Book Review : ‘MURDER MUST ADVERTISE’ by Dorothy Sayers

It’s a ‘killer thriller’ – with a difference. ‘Murder Must Advertise‘ is a novel (and yes, there’s a reason I’m calling it a novel instead of a ‘murder mystery’ or ‘whodunit’) set in pre-War London and is a lovely exposition of life in those times.

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A lord of the realm postures as a regular employee at an advertising firm to sift the evidence and see if a death was indeed accidental.

A procession of people working at the firm (there are 90, just 10 of whom seem to have alibis) who might be the ones responsible.

A precocious office boy who always wanted to be a ‘tective, and is roped in to assist at the investigation through unofficial channels.

A broader story involving drug running and other nefarious criminal activity with a hard-to-find connection to the ad firm.

Everything’s tossed into the blender of Murder Must Advertise – to concoct a cocktail of clues, innuendo, gossip and vague facts.

And around the midway mark, you arrive at a point…

The sheer number of potential suspects, the intriguing intricacy of their interactions, and the hopelessly tangled thread of events as they unfold makes you kind of give up on the futile task of trying to figure out whodunit…

And instead simply relax and bask in the delicious complexity, in awe of the brilliant mind that conceived and executed the tale!

A copywriter at an advertising agency dies and the story begins with an investigation into it. Was it an accident? Or was there something more sinister at play? Royalty in the form of Lord Peter Wimsey sets out to enquire – under disguise.

Conversation brims with topical themes. Accents and interests are lovely, and intriguing to study. Literary and poetic allusions abound. A serious research-oriented reader could get busy with Wikipedia for weeks just exploring these generously strewn gems.

Characters come and go with head spinning frequency in Murder Must Advertise – and yet, you rarely lose the thread of the narrative.

I guess there were some 40 to 50 characters in all who played some role in the story. But it was easy to keep track of them all… and my hat’s off to the writer who put in the hard work to make that possible.

The basic story being of a search for the truth behind a man falling down the stairs and breaking his neck, it ultimately extends to span a wider, bigger conspiracy that involves

  • a glamorous but notorious socialite,
  • a ruthless greedy criminal,
  • a dashing and romantic Harlequin,
  • a dour Scotland Yard sleuth

and more.

I often read books wearing two hats at once… a passionate reader, and curious, learning writer.

Both were fed juicy tidbits all through this story.

A genuine lover of mysteries will find the plot and its resolution very intriguing and satisfying.

A wordsmith will thrill at many lovely turns of phrase, delicious conversational snippets, and beautiful word play that at times stuns and surprises you.

The latter is what turns Murder Must Advertise into a novel. A period story, told in engaging fashion with nice philosophical flourishes and insightful revelations of Olde World charm and thinking.

It’s the kind of writing you yearn for, whose loss one can’t help but rue in the rushed hustle and bustle of modern-day books. Sigh!

Wodehouse lovers will find frequent interjections familiar – such as ‘What ho!’ and ‘Bung ho!’ and ‘Cheerio’ and ‘Right-ho’ and ‘Honest injun’ – even a clash over whether ‘Gosh’ is more apt than ‘Golly’ 🙂

My favorite bits?

A hailstorm of clashing conversations between multiple persons in the office coffee-room.

A brilliant exchange between Lord Wimsey and the cockney-speaking office boy Ginger.

“I’ll do me best, sir. I’ll make up somefin’, don’t you worry. I say, sir!”


“Are you a Scotland Yard ‘tec?”

“No, I’m not from Scotland Yard.”

“Oh! Begging your pardon for asking, sir. But I thought, if you was, you might be able, excuse me, sir, to put in a word for my brother.”

“I might be able to do that, all the same, Ginger.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And mum’s the word, remember.”

“Wild ‘orses,” declared Ginger, “wild ‘orses wouldn’t get a word out o’ me when I’ve give me word to ‘old me tongue.” He ran off.

And oh-so-many laugh out loud funny copywriting headlines for patent medicines, pick me ups, dairy produce and more.

If you enjoy a good murder mystery, you’ll like this. If you enjoy reading lovely English, you’ll like this. If you enjoy period novels, you’ll like this.

Murder Must Advertise‘ is a really nice book.

And in case you can’t tell, I’m a fresh minted Dorothy Sayers fan!

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