something of the importance of truth versus appearance to the story. The mystery detective, of course, is the person who looks beyond the appearances to try to find the truth; the advertising world and the drug culture of the partying Bright Young Things are all about appearances that hide the truth. But in the modern world, we always have the latter with us, in some form or other. Anything performing the function of the former is much more rare.

Favorite Passage:

"In any case, we've got to do something." Mr. Armstrong emerged from the argument with a slightly flushed face. "It's not use telling people that the cost of the advertising has to come out of the quality of the goods. They don't care. All they want is something for nothing. Pay? Yes, of course they pay in the end, but somebody's got to pay. You can't fight free gifts with solemn assertions about Value. Besides, if Whifflets lose their market they'll soon lose their quality too -- or what are we here for?"

"You needn't tell me that, Mr. Armstrong," said Mr. Pym. "Whether people like it or not, the fact remains that unless you continually increase sales you must either lose money or cut down quality. I hope we've learnt that by this time."

"What happens," asked Mr. Bredon, "when you've increased sales to saturation point?"

"You mustn't ask those questions, Bredon," said Mr. Armstrong, amused.

"No, but really. Suppose you push up the smoking of every man and woman in the Empire till they must either stop or die of nicotine poisoning?"

"We're a long way off that," replied Mr. Pym, seriously. (pp. 282-283)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise, HarperPaperbacks (New York: 1995).