Murder Must Advertise is the most joyous work in the Sayers canon. In part that’s because everyone who dies pretty much deserves it, allowing readers to concentrate on solving whodunnit without a twinge of conscience. Mainly, though, it’s because the detective plot is simply an adjunct to what is, at heart, a comedy of manners.
Furthermore, it’s not a remote comedy of manners played out across Regency ballrooms, English country houses or Tuscan villas, but an office comedy of manners. As such, it goes straight to the heart of many people’s lived experience. Before Reginald Perrin, before The Office, before twentytwelve there was Murder Must Advertise. Despite its early 20th century trappings (the book was first published in 1933), Pym’s Publicity is a quintessential office, the sort of place where “an alibi has no meaning” and everyone has their private ranking of “colleagues I’d like to see at the bottom of the spiral staircase with a broken neck” .
Accordingly, Sayers sets up the scenario (brilliantly) and invites the reader to do the rest of her work by projecting onto the Great Nutrax Row their own recollection of office kerfuffles past and present.
In so doing she draws upon the great staples of British comedy: status, power, politics and class. The office environment shakes those ingredients into a complex cocktail of resentments and incongruities.
From 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, a couple of hundred people with very little in common are forced to live cheek by jowl. Their politics range from fascist (Mr Prout, the photographer, periodically wears a black shirt and sighs for “a Mussolini to organise trade conditions”) to communist (at least “in a literary way”). Their educational backgrounds include Eton & Oxford at one end of the spectrum and the board schools of the East End at the other. Their private lives include both rigid suburban respectability and Jazz Age, dope-fuelled orgies in the wilder reaches of Teddington.
Pym’s demands that they cooperate in a wider cause and (barring the odd murder) cooperate they damn well do. Nevertheless, the pent-up strain demands a safety valve, and finds it – in glorious style – in the Great Nutrax Row.
Mr Copley, the proximate cause of the kerfuffle, is that perennial office problem: the person who believes everyone else is Doing it Wrong Because They Refuse to Listen to the Voice of Reason.
Or, in Copley’s own thoughts:
In the midst of his annoyance, he felt the inward exultation of the Jeremiah whose prophecies have come true. He had always said that the younger generation of advertising writers were No Good. Too much of the new-fangled University element. Feather-headness. No solid business sense. No thought.
Mr Ingleby (cynical, brilliant, the product of a Leading School and, as we would now say, painfully conscious of his own privilege) sums Copley up as
he assumes seniority though he hath it not.
The Great Nutrax Row doesn’t actually start on the Thursday evening in late June when the Morning Star ring up to complain about an unfortunate innuendo in the Nutrax advertisement, any more than the First World War actually started on 4 August 1914.
Whether its roots can be traced back to the Congress of Vienna or just to when Pym’s first employed the University lot for whom “it’s all give-and-take and bad language”, the row shakes the office from top to bottom, and in the process shakes out blackmail, sexual jealousy, family tragedy, crime and the motive for one murder and one very sporting attempt. Furthermore, in a twist which Kevin Pietersen would doubtless appreciate, it heavily influences the selectors for the annual cricket match between Pyms and Brotherhoods.
Where people line up in the Great Nutrax Row is determined largely by their pre-existing prejudices and the scars they bear from their previous conflicts with the ostensible principals. I said earlier that Murder Must Advertise is both a joyous book and first published in 1933. Both are true, and both statements carry equal weight. While Gaudy Night and the Prothalamion to Busman’s Honeymoon are heavy with the weight of the oncoming European war, in Murder Must Advertise that future is no more than the faintest wisp of cirrus in the sky on the evening of the first day of the Lord’s Test.
This being an English comedy of manners, “prejudices” translates more or less directly onto “class conflict” with a side-order of sexism. Copley, somewhat hen-pecked at home, is firmly of the view that “Before the War there would have been no women in advertising offices, and none of these silly mistakes.” Accordingly, when he crosses swords with Tallboys over the Nutrax half-double, in respect of which he suspects Tallboys of a dereliction of duty (and, to be fair, is far righter than he knows) most of the women in the office initially line up with Tallboys out of gender solidarity.
Sayers has frequently and with justice been criticised for her stereotypical rendering of working-class characters. This follows through here: Mrs Crump the charwoman is barely present as a character, simply as a casus belli. Tallboys, in public, accuses her of stealing £50 from his desk, on very little evidence. In fact, Copley has put the money in a safe place and delayed telling Tallboys, to teach him a lesson.
She is, however, outstanding in the subtle and multiple gradations of the middle-classes. The Great Nutrax Row is the magnifying glass through which her specimens are examined and taxonomised.
The two protagonists represent a clash of ideologies. Copley is the epitome of Victorian self-help; a man who has worked himself up by his bootstraps but whose career has now stalled. Tallboys, on the other hand, given an artificial lift by his minor public-school background, has been promoted beyond his ability and is now floundering. No wonder the row takes on epic dimensions. Almost everyone observing it has a personal stake in the outcome.
The only people who are sufficiently detached to act as pure observers of the row are those like Ingleby and Bredon, who are not dependent on Pym’s either for money or self-esteem.
At the opposite end of the scale is Smayle, who went to a Council school and makes a point of saying “I’m not ashamed of it” rather too often. Tallboys’ not wholly intended cruelty to Smayle (unlike his earlier deliberate nastiness to Mrs Crump) swings a good many of the pro-Tallboys supporters into the Copley camp.
Like all good conflicts, there is little doubt that the Great Nutrax Row lives on at Pym’s Publicity (or whatever that agency has now become, following wars and alarums, mergers and consolidations) long after the deaths of the original principals. Equally, as I write this on a Sunday evening, there is little doubt that tomorrow morning, in offices up and down the land, another Copley will clash with another Tallboys, and their own version of the Great Nutrax Row will to go spiralling off into infinity.
It’s like the circle of life. But with more paperclips.
- Murder Must Advertise is that rarity in Sayers, a multi-corpse book. ↩
- And several of them get their wish. I said it was a joyous book. ↩
- One of the first and, arguably, most valuable lessons Lord Peter learns from the whole experience is that “if, by the most far-fetched stretch of ingenuity, an indecent meaning could be read into a headline, that was the meaning that the Great British Public would infallibly read into it.” ↩