Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1933 chapter 4

The black-and-white harlequin… was climbing the statue-group in the centre of the pool – an elaborate affair of twined mermaids and dolphins, supporting a basin in which was crouched an amorino, blowing from a conch-shell a high spout of dancing water. Up and up went the slim chequered figure, dripping and glittering like a fantastic water-creature…

The black and white figure raised its arms above its fantastic head and stood poised… the slim body shot down through the spray, stuck the surface with scarcely a splash and slight through the water like a fish… The girl Dian ran forward and caught hold of the swimmer as he emerged.

‘Oh you’re marvellous, you’re marvellous!’ she clung to him, the water soaking into her draggled satin.

‘Take me home, Harlequin – I adore you!’

The harlequin bent his masked face and kissed her…[and] tossed the tall girl across his shoulder.

‘A prize!’ he shouted. ‘A prize!’

observations: This is Lord Peter Wimsey dressed as a harlequin for goodness sake.

In a recent entry, the blog looked at this book’s scenes set in an advertising agency, and how very authentic they seem. The murder in the book is linked not only with the agency, but also with a group of aristocratic riff-raff. So when Wimsey is not going undercover (well, not very far under) working as a copywriter, he is off infiltrating the druggie gilded youth of 1930s London.

What comes over in all this is that Sayers is a lot better when she writes whereof she knows - the ad agency scenes are splendid, but when Wimsey goes to the posh parties, none of it sounds real for a moment, it’s all very penny novelettish.

An amorino is a small cupid.

Sayers likes her clothes in books, and on the whole I like her comments. But later in the book Lord Peter’s sister-in-law, the Duchess of Denver is recorded as thinking that her dress at a smart party is fashionable without being vulgarly immodest -

She was showing the exact number of vertebrae that the occasion demanded. One less would be incorrect; one more would be over-modern.
Reading this as a teenager I feared that the complications of grown-up life were going to be quite beyond me. If I’d been doing this blog then, I would have tried to find a picture of the right dress. Now I think it’s a load of tosh, and that no-one has ever thought like that, and no such distinction exists, or ever did.

The name of a key character is, almost, the name of the Wimseys’ weekend cottage (and murder scene) in Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon: I always wondered if that was deliberate (and the cottage is in Pagford, the name of the town in JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy).

More gilded youth in Antonia Fraser’s Oxford Blood, more worthless aristos of the 1930s in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.

***ADDED LATER: Lucy comments below on the popularity of harlequins in the 1930s, which also came up in this entry on pierrots.

The picture shows the ballet dancer Nijinsky playing Harlequin: the photo was taken by Adolf de Meyer.


  1. Moira - Really keen observation on the difference between Sayers when she writes of what she knows, and Sayers when she doesn't. Of course, Sayers at her weakest is heaps better than some others at their strongest, but still, I agree with you about the ad agency scenes. But I did have to grin at LPW as a harlequin...

    1. I have a huge soft spot for DLS and LPW (and of course HDV as well) so though I take her to task from time to time and offer criticisms, it is all done with a warm feeling!

  2. People had a thing about harlequins - see Agatha Christie and Mr Harley Quin. They'd probably seen harlequinades as children - real commedia dell'arte was part of the Christmas pantomime. As for Helen's vertebrae - there was a fashion for backless dresses (right down to the waist). Helen has to follow fashion, but she doesn't want to reveal too much: she's a lady, and a duchess.

    1. That backless dress is fabulous - I bet the Duchess of Denver didn't look like *that*.

  3. I'm hoping my kids get me a Harlequin-style onesie for my birthday next month, so I can properly chillax in the Winter months..........err, no strike that.

    I must admit I have never read Sayers though I believe Margot recommended one to me which I tracked down...Gaudy Night?

    1. You need to leave the pic lying around, like a subtle hint for them. Sayers is not exactly hard-boiled, but in fact I always recommend this one to newbies. Gaudy Night is great, but maybe more for people who are familiar with her work? (Not that I would ever contradict Margot!)


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