Dorothy L. Sayers, a popular Golden Age mystery writer, was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. She is known today not just for her very readable mystery novels but also for her distinguished translation of Dante’s Paradise Lost. (For additional details about her life and work, see the Dorothy L. Sayers Society website.) In 1923, Sayers began her popular Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. Go to any bookstore or public library today and you will find her books on the same shelves as those of contemporary mystery writers. What is it about her mysteries that make them so popular?
Let’s look at Murder Must Advertise, Sayers’s eighth mystery novel. Lord Peter Wimsey is hired by a detective agency to investigate the recent “accidental” death of one of its employees. Disguised as the company’s newest copywriter, Wimsey is soon convinced that the death was a murder. Other deaths follow, and the mystery deepens.
In her essay, “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” Sayers recommends the ancient philosopher’s advice about fiction. Aristotle writes that “the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of the detective story, is the Plot, and the Characters come second” (cited in Sayers 1936, 26). And certainly the plot in Murder Must Advertise takes center stage, keeping the reader is constant suspense.
Lord Peter Wimsey is an aristocratic amateur detective with close ties to Scotland Yard. He often works with his friend and brother-in-law, Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. Wimsey has charm, personality, intelligence, and gusto. Not content to lead the sheltered life of a lord, he continually takes risks and puts himself in harm’s way to solve a case.
As a former copywriter in an advertising agency, Sayers is able to ground the novel in a factually accurate and convincing milieu. She is a shrewd observer of the human condition and has a keen eye for telling details. The novel is filled with witty dialogue, comic scenes, and gentle satire.
Central to the novel is the theme of illusions and disguises; nothing is what it appears. At various points in the story, Wimsey pretends to be an advertising copyrighter, a mysterious harlequin figure, and a policeman. Pym’s advertising agency, as the mass producer of illusions, is not merely a backdrop setting for the novel but a place intricately tied to its social themes and concerns. Furthermore the advertising agency is connected with drug trafficking – another illusion-producing industry.
The ending of Murder Must Advertise is poignant and memorable. As a leading figure in the mystery genre, Sayers has influenced many mystery writers today; a number of authors have acknowledged their debt to her.
Sayers, Dorothy L. “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” English 1, no. 1 (1936): 23-35.
------. Murder Must Advertise. 1933. London: Hogger & Stoughton, 2003.