Previous DLS posts: Concerning Lord Peter Wimsey
, the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot
, Miss Katharine Alexandra Climpson
, Whose Body?
, Clouds of Witness
, Unnatural Death
, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club 1
, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club 2
, Strong Poison
, The Five Red Herrings
, Have His Carcase 1
, Have His Carcase 2
, Have His Carcase 3
, Have His Carcase 4
, Have His Carcase 5
, Have His Carcase 6
, Have His Carcase 7
Spoilers. But you know that already.
Hierarchy. This is my big insight about MMA
: it's concerned with hierarchy in human societal structures. It's no accident that the central image of the book is the treacherous iron spiral staircase.
Before I get into explaining myself, I should probably note that I habitually skip the sections about Dian de Momerie (whose name, it occurs to me, is a pun on "mummery") and the drug-ring, because I find them both boring and implausible, and thus a little bit embarrassing. So if I get things from those bits wrong, or forget about important correctives or addenda to my argument, please feel free to correct me.
The most obvious hierarchy in MMA
is that of class--the endless anxiety among the staff of Pym's about public schools is the clearest marker, but we also see Victor Dean trying to climb the social ladder; the distinction between Dian de Momerie and the genuine elite gathered at the Duchess's party; the negotiations that underpin Mary and Charles's marriage. And then there are all the other hierarchies in the book: the Copy Department (the writers, Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Hankin, Miss Rossiter and Miss Parton); the wider structure of Pym's, and the way clients are both scorned and deferred to; the police, with Parker being saddled with Sergeant Lumley; the baroque byzantineness of the drug-ring's operations; even the simple hierarchy of a cricket team, and the exactitude with which we are told that Hector Puncheon is a junior reporter (MMA
184). Everywhere you look, there are hierarchical structures and struggles to gain status. That, ultimately, underpins the Great Nutrax Row, as Mr. Hankin observes: "... all Mr. Copley's valuable suggestions about departmental management were so much window-dressing, put forward to show how brilliant Mr. Copley was, and not in the least with the desire of aiding Mr. Hankin or the department" (MMA
165). Mr. Hankin is miffed, of course, because Mr. Copley left him out of the chain of command.
A conflict of hierarchies shows up also in one of my favorite DLS conversations, that between Lumley and Eagles on the subject of kippers:
"Tcha! it beats me why Godamighty wanted to put such a lot of bones into them things."
P.C. Eagles was shocked.
"You didn't oughter question the ways of Godamighty," he said, reprovingly.
"You keep a civil tongue in your 'ed, my lad," retorted Sergeant Lumley, unfairly intruding his official superiority into this theological discussion, "and don't go forgettin' what's due to my position.
"There ain't no position in the eyes of Godamighty," said P.C. Eagles, stoutly. His father and his sister happened to be noted lights in the Salvation Army, and he felt himself to be on his own ground here. "If it pleases 'Im to make you a sergeant, that's one thing, but it won't do you no good when you comes before 'Im to answer to the charge of questionin' 'Is ways with kippers. Come to think of it, in 'Is sight you an' me is just the same as worms, with no bones at all."
"Not so much about worms," said Sergeant Lumley. "You oughter know better than to talk about worms when a man's eating his breakfuss. It's enough to take any one's appetite away. And let me tell you, Eagles, worm or no worm, if I have any more lip from you--"
Earlier in the same discussion, Lumley has voiced his own dissatisfaction with the police hierarchy: "I better ring up the Yard and stop me lord Parker from traipsin' up 'ere. 'E mustn't be put about. Oh, no!" (MMA
231). Lumley is revealed to be a hypocrite as well as an unpleasant person, but also one who is very well aware of the hierarchy in which he operates.
Death Bredon himself embodies this rebellion against the class system, and dissatisfaction with their station in life characterizes both victim and murderer. Victor Dean attaches himself to Dian de Momerie out of a desire to enhance his status, and it's Tallboy's sensitivity about his education, his insistence on being an Old Dumbletonian, which supports the development of the Great Nutrax Row (and incidentally gets Peter onto Pym's scratch cricket team).
It comes as no great surprise that DLS was socially conservative, but I would like to locate a small, capering, subversive demon in the cricket match. Pym's anarchic team is playing against the Brotherhood team, and the Brotherhoods are specifically old-fashioned to an almost feudal extent:
The firm of Brotherhood's believed in ideal conditions for their staff. It was their pet form of practical Christianity; in addition to which, it looked very well in their advertising literature and was a formidable weapon against the trade unions. Not, of course, that Brotherhoods' had the slightest objection to trade unions as such. They had merely discovered that comfortable and well-fed people are constitutionally disinclined for united action of any sort--a fact which explains the asinine weakness of the income-tax payer.
Brotherhoods', in other words, is a bastion of the Old Regime, well-organized and disciplined, and their cricket team is beating Pym's handily until the cricket ball smacks Lord Peter on the elbow.
I'd already, in previous rereads, tentatively marked down that moment as a gesture of self-parody, a joke about Peter Wimsey, Action Hero:
Nothing makes a man see red like a sharp rap over the funny-bone, and it was at this moment that Mr. Death Bredon suddenly and regrettably forgot himself. He forgot his caution and his role, and Mr. Miller's braces, and saw only the green turf and the Oval on a sunny day and the squat majesty of the gas-works. The next ball was another of Simmonds' murderous short-pitched bumpers, and Lord Peter Wimsey, opening up wrathful shoulders, strode out of his crease like the spirit of vengeance and whacked it to the wide.
Now, clearly, the apocalyptic and Biblical language is over the top and meant to be, and probably the list of things Sayers is making fun of here could go on for several pages. But the cool, collected, pulp-action hero that "Mr. Death Bredon" has been for half this book would hardly be overset by a whack on the funny-bone, and the way in which the game plays out from here argues for pure meritocracy instead of deferring to any kind of imposed hierarchy. Peter takes over, and the other players follow him gratefully. Moreover, the eldest Mr. Brotherhood jettisons all considerations of class and station in his desire to see good cricket: "'Our side be damned,' ejaculated Mr. Brotherhood. 'I'm here to see cricket played, not tiddlywinks. I don't care who wins or loses, sir, provided they play the game'" (MMA
292-3). The cricket-pitch, Sayers seems to be suggesting, is a place where hierarchical thinking can be upended and shaken,
The subversion, of course, doubles back on itself, since Peter's slip reveals him to be of a higher class than he has been pretending--thus being the opposite of Ginger's truant h's (MMA
96)--and the argument could certainly be made that the other cricketers deferring to Peter is only the natural rightness of the English peerage system asserting itself. But that cricket game, apocalyptic language and all, is so fundamentally, joyously anarchic that I believe her intentions lay on the other side. Sports are what she perceives as the proper place for the abandonment of hierarchy and status. A Foucauldian subversion-containment model works very well here; the cricket game serves as what Natalie Zemon Davis calls a safety-valve, what Bakhtin describes as carnival.
I'm getting suddenly and alarmingly theoretical, which is probably a sign that I should stop.
Sayers, Dorothy L. Murder Must Advertise
. 1933. New York: Perennial Library-Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986.