Just a Flashy Fast Advertisement*

AdvertisementsThey’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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Dorothy Sayers, Lene Kaaberbøl, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson

36 responses to “Just a Flashy Fast Advertisement*

  1. Thanks Margot for another great overview.

    Dorothy L. Sayers drew on her own experiences as a copywriter to write Murder Must Advertise, and that she even cheekily mentioned one of her own campaigns: The Mustard Club. I’ve got a reprint of her Mustard Club book (it was for a firm local to me) and it is very reminiscent of the campaigns in Murder Must Advertise.

    • Rich – Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the kind words. Lucky you to have a copy of the Mustard Club book. I’ve not seen it myself. It might be a bit cheek to mention it in the novel, but I think it works.

  2. How interesting! I’m sure I will now take much more notice of advertising in novels in general. Marketing, branding and corporate public relations are connected topics that would also be interesting to consider. In The Dying Beach, by Angela Savage, P. I. Jayne Keeney pretends to be a PR consultant for a power plant company in order to gain an interview at Charoen Sand and Gravel Supplies:
    “Jayne had a special business card for when circumstances called for a less-is-more approach. Name, phone number and the title ‘Consultant’. she handed one to Bapit.
    ” ‘I’ve come in relation to the power plant project,’ she said. ‘I’ve been engaged by the company to monitor the progress of the public relations strategy.’ “

    • Caron – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks also for that excellent example of marketing and branding in The Dying Beach. It’s a terrific novel and I’m glad you filled in that gap that I left. I love the way Keeney uses that card and the ‘PR approach’ to get what she wants.

  3. You’d have filled the whole column just with Christie if you had gone into the personal ads in her work – they pop up all the time. My favourite is ‘Are you happy? If not, consult Parker Pyne’. It must be one of the most intriguing ads ever…

    • Moira – You know, I will do personal ads like that at some point. That one – for Parker Pyne – is absolutely superb. Intriguing without being creepy. You just feel like you have to answer it. There are so many great personal ads that htat topic deserves a post of its one, methinks.

  4. Great theme Margot and some great examples, especially the Sayers – of course worked in advertising, as did Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie – I still hate advertisements though! 🙂

    • Sergio – I’m no fan of advertisements either. At all. But you’re right that Sayers’ work in advertising just makes Murder Must Advertise that much more realistic. I didn’t know that Rushdie and Weldon also worked in that field; that’s really interesting.

  5. Ads do make a great launch pad for so many great mysteries. A few that stick in my memory:

    “Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.” (The ad that launches the career(s) of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.)

    “Demobilized officer…finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate, if possible, but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection.” And so does Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond advertise his availability.

    And my favorite – the ad which lures Ngaio Marsh’s Troy Alleyn to sign up for a five day reverboat cruise in “A Clutch of Constables.” My favorite line from the ad: “For Five Days You Step Out of Time.”

    Barely scratching the surface here…another great post, Margot!

    • Les – Thank you. And I do absolutely love your contributions. All of them are terrific personal advertisements. In fact, after reading your comment and Moira’s, I shall have to do a separate post on that topic. So interesting in and of itself.

  6. I like the ad in Colin Watson’s One Man’s Meat where a mysterious organisation known as ‘Happy Endings Inc’ offer help to those wishing to become ‘happily divorced’. I also love the ‘Lucys’ in his Broomsticks over Flaxborough – going door-to-door offering prizes to anyone who can produce a box of their brand of washing powder…

    • FictionFan – Those are both terrific examples – thank you. And you’ve reminded me that I must read Broomsticks…. It’s one of those books I have on my ‘mean to read’ list and just…haven’t yet *embarrassed.*

      • Oh, do read it, Margot! I think it’s the best in the series – so much fun! I was thinking that ads feature a lot in that series – loads of the books have ads related to Miss Teatime’s latest venture…

  7. Margot: When I started as a lawyer in Canada advertising was prohibited. Now it is allowed but is expected to be in good taste.

    In The Litigators by John Grisham the law firm of Finley and Figg, street lawyers in Chicago, accepts David Zinc, a refugee from a big downtown legal factory. Wally Figg has gained a measure of fame as the first lawyer in Chicago to advertise on bingo cards.

    I hope Figg’s approach to advertising would not be acceptable to Law Societies in Canada.

    • Margot and Bill: When I started as a dentist advertising was prohibited and you were not allowed to be a limited company. Now everyone advertises and big companies control dozens of surgeries. The advertisements regularly say “special care with nervous patients” as if there are any other kind. 😉

      • Norman – There’s been a similar change in the U.S. I remember when dentists and other doctors weren’t allowed to advertise, but now, as you say, everyone does. There was in fact a dentist in a town I used to live in whose ‘tag line’ was, ‘We cater to cowards.’ Most of them though are a little more complimentary towards patients and use ‘kinder’ words such as ‘nervous patients.’ But then, as you say, what other kind of patient is there? 😉

    • Bill – As I’m sure you know, much the same thing has happened in the U.S. (although I’m certain the Law Societies wouldn’t exactly like some of the ads there are now). And your example from The Litigators is terrific. Bingo cards are now just as much of a place for advertisements as a lot of other places are, even for a lawyer.

  8. Col

    Apparently – and I didn’t notice it myself – I think Keishon maybe pointed it out, Nesbo’s Headhunters is full of product placement type gadgets – eg. the phone our protagonist was using. I wonder if this could be another revenue stream for authors. I’m not saying this has happened, in this case but maybe?

    • Col – Now, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know if authors are ever paid for product placement. I know that I’ve never been approached (but then, I’m far, far from a ‘household word’ author). And now you’ve got me thinking about brand names like that in novels. Hmmmm…perhaps I’ll mull that over and do another post about it at some point.

  9. Thanks Margo – that was a great overview, and a few new titles to me. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the intrinsic smoke & mirrors nature of advertising is perfect for mysteries.

  10. Fun topic and a cool one to incorporate in a mystery. Loved hearing your examples and the ones in the comments, too. I hadn’t thought about Christie including so many ads in her books…

    • Elizabeth – Thanks for the kind words, and glad you enjoyed this. I think it’s interesting too how often Christie includes advertisements (usually, but certainly not always personal) in her work. I really will do a post on just that soon.

  11. On a related topic, I like to read the black-and-white advertisements announcing the impending arrival or publication of a new crime-fiction novel or story, or even a new author on the horizon, tucked between the pages of vintage literary magazines and anthologies.

  12. This was one of the few times I anticipated a choice: MURDER MUST ADVERTISE. Lots of fun choices.

    • Patti – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. And you know, I couldn’t possibly have written a post about advertisements in crime fiction without including Murder Must Advertise. It’s a natural for the topic.

  13. This made me think about the little advertising inserts that used to be in paperbacks years ago. (or sometimes in the first or last pages of the books, although I think that was rarer.) Sometimes very interesting to look at now.

    Other than that, I have not run into this in the mysteries I have read. I did read one mystery a few years ago that started out with a personal ad… but can’t remember any more than that. Very interesting topic.

    • Tracy – Thank you. And I absolutely love looking at those old inserts. They give quite an interesting portrait of an era, don’t they? And I wish one could get books for the same price now as one could according to those old inserts…

  14. Shades of the vacuum salesman from Porlock… Thanks for such an original post – it’s given me a few ideas for stories, too, which may or may not be a good thing.

  15. Margot – Les beat me to the punch in talking about detectives who advertise and how it’s a great way to introduce a character or a mystery. I also recall the Pinkerton Agency’s unforgettable “we never sleep.”

  16. ‘Murder Must Advertise’: another favourite of mine. And I love the way Sayers has put her own experience of the industry into the book.

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