They’re everywhere. They pop up when you’re online, they take up lots of space in magazines and newspapers, and of course you can hardly watch anything on television without seeing them. I’m talking of course about advertisements. As we’ll shortly see, they’ve always been around. And now that people can digitally record what they want and can click away from online advertisements, companies are finding ever more creative ways to get our attention. You even see them on airline boarding passes and on the backs of purchase receipts. The all-pervasiveness of advertisements means of course, that they also run through crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family goes on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East, including a visit to Petra. On the second day of their stay, Mrs. Boynton dies of what seems to be natural causes. She was both elderly and in poor health, and the trip is long and hot. So no-one is really surprised that she’s died. Colonel Carbury is tasked with the police report about this unexpected death, and something about it worries him. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s staying in Jerusalem, to investigate. Poirot agrees and travels to Petra to find out the truth. There are several suspects in this case, most particularly the members of Mrs. Boynton’s family. She was a tyrannical matriarch who kept her family completely cowed. Bit by bit Poirot finds out what everyone was doing on the afternoon of her death, and gets to the truth about what happened to her. One of the other visitors to Petra is MP Lady Westholme. She’s got a very strong will and quite a lot of determination. At one point, she has a disagreement with a representative from Castle’s, the tour company that’s running the excursion. The car they’ve provided for the trip to Petra is, in Lady Westholme’s view, far too small:
‘The young man from Castle’s murmured that a larger car would add to the price.
‘The price,’ said Lady Westholme firmly, ‘is inclusive, and I shall certainly refuse to sanction any addition to it. Your prospectus distinctly states, ‘in comfortable saloon car.’ You will keep to the terms of your agreement.’’
As you can imagine, Lady Westholme wins the day – an early example of the need for truth in advertising. Christie uses advertising in other novels and stories too. For instance, a brochure on missionary work features in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). And I’m not even mentioning the many times that personal advertisements and announcements are woven into her work.
I couldn’t possibly discuss advertisements in crime fiction without mentioning Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, copywriter Victor Dean has died from a fall down a staircase at his place of employment Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. It would be considered a tragic accident except for the fact that Dean left behind an unfinished letter in which he claimed that someone at the company was using company resources illegally. The management at Pym’s wants to avoid a scandal at all costs. So they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to find out whether Dean was right. Wimsey agrees and goes undercover at the company as Dean’s replacement. He finds out that in fact, Dean was right. He’d discovered that one of the employees was using Pym’s advertising to arrange meetings between a dangerous drugs ring and local dealers. Dean made the mistake of blackmailing the guilty person and paid with his life. In the process of investigating, Wimsey develops what turns out to be a very successful advertising campaign for Whifflet cigarettes. It’s an interesting look at differences in advertising over the years.
In Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is taking some time away from his job. He and his wife Reine-Marie are visiting Québec City for the Winter Carnival when there’s a murder committed at the Literary and Historical Society Library. At the same time, Gamache has to face the terrible possibility that he was wrong in his most recent investigation. I won’t give away spoilers except to say that you’ll want to read The Brutal Telling before you read Bury Your Dead if you’ve not done so. As you can imagine if you’ve read Penny’s novels, the trail leads back to the small town of Three Pines. At one point, former psychologist Myrna Landers, a series ‘regular’ and a resident of Three Pines, is thinking about a getaway trip to beat the terrible winter cold. She’s discussing it with her friends Clara Morrow and Gabriel ‘Gabri’ Dubeau:
‘‘I tell you, I’m going to do it,’ Myrna was saying…
‘No, you’re not,’ laughed Clara. ‘Every winter you say you will and you never do. Besides, it’s too late now.’
‘Have you seen the last-minute deals? Look.’ Myrna handed her friend the Travel section from the weekend Montreal Gazette, pointing to a box…
‘Let me see that,’ said Gabri, leaning towards Clara…
Gabri scanned the page then leaned back in his seat. ‘Nope, not interested. Condé Nest has better ads.’
‘Condé Nest has near naked men smothered in olive oil lying on beaches,’ said Myrna.
‘Now, that I would pay for,’ said Gabri. ‘All inclusive.’’
Admittedly the advertisement isn’t the reason for the murder at the library. But it’s an interesting look at the characters and this snippet shows Penny’s wit.
There’s an example of the dangers of advertisements in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on an exposé of unscrupulous land developer Denny Graham. His scheme has been to lure investors in with seductive advertisements featuring luxurious homes, happy investors and all sorts of ‘testimonials’ from people who’ve supposedly embarked on a dream retirement. The fact is though that the reality is very far from those glittering advertisements. When Thorne actually visits one of the ‘luxury locations,’ she finds that it’s completely undeveloped. What’s more she talks with several people who’ve lost all of their savings in this scheme, and have had to severely retrench their lifestyles as a result. Thorne is excited about this story but her boss soon asks her to work on something else. The 30th anniversary of the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand – The Tour, as it’s often called – is fast approaching. The event caused a lot of controversy and Thorne’s boss thinks there’s mileage in it. He wants Thorne to find a new angle on it. At first she’s reluctant. Not only is she worried about scaring away people who might go public against Denny Graham, but also, she doesn’t think there’s much new to report about The Tour. Then she discovers an unsolved murder that happened during that tour…
An advertisement plays a very interesting role in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale. Natasha Doroshenko fled from the Ukraine to Denmark with her daughter Katerina after the murder of her journalist husband Pavel. At first she thought she’d found a safe haven. But trouble seems to have followed her. For one thing, she’s been imprisoned for the attempted murder of her new fiancé Michael Vestergaard. As we learn in the novel, she had good reason, but it’s meant that she’s been separated from Katerina, who’s been staying at Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross facility. One day, Natasha is being escorted from the prison to a police station when she overhears something that convinces her that someone from the Ukraine is following her. She escapes police custody and goes on the run to try to get to her daughter and escape Denmark. When Michael Vestergaard is found brutally murdered, Natasha is pursued by the Danish police. She’s also in the sights of some very nasty people from the Ukraine who believe that she has something they want very much. Red Cross nurse Nina Borg has worked with both Natasha and Katerina, and together with Danish Security officer Søren Kierkegaard, she tries to keep Katerina safe and find and help Natasha. At one point, Natasha is trying to figure out exactly who is after her and why those people killed Pavel. When she does make the connection, an advertising jingle gives her what she needs to ‘flush out the enemy.’ It’s interesting too how that jingle stays in her memory.
And that’s just what advertisers want. They want customers to see their products and services, remember what they’ve heard and of course, spend money. It’s no wonder advertisements pop up all over crime fiction…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Nehra’s Ghost Dance, made popular by Roy Harper.