Log in

Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
DLS: Murder Must Advertise 
30th-May-2003 06:14 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
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--"
(MMA 231-2)

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.
(MMA 278)

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.
(MMA 289-90)

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.
30th-May-2003 06:41 am (UTC)

(I stopped in the middle, thought about it, and added more Os.)

Any thoughts on the oddities of the whole Harlequin thing? Was Sayers letting out romantic impulses towards her hero before she got back down to writing him with Harriet again? All that stuff with Dian is just weird. I assume it's accurate for the time period (it seems more 1920s to me, but what do I know?).
30th-May-2003 07:05 am (UTC)
I don't know about Harlequin. I'm suspecting there's a whole 30s pulp tradition that I'm unfamiliar with (the Saint? can somebody help me out on this one?) infusing those sections. As I said, I find them basically unreadable: boring, implausible (that dive off the fountain!), and didactic. It contrasts v. oddly with the sections set in Pym's, because she has an insider's knowledge of the workings of an advertising agency, and it shows, whereas the stuff about the police's anti-drug efforts--and especially the pseudo-macho language Peter and Charles affect--reads rather like Morecambe's letter in Have His Carcase: she doesn't know much about this sort of thing, doesn't care, and just wants to give the general effect. It also looks like she's trying too hard to be topical.

I find those sections a terrible blot on an otherwise highly entertaining book, but I also freely admit I'm biased.
30th-May-2003 07:44 am (UTC)
the stuff about the police's anti-drug efforts--and especially the pseudo-macho language Peter and Charles affect--reads rather like Morecambe's letter in Have His Carcase

Yes! That's it!

One has to try too hard to retrofit on the smug-druggling parts, to make them fit the tone of the rest of the book.

I wish I could ask Sayers about it!

The whole sequence is just weird. Peter might have been meant to be that sort of playboy in the early books, but not at this point. It's like a last gasp of the vapid butterfly he once appeared to be.
30th-May-2003 11:03 am (UTC)
You know, as much as I really dislike Dian de Momerie, I really, really hate Peter in those sections. He becomes cruel. And I know that the Wimseys have the crouching cat in their heraldry, but this section is like the worst part of the cat metaphor -- it feels to me as the reader that he's toying with his prey, for no other reason than that he gets some sort of sadistic enjoyment out of it.

Otherwise, I really enjoy reading MMA for its marvelous behind-the-scenes ad agency setting. The dawdling in and out of offices, the silly decisions that cause major schisms within the company... she captures corporate life extremely well, even 70 or so years after the fact.

And I love Ginger, who sort of stands in for me as a kid. :)

30th-May-2003 01:17 pm (UTC)
I think the worst thing is that the book endorses that cruelty. When Charles says he doesn't care about Victor Dean in the slightest, as long as he can get the drug-runners ... yes, Victor seems to have been a fairly dreadful sort of person, and yes, the argument could be made that he only got what was coming to him, but still. He was murdered. The book as a whole (notice, please, that I am carefully not speculating about DLS's own feelings on the matter, about which I know nothing) is guilty of extremely sloppy black and white thinking, which is not a usual problem in DLS's work. Dian may be horrid, but she's as much a victim as she is a victimizer, and it's not okay to forget that.
30th-May-2003 07:30 pm (UTC)
It's especially odd to see such black-and-white attitudes this late in the series, because she's been carefully building toward a more balanced approach. After all the genre-busting in HHC, MMA feels very odd. Like she couldn't make up her mind whether to un-Templeton Peter or not.
1st-Jun-2003 10:24 am (UTC)
--Peter might have been meant to be that sort of playboy in the early books, but not at this point--

when Peter disguises himself as a character, he tends to do it by exaggerating and parodying his own characteristics. This time it's the man of the world that Paul Delagardie turned him into before he fell for Barbara. Also, if he hadn't been cruel to Diane, she wouldn't have paid him a blind bit of notice; she needed something to intrigue her and Peter, feeling as out of his depth the drug world as DLS, talks of clinging to her as his clue (string-like). Don't forget his crusty buffer act when he pretends to be Death's cousin (smug-druggling!), and my other favourite from MMA, the way he quotes Augustine to Parker to explain how he dealt with the inquisitive Millington.
1st-Jun-2003 03:49 pm (UTC)
Don't forget his crusty buffer act when he pretends to be Death's cousin (smug-druggling!)

That scene plays rather amusingly in the Ian Carmichael tv-adaptation of MMA. Makes up for IC being not quite physically suited for the Harlequin costume.
30th-May-2003 07:59 am (UTC)
Sayers herself said that she didn't think much of the drugs bit, because she didn't "know drugs" but she had a deadline to meet, and the other novel she was working on (the Documents in the Case, I think) was taking too much research to meet the deadline, so she had to scramble the drugs bits together.

On the subject of Brotherhoods, it is worth remembering that DLS was satirising at least one real life example. The most plausible candidate was Cadburys, the Quaker owners of which built a model (strictly dry) village for their workers called Bournville, outside Birmingham. Lord Lever acted similarly with regard to his soap business creating Port Sunlight near Birkenhead. The idea of companies taking a very paternalistic approach to their workers' welfare (which also had echoes in the William Morris/Arts and Crafts movement and the Garden Villages concept) got a tremendous boost immediately after WWI (homes fit for heroes to live in etc). However, politically it has an odd pedigree. It would be wrong to see it wholly as "Old Regime": for example, it was typically associated with those of Noncomformist religious views (the Cadburys were Quaker); left of centre politics (the idea being that capitalism needed to clean its act up as a defence against the Communists, but that human beings did deserve better than previously) and associations with movements such as Temperance, handicrafts and the like. So one could see the match in terms of "traditional" business (muddling along with a degree of hands-off goodwill towards its employees, but no real support systems in place and a preference for "Us and Them" which both parties find refreshing) against modern corporate methods which require sublimation of the individual into the corporate stucture (remember the Brotherhood blazers and flag). Typically in such scenarios (another, rather later example is in that Ealing film about the West Highland "puffer" which the American owner of the merchant fleet is trying to phase out as uneconomical) old money (or, better yet, old-lack-of-money - the impoverished laird, or the" gilded Johnnie" "brought up silk-lined" and now having to find a real job post war)side with the anarchy of individualism against effective corporate conformity.
30th-May-2003 08:10 am (UTC)
Oh, thanks for this. This is great. Fascinating.
30th-May-2003 09:48 am (UTC)
Thank you. As you so often do, you've said what I was trying to get at, and said it much better than I was ever going to manage.

I knew "Old Regime" was the wrong word for the Brotherhoods; a much better model, as you suggest, is the pastoral/feudal nostalgia against corporate modernity model, and now I'm having weird visions of writing a comparative essay about Tolkien and Sayers. The Brotherhoods and the Uruk-hai! Oh dear.

Thank you also for the biographical detail. I now feel rather miffed that The Documents in the Case ate up attention and time that could have been given to Murder Must Advertise, but at least now I know why MMA has that weird schizoid feel to it.
30th-May-2003 08:40 pm (UTC)
The Brotherhoods and the Uruk-hai! Oh dear.

Sudden alarming visions of orks playing cricket.
30th-May-2003 02:25 pm (UTC)
There is, of course, another point about the role of the jaw-droppingly anarchic cricket match in English literature, of which DLS's is one of the best. And has had an impact much wider than the crime novel-reading public. To quote from one of my favourite children's books, Antonia Forest's The Cricket Term (Puffin, 1979, 243)

"A page of print turned suddenly to reality: Mr Tallboy, thought Nicola, almost an invocation, as her arm bent back. The ball bounced and took the leg bail: and Val was scuttling desperately still."

Another examples is the cricket match in MacDonnell's England, their England and various Wodehousian-type examples. Possibly the fun of cricket is that (a) the entire game takes place in the umpires head (see Wisden on the point).
30th-May-2003 05:14 pm (UTC)
I'm glad I read all the other comments first, because I was going to cite Nicola Marlow, too...

Also to point out (as Rowan Marlow points out to Nicola, far earlier in the book) that though Lord Peter piles up the runs, the match is actually won by someone far lower on the social scale and falling well into the grey area of morality.
30th-May-2003 05:20 pm (UTC)
Oh hell, as truepenny's already put in the spoiler warnings:

Tallboy murdered Dean, though at the time of the cricket match neither the reader nor Lord Peter knows it.

That final throw that wins the match accomplishes a hat trick:

1. It indicates that Tallboy is capable of instant, immediate, risk-taking action when he sees the possibility of tremendous success.

2. It shows that Tallboy can throw hard and extremely accurately from a distance - as he would have to, to commit the murder.

3. On the metaphorical level, where success in cricket is proof of virtue, Tallboy proves himself not quite a villain at the same time as proving himself the murderer (that fatal throw at the cricket match gives Tallboy away to Lord Peter, just as the whack on the funnybone gave Lord Peter away to old Mr Brotherhoods).

30th-May-2003 03:32 pm (UTC)
But that cricket game, apocalyptic language and all, is so fundamentally, joyously anarchic that I believe her intentions lay on the other side.

The *other* impressive thing about the cricket game is how that feel comes through even though it's almost completely unintelligible to people who don't know cricket (e.g., me).

(It's how you can tell the book isn't actually science fiction or fantasy, despite what I think of as the "worldbuilding" in the office setting.)
30th-May-2003 05:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, totally. I haven't the faintest idea of what's actually HAPPENING in that cricket match, but it doesn't matter. I don't need to know. The things that are important come shining through, and it's incredibly fun to read anyway.
31st-May-2003 12:42 pm (UTC)
To some degree, that also describes a Quidditch game. except that DLS's audience does know cricket.

Of course, cricket was the staple sport of schoolboy stories.
31st-May-2003 10:15 am (UTC)
Why does that make it not science fiction or fantasy?
31st-May-2003 01:07 pm (UTC)
Because if it were, the author wouldn't assume everyone reading the work knew the rules and action of the game, and would deliberately provide enough context so that the reader could work out a complete mental picture.

Sayers clearly was writing for an audience that didn't need to have explained what a wicket was or how the game was scored. And so she didn't explain it, and I have very little idea what's going on.
27th-Apr-2004 11:26 am (UTC) - Cricket
It's symptomatic of this that the Encyclopaedia Britannica's article on cricket is a complete farrago unintelligible except to the initiate, in contrast to their article on "American Rugby" (what we are pleased to call football), which is a model of careful, clear exposition.

But from what I understand, cricket truly was (and in some ways still is), the national game, just as baseball was and still is in the U.S.: the sport without class associations. The "flanneled fools at the wicket" are just as likely to be peasants, workers, or lords (though not all at once in the same game, as a rule).

Googling for "cricket baseball" (no quotation marks) will bring up a variety of excellent web sites that explain cricket to Americans in terms of what they already know.

--John Cowan, iggerant Yank
15th-Jul-2004 08:25 pm (UTC)
And then there's the point where DLS says that Peter went out to dinner with the only woman who showed no sign of yielding to him (Harriet, I assume!) and what he said or did on that occasion has no bearing on the narrative. (Would put in quotes, but would mangle, as I don't have my copy next to me.)

Anyone else yell at that point "But I WANT to know"?
12th-Jul-2012 01:34 am (UTC) - But we do know...
This dinner is mentioned in Gaudy Night.

Peter mentions to Harriet that he has undertaken a case in an advertising firm and that it was quite amusing.

It was not the dinner where he had a broken arm (or collarbone or whatever it was, where the napkin keeps sliding off Harriet's lap and Peter has to call a waiter to retrieve it and it's in his club and one of the poison pen notes slips out of her purse and is brought by one of the waiters) but the other one that takes place at a well-known and well-heeled restaurant in SoHo which Harriet doesn't think is a suitable place for breaking off alliances since it's a place to see and be seen.

Sorry this all sounds a bit too much like the Dowager Duchess, I'm afraid.
21st-Apr-2005 10:37 pm (UTC)
Was anybody else struck by the echo between Mr. Tallboy contributing a shilling to the wreath for Victor Dean, and Peter contributing a shilling for the wreath for Mr. Tallboy? In a certain way, that scene (and Peter's general darkness of mood after Mr. Tallboy's death) seems to me to look forward toward the slightly darker, more nuanced Peter of, say Busman's Honeymoon. Thoughts?
14th-Apr-2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
My favorite cricket scenes (for what it's worth) are the ones in FLASHMAN'S LADY where the appalling Harry Flashman cheats and cons his way into cricketing history and BREWER'S DICTIONARY OF PHRASE AND FABLE.

And may I take this chance (long after they were composed) to thank you for this series of essays and roundly curse Jo Walton for mentioning them in the preface to FARTHING: I did have other things planned for this evening, among them reading FARTHING...
This page was loaded Feb 23rd 2017, 12:20 am GMT.