Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library as she considers the thorny issue of bring a fictional character to life.
“Murder Must Advertise”
I started my life-long love affair with mysteries under the auspices of the Golden Age authors. One of my favorites was Dorothy L. Sayers and her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, so I was delighted when “Masterpiece Mystery” actually had a TV version of some of the cases. A few decades later, I am the proud owner of the episodes starring Ian Carmichael as Wimsey.
I’ve long been a champion of the Ian Carmichael version of Lord Peter Wimsey, dating back to the first time I saw the shown on “Masterpiece Mystery”—a staple of my Thursday nights for years. I was less impressed with a later version starring Edward Petherbridge. This series took up the stories with Harriet Vane, while the Carmichael shows were based on the earlier, Vane-less books. In the intervening years, it seems that more people favor Petherbridge and dismiss Carmichael. I do need to take a look at the Petherbridge episodes, but in the meantime I decided to watch another of the Carmichael episodes to see how they’d held up.
One of my favorite episodes was “Murder Must Advertise.” I was fascinated with the inner workings of the advertising world. I knew that DLS had actually worked at such an agency, so I felt confident that she was doing an accurate portrayal. As the story opens, Lord Peter is called to investigate the death of a young copywriter at Pym’s, an old and prestigious advertising firm. Dean fell down a metal staircase and the police ruled the death accidental, but the deceased had sent a letter to Mr. Pym indicating there was something troubling going on at the firm. Lord Peter decides to investigate and goes undercover as Death Bredon, a novice copywriter. He soon discovers that Dean had been involved with the de Momerie crowd, a group of Bright Young Things who are known to be dabbling in drugs and he wonders if the two things are connected. Meanwhile, Inspector Parker (who is also Lord Peter’s brother in law) is trying to uncover a drug distribution ring.
Much of the criticism I’ve heard about Carmichael centers around his age: he is too old to be Lord Peter. At 53, he was about a decade older than his fictional counterpart, and not lithe nor tall. The scenes where he dons a Harlequin costume don’t play particularly well, but in other ways I find him ideal for the Lord Peter he was playing. While the Duke’s second son served bravely in WWI and came home suffering from shell-shock, he did a good job of concealing personal trauma in the early books. He uses the guise of an upper class twit to lull his suspects into a false sense of security, and while Carmichael played that aspect very well indeed he was also adept at dropping the guise for the viewers and showing them the sharp intelligence underneath.
As with most of the great characters, Wimsey grew and changed over the years. At the start of the series, he seemed more the typical gentleman sleuth who delighted the intellectual challenge of solving a puzzle to a more complex character who suffers agonies of remorse when his investigations led murderers to the gallows. At the end of Busman’s Honeymoon, it seems he will undertake no more murder investigations because of the burden and pain that resolution can bring.
In “Murder Must Advertise,” Carmichael’s Wimsey sets out on a bit of a lark. He sets himself up as a regular working man, borrowing an address from his brother-in-law in case anyone checks up on Mr. Bredon, and is positively gleeful at the prospect. He flirts a bit with the typists, is hail-fellow-well-met with the other workers, and has a grand time snooping. He does arouse a bit of suspicion (his clothes and shoes are too expensive for his persona) but he comes up with ready explanations.
As the case progresses and it becomes obvious that the stakes are very high, he gradually loses the high spiritedness. In a particularly good scene, he confronts a murderer—a man who killed to hide his secret, who got in over his head and now regrets many things—and gives him counsel that they both know will lead to the man’s death. As the man leaves to meet his fate, Carmichael’s Lord Peter shows compassion and pain. The fun has gone out of the puzzle. It was a telling moment for me.
That ability to move effortlessly between the upper class twit and intelligent human being is one of Carmichael’s strengths. Some of his early acting jobs involved playing the aristocratic fool in light comedies, including a turn as Bertie Wooster, and it served him well. It’s not always easy to play a believable idiot. Hugh Laurie managed it in “Blackadder” playing a dense Prince George and later an equally dense Lt. George. He moved on to playing Bertie Wooster to Stephen Fry’s Jeeves. In fact, I first watched the TV series “House” to see if he could do drama as well as he did comedy. (And, come to think of it, Laurie would be my choice to play Lord Peter in a revival… well, except for the age thing again.)
The bottom line is that I still feel that Carmichael did quite a good job at portraying the character as I perceive him; your mileage may vary. The filmed version offered additional casting treats for older British series fans—I leave it up to the reader to decide if “older” modifies “series” or “fans”—with Timothy Christopher of “All Creatures Great and Small” and Paul Darrow of “Blake’s Seven” playing two of the suspects.