Saturday, March 30, 2019

Murder Must Advertise

Among the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors stands at the top of my list. Change ringing fills the book, and change ringing is one of the coolest things in this weird old world. But having just read Murder Must Advertise, I’d have to say it comes in a good second for me. This installment of Lord Peter’s escapades doesn’t feature Bunter at all and merely alludes to Harriet only once – definite flaws. But the story, the mystery, the solution, the setting, and the facts revealed about our detective make it all thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking.

I can’t find the reference right now, but somewhere very recently I read that T. S. Eliot, that surprising and erudite champion of detective fiction, opined that, while he approved of Sayers’s style, he found her plots too improbable, breaking one of the then-coalescing “rules” of mystery writing. In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed Sayers breaking a couple of my own rules – rules, in fact, I didn’t know I insisted on until I saw Sayers flouting them. In reading The Five Red Herrings, I discovered that a mystery novelist must not hide a crucial time among a train-schedule’s cascading flood of times (she could have called her book The Fifty Red Herrings) but should instead conceal it in some otherwise irrelevant detail: the beginning of a side character’s favorite radio show, for instance. And in reading Have His Carcase, I realized that the writer of detective fiction must not in the first chapter introduce five suspects whose exact positions along a hazily described geography are all crucial to the solution of the mystery and must be remembered some four- or five-hundred pages later. But this is all good: I learned some important rules that I will remember to follow when I begin my highly successful career as an author of mysteries next year.

Happily, I may report that Murder Must Advertise broke none of these rules. The layout of the offices doesn’t present itself with anything so clear as a visual diagram, but as long as you understand the position of the stairs down which the victim falls, you’re fine. And it’s helpful to remember who rushed out of which office when they heard the noise, but the most important movement is described often enough and close enough to the solution that the reader has no need to thumb back (or click back) through hundreds of pages to review the pertinent details. And adding to its squeaky-clean record on Literary Laws, Murder Must Advertise takes us into the fascinating world of Sayers’s first career: advertising.

Lord Peter jumps wholeheartedly into his first paying job – which he takes on undercover, of course – and armed with his more-than-slightly cynical understanding of human psychology, quickly proves himself an expert at constructing the verbal red capes that draw the consuming public bull inevitably toward the corporate espada. What I enjoyed most in this book were Lord Peter’s introspections, investigating his own actions and wondering whether it shouldn’t be an act of crime to lie to the citizenry in order to manipulate them into trading money for, to mention a prominent example, cigarettes. Detective, catch thyself! As I think about it now, perhaps this very feature is what kept Harriet Vane out of the book. Harriet to a great extent functions in the series as Sayers’s self portrait, but in Murder Must Advertise, the former ad writer surely worked out enough of her personal turmoil through Peter without exposing even more laundry by including Harriet.

I have a magnet on my refrigerator showing an ad from Dorothy Sayers’s most well known and successful ad campaign. The author may have revealed in this novel that her copywriting days haunted her conscience, but how much harm could she have actually done? I know that while I read about Lord Peter’s adventures in advertising, I smiled every day when I looked up at the happy face of a toucan announcing, “It’s a lovely day for a GUINNESS.”

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