When I was hunting a likely cover to convert for our October logo, I came across Therese Benson's Death Wears a Mask. I found it so intriguing that I immediately went online to see if there were any reasonably priced copies--and snagged one (without the lovely dust jacket, unfortunately). I'll be serving that up in a future TNB post. In the meantime, I've been considering Dorothy L. Sayers use of costumes and misdirection in a few of her short stories and, particularly, in Murder Must Advertise. I thought it fitting that since I ended with Sayers in September that I should lead off with her in October.
First up is the short story "The Queen's Square." This story is set at a Christmas season masquerade ball hosted by Sir Charles Deverill. Most interesting to me is theme of the party--everybody has come as a game. Which, as one party-goer notes, "cuts out all those wearisome pierrots and columbines." Lord Peter Wimsey is dressed as the Jack of Diamonds, his mother is the Queen of Spades, and other costumes include Badminton, Water Polo, and one unfortunate young man who has devised a really clever rendition of a billiard table that doesn't allow him to sit down unless he wants to "hitch [his] behind on a radiator, and as they're all in full blast, it's not very cooling." The center of the story focuses on the White Queen, Charmian Grayle--an unashamed flirt who winds up strangled and the question of costumes provides Lord Peter with a key clue to the crime.
Sayers short stories also feature several occasions where Lord Peter goes undercover or in disguise, as it were. These include "The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba" where Wimsey goes to the extreme of being declared dead so he can go undercover amongst a den of ruthless thieves who hold their meetings while masked and are identified by only numbers; "The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey" which sees Wimsey appear in a small Basque village as a wizard of sorts, performing various small wonders, and eventually rescuing the wife of a cruel and vindictive man; and "The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste" where not one, but two Wimseys, as well as a man claiming to be Death Bredon--a cousin of Lord Peter--present themselves at the home of a man with secrets to sell to Britain and must prove, through a knowledge of wine and their palates, which of them is the bona fide representative of His Majesty's government.
But the finest example of Lord Peter in disguise is presented in Murder Must Advertise--for not only does Wimsey set himself up as an advertiser in Pym's Publicity under those very useful middle names Death Bredon, but he also does a bit of extra costume flim-flammery as the flamboyant Harlequin who so fascinates Dian de Momerie. As Bredon, he is appears as a Bertie Wooster type, the money-come-down-in-the-world sort who seems to be a friend of the boss and whom no one expects to make a copy writer. They would be wrong. Mr. Bredon seems to have a flair for bon mot turned advertising slogan and a way with witty literary quotes and puns. Just the thing to make the client's advertising heart all a-flutter. He also seems to have a nose for gossip and soon has turned the entire staff inside out on the subject of Victor Dean and his tumble down the firm's deadly staircase.
Little does Pym's know that they are nursing a detective in sheep's clothing and in their
Sayers novel is a brilliant use of disguise to ferret out the crimes committed and it is particularly fun to watch the disguise within a disguise. It is even more fun to watch the misdirection put into play when Lord Peter and Inspector Parker use a clever bit of sleight-of-hand to establish that Death Bredon and Lord Peter Wimsey are two separate individuals--one a shady character of interest to the police and the other the well-known scion of the aristocracy.