“You’ll soon find that the biggest obstacle to good advertising is the client.”
Along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers is considered to be one of the best crime writers of the 1930s. Her Lord Peter Wimsey novels remain very popular and Murder Must Advertise is considered one of the best. Though written in a much different time, the world of advertising is so exactly described that it seems as if not much has changed at all.
When Victor Dean fell down the iron staircase at Pym's Publicity, Ltd. everyone assumed that it was a tragic accident. But when Mr. Pym finds a half-written letter by Dean, he begins to suspect that a scandal might be brewing in the office. He hires Lord Peter Wimsey (who is a detective for fun) to come in and discover what the nature of this scandal might be.
Posing as a new hire named Death Bredon, Wimsey begins to integrate himself into the office staff at Pym's and he soon begins to discover that not only was Dean murdered, but that he had also stumbled upon a crime ring bigger than anyone could have imagined. Now, Wimsey must get to the bottom of the things before he himself becomes the target.
My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
Though this is a murder mystery and involves drug smuggling rings, the overall tone is actually very light and fun. I found myself enjoying it quite a bit, not just for the plot, but also for the fun characters and atmosphere.
In this case, nobody is more fun than Lord Peter Wimsey himself. Though very smart and terribly witty, there is also a kind of bumbling charm about him. Sayers herself described him as a mix of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, which I find to be an apt description. All in all, he is the very essence of a British gentleman detective. He is stylish (well dressed and drives a great car), brilliant (invents a hugely successful advertising campaign), and athletic (turns three cartwheels down the hall at the age of 40). By the end of the story I found myself beginning to fall a bit head over heels for the chap.
The office setting also provides plenty of humor. Anyone who has worked in an office will find connection with some or all of the goings-on at Pym's. The politics, the gossip, the office presents, the office parties, the groveling to the client...all of it is very well represented. Sayers worked in an ad agency for a time and brought all of her experience to this story. You'll find yourself laughing at the different ads that everyone comes up with, some of which accidentally have hilarious double meanings. I also found the use of the ads as communications for the drug gang to be very clever.
Having said all of this, it is not necessarily a story that everyone will love. It is a slow paced story that is somewhat dated and very British. Some of the slang and references can be hard to follow if you did not live in 1930s Britain. Unlike other mystery novels, there is no real sense of urgency as we are just as likely to spend a chapter on an ad campaign as on digging up clues. And there is an entire chapter devoted to a cricket game which I just could not wrap my poor American mind around.
Though slow at times, I still found this novel to be lots of fun and I do plan on adding a bit more Wimsey to my diet. This is a must read for anyone who likes good old British mysteries...and those who like chapters on cricket.
The BBC did an adaptation of this story in 1973 and it is a good one. It stars Ian Carmichael as Wimsey and he does a fantastic job, though he does not play up the athletic side as much. The plot is streamlined without losing anything important, and it is a great option for those who might not want to tackle the book. Just a great example of traditional British television.