One of my all-time favourite crime novels is Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers, published 1933. A few years ago, I wrote a Sayers Exam Paper for our bloggers’ Tuesday Night Club and I included this question:
1) a) Suggest up to FOUR improvements to the drug distribution system
in Murder Must Advertise.
You might consider the following questions: Was it feasible? How long would it
take to explain it to the criminal operatives? How many different ways can you
imagine in which it would go wrong? Did the authorities really collect old
telephone books in the 1930s (as opposed to the subscriber putting them in the
b) Do you think Sayers made it up because it was fun to imagine, and because the clue of the wrong pub was nicely done?
[At this point I was going to insert a brief description of the scheme, but honestly, in the book it takes 2 pages of tiny type, so some hints later, and if you must you can read this below. The plan features London pubs, hence charming picture above]
I often amused myself by thinking about the villainous scheme for distributing the drugs in that book, and my absolute certainty that it was unreal, unworkable, and the most ridiculous thing I had ever read in that line. It’s been years that I’ve held that view – YEARS. And now, so unexpectedly, after all this time – A WORSE DRUG DISTRIBUTION SCHEME APPEARS ON THE HORIZON.
A short time ago I blogged on the Ellery Queen book The French Powder Mystery
SLIGHT SPOILERS FOR PLOT THOUGH NOT FOR MURDERER
It becomes apparent that there is a drug racket coming out of the Fifth Avenue Department Store at the centre of the book. Ellery Queen works out the process, and describes how he would explain it to the drug operative:
“‘Every week you are to call at the French * Book Department for a book which will contain an address. The book will be on the top shelf of the fourth tier of book-racks situated in such and such a place in the Department. The book will always be on that shelf. … Now. Every week you are to call on a different day. Eight days apart, to be exact. Except when Sunday intervenes, and then it will be nine days—from the proceeding Saturday to the following Monday. ** Let us say the morning you are due to call for the book is a Wednesday. Then the book you should pick up will be by an author whose last name begins with a WE, to correspond to the WE of Wednesday. To make identification absolutely positive, and to get you out of the Book Department as quickly as possible, so that you will not be compelled to rummage through every book on that shelf, a light pencil-mark will appear on the first two letters of the author’s name, positively identifying the proper volume. You pick up the book, look at the back liner leaf to make sure the address is there, then buy the book and walk out of the store.’ … Does that sound plausible?”
[Pause to insert your own answer to this question, and then see what the book says:]
There was a vehement chorus of assents from the three men. “It’s a devilishly ingenious scheme,” said Ellery thoughtfully, “if a little complicated. Really, though, the complications iron themselves away with the passage of time.”
*Slightly less difficult than it sounds: French’s is the name of the store (and the ruling family), it doesn’t mean the books are in French.
** Same: I spent some time working this out, and I think he is actually making it sound more ridiculous than it is: I was frowning over the fact that any eight consecutive days must include a Sunday, but he just means ‘if the 8th day is a Sunday then you go for the Monday’.
This is just to get an address to the operative – he still doesn’t have any drugs at the end of this rigmarole.
Now, I am not a master-criminal (no, honestly), but I could come up with ten better schemes than either of the plans in these two book. They make no sense, no sense at all.
I know they didn’t have mobile phones (the drug dealers’ friend) in those days, but I simply refuse to believe that ANY drug distribution system depends on scribbling a pencilled note in the back of a book in a department store. Or on a telephone book, or a list of pubs, or an author’s name that starts with the same letters as a day of the week, or the first letter of the first word in an advertisement.
And another question – did Sayers read the Ellery Queen before she wrote hers? Did she think ‘oh well I guess that’s how drugs rings work, I’d better think of my own version’?
And another thing: a recently republished book, Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, from 1933, describes a young woman making her way in the book department of a large London department store (ie Selfridges). It is a charming book, full of events, but I think authors and heroine would be horrified at the idea that there was a drugs ring operating in the department...
And while I was mulling over these two schemes, I came upon another bizarre arrangement, this time in a spy thriller of 1942, a way of sending coded messages. There’s a contortionist doing a music-hall act: part of her shtick is ‘Count the turns!’ – as she performs her moves, the audience count out loud how many she does. Then she stops and starts again. And – are you seeing this coming? – this can give an audience member a series of numbers which are a coded message. Right? The book is JB Priestley’s Black Out in Gretley, as recommended by my old mate Lissa Evans, and it is a splendidly enjoyable look at wartime Britain, but I am not convinced that the Nazi High Command was sitting in Berlin saying ‘are you sure that last turn was part of it? If it was 16 rather than 17, it would make more sense of the chemical formula’.
My readers have read so many books among them – please tell me your favourite unlikely plot turn or unconvincing crime plan…