Courtney's Reviews > Murder Must Advertise

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers
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May 04, 12

bookshelves: mystery-suspense
Read from April 15 to May 04, 2012

In Murder Must Advertise we discover Lord Peter Wimsey in a manner he have never discovered him in before: Engaged in Gainful Employment. Undercover as Death Bredon, Wimsey is charged with investigating the suspicious death of an advertising man, Victor Dean. There are clues. Crimes are detected. Murder most foul ensues. The crime is solved. Amen.

The best parts of this book were not the mystery. Largely taking place in an advertising firm in 1933 London, the social commentary in this novel was outstanding. I can best sum it up with the following observation about human society: Everything has changed, nothing has changed. In the 80 years since this book was published our society has changed in a million different ways, and that is reflected in many aspects of this book. However, there are just as many, if not more, examples of how the problems we face in this millennium are not so different than those faced nearly one hundred years ago.

One of the more amusing examples of how we have changed in our social mores is found in what crosses the line of "decency" in 1933. Early in the book there is a great exchange between several of the advertisers about the "rules" of what can and cannot be said. "You mustn't put Negroes in the copy," retorted Mr. Ingleby. "Nor, of course, religion. Keep Psalm 23 out of. Blasphemous." And later when referencing an ad copy that used the word "bet": "...though I'm not quite sure about it. These Dairyfields people are rather straight laced about betting." Given our current Anything Goes style of advertising (GoDaddy.com, anyone?) it made me giggle that the word "bet" was off limits in this very polite society.

There also existed in this book an insightful, and currently relevant, look into the role advertising plays in society at large. On more than one occasion a character would ruefully question his/her chosen profession, only to reconcile themselves with the thought of "if we didn't advertise, how would people buy thing?" Would they still buy things? A particularly great commentary was found on page 53:

"I think this is an awfully immoral job of ours. I do, really. Think how we spoil the digestions of the public."

"Ah-yes-but think how earnestly we strive to put them right again. We undermine 'em with one hand and uild 'em up with the other. The vitamin we destroy in the canning, we restore in Revito, the roughage we remove from Peabody's Piper Parritch we make up into a package and market as Bunburry's Breakfast Bran; the stomachs we ruin with Pompayne, we re-line with Peplets to aid digestion. And by forcing the damn-fool public to pay twice over-once to have its food emasculated and once to have the vitality put back again, we keep the wheels of commerce turning and give employment to thousands-including you and me."


This mechanism and these concepts are so incredibly relevant in today's consumer driven economy. Manipulation of the media, rifts and divisiveness in society, prejudices against women in the professional workplace, the immorality of pushing unhealthy practices on a public too silly to know any better--these are all things we deal with today. One of the great ironies in this book is that the central villains are involved in the drug trade, yet Wimsey's crowning achievement during his time as an ad exec is a campaign geared toward selling cigarettes.

Wimsey himself seems to have shifted a bit in this book. It has been said that Dorothy L. Sayers was half in love with him, and that her sometimes heroine, Harriet Vane, is a reflection of Sayers' self. If these critiques are true, it has never been so obvious as in Murder. Perhaps it's because of the use of the Death Bredon alter-ego, but this Wimsey is a much more seductive Wimsey. There is a lengthy scene with Wimsey/Bredon and Dian de Momerie in the woods at night, with Bredon dressed as Harlequin. It's a heavily romanticized scene, though it is not a romantic scene. It was very heady, though, and felt like it could have come from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bredon is fawned upon by the women at the advertising agency, and is portrayed, particularly on the cricket pitch, as an athletic man-god that they cannot quite get enough of.

Overall, I thought the book was excellent. The mystery portion was very cleverly contrived, but this extended far beyond that. It was a darker book than many of Sayers' previous Wimsey novels. There were not so many laughable moments as in, for example, Whose Body?, as this story employed a darker, more ironic, humor about people and what drives them. It may have been 4.5 stars if it were not for that fact that there were only two (2!!!!!!) mentions of Bunter. A travesty.
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