Books: Murder Must Advertise

I first remember hearing of Dorothy Sayers in college, as an example of a Christian writer of the best sort, one who wrote from a Christian perspective but not necessarily about Christian themes. I always meant to read something by her, but somehow never got around to it. Back when I was in college, I had no interest in detective novels.

Having finally read encountered Miss Marple in two of Agatha Christie’s books in recent months, I had thought I probably ought to check out something by Sayers and meet Lord Peter Wimsey. But when I’m in the library on Monday evenings after Toastmasters, somehow I don’t think of that. Until two weeks ago, when I happened across Murder Must Advertise in the library’s collection of books on CD.

Early in the novel, I found it difficult to keep track of all the many characters. It doesn’t help that, since I was listening to this rather than reading it, I had trouble keeping track of who was speaking. Some narrators make it fairly easy to distinguish different characters by their voices, but either this narrator does not do this as well as others or there were just too many of them. And Sayers apparently lets conversations go on quite some time without reminders who is speaking.

It also seemed to take quite a while to get to what mystery or crime was being investigated. But I enjoyed the inside view into an advertising agency, and I figured probably writers in the first half of the twentieth century were in less of a hurry to make everything clear, as readers had not yet been conditioned by 30-minute sitcoms and 30-second commercials, much less the instantaneous nature of emails and social media. Besides, I have a 50-minute commute and that makes the length of a book an advantage rather than a problem.

Since I came to the book with an expectation that Sayers was presenting a Christian view of life, I was curious how this would work out. Certainly a detective novel has at its center a focus on good versus evil, and the need for evil to be dealt with. Even characters uninvolved with the murder are all seen to have – as we all do – their various moral failings.

I read later in an essay that this novel “represents a turning point in Dorothy L. Sayers’s development as a writer and Christian thinker. Previously, she had depicted sinful individuals, but here she expands her moral vision to encompass social sin on a grand scale,” encompassing both advertising and drug-trafficking.

What she does not include, that readers of “Christian fiction” are accustomed to, is a presentation of the Gospel and the conversion of at least one of the characters. And that’s fine with me, because as important as the Gospel is, that doesn’t mean that it belongs in every work of fiction, or that its inclusion is what makes a novel “Christian.”

I was surprised by the great amount of detail about how the advertising business works, until I read a summary of her life and thought that mentions that she worked at an advertising agency for ten years, until she was able to make a living from writing books. I also was struck by the book’s criticism of advertising, using just enough truth to persuade people to believe a great deal of untruth – that one company’s product is so much better than another’s, and that the advertised product will make their lives better.

Advertising has changed a great deal since the 1930’s when this novel was written. The advertising slogans sound rather quaint to 21st century ears. But the basic approach hasn’t changed. Advertisers try to convince consumers that their good health depends on the right product to fight germs or to aid digestion, that they will be admired and successful if they use the products that admired and successful people use, that they can’t be happy unless they have something more – and always more.

This article explains that Sayers’ view of advertising was part of her belief in the importance of integrity. “Sayers criticizes advertisers who tempt the gullible and invade areas that should be private, but she also censures consumers who, indifferent to blatantly offensive advertisements and shoddy, unnecessary products that flood the market, nevertheless continue to spend foolishly.”

As for the famous Lord Peter Wimsey, he is certainly an interesting character, though perhaps less engaging to me than some other detectives. I have no idea how typical the depiction of Wimsey is in this novel compared to the others. I assume he doesn’t normally spend most of the book going about under an assumed name (though one finds out later in the book that it is really his two middle names). And I’ve read that his character develops over the course of the novels, so it will be interesting to read the earlier ones and see how he changes over time.

So now it’s time to go back and start with Whose Body? I just have to decide whether to borrow the paper or CD version from the library.

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