Monday, July 25, 2011

Peter at Pym's Publicity

Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers

Seeing various posts on Peter Wimsey from the "As My Whimsy Takes Me" challenge has reminded me how long it's been since I've read the stories.  I was introduced to Lord Peter through the TV series with Ian Carmichael, when they were on PBS's Mystery back in the 1980s.  Once I found the books themselves I never looked back.  Lord Peter was my first literary love, and I re-read the books so many times over the years that they became almost too familiar.  So I started reading about Dorothy L. Sayers instead, and then looking for her other writings, including her letters.  What sent me back to the books, to Murder Must Advertise, was a posting on The New Yorker book blog on whether ad copy can teach us anything about the craft of writing.

I've always thought that Murder Must Advertise is the funniest of the Wimsey stories.  There is Peter masquerading as Death Bredon, a "cross between Ralph Lynn and Bertie Wooster" in horn-rims.  It struck me this time, though, that Peter is channeling Psmith rather than Bertie.  He piffles his way around Pym's, and like Psmith in the City, he is hardly ever to be found at his desk.  He also gets to play in a staff cricket match that shows him in his element, as one of the game's great players (which reminds me that I need to finish the Raffles stories).  True, he has a much more serious purpose, investigating the death of an employee, Victor Dean, which leads him to a gang of drug dealers.  But in between the investigations, we get to know Peter's fellow workers at Pym's, the different parts they play in the work of the ad agency, the details of the various ad campaigns, and the difficulties they run into, especially from the clients.  Sayers drew from her own experience working in an advertising agency to create this complex little world of Pym's.  And while there is a general consensus that she wrote herself into the stories as Harriet Vane, I think a case could be made for Miss Meteyard, the brilliant and acerbic Somerville graduate, who isn't beautiful but has interesting bones, who figures out not only the murderer but who Mr Bredon really is.

Peter often gets labeled a snob, which I've never understood.  I don't see how anyone could think that after reading this book.  He fits right in at Pym's, where "the atmosphere suited him well enough. He was a bonhomous soul, with the insatiable curiosity of a baby elephant..."  Miss Parton, one of the typists, sums him up: "He's a darling."

Peter in this book reminded me not just of Psmith, but even more of Francis Crawford of Lymond, the hero of Dorothy Dunnett's great Lymond Chronicles.  Peter has a second secret identity in this book, as the Harlequin who enthralls Dian de Momerie, his entrée into the drug gang.  The scene where he captivates her by diving from the top of a high fountain into its shallow basin is pure theatrics (not to mention mind-boggling). The stories he weaves for her and her associates, the games he plays with them, the physical stunts, are all Lymondesque.

The wonderful cast of characters also includes Charles and Lady Mary Parker, though sadly not the Dowager Duchess.  Bunter appears only briefly, at the end, and there is an oblique reference to Peter dining with Harriet Vane, "the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him..."  It is no compensation to have Helen Denver instead. Now, there's the ultimate snob.

I enjoyed this re-read so much that I think I'll be back with Peter before too long.


  1. An excellent review! With Psmith as my favourite Wodehouse creation, it should come as no surprise that Murder Must Advertise is my favourite of Sayers' novels. Lord Peter, like Psmith, is so cheerfully indulgent of the workaday world, happy to befriend his colleagues but rather disinterested in the work itself. And, it must be said, I do love getting to see the Parkers, who I always wish Sayers had written more about.

  2. I think Gaudy Night may be my favorite, but it's a tough call. It's an equally hard choice with PGW. I fell hard for Psmith, but then I met Uncle Fred.

  3. Oh! Lisa May! Lymond and Lord Peter, you are so On the Money! And particularly Lord Peter as the Harlequin: that physicality is crucial.

    This explains everything.

  4. I know all those years of reading Peter Wimsey pre-disposed me to fall for Lymond!

  5. Great review! You're whetting my appetite for the later Wimsey mysteries - I'm definitely looking forward to this one now.

  6. If you're reading them in order, then you've also still got The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night to look forward to - two of the strongest books in the series imo.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!