History: This book was published in 1933.
Most of the action takes place in an advertising agency, a setting with which Sayers was very familiar. One of her advertising colleagues, Bobby Bevan, was the inspiration for the character Mr Ingleby.
Plot: Wimsey accepts an offer from the highly respectable management of Pym's Publicity, Ltd. (a light disguise for S. H. Bensons, where Sayers worked) to investigate a mystery and avert a scandal. Copywriter Victor Dean has died in a fall down the spiral iron office staircase (a real feature of the Bensons office), but he left a half-finished letter to the management hinting that something potentially scandalous is going on at Pym's.
Under the pseudonym of "Death Bredon" (actually his middle names), Wimsey goes to work at Pym's. He takes over Dean's office and learns his trade while investigating the office staff. He discovers a talent for copywriting and promotion, and produces a campaign which will become one of the firm's most successful.
He also investigates Dean's social life. Dean, for a short time, socialized with "the DeMomerie crowd": the cronies of dissolute socialite Dian de Momerie, most of them heavy cocaine users. He met De Momerie's companion, Major Milligan, who appears to be the cocaine supplier for the group. Milligan is linked to a big cocaine-selling ring which Wimsey's friend and brother-in-law Chief Inspector Parker is investigating. Milligan, hearing that Dean worked at Pym's, spoke to him assuming that Dean was the ring's man at Pym's. Dean was surprised, and Milligan shut up - but Dean guessed that someone else at Pym's was involved. Hence the letter to management.
Wimsey plays multiple roles. By day he is Bredon, a distant, impoverished Wimsey cousin who works for a living. Most evenings, he is himself. But on some evenings, "Bredon" dresses up as a masked harlequin, and by various wild stunts draws the attention and company of Dian de Momerie - annoying Major Milligan.
A bizarre incident adds to the confusion: junior newspaper reporter Hector Puncheon has a beer in a pub, and discovers later that someone put a bag of cocaine in his coat pocket. He must have blundered into a distribution operation, but there's no further sign of anything at that pub. Apparently the ring holds each week's distribution at a different location - but how do the underlings know where to go?
Wimsey continues his probing at Pym's, and learns that one of the senior copywriters, Tallboy, seems to have large amounts of cash.
Puncheon recognizes a man who was in the pub the night he was given the cocaine, and follows him. Puncheon gets knocked out, and the man "accidentally" falls in front of a moving train. The dead man (Mountjoy) had money but no job or assets, which fits a drug dealer. His effects include a telephone book with the names of many pubs ticked off. (Someone tried to retrieve the book after Mountjoy's death, but got a new copy. The police salvage the old one from the trash collection.) One of the marked pubs is the one where Puncheon was given the cocaine, so the pubs are where it is distributed - but which pubs of the dozens that are marked?
Other clues turn up: a scarab in Dean's desk, a large pebble in the stairwell, a "catapult" (slingshot) belonging to office boy Ginger Joe, who is recruited by "Bredon" to help in the investigation.
Finally Wimsey makes the connection. One of Pym's major clients runs a large newspaper advertisement every Friday morning. The text is approved a few days earlier. The first letter of the advertisement's text indicates the pub to be used that week. Tallboy supplies the letter to the ring as soon as the text is approved.
A final clue turns up during a company social outing, in the course of a cricket match between Pym's and Brotherhood's, a soft-drink company and Pym's client. Most of the players are middle-aged and flabby. But Wimsey, provoked by a ball which clips his elbow, shows off the form which made him a first-team star at Eton and Oxford. Tallboy too shows a surprising talent, when he knocks down a wicket with a perfect throw from deep in the field. Wimsey wins the match for Pym's, which is about to expose his cover when the police, led by Parker, arrest "Bredon" for the murder of Dian de Momerie.
Milligan is dead too - killed in yet another "accident" as the ring covers its tracks. But the ring is still operating, and the police want to nab the whole gang at their next distribution. With Mountjoy's phone book, all they need is the letter for the week - which is provided by Ginger Joe. While "Bredon" supposedly sits in jail, "Lord Peter" is much seen about town for the next few days.
The roundup comes off as planned. But the death of Victor Dean remains. That same night, Tallboy comes to Wimsey's flat and confesses everything. He was sucked into the scheme with a innocent-sounding story and the offer of money he needed. But soon he was trapped. Then Dean found out and blackmailed him. Tallboy shot him in the head with Ginger Joe's catapult on the staircase, so it would look like an accident. (Tallboy has dead aim, as Wimsey noticed in the cricket match.)
Now Tallboy is left facing ruin and disgrace. He knows he cannot escape, and suggests suicide, which would save his family from the shame of his trial and conviction for murder. Wimsey, after looking out of the window, has an alternative: Tallboy must go home, on foot, and never look behind him. Both know that the gang's killers are waiting in ambush.
Review: This is definitely one of the strongest entries in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, both for mystery and entertainment value. An interesting tactic used by Sayers is to point in the direction of the culprit about three-fourths of the way through the book and then lead the reader through the detection process that actually leads to his/her unmasking. We saw this used in "Unnatural Death", also in "Whose Body?" Surprisingly, the resulting lack of suspense at the end does not deter from the mystery at all as it is fascinating to see the patient unraveling of clues and pulling together of threads that lead to evidence against a killer. It is also a better reflection of what usually happens in reality, as opposed to a lot of detective fiction where the most unlikely person did it! While we all find whodunits interesting, the reality is that the police and private eyes are usually smart enough to figure out the most likely candidate fairly early and thus narrow their investigations. In this book, the fun is added to by the setting in an ad agency. Sayers had worked in an ad agency at some point in her career and you can see that she really knows her stuff.
Opening Line: “And by the way,” said Mr. Hankin, arresting Miss Rossiter as she rose to go, “there is a new copy-writer coming in today.”
Closing Line: “Advertise, or go under.”
Quotes: "He had always said that the younger generation of advertising writers were No Good. Feather-headedness. No solid business sense. No thought."