|This was the edition I read. Can't say I|
like the cover, but it is difficult to
portray someone falling down an
iron spiral staircase.
Provenance (Why THIS book): This is a re-read, a return to a book previously enjoyed. I always liked Murder Must Advertise, and declared it at one time to be one of my favorite Sayers books, but for the life of me I could not remember exactly why. So with a long vacation in Pittsburgh, it and a handful of Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe mysteries became my traveling volumes.
[And yes, I had my iPad, loaded with all types of books, but you can't read an iPad on takeoffs and landings. Well, you shouldn't. Also, battery life.]
The Review: Murder Must Advertise is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, set in the interwar era that creates nostalgic grist for the Masterpiece Mystery Theater mill. A copywriter takes a tumble head-first down an iron spiral staircase at Pym's Publicity, an advertising firm. His replacement shows a keen interest in the situation, and we the readers quickly discover that this new bloke, Death Bredon, is Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, traveling in mufti, passing himself off as a common scribbler when he is really an investigator with connections (through marriage) with the police. And his interest is not just murder, but a potential scandal for Pym's itself that involves a dope smuggling scheme.
And as a mystery, it's OK. The howdoneit gets answered fairly early, while the whodunnit and whydunnit take a leisurely stroll towards completion, and the book takes some side trips to scenes without Lord Peter to fill in bits and pieces of the plot. Yet what attracted me (and continues to attract me) is the portrayal of life within a corporate entity. Sayers herself worked in advertising, and her understanding shows off here, not only with the procedures of creating copy for ads but also in the little things - the petty gossip and the office pools and who is kicking in for lunch. There is even an off-site event for the collected employees as a morale raiser. Add to that the respect (or lack thereof) among colleagues and all manner of internal social strata and departmental rivalries. Yeah, it feels feels familiar. If Gaudy Night shows Sayers' knowledge of academia, Murder Must does it with business, with often a wry twist and an unjaundiced eye. This is the heart of the story - the mystery is just the frame of it all.
Something else that applies on re-reading is that, as far as the mystery, Sayers plays fair with the reader. There are places where she presents what is happening as Wimsey and the dope smugglers square off (often without realizing it), often resulting in odd shifts of POV. But here she shows the results but do not call them out as such. Only when you hit the reveal and the connections are made do you realize what has gone on, and then it is more of a slight "ah" of comprehension than an "ah-hah" of sudden enlightenment.
The big thing that struck me on this revisiting is that Wimsey himself, while being on stage for most of the book, is not really here. He is hiding behind his Death Bredon character within Pym's, and as his own ne-er-do-well cousin among a clutch of high-living dope peddlers. He's sort of Batman pretending to be the unassuming Bruce Wayne and the criminal Matches Malone. Indeed, Wimsey is Sayers superhero, who indulges in playing himself to be weaker and less effective as copywriter Death Bredon and as more flamboyant among the Harlequin infiltrating his way into the dope circle.
Much like superheroes, his cover is "almost blown" a half-dozen times, and he's expected to cover for himself about how much he looks like Lord Peter. Maybe this is one reason I tend to like this book - the real Wimsey only surfaces occasionally. And up to a final exposure (when he is struck by a ball at the company cricket match and, irritated at the insult, suddenly transforms himself back into Peter Wimsey, champion batsman) he manages to deflect the suspicions, which makes me fell like his challenges (both major and minor) are diminished,.
The nature of the dope smuggler's ultimate plot is a little wobbly as well, with a few holes in the plan that are not revealed because, well, Wimsey wouldn't know them. And Wimsey's ultimate nemesis seems both extremely effective (people connected with start dropping like flies when things get going), and extremely amateur, Yet, that's not what the book is ultimately about.It is about office-workers infiltrated by a man who could be from Mars for all the difference it made.
Lastly, of course, I see the novel as part of "Appendix N" for the 1920s/30s games, in particular Call of Cthulhu. I found myself slowing regularly to examine how someone makes a phone call, or drives a car, or picks up a newspaper. The process of how mail is delivered bears interest. It is a purely personal interest, but someday we will look upon smart phones as curiosities as well, and wonder how people survived without subdermal implants.
It was good visiting an old friend, and remembering why they were a friend in the first place. No, it won't get me back to Busman's Honeymoon any time soon (and besides, I just saw the play version), but maybe The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Maybe next long vacation.