Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Murder Must Advertise

by Dorothy L. Sayers
First Published: 1933

In Murder Must Advertise, the reader is promptly plunged into the milieu of a London publicity firm in the 1930s. Slangy and hypereducated, the employees talk at a rapid pace that brings to mind the clacking of a typewriter, and drop in literary quotations as they go. Dorothy Sayers sets up a work environment that is in a constant state of flux as the copy-writers, editors, artists, owners, and clients visit each other in their offices, chat, and argue. Death Bredon, a new employee who is replacing Victor Dean, is plunged into this milieu, too, and soon feels at home. He is quickly absorbed in the absurdities of his work, and in navigating the niceties of phrasing that must be attuned to the odd sensitivities of the clients.

But there are grim realities underlying the bustle. Victor Dean, who was not overly beloved, had died by falling down an iron staircase. There were three witnesses, and yet Bredon is not convinced that it was an accident. The victim had ties to the Dian de Momerie circle, where drugs, drink, and debauchery are the order of the day, and it is soon clear that he was murdered.

Altogether the book moves swiftly, though the dialogue is at times mystifying (what does "ack emma" mean?), and gives glimpses not only of the office, but also of the quiet family circle of the Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard and of the nocturnal excursions of Dian de Momerie. It is intellectually rigorous, too, for a book in a genre whose purported end is entertainment. What is disturbing is, I find, an underlying coldness, which is hard to pinpoint. For instance, Death Bredon is (for whatever reason) attractive to women, and he exploits this for his investigations. It's not that he doesn't have sympathetic moods, but sympathy is certainly not the determining trait in his behaviour. He is often coolly callous, and he does leave destruction in his wake. There is not much justice in making people suffer as collateral damage in pursuit of the Truth.

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"The very work that engaged him [. . .] wafted him into a sphere of dim platonic archetypes, bearing a scarcely recognisable relationship to anything in the living world. Here those strange entities, the Thrifty Housewife, the Man of Discrimination, the Keen Buyer and the Good Judge, for ever young, for ever handsome, for ever virtuous, economical and inquisitive, moved to and fro upon their complicated orbits, comparing prices and values, making tests of purity, asking indiscreet questions about each others' ailments, household expenses, bedsprings, shaving cream, diet, laundry work and boots, perpetually spending to save and saving to spend, cutting out coupons and collecting cartons, surprising husbands with margarine and wives with patent washers and vacuum cleaners, occupied from morning to night in washing, cooking, dusting, filing, saving their children from germs, their complexions from wind and weather, their teeth from decay and their stomachs from indigestion [. . .]"

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers
London: New English Library, 1984, pp. 152-53

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Dorothy L. Sayers (Commentary on her works)
Dorothy L. Sayers (Biography)
Dorothy L. Sayers Archive (Annotated bibliography)

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