Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy Sayers

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy Sayers February 4, 2014

Unlike the last couple of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, about which I had mixed feelings, I returned to Murder Must Advertise with no qualms and great anticipation of pleasure—and I was not disappointed. As the tale begins, a man named Death Bredon takes a job as a copywriter at an advertising agency called Pym’s Publicity. We, of course, recognize him immediately: Lord Peter’s full name is Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. An employee of the firm has died, falling down a steep spiral staircase, there have been hints and insinuations of foul play. Mr. Pym has brought in Lord Peter to investigate.

What sets this apart from Sayers’ other Wimsey novels is precisely its setting. Sayers spent almost ten years as a copywriter for a London advertising agency, and was quite successful at it. She began writing mystery novels while employed there, and wrote Murder Must Advertise a couple of years after leaving the position. The resulting book is a delightful portrait of the sort of people and behavior one finds at a firm like this. Sayers is always good with individual people; but here she has a sort of ensemble cast, and she makes the most of it.

Further, the book is as much about advertising as it is about whodunnit. Sayers is clearly ambivalent about the whole business; on the one hand, she sees that advertising makes the commercial world go ’round, and is necessary for economic prosperity, but on the other hand:

“How about truth in advertising?”

“Of course, there is some truth in advertising. There’s yeast in bread, but you can’t make bread with yeast alone. Truth in advertising,” announced Lord Peter sententiously, “is like leaven, which a woman hid in three measures of meal. It provides a suitable quantity of gas, with which to blow out a mass of crude misrepresentation into a form that the public can swallow.”

And, somewhat later,

All over London the lights flickered in and out, calling on the public to save its body and purse: SOPO SAVES SCRUBBING— NUTRAX FOR NERVES— CRUNCHLETS ARE CRISPER— EAT PIPER PARRITCH— DRINK POMPAYNE— ONE WHOOSH AND ITS CLEAN— OH, BOY! ITS TOMBOY TOFFEE— NOURISH NERVES WITH NUTRAX— FARLEY’S FOOTWEAR TAKES YOU FURTHER— IT ISN’T DEAR, IT’S DARLING— DARLING’S FOR HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES— MAKE ALL SAFE WITH SANFECT— WHIFFLETS FASCINATE. The presses, thundering and growling, ground out the same appeals by the millions: ASK YOUR GROCER— ASK YOUR DOCTOR— ASK THE MAN WHO’S TRIED IT— MOTHERS! GIVE IT TO YOUR CHILDREN— HOUSEWIVES! SAVE MONEY— HUSBANDS! INSURE YOUR LIVES— WOMEN! DO YOU REALIZE?— DONT SAY SOAP, SAY SOPO! Whatever you’re doing, stop it and do something else! Whatever you’re buying, pause and buy something different! Be hectored into health and prosperity! Never let up! Never go to sleep! Never be satisfied. If once you are satisfied, all our wheels will run down. Keep going— and if you can’t, try Nutrax for Nerves!

Naturally, the kind of advertising that was done in the 1920’s is different than it is now; among other things, the characters in Sayers’ book go to great lengths to avoid anything that seems in the least bit off-color. In other ways it seems quite contemporary.

Amid this, Lord Peter investigates a murder and a drug ring, and there are several scenes in which a penny whistle figures largely. What’s not to like?

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