Murder Must Advertise: Dorothy L Sayers puts Lord Peter Wimsey on the popping crease

In ‘Murder Must Advertise’, the eighth novel involving the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L Sayers devotes an entire chapter to cricket. The game also plays a pivotal part in the plot of the mystery novel. Arunabha Sengupta writes about the book and the cricketing associations of Sayers.

Murder, Religion and Cricket

Dorothy L Sayers - More than a passing interest in cricket

Dorothy L Sayers - More than a passing interest in cricket

In Clouds of Witness, the second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel, a biographical note of the aristocratic sleuth is supplied by Paul Austin Delagardie.

This uncle of Wimsey starts by saying, “I am asked by Miss Sayers to fill up certain lacunae and correct a few trifling errors of fact in her account of my nephew Peter’s career.” He goes on to add:

“His early school-days were not happy. He was a fastidious child … it was natural that his school-fellows should call him ‘Flimsy’ and treat him as a kind of comic turn. And he might, in sheer self-protection, have accepted the position and degenerated into a mere licensed buffoon, if some games-master at Eton had not discovered that he was a brilliant natural cricketer. After that, of course, all his eccentricities were accepted as wit… By the time he reached the Sixth Form, Peter had contrived to become the fashion — athlete, scholar, arbiter elegantiarum — nec pluribus impar. Cricket had a great deal to do with it — plenty of Eton men will remember the “Great Film” and his performance against Harrow.”

Indeed Wimsey became a fantastic cricketer. While at Balliol he scored two successive hundreds for Oxford in 1911, the 112 at Lord’s in particular was of such pedigree and brilliance that it all but blew his cover twenty years later.

Dorothy L Sayers herself preferred to be remembered for her serious works rather than the enthralling Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. And her literary gift extended bountifully to the realms of poetry, plays, theological essays and translations. She considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work. Alas, the masses expectedly purchased and read the mystery potboilers she penned with far more gusto and her excellent ventures in the depths of literature and philosophy remained the domain of the refined reader. Not that it tampered with her fame.

Here we may add that Sayers, even in the most serious of her writings, showed glimpses of her fascination for the noble game. The Mind of the Maker is a most profound book on Christian Theology dealing with the subject of creativity under the light of Christian doctrine about the nature of Trinity; penned in 1941 after all her Wimsey novels and stories had been done with as remnants of a frivolous past. Even in this deep and meaningful volume, the very first chapter ‘The Law of Nature and Opinion’ starts with the paragraph:

“The word ‘law’ is currently used in two quite distinct meanings. It may describe an arbitrary regulation made by human consent in particular circumstances for a particular purpose, and capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended, altered or rescinded without interference with the general scheme of the universe. In this sense we may talk of Roman ‘Law’, the ‘laws’ of civilised warfare, or the ‘laws’ of cricket. Such laws frequently prescribe that certain events shall follow upon certain others; but the second event is not a necessary consequence of the first: the connection between the two is purely formal. Thus, if the ball (correctly bowled) hits the wicket, the batsman is ‘out’. There is, however, no inevitable connection between the impact of the ball upon three wooden stumps and the progress of a human body from a patch of mown grass to a pavilion. The two events are readily separable in theory. If the MCC chose to alter the ‘law’, they could do so immediately, by merely saying so, and no cataclysm of nature would be involved. The l.b.w. (leg before wicket) rule has, in fact, been altered within living memory, and not merely the universe, but even the game, has survived the alteration.”

How many books on theology refer to the MCC and the lbw law? One would perhaps have expected CT Studd to pen such lines, not Dorothy L Sayers.

Murder Must Advertise

Nowhere, however, is the love of cricket more apparent in her works than in the eighth Peter Wimsey novel Murder Must Advertise. It has an entire chapter dedicated to the game titled ‘Unexpected Conclusion of a Cricket Match’.

Set towards the climax of this intriguing plot involving the advertising world with ingenious methods of murder and drug peddling, it not only describes a cricket match in exuberant prose; the game also forms an integral part in the puzzle, from nearly blowing Wimsey’s cover to handing him the final clue in the scheme of things.

It is known to Sayers aficionados that she herself was not too happy with the novel. It was written in haste, as she struggled with the final details of The Nine Tailors. As she mentioned in a letter to Victor Gollancz, her publisher, “I had to shove it in because I couldn’t get the technical dope on The Nine Tailors in time. Still, you never know what people will fancy, do you? It … deals with the dope-traffic, which is fashionable at the moment, but I don’t feel that this part is very convincing, as I can’t say ‘I know dope’. Not one of my best efforts.”

However, even a less than best effort from Sayers has everything in it to be a fascinating read.

Perhaps because it was written in tearing hurry, Sayers relied on her own personal experience for the novel’s backdrop. She worked as a copywriter at SH Benson’s advertising agency from 1922 to 1931, by some stretch her longest employment. Murder Must Advertise was published in the autumn of 1932. All her experiences, and the cynicism that a literary mind develops for a soulless profession, were hence crystallised in many of the memorable passages of the book.

Herself a successful advertiser, with lasting contributions involving ‘The Mustard Club’ and ‘Guinness Zoo’, Sayers is also said to have coined the slogan “It pays to advertise”. In fact, this phrase appears in Murder Must Advertise and is said by Wimsey as he describes his exploits of diving into a fish pond to his brother-in-law Chief Inspector Parker.

There is also the plunge into satire with the description of morality and truth in the world of advertising as the firm Pym’s Publicity is discussed by the same duo.

“Now, Mr. Pym is a man of rigid morality — except, of course, as regards his profession, whose essence is to tell plausible lies for money —”

“How about truth in advertising?”

“Of course, there is some truth in advertising. There’s yeast in bread, but you can’t make bread with yeast alone. Truth in advertising … is like leaven, which a woman hid in three measures of meal. It provides a suitable quantity of gas, with which to blow out a mass of crude misrepresentation into a form that the public can swallow.”

Along with Tono Bungay by HG Wells, this novel may well rank with one of the most accomplished literary works on the world of advertising.

Perhaps it is also because Sayers was pressed for time that she fell back on what was definitely one of her other major interests — cricket.

The game pops up early enough, when ‘Tomboy Toffee’ engages Pym’s Publicity to develop a series of cricket linked advertisements with slogans that run: “Yah! that’a a Yorker!” to “Lumme, what a Lob!” — featuring eleven famous cricketers. Well, ‘lob’ could have been a bit anachronistic in 1932, when the bowling was fast approaching Bodyline, but then, there is that little thing about poetic license.

It is to consult about these advertisements, especially the one reading “Gosh! It’s a Googly” that Miss Meteyard approaches Wimsey who is undercover as copywriter Death Bredon. Wimsey proceeds to explain the intricacies of googly, first with pencil and paper and then in the corridor with a small round tin of Good Judge Tobacco, with which he almost catches the copy-chief responsible, Mr Armstrong, on the side of the head.

Of Romford and The Oval

But serious cricket graces the plot when the firm of soft drink manufacturers, Brotherhood, play Pym’s Publicity in an office cricket match.

The selection of the team, dealt with in surprising detail, encroaches on the uncomfortable topic of public school snobbery and class distinction.

One of the directors, Mr Hankin, has nothing much to say about the team selection provided he gets to bat at No. 3 and is positioned at mid-on. Wimsey is drafted into the side, turns up in faultless flannels and ancient but authentic Balliol blazer, much in contrast to Mr Miller who affronts the sight in grey trousers, striped shirt and braces.

Wimsey promises himself to lay off the fancy cuts to preserve his cover, contemplating an innings of quiet and unobtrusive mediocrity amounting to 20 or so. He, however, is not beyond uttering the taunting chant ‘quack quack’ when a colleague comes back on being dismissed for a blob.

There is the archetypal old spectator who has watched all cricket for the last sixty years. When Mr Hankin walks back slowly and stiffly after being given out leg before, and wonders whether the decision was right, this old gentleman says, “I have attended matches now for sixty ears my dear sir, and that goes back to a time before you were born or thought of, and I’ve never yet known anybody to be really out lbw — according to himself, that is.”

Sayers did not only like her cricket, she frequented the society of seasoned spectators often enough to know all about these quirks. She also knew the traits of the unschooled spectator, evident from the way she writes about Mr Pym cheering every slog, and realising too late that the man has holed out.

She adds fine educated cricketing nuances to the description as well. A dour-faced batsman of Brotherhood, who had a nasty knack of driving exceedingly hard through the gaps, is granted a Yorkshire accent. Sayers knew where great cricketers were made. And she outdoes Cardus with a description of a dismissal, “a really nasty and almost unplayable ball which curled round his feet like a playful kitten and skittled his leg-stump.”

There is the slightly anachronistic reference to the long stop, a fielding position seldom seen any more in 1932. But, then, this was a match between office workers and competent wicketkeepers could have been rare.

And finally there is the clue masterfully woven into the action, seamlessly enough so as to be overlooked by all but the most seasoned readers of detective fiction.

What touches the heart of the cricket lover beyond all this is the endearing saga of Wimsey the cricketer. Determined to score a mediocre 20 or so, he is spurred into action when a ball from the opposition fast bowler rears up and hits him on the elbow. “Nothing makes a man see red like a sharp rap over the funny-bone … [Wimsey] 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 imagery is vivid, especially since the match is being played at Romford.

He proceeds to dazzle the onlookers with spectacular batting, and thus, when he returns victoriously to the pavilion, the old spectator accosts him: “Bredon? I don’t remember hearing that name. You have a late cut which is exceedingly characteristic, and I could have taken my oath that the last time I saw you play it was at Lord’s in 1911, when you made 112. But I thought the name was Wimsey — Peter Wimsey of Balliol.”

And then the same gentleman furnishes the best certificate for the game of cricket: “Innocent as day, my good fellow. Did you see him play? He’s a damned fine cricketer, and he’d no more commit a murder than I would.”

Murder Must Advertise may not be the best Lord Peter Wimsey novel. Indeed, the chapters dealing with the Harlequin and de Momerie are somewhat less than the best of Sayers. But as Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor say in A Catalogue of Crime, “The advertising agency is inimitable … the murder is ingenious.” The elaborate scheme involving the drug peddling activities are also devilishly clever, with the advertising firm built into the plot with the hand of a genius.

Finally, for cricket lovers, there is hardly a more enthralling description of play to be found in literature. Someone who enjoys his cricket and fancies detective fiction will fall in love with Sayers all over again.