Getting our knees wet in the sea of this mini-series on great detective classics, this podcast scripts catch-up from Why I Really Like This Book is about that perceptive novel about the advertising industry by Dorothy L Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (1933). This is a novel about office lives and 1930s high society, with a darkness underneath that comes from the inevitable crime: drug-smuggling. Sayers used to work in advertising herself, so into her book her experiences went, though I’m not sure how representative the fictional advertising firm of Pym’s Publicity would have been in the real world. It employs 90 staff, which seems a lot. Not many of these are the creatives: most are the support staff, a squad of office boys, typists, and a lot of mysterious people who make the blocks from which the adverts were printed. Few of these jobs would be needed now. When I began working as an editor in the late 1980s, I worked on ads and editorial copy that were still being pasted up by hand with glue. We did have Photoshop, or its ancestor, but the day-to-day work was done with chinagraph pencils and scissors, so I know that the technical descriptions Sayers uses were accurate, especially in the tense moment when Mr Copley is dictating the copy for an emergency new ad over the phone to the waiting presses.
But why are we in an advertising agency at all? There has been a death on the premises. Mr Pym is nervous about foul play, and brings in a private detective, a Mr Bredon, recommended to him by a friend. Newcomers to Sayers won’t immediately recognise that Bredon is Lord Peter Wimsey, but they might see through his claim to live in Bloomsbury. His real habitat is Mayfair, and he is a celebrated and most brilliant detective. Many of Sayers’ novels give Wimsey a woman to spar with, or to work with: his future wife, the detective novelist Harriet Vane, is not in this plot, though Wimsey does goes off to have dinner with her. The advertising executive Miss Meteyard is Sayers’ alter ego for this novel: an Oxford-educated and witty single woman, who was the first to spot who had probably done the murder, and the first to realise who Bredon actually was.
Miss Meteyard keeps quiet about these discoveries because she is the kind of person who does not stick her nose into other people’s business. The rest of the office has less self-control: sides are taken with gusto whenever anything interesting happens or a crisis strikes. Bredon, or Wimsey’s, best method for finding things out is to stir up quarrels and get people gossiping angrily. He detects mischievously by asking the most ridiculous questions, so he can get an outburst reply, full of fascinating hidden details that somebody else might have preferred were kept quiet, or had just forgotten. Bredon is on hand to be helpfully discreet when Mr Tallboy’s pregnant mistress arrives angrily at the office, and he is available to spread the news and encourage discussion about why Mr Copley and Mr Tallboy had had a terrible row. He takes Miss Dean to lunch and is tailed in a most amateurish way by the jealous Mr Willis. He is spotted in Piccadilly at night by Miss Rossiter and Miss Parton, but he looks blandly through them, and they are mortified, since he clearly takes them for prostitutes. This rude behaviour is necessary, because the girls see Wimsey in Piccadilly, not Mr Bredon, and nobody must know that they are the same man.
Wimsey’s detecting is not only done in the agency in office hours. At night he is mingling with a very fast lot, whom the police know are dealing in drugs, but cannot pin anything on. He picks out the murdered man’s former mistress, Dian de Momerie, and lures her into car chases and midnight drives, waiting for her to give him the information he needs. He keeps his two identities separate, so Bredon works in the agency by day and parties with the bright young things at night, while Wimsey, his almost identical and far more respectable cousin, helps his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Denver, with her grand reception, and accompanies Royalty to the theatre. At the climax of the book, when Bredon is arrested and Wimsey comes to Scotland Yard to discuss things with the police, the papers print a photo of the two men side by side, and this puzzles Miss Meteyard exceedingly: how can they be in the same photo if her theory has them as the same man? Regular readers of Sayers will at once realise that this photo is one of Bunter’s productions, Wimsey’s servant, assistant, photographer and cook. Bunter silently and invisibly assists Wimsey all the way through this book, though we never see him. How else would Wimsey’s car be available and refuelled, with or without a chauffeur, whenever needed? Wimsey constantly changes his clothes in the car and in different clubs: someone must be providing the changes of clothes and taking care of Bredon’s evening outfit of a Harlequin’s costume and mask.
There is another aspect of doubling in this novel that gives it a very dark edge. We’ve already got Wimsey and Bredon, office life and nightlife, working and partying. The drugs that Dian buys from Major Milligan flow freely though the parties and social networks of the bright young things, but Pym’s advertising agency is supplying another kind of drug to the masses. Time and again Sayers shows us the cynical and manipulative attitudes that create advertising to sell margarine and health tonics to the buyers of newspapers, showing us really quite pointed parallels between supply and demand, showing where the profit goes. The novel’s most open condemnation of advertising as potentially harmful comes from Wimsey’s brainwave solution for a new advertising campaign for Whifflets, an invented brand of cigarette. Sayers copies the example of the real-life Mustard Club, and the Cooperative Stores loyalty scheme, by positing a Whifflets coupons plan that you can collect and exchange and use as currency to pay for your holiday and other social outings. She is brilliantly persuasive about the undoubted success of such a scheme, how millions of smokers will be collecting coupons to join in, and how the joyful owners of Whifflets will be slapping their thighs in triumph at having beaten the rival campaign of Puffins, which was giving away coupons to collect for a free aeroplane. That’s a great period detail, by the way: in the early 1930s aeroplanes were so newly fashionable and affordable that flying was the new motoring. But behind all this is the biggest drug racket of all. These happy ad execs know perfectly well that smoking is a killer, and that the more successful the Whifflets scheme is, the more likely it is that lung cancer and death will result. They particularly want to tap the female market, since there aren’t enough women smoking.
Advertising is a fantasy built on assumption and consumption. Sayers sends a pretty strong message that advertising is as pernicious a drug peddler as the cocaine merchants arrested by the police. Lord Peter Wimsey dips into and out of this world, dabbling brilliantly with an inspired new marketing campaign here and a stupendous performance as the last bat in a cricket match there. He solves the crime, he absolves the murderer, the victim is avenged, a marriage is arranged and the typing pool get cakes for tea.
I love this novel. Rereading it was a deeply satisfying experience: I was gobbling it up on the train to and from work, and someone else cooked dinner so I could finish the novel before I fell asleep. Sayers is a superb storyteller, but the story is only about 30% of the fun. You’ve got marvellous characters, who are partly old acquaintances and partly new and perfectly formed creations. You receive a total immersion into the early 1930s, into office life and high society. You get the fun of puzzling out a complicated murder because you don’t know where the victim was in the web of criminal relationships. You are presented with a bucketload of clues, only some of which are useful, and some are downright misleading. You have the pleasure of Wimsey’s company, and a lot to think about from the running discussion of whether a public school education actually does make a difference to a person’s quality. It is a classic detective novel, because it offers so much more than detection, but detection is the whole point, for reader and hero.