Murder Must Advertise is my fourth favourite Dorothy Sayers novel, after Gaudy Night (first, of course!), Busman’s Honeymoon, and Strong Poison and Have His Carcase (tied at third, because though neither of them is as good as I could wish, both do have Harriet Vane, and that’s such a lot for any novel to have). Harriet is around, in Murder Must Advertise, though never seen; she’s mentioned, very briefly, as Peter Wimsey heads off to “keep his date with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him.” Though, as Sayers blithely remarks, “what he said or did on that occasion is in no way related to this story,” one reason Murder Must Advertise is as good as it is, is that Sayers wrote it after reinventing Peter as a character worthy of Harriet.*
Murder Must Advertise is a clever mystery, with plenty of clues and threads to amuse the devoted puzzle solvers among us. I’m not one of those, myself: I almost never try to figure out whodunit, which is probably why I am so comfortable with the police procedural as a form (no use trying to solve the crime before the police have collected all the evidence, after all), and the interest I do take in the crime and its solution is almost entirely the result of (or proportional to) the interest I take in the characters, setting, and situation of the novel — which is certainly why my preferred mystery writers are those who lavish care and detail on these elements: P. D. James, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin. As I’ve often remarked here, I’m not really a fan of mystery novels as such. When I really like a mystery, I like it as a novel: I read it with the same attention and attitude as any other novel. The mystery just provides the skeleton, as a marriage plot provides the underlying structure of many other novels, or some version of the Bildungsroman the basic outline of yet more. In some cases, there’s too little flesh on the bone: when the generic framework is too exposed, covered in only the thinnest pretense of novelistic substance, I lose interest. At other times, I get frustrated when the mystery intrudes on the other aspects of the novel–or I wish the characters could escape for a while from their form and just get on with their lives! I love Gaudy Night because for me, it integrates its mystery perfectly – both structurally and thematically – with the other aspects of the novel. Sayers too thought it was something pretty special.
Murder Must Advertise is a very different book than Gaudy Night, much more satirical in tone and digressive (or, perhaps, experimental) in style. It seems to me to have its own thematic unities, though, arising from – or making apt – its setting in an advertising agency (a setting Sayers knew about first-hand). It’s a novel about money, I think, more than anything, and more specifically about the relationship between money and class, and between money and consumption, and how both of these are related, as means and motivators, to aspiration. It’s a satire on the folly of believing you can buy everything you want, from health to happiness, and it’s an exposé of the ruthlessness with which some people will feed and profit from that dream:
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 IT’S CLEAN – OH, BOY! IT’S 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 million: 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 REALISE? DON’T 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!
The device of putting the über-aristocratic Peter Wimsey undercover at Pym’s Advertising Agency allows for some comic fish-out-of-water material in the early chapters, but the situation gets darker and more complicated as we see and feel – and Lord Peter sees and feels – the difference between his “ordinary” life and the realities of life for his colleagues at the office (and, just by the way, the novel is also an astute and sardonic portrait of office life and politics). It’s a harmless game to him at first, a pleasant charade laden with unthinking condescension:
‘So you have become one of the world’s workers, Peter,’ said Lady Mary.
‘Yes; I’m pulling down four solid quid a week. Amazin’ sensation. First time I’ve ever earned a cent. Every week when I get my pay-envelope, I glow with honest pride.’
Even Lord Peter seems surprised at how far he is transformed by his experience, which initially he is able to shrug off with ease:
In a taxi rolling south-west, Mr Bredon removed his spectacles, combed out his side-parting, stuck a monocle in his eye, and by the time he reached Piccadilly Circus was again Lord Peter Wimsey. With a vacant wonder he gazed upon the twinkling sky-signs, as though, ignorant astronomer, he knew nothing of the creative hands that had set these lesser lights to rule the night.
He is drawn into his new identity, however, by the simple necessity of having to do the job of writing advertising copy. It’s work for which, with his literary education and natural wit, he is actually well suited, despite being one of the people for whom (as he notes at one point to his brother-in-law Chief Inspector Parker) advertisement “does not exist,”people who are “not of the advertising sort” – that is, he’s above either the lure of or the need for advertising by virtue of already having, or being able to afford, whatever he wants. He becomes fascinated by the cycle of yearning and imagining and manufacturing and advertising and selling and buying that sends money around and around in the modern world:
If this hell’s-dance of spending and saving were to stop for a moment, what would happen? If all the advertising in the world were to shut down tomorrow, would people still go on buying more soap, eating more apples, giving their children more vitamins, roughage, milk, olive oil, scooters and laxatives, learning more languages by gramophone, hearing more virtuosos by radio, re-decorating their houses, refreshing themselves with more non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers, cooking more new, appetising dishes, affording themselves that little extra touch which means so much? Or would the whole desperate whirligig slow down, and the exhausted public relapse upon plain grub and elbow grease? He did not know. Like all rich men, he had never before paid any attention to advertisements. He had never realised the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built on, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.
Far from bringing some kind of other-worldly values into play to challenge or even trip up this “vast superstructure,” he is drawn into it, ultimately initiating a great advertising “scheme” that anticipates today’s AirMiles-type points plans: “Whiffling Round Britain.” He has just hit upon the basic idea for this plan and “written the word ‘WHIFFLE’ in capital letters an inch high” on his scratch paper when a call comes from CI Parker asking him to call him at the Yard: “Lord Peter Wimsey was so intimately in the skin of Mr Death Bredon that he said ‘Damn!’ loudly and heartily.” He’s frustrated when a turn in the case makes it impossible for him to return to work: “But that won’t do. I’ve got to get that Whifflets campaign finished. Armstrong wants it particularly. And besides, I’ve got interested in the thing.”
But of course it’s a temp job for him, a fling; when it’s done, he understands something else about how the world turns, but it’s not until Gaudy Night that he is really forced to confront the limits of what his wealth can buy, and the challenge it poses to creating equal relationships. Harriet hates his wealth and the power it gives him. The mystery at Pym’s, in contrast, turns on the need for money, on the insidious way just the kinds of desires stoked by advertising can lead someone into debt, then erode their moral fiber as they struggle to conceal and protect their position. “You don’t know, Bredon – Wimsey – you don’t know what it is to be stuck for money,” the murderer says during his painful confession; “you marry and start paying for your house and furniture, and you must keep up the instalments…” His need for money made him vulnerable, and he became involved with a ruthless ring of drug smugglers, who connect the Pym’s storyline to another in a world at once remote and fundamentally similar, full of people whose yearning for amusement and distraction make them eager customers, with different but no less damaging results. Round and round it all goes, and there’s always someone there making a profit, turning someone else’s weakness or fantasy to their advantage. “We want to get women down to serious smoking,” kindly Mr Pym says as they prepare to launch the Whifflet campaign. “Too many of them play about with it. . . You can smoke a lot more [Whifflets] in the day without killing yourself. And they’re cheaper. If we increase women’s smokes by 500 per cent – there’s plenty of room for it – ”
Wimsey’s presence at Pym’s, then, lets Sayers go a little bit ‘Mork and Mindy’ on the advertising world, but also on the world it serves, both those who produce its goods and services and those who consume them. Wimsey’s class sets him outside this “desperate whirligig.” The novel does not seem to me to be interested in fiercely critiquing his position of privilege, but the juxtaposition of his pampered life with Bunter in the Piccadilly flat with the goings-on at Pym’s certainly exposes that privilege, and along with it, Wimsey’s casual superiority in pretty much every respect (looks, wit, education, clothing) as accidents of circumstance. “I could be a good woman if I had £5000 a year,” reflects Becky Sharp, and what special virtue can Wimsey claim for himself, never having faced the kind of petty catastrophes that come with being “stuck for money”? And yet if there is an underlying moral code at play in Murder Must Advertise, I think it is what might be called the “public school code,” something to do with fair play and honor, that’s central to Wimsey’s character and identity. “I suppose that’s . . . the public school way out of it,” says the murderer, as he braces himself for what Wimsey presents as his best alternative, the only way he can extricate himself from the situation without leaving a legacy of scandal and shame for his wife and new baby. Their exchange refers us back to an earlier debate at the office about which schools really count as “public” schools, and whether it matters where someone was educated. There’s a painful self-consciousness on all sides about how schools act as class indicators, with those who went to Harrow and Eton (and perhaps Winchester, “a decentish sort of place . . . if you’re not too particular”) downplaying the significance of it all: “if only you people could get it out of your heads that these things matter a damn, you’d be a darn sight happier,” as “Mr Bredon” says. “I am quite aware,” Mr Smayle later says irately to Mr Tallboys,
that I never was at a public school, but that is no reason why I shouldn’t be treated with ordinary, common courtesy. And from those who have been to real public schools, I get it, what’s more. You may think a lot of Dumbleton, but it isn’t what I call a public school.
It’s all very well for Wimsey to take the signifiers of class so lightly, but only someone in his position can imagine that class doesn’t matter. Perhaps, also, only someone in his position can imagine that it shouldn’t matter. After all, he’s already in the class people like Smayle and Tallboys assume (correctly) has all the advantages. Lord Peter, though “not of the advertising sort” himself, is an advertising fantasy for everyone else: he embodies and lives their aspirations. He both is and has what they want.
This, I think, is where the cricket match becomes particularly interesting. I’ve been thinking about the relevance of the cricket match ever since a careless question about it at a recent Ph.D. exam I was involved in. Though I know next to nothing about cricket, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the cricket chapter in this novel. It’s brilliantly told, with lots of energetic detail; all the various Pym’s people play their part, and all the lurking tensions and resentments and all their hopes and fears give the actual cricket all kinds of human interest. The best part, though, is when Mr Death Bredon, who has planned to play an unobtrusive game that won’t give his own game away, that will give no sign of “the Peter Wimsey of twenty years back, making two centuries in successive innings for Oxford,” gets hit by a ball right on his funny-bone, at which point he “suddenly and regrettably forgot himself”: “He forgot his caution and his role, and Mr Miller’s braces, and saw only the green turf and the Oval on a sunny day and the squat majesty of the gasworks. The next ball was another of Simmonds’s murderous short-pitched bumpers, and Lord Peter Wimsey, opening up wrathful shoulders, strode out of his crease like the spirit of vengeance and whacked it to the wide.” What follows is pure sport, pure fun, and total exposure, as old Mr Brotherhood corners him: “Aren’t you Wimsey of Balliol? . . . You have a late cut which is exceedingly characteristic, and I could have taken my oath that the last time I saw you play it was at Lord’s in 1911, when you made 112.” An elaborate cover-up follows, but Wimsey’s double-life is over, the suspect is warned, and the sordid, unhappy conclusion follows soon after.
I suppose not everyone would necessarily enjoy the cricket match for its own sake the way I always have, but there’s no doubt that it plays a crucial role in the novel by bringing everything to this crisis point. But why do this through a cricket match? I actually think my colleague, in spite of himself, was asking a very important question about the central premises of Murder Must Advertise. One place to start with an answer is, again, with money and class, and also with national identity. Is there any game more English than cricket, for one thing? Or any sport more strongly associated, historically at least, with the British public schools like Eton and Harrow (which have held an annual match since 1805)? To play well (to show up in the right ‘flannels,’ even) is to stand up for something, or to stand out as something – something that seems, from the slipshod performance of most of the Pym’s players, to be out of date or out of reach. Cricket represents one form of aspiration for everyone involved, but it’s a backward-looking, nostalgic kind, a yearning for a certain vision of themselves, maybe even their country. Then there’s the more general idea of sports. “I can’t help feeling,” Mr Hankin remarks to Bredon, “that the cultivation of the team spirit would do this office good.” “Evidently, thought Bredon, Mr Hankin had realised that something was on the breaking point.” He too is struck by the uneasy contrast between the ideals Pym’s peddles (“EVERYONE EVERWHERE ALWAYS AGREES ON THE FLAVOUR AND VALUE OF TWENTYMAN’S TEAS”) and the realities:
In this place, where from morning till night a staff of over a hundred people hymned the praises of thrift, virtue, harmony, eupepsia and domestic contentment, the spiritual atmosphere was clamorous with financial storm, intrigue, dissension, indigestion, and marital infidelity. And with worse things – with murder wholesale and retail, of soul and body, murder by weapon and by poison. These things did not advertise, or if they did, they called themselves by other names.
At Pym’s, Wimsey goes around as something besides his best self. He plays at indifference, callousness, even crass commercialism – plays so well he finds himself becoming the man he pretends to be. Rapped on his funny-bone by a fast pitch, he breaks out of this adaptive inferiority, casting off “Mr Death Bredon” and appearing in his full glory as “Lord Peter Wimsey.” His class, in other words, re-asserts itself – and that, ultimately, is what begins the real process of restoring order and achieving justice. The revelation of Wimsey’s real identity brings the murderer to his flat; his moral authority sends the weaker, poorer man out to meet his dark but welcome fate: “We’ll show ‘em that [we] can achieve the Eton touch. Why not?” It’s a grim and dubious responsibility Wimsey takes on here: who is he, after all, to play judge and, if indirectly, executioner? Or, to look at it from a different aspect, who is he to urge a murderer to circumvent the due process of law? It’s the time-honoured privilege of the amateur detective, though, to act on principle, and also to decide which principle to act on. (“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it,” Sam Spade intones in The Maltese Falcon.) “The first thing a principle does,” Lord Peter says in Gaudy Night, “is kill somebody,” and then later, “I admit the principle and the consequences must follow.” In that novel, the relevant – indeed, the central – principle is integrity of the mind. What principle holds the corresponding position in Murder Must Advertise? I’m tempted to say, cricket does. Cricket’s not a principle, you say? Well, it is when we use it metaphorically, as in “It’s not cricket,” which my trusty Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains means “It’s not done in a fair and sportsmanlike way.” That, as I understand it, is what is meant by “the public school way” too, and that’s the principle that the various criminals and liars and cheaters in the novel have violated by playing on others’ weaknesses. How far is advertising implicated in the same creeping kind of villainy? Not completely, I think – as Miss Meteyard says, “if we didn’t do it, what would happen to the trade of this country?” But just because avarice and envy drive the economy forward doesn’t make them any less morally debilitating.
And yet there’s something uncomfortably high-handed about Wimsey’s role in this case, and something disingenuous at best about letting an aristocratic fantasy figure set the tone in a morality play about the dangers of social aspiration. “I’m damned sorry, old chap,” he says at the end, and to be sure, he is, but he’s not remorseful, and he’s not in any significant way reformed or transformed: his wealth makes him immune to the petty temptations that have done so much damage. I suppose it’s only fair to acknowledge that it opens up other temptations to him, including the sybaritic pleasures that prove pretty destructive to the characters in the other plotline, such as the languidly decadent Dian de Momerie. But here too he interferes playfully, and though his interference has fatal results, he remains essentially above it all. Unlike the people who really work at Pym’s, Wimsey can walk away from the whirligig, away from the lives lost or ruined or changed because of his field trip into the working world. Now that doesn’t seem quite cricket to me! On the bright side, though, Wimsey isn’t entirely happy with the way things worked out either. “Lovely,” he says, “with a spice of bitterness in his tone,” when Chief Inspector Parker calls to report that the case is nearly all cleared up. “I don’t feel quite like celebrating.” He’s pretty pleased with the results of his Whifflet idea, though: “with a few idle words on a sheet of paper he had touched the lives of millions.”
*When I next get to my office I will complete this post with a quotation from her essay on Gaudy Night, in which she writes eloquently about this point. Funny how odd, and rare, it is to be foiled in mid-post by wanting a text I have only in hard copy and only in one location!