starlady: Holmes and Watson walking around New York (springtime in new york)
[personal profile] starlady
As previously stated, I love Sarah Monette's posts on the Wimsey books—they're what got me to read these novels—but occasionally as a historian I have to shake my head in despair over English majors, and Murder Must Advertise is one of those times. Monette is very right to point out the elements of class conflict as symbolized by the lethal iron staircase and the ambiguous anarchy of the company cricket match, but there's a whole other level on which this novel is working: namely, a critique of capitalism.

MMA is set in summer 1932, just less than 15 years after the end of the Great War, which in a lot of countries marked a definitive acceleration of modernity and modernization: it's only four years until Charlie Chaplin will make his great illustration and indictment of those conditions in Modern Times, which perfectly illustrate the ways in which being a human being is enough to place one in definite opposition to the orderly workings of society and the efficient operations of capitalism. From the opposite end of the scale, Peter Wimsey has some of the same problems as the Tramp, as is signaled in almost the most explicit manner possible in the novel itself:

To Lord Peter Wimsey, the few weeks of his life spent in unravelling the Problem of the Iron Staircase possessed an odd dreamlike quality, noticeable at the time and still more insistent in retrospect. The very work that engaged him—or rather, the shadowy simulacrum of himself that signed itself on every morning in the name of Death Bredon—wafted him into a sphere of dim platonic archetypes, bearing a scarcely recognizable relationship to anything in the living world. Here those strange entities, the Thrifty Housewife, the Man of Discrimination, the Keen Buyer and the Good Judge, for ever young, for ever handsome, for ever virtuous, economical and inquisitive, moved to and fro upon their complicated orbits, comparing prices and values, making tests of purity, asking indiscreet questions about each other's ailments, household expenses, bedsprings, shaving cream, diet, laundry work and boots, perpetually spending to save and saving to spend, cutting out coupons and collecting cartons, surprising husbands with margarine and wives with patent washers and vacuum cleaners, occupied from morning to night in washing, cooking, dusting, filing, saving their children from germs, their complexions from wind and weather, their teeth from decay and their stomachs from indigestion, and yet adding so many hours to the day by labour-saving appliances that they had always leisure for visiting the talkies, sprawling on the beach to picnic upon Potted Meats and Tinned Fruit, and (when adorned by So-and-so's Silks, Blank's Gloves, Dash's Footwear, Whatnot's Weatherproof Complexion Cream and Thingummy's Beautifying Shampoos), even attending Renalagh, Cowes, the Grand Stand at Ascot, Monte Carlo and the Queen's Drawing-Rooms. Where, Bredon asked himself, did the money come from that was to be spent so variously and so lavishly? If this hell's-dance of spending and saving were to stop for a moment, what would happen? 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, redecorating their houses, refreshing themselves with more non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers, cooking more new, appetizing dishes, affording themselves that little extra touch that means so much? Or would the whole desperate whirligig slow down, and the exhausted public relapse upon plain grub and elbow-grease? He did not know. Like all rich men, he had never before paid any attention to advertisements. He had never realized the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vet superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion. Phantasmagoria—a city of dreadful day, of crude shapes and colours piled Babel-like in a heaven of harsh cobalt and rocking over a void of bankruptcy—a Cloud Cuckooland, peopled by pitiful ghosts, from the Thrifty Housewife providing a Grand Family Meal for Fourpence with the aid of Dairyfields Butter Beans in Margarine, to the Typist capturing the affections of Prince Charming by a liberal use of Muggins's Magnolia Face Cream.
    Among these phantasms, Death Bredon, driving his pen across reams of office foolscap, was a phantasm too, emerging from this nightmare toil to a still more fantastical existence amid people whose aspirations, rivalries and modes of thought were alien, and earnest beyond anything in his waking experience. Nor, when the Greenwich-driven clocks had jerked on to half-past five, had he any world of reality to which to return; for then the illusionary Mr. Bredon dislimned and became the still more illusionary Harlequin of a dope-addict's dream; an advertising figure more crude and fanciful than any that postured in the columns of the Morning Star; a thing bodiless and absurd, a mouthpiece of stale clichés shouting in dull ears without a brain. From this abominable impersonation he could not now free himself, since at the sound of his name or the sight of his unmasked face, all the doors in that other dream-city—the city of dreadful night—would be closed to him. (Chap. IX)

There's a lot to say here, and we'll get to it, but the first thing to note is that this language clearly recalls the writings of Marx and Engels, specifically the passage in The Communist Manifesto (1848) which later gave rise to an excellent book about the experience of modernity in the 1920s:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

In my experience thus far people tend to excoriate the drug scenes in this novel as being much less well-researched than the advertising scenes, leading to a sense of imbalance, but when we keep in mind that advertising is capitalism, both of which Peter is experiencing for basically the first time (since his money comes from an older mode of production), and that capitalism and the rise of drugs were and are closely linked, it makes a lot more sense. Moreover, as the above passage from MMA shows, they are linked not just by the Harlequin and Death Bredon traversing the two of them, but by the fact that capitalism creates the exhaustion and the anhedonia to which drugs give people like Dian de Momerie an all-too temporary antidote. Drugs are perhaps in some ways the ultimate expression of capitalism, in a very real historical sense; they are the ultimate ephemeral commodity that yet instills dependency in the consumer.

All of which leads to a very insistent point that is hidden right in the title: why must murder advertise? What is murder? The answer, as Wimsey proves, is that murder must advertise because capitalism is murder, and capitalism needs to keep selling us commodities to sustain itself. In this sense, advertising and drugs, the prosaic reality of the one and the dreamy horrors of the other, are the most complementary possible two halves of this book.

Murder Must Advertise marks a departure from the previous seven books in ways that I suspect tie into the fact that it is the middle of the second set of five books (as Strong Poison ends with Harriet saying no, and Gaudy Night with her saying yes) and that also are clearly set up by some of the developments in Have His Carcase. In that book, in the Harriet sections, we first got some truly exterior perspectives on Peter, which sets us up quite clearly for the first few chapters of MMA, which show Mr. Death Bredon entirely from the POVs of other people who have no idea who he is and no reason to censor themselves. I will note in passing as well that Peter's continuing to get more involved and to do more has led to the entire setup of this book, in which he goes undercover, as well as to his various athletic feats including diving into pools, climbing trees, turning cartwheels, and of course playing cricket.

This external perspective on Peter, which is really a tour de force of writing—Sayers and the audience know who's who and what's what, but she plays it straight for an impressively extended interval—also ties into the fact that this is a much more frankly sexual book than any of the others. Dian de Momerie and Pamela Dean speak much more plainly about Peter's body and physical desirability (and physicality) than anyone has up until now, and in turn Peter himself evinces a quite unfamiliar streak of cruelty:

"Well, will I do?"
    "For what?"
    "For you?"
    "For me? What are you good for, to me?"
    "I'm beautiful."
    "Not so beautiful as you were. In five years' time you will be ugly."
    "Five years? I wouldn't want you for five years."
    "I wouldn't want you for five minutes."

    "You might kiss me, Harlequin."
    "Do you deserve kissing? Once, for your information. Twice, for your disinterested effort to save me from the egregious Mr. Milligan. And the third time, because the fancy takes me that way."
    He bestowed the kisses like deliberate insults. Then he picked her up bodily, still holding her arms imprisoned, and dumped her into the back of the open car. (Chap. IX)

Sayers is, as ever, a master of dialogue, but in the context of the books overall, and in the context of the fact that Lord Peter has recently gone on a "date with the one young woman who showed no signs of yielding to him" (Chap. VII), which is to say, Harriet Vane, Peter's unaccustomed cruelty is, for my money, clearly of a piece with his romantic and sexual frustration: he loves and wants Harriet, who keeps refusing to say yes to him despite the fact that she is at best giving him very mixed signals and at worst obviously in love with him too. Have His Carcase establishes quite clearly that they are both pretty far gone on each other, but that Harriet has not been able to acknowledge her own emotions frankly to herself, and Peter after all is a detective; he can read the signs as well as or better than anyone, which is why he does keep asking.

The other amazing thing about this book is the fact that Sayers has gone all in on Peter's being a handmaiden or close confidante of Death, to the point where he starts explicitly going by that very name. Again, what was hinted at in HHC is much more plainly stated here, and Dian, of all people, picks up on it when she is still in the throes of those same drugs (and, one would wager, a substantial quantity of gin):

"It isn't that. It's you. There's something queer about you. I'm afraid of you. You aren't thinking about me at all. You're thinking of something horrible. What is it? What is it? Wait!"
    She put out a cold hand and clutched his arm.
    "I'm seeing something that I can't make out. I've got it now. Straps. They are strapping his elbows and dropping a white bag over his head. The hanged man. There's a hanged man in your thoughts. Why are you thinking of hanging?" (Chap. IX)

Whether this is supernatural or merely the extraordinary lucidity which those who are liberated from their sober minds sometimes experience is open to interpretation, but there's no denying that Dian is dead on: Peter is Death, and in his role as a detective, there are hanged men behind most if not all of his cases. As Peter himself says, "He is definitely not nice to know" (Chap. XI).

Not only that, but the novel lends itself to a tarot-flavored interpretation via Dian's perspective as well. (It seems particularly fitting that her name, which could be rendered "Flim-Flam Diane" in a very loose translation, suggests an impostor virgin goddess of the moon.) Dian herself, if you take her as the Moon, resonates in the tarot, as that card is associated with illusion, fear, anxiety, insecurity, and the subconscious when upright, and release of fear, unhappiness, and confusion when reversed. Peter's Harlequin costume naturally leads to thoughts of the Fool, who is the protagonist of the major arcana as well as of the story, which of course Peter is; but there is also a very close association between him and three cards that follow each other in many decks, namely Justice, the Hanged Man, and Death. Justice, being a virtue, is associated (and I am needless to say being schematic here) with the rule of law, fairness, truth, cause and effect, while the reversed meanings of unfairness, lack of accountability, and dishonesty are also not wholly without relevance to Peter in his current masquerade, which is a form of dissembling. The Hanged Man, of course, recalls Wodan, who hung on the Tree for nine days and nights to obtain wisdom, and in the tarot specifically is associated with suspension, restriction, letting go, sacrifice—all characteristics of which Peter partakes in his masquerade as Bredon and the Harlequin. The characteristics of the Hanged Man reversed—martyrdom, indecision, delay—are also not wholly inapplicable to his current situation with Harriet. In this reading, Peter being identified with Death is actually a hint towards the eventual positive resolution of that relationship, and of the series: for as Harry Potter fans know, the real disaster card in the major arcana is not Death but the Tower. Death is associated, conversely, with endings, beginnings, change, transformation, and transition (and again vis-a-vis Harriet specifically at this point in time, the reversed associations of resistance to change and being unable to move on are highly suggestive).

And I haven't even gotten to the cricket match yet. It is, in other words, an entirely brilliant and deceptively straightforward book.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-26 01:12 (UTC)
troisroyaumes: Painting of a duck, with the hanzi for "summer" in the top left (Default)
From: [personal profile] troisroyaumes
This book is one of my favorites in the series. Thanks for making the connections with Tarot symbolism--I recognized some of the imagery, but didn't know enough about Tarot to understand what they were supposed to evoke.

Parts of this book reminded me of the masquerade that Lymond puts on in Queens' Play.

Would like to hear your thoughts on the cricket match--where he nearly gives himself away!--and also your thoughts on the advertising agency employees, who are a really sharply observed ensemble; Sayers must have been saving up some portraits from her own time in an ad firm.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-26 06:35 (UTC)
swan_tower: (Default)
From: [personal profile] swan_tower
I read Dunnett before Sayers, and oh my god can you see Sayers' fingerprints all over Lymond. Lord Peter has lines that, but for the anachronism of the literary references, could have come out of Lymond's mouth. (See also: staid older brother, clever dowager mother, etc etc.)

Starlady, you have convinced me that I need to go back and re-read these books in order, rather than my previous hopscotch method. Also, thank you for linking to Monette's entries; I started following her after those were posted, and didn't know they existed.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-26 01:21 (UTC)
jesse_the_k: unicorn line drawing captioned "If by different you mean awesome" (different=awesome)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Thanks for this intriguing analysis.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-26 02:08 (UTC)
mrkinch: albatross soaring (Default)
From: [personal profile] mrkinch
This is fascinating! Please do go on to the cricket match.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-26 04:22 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
Yes, Woden/Odin and the willing self-torture (plus is the wisdom really worth it--Gaudy Night suggests yes, but it takes Wimsey and Sayers a while to wend their ways there). I had missed the Marx/Engels echo! Thanks for that in particular.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-27 04:57 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
Quite possibly. Advertise and Nine Tailors are my favorite, above and beyond Gaudy Night, possibly because I'd read the Lymond books before reading Sayers (weirdly?) and a bit of Sayers's effect was lessened thereby.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-27 01:13 (UTC)
skygiants: Kyoko from Skip Beat! making a mad flaily dive (oh flaily flaily)
From: [personal profile] skygiants
Harriet aside, Murder Must Advertise is my favorite. I wrote a rather feverish paper once in undergrad analyzing it as a conspiracy thriller through a Jamesonian Marxist lens, which maybe proves your point about English majors (but it so much about capitalism! advertising as a drug for the masses!! WHIFFLE YOUR WAY TO FORTUNE.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-28 07:15 (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Okay, that settles it, I have got to read this series. My next purchase, even - or library trip.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-29 00:20 (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
*skepticism = placeholder, insert wild enthusiasm for something here later*

...All right I got 'em. I'm at least partly in this for the fandom y'know. I never watched a Marvel movie on my own until after I read some fanfic. But hey some of my favorite sf&f authors are fans of Dorothy L. Sayers. And she's a classic mystery author. There's gotta be something there. *pokes e-reader as if it was made of mysterious gelatinous substance*

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-29 14:52 (UTC)
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)
From: [personal profile] alatefeline
Good to know.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-07-29 00:48 (UTC)
stewardess: (Default)
From: [personal profile] stewardess
I love Murder Must Advertise because it's hilarious, and because it thoroughly skewered Nice Guys Finish Last bullshit decades before anyone else. So thank you for the many additional layers to ponder!

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