At last, I return to one of my favourite literary periods: the early 20th century. This time, I thought I’d jazz it all up by bringing in murder! So, I decided to write about my favourite crime author, Dorothy L. Sayers. She doesn’t seem to be very well known nowadays, which is a pity, as she was a great author, an interesting person with interesting thoughts, and was held up as one of the three greatest crime writers of the 20s and 30s, alongside Agatha Christie. I eventually chose Murder Must Advertise, mostly for an hilarious line.
I don’t know why she’s posing with a skull…
But first, an introduction to the character: Sayers is most famous for her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, ex-Major from the First World War; witty, intelligent, amateur sleuth, who (as we find out in this book) is also a star cricketer. Essentially, what every good English gentleman-turned-detective should be. He’s a well-written character; amusing and sympathetic, plus he also has interesting bouts of shell shock, after fighting in the full course of the war. He also has continuous proposals to Harriet Vane, which is amusing, and the relationship is well written. Now that you’ve been introduced to the main character, onto the book.
In Murder Must Advertise, a copy-writer for Pym’s Publicity, Victor Dean, breaks his neck falling down some stairs. Although a letter is found in his drawer, hinting at corruption within the company, his death is ruled as accident – although Lord Wimsey decides to investigate, going undercover as Death Bredon (B.A., as the damned people of the time would write that for him but not me!). Wimsey, as Bredon, befriends the copy-writers, secretaries, &c., and also gets involved with the Bright Young Things with whom Dean hung out. The plot thickens; someone at Pym’s Publicity is, indeed, on the shonk, if I may be allowed to reference Bad Eggs. Anyhow, without revealing too much and thus spoiling the novel, it all involves a cocaine-smuggling ring, who apparently dabble in murder, as I suppose such gangs invariably do. The mystery to solve is well constructed, and a rather classic little story; definitely interesting to read!
The writing is excellent; I’ve been a fan of Dorothy Sayers for several years now, and she has never disappointed. She captures the politics and quirky characters of Pym’s Publicity well, and brings the odd little workplace to life – one can feel Sayers’ own experience in advertising. Plus, it is amusing seeing Wimsey come along and think of a successful advertising campaign. There is humour in the book, such as the aforementioned advertising campaign, but also in Wimsey’s humorous dialogue: ‘No, it’s not him. The only crime he’s guilty of is wearing a double-breasted waistcoat.’ Waistcoat wearers of the world, heed Lord Wimsey! The book is also quite serious in parts, though, and, if I may hint at spoiling the plot, it shows its time period. He Who Is ‘On the Shonk’ ends up deciding to commit suicide, encouraged by Wimsey, as any good public school boy should, to save his wife and child the dishonour of being married to/begotten by a criminal, though well-meaning at the start. Though it is, undoubtedly, an old, and perhaps odd, code, and unlikely to be found in most modern books, it is interesting and well done. One feels sympathy for the character, despite their ill choices, and admires the strength he shows in the end, to save his wife and child the dishonour and shame of such a relationship.
Interestingly, though I never gained such an insight due to my tender age at reading, Sayers said she attempted to contrast the two artificial cardboard worlds: the fake office politeness and politics, and sickening competition of the advertising world, with the artificiality and wild emptiness of the Bright Young Things; Wimsey is the ‘injection of reality into both worlds.’ She thought it uninspired and poorly done, though, when one of her readers pointed out that Wimsey, representative of reality in the two fake worlds, never enters either world except in disguise, said ‘With all its [Murder Must Advertise] defects of realism, there had been some measure of integral truth about the book’s Idea … in symbolism.’ Interesting point; the book is more than a random detective novel – and even more reason to read this novel. It also contains some wry comments on the advertising world, and the final paragraph is an amusing commentary, especially today. As the last line says, ‘Advertise, or go under.’
So yes, my first foray into the world of commenting on crime fiction. Fitting, as this was my second foray into the world of crime fiction myself. Dorothy Sayers is one of those great authors of the last century, from novels to theology to education to plays to (almost completely) translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. She deserves more readers, and this novel, as one of my favourite of hers, especially deserves more readers. It is humorous; it is wryly commentating; it is dark; it is a fascinating exploration of the human condition (one of the reasons why Sayers wrote crime fiction!). If crime fiction is your thing, or if you have never tried it, you should definitely go and read this book!