Monday, 8 February 2016

Murder Must Advertise

Office life

In response to the Past Offences blog challenge (a Golden Age mystery from 1933), here are some random thoughts on Dorothy Sayers' Murder Must Advertise.

I love this book, which I first read in my teens. Amateur sleuth Lord Peter goes undercover at the advertising agency Pym's Publicity after a member of staff falls down an iron spiral staircase, hits his head and dies. But it's not just the dodgy death - Mr Pym has received a mysterious anonymous letter about possibly criminal goings-on at the agency.

So Lord P disguises himself as "Mr Bredon", with horn-rimmed specs and goes to work in the office as a copy writer. The plot concerns some Bright Young People and drugs. After the First World War, the Bright Young People were determined to party till dawn and beyond, racing around dressed as babies, destroying other people's property and themselves. They were always thinking up new "amusing stunts" and spoke a slang all their own. But by 1933 surely they were getting a bit old hat?

However, for me the best parts of the novel take place in the office. Adverts of the time were very wordy, with punning headlines, and Oxford graduates with a silly sense of humour were the best people to write them.

"I've been trying to get out a name for Twentyman's shilling tea. As far as I can make Hankin out, it has no qualities except cheapness to recommend it, and is chiefly made of odds and ends of other teas. The name must suggest solid worth and respectability.”

“Why not call it 'Domestic Blend'? Nothing could sound more reliable and obviously nothing could suggest so much dreary economy.”

Sayers has fun with the awful products the staff have to push: tinned porridge, useless nerve cures, non-alcoholic beverages. In one of my favourite passages, the prim Mr Copley (working late) is phoned by the printer, who has spotted a double entendre in a headline. Mr C thinks on his feet and comes up with a new headline that fits the space.

Hurriedly he jotted down ideas and crossed them out. “WORK AND WORRY SAP NERVE-STRENGTH”—that was on the right lines, but was a few letters short. It was rather flat, too; and besides, it wasn't quite true. Not work—over-work was what the copy was talking about, “WORRY AND OVER-WORK”—no good, it lacked rhythm, “OVER-WORK AND OVER-WORRY”—far better, but too long. As it stood, the headline filled three lines (too much, thought Mr. Copley, for a half-double), being spaced thus:

Are you Taking

He scribbled desperately, trying to save a letter here and there, “NERVOUS FORCE”? “NERVE-FORCE”? “NERVE-POWER”? The minutes were flying. Ah? how about this?

waste Nerve-Power!

It sounded such fun! And Sayers described office life as friendly and chatty, like being back at university, where "essays mysteriously wrote themselves" in the intervals of tennis and punting. I got there in the end and became a sub editor. I can still remember my first headline (False Dawn or New Order?). And publishing offices are still just as matey. We didn't have to call each other "Miss" and "Mr", though, and we didn't have 14-year-old office boys (they raised the school-leaving age).

The classes mix in Pym's offices, leading to a rather painful conversation between Bredon and Ingleby and the likeable Mr Smayle. Mr Tallboy has been rude to Smayle:

"I suppose Tallboy thinks I'm not worth speaking to, just because he's been to a public school and I haven't.”

“Public school,” said Mr. Bredon, “first I've heard of it. What public school?”

“He was at Dumbleton,” said Mr. Smayle, “but what I say is, I went to a Council School and I'm not ashamed of it.”

“Where's Dumbleton?” demanded Ingleby. “I shouldn't worry, Smayle. Dumbleton isn't a public school, within the meaning of the act.”

“Isn't it?” said Mr. Smayle, hopefully. “Well, you and Mr. Bredon have had college educations, so you know all about it. What schools do you call public schools?”

“Eton,” said Mr. Bredon, promptly, “—and Harrow,” he added, magnanimously, for he was an Eton man.

“Rugby,” suggested Mr. Ingleby.

“No, no,” protested Bredon, “that's a railway junction... And I've heard that there's a decentish sort of place at Winchester, if you're not too particular.”

“I once met a man who'd been to Marlborough,” suggested Ingleby.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” said Bredon.

They try to soothe Mr Smayle, while the author reveals a reason for the chip on Tallboy's shoulder. The plot, when revealed, is ingenious. There's also an excellent audio version narrated by Ian Carmichael.

More Sayers here.


  1. I love this book - the advertising agency is so real, and Sayers gets those little casual conversations perfectly.

  2. I have always said that this is my favorite Dorothy Sayers, probably because it feels light and less serious. But I should reread it to confirm that. And I should watch the adaptation with Ian Carmichael.