Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Joys of Dorothy L. Sayers

Murder Must Advertise was written in 1933.

Every now and then, we all come across a book we can read and read again, and which continues to delight us each time.

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy L. Sayers, is one of those books for me and I keep a copy around for just that reason.

Sayers (1893-1957) was a remarkable person in many ways. 

She was one of the first women to be awarded a degree from Oxford (graduated in 1915, women were finally awarded degrees in 1920).  She published a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, she invented the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, and she worked in advertising--all quite amazing accomplishments for women today, much less in her own. During her advertising career, she was responsible for one of the most famous Guinness ads of all time.

I was reminded of this when a tour guide in Dublin recited the jingle to us on a bus tour--unaware, I'm quite certain--that the Englishwoman Sayers was the author of this ditty for the very Irish brew. The ad shows a Toucan with his bill arching over two pints of Guinness and the copy reads:

If he can say as you can
"Guinness is good for you"
How grand to be a Toucan
Just think what Toucan do

All of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels are good, but I think they get better as they go along.  Murder Must Advertise is the eighth in the series and in it Sayers is really at the top of her game. The story includes a clever plot that turns on something as modern as illegal drugs and in it she produces a good mystery while offering a running commentary on the ups and downs of office politics and the vagueries of the advertising business.

When an unidentified man is murdered, the police hope to learn who he is from dental x-rays, but, as she writes:

"Irritatingly enough, the deceased turned out to have an excellent set of teeth ... Nor were his shoes helpful, being ready made though by an excellent and much-advertised firm.  In fact, the wretched man had gone to meet his Maker in Farley's Footwear, thus upholding to the last the brave assertion that, however distinguished the occasion, Farley's Footwear will carry you through."

Just as the Dublin tour guide brought to mind Sayers' Guinness ad, my visit to the bell tower in Dublin reminded me of her complex mystery novel The Nine Tailors (1934), where I first read about the obscure subject of change ringing. Each of her stories has its own charms.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) includes a suspect emotionally damaged by his years in the trenches of World War I--a PTSD victim, we would say today.  The plot turns on the minute of silence observed to this day by the English in memory of that terrible war.

In Strong Poison (1930), Wimsey meets and falls for a very modern young woman--some say she is modeled on Sayers herself--who is accused of poisoning her lover. I won't give away what happens there ...

But if you had to start with one story, I would start with Murder Must Advertise because of her wry observations about our consumer-oriented society. 

At one point she has Wimsey muse:

"If all the advertising in the world were to shut down tomorrow, would people still go on buying more soap, eating more apples, giving their children more vitamins, roughage, milk, olive oil, scooters and laxatives, learning more languages by gramophone, hearing more virtuosos by radio, re-decorating their houses, refreshing themselves with more non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers, cooking more new, appetizing dishes, affording themselves that little extra touch which means so much? Or would the whole desperate whirligig slow down and the exhausted public relapse upon plain grub and elbow grease?"

It is a good question. Now, when everybody from our presidential candidates to our local city council hopes to mould our decisions through marketing and advertising, it is an even more relevant world in which to set a mystery. 

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