Before beginning on my post I just wanted to share the results of last week’s Sayers Poll which asked readers to vote for their favourite Sayers novel. The results were definitely an eye opener with first place going to The Nine Tailors which had 28.57% of the vote. Joint seconds were Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night and The Five Red Herrings who all shared 14.29% of the vote. Third place went to another Harriet Vane novel, Strong Poison with 9.52% of the vote and joint fourth place goes to Have His Carcase, Clouds of Witnesses, Busman’s Honeymoon and Unnatural Death, who all got 1 vote a piece. No one voted for Whose Body?, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club or Documents in the Case.
For the last two weeks I have focused on Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but this week I decided to look at one of Sayers’ less well-known sleuths Montague Egg, otherwise known as Monty, who is a wines and spirits salesman. With such a character I think Sayers had a lot of fun playing around with the conventions of advertising and slogans, particularly with the maxims Montague Egg often comes out with. Egg, contrary to his surname, is a man deeply concerned with behaving correctly and politely and is very fastidious in a way that reminds me of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Montague Egg is quite a contrast to Lord Peter Wimsey in terms of class and personality and I think Egg due only to appearing in short stories is a much less fleshed out character. Egg in many ways is a comic figure, who is not to be taken entirely seriously, especially due to the maxims he delivers: ‘The good will of the maid is nine-tenths of the trade’ and ‘ready to learn means ready to earn.’ Gaillard (1981) also points out interestingly that Sayers does not ‘reveal Montague Egg’s inner world. We come to know what Egg’s values are, however – honour and sales psychology,’ (Gaillard, 1981: 15) through his conversations with others. Montague Egg features in two short story collections, In the Teeth of Evidence (1939) and Hangman’s Holiday (1933) and in this post I am going to look at the 6 stories found in the latter.
The Poisoned Dow ‘08
Ironically this story probably has the most tangible clues, yet for me was one of the dullest in regards to narrative style. In this story Montague Egg arrives at a house to make a sale with a repeat customer, to only discover that the owner, Lord Borrodale has been poisoned with port wine, which had nicotine in it. Considering the wine was a newly opened bottle and that the study he drank it in was locked from the inside, windows and doors, it is a puzzling conundrum for the police as to where the poison was placed. Egg’s specialist knowledge though means it is quickly solved.
Sleuths on the Scent
The story opens in a way which really emphasises Egg’s more Poirot-like qualities, in being adversely affected by un-convivial or uncouth surroundings:
‘The commercial room at the Pig and Pewter presented to Mr Montague Egg the aspect of a dim cavern in which some primeval inhabitant had been cooking his mammoth-meat over a fire of damp seaweed. In other words, it was ill lit, cold, smoky and permeated with an odour of stale food.’
The case in this story centres around a murder the pub’s inhabitants hear on the radio, of an old woman called Alice Steward. Police are on the lookout for a Gerald Beeton who is said to own a Morris car. Amongst the pub inhabitants there are unsurprisingly a lot of people who fit Beeton’s description and own a Morris car. The remainder of the story explores the unanswered question of the pub clientele of whether Beeton is one of them. Despite the dialogue and narrative being much more interesting than the previous story, I felt solution wise it is a lot weaker, hanging on a slim piece of evidence.
Murder in the Morning
Montague Egg is confronted with murder again when he calls on a Mr Pinchbeck, a rich man who lives in a remote cottage, but who when Egg has arrived appears to have had his head battered. We are told that like Peter Wimsey, Egg also ‘served two years on the Western Front,’ but perhaps also like Wimsey, still struggles with gory bloodshed as Egg ‘did not like what he saw. He put the table cloth over it.’ The fact Pinchbeck’s injuries have been substituted for by a neutral pronoun, suggests a distancing of sorts. Like Hercule Poirot though, we are also told that he is a ‘methodical sort of person’. Egg’s role in solving the case occurs at the inquest where an unplanned piece of evidence scuppers the police’s theory. From a puzzle point of view this is probably not a strong story or particularly fair play, but I think the narrative style makes up for to an extent.
Favourite salesman line: ‘If you’re a salesman worth the name at all, you can sell razors to a billiard-ball.’
One Too Many
Financier Simon Grant, who is wanted for embezzlement, has seemingly vanished whilst on a train which goes between Birmingham and Euston station. Grant was waved off at Coventry and was expected to decamp at Rugby, these being the only two stops the train makes between its’ start and end points. Montague Egg on the way to a company conference was also on this train and through an interview in a pub with policeman in charge of the case, the mystery is soon solved, aided by one of Egg’s salesman maxims. The solution is sneaky and I doubt anyone could have guessed the solution, but the narrative is enjoyable, especially when Egg remembers all the different passengers in his compartment, in a manner similar to memory parlour game. It also seems that Egg is not above a bit of train ticket dodging either.
Murder at Pentecost
Again a sale of Egg’s is thwarted by murder, as his client the Master of Pentecost College, Oxford has been murdered, socked with a brickbat. No one seems particularly bothered though, seeing the death as inconvenient above anything else. Despite some enjoyable characters such as Mr Temple who is always confessing to every murder committed in the area, I think clues wise this is one of the weakest stories as the solution feels like it comes out of nowhere and to be honest I am still not entirely sure why the murder was committed.
This story probably has the most unusual setup beginning with Montague Egg applying his salesmen techniques to rescuing a cat in a tree; ‘It’s hard to reassure, persuade or charm the customer who once has felt alarm.’ The tale becomes even more outré when it turns out that the cat’s owner, a girl called Jean Maitland, is taking the cat somewhere in response to an advertisement which wants to buy a cat for 10 shillings to be a ‘companion’ to a couple and be in charge of pest control. With a name like John Doe though, Egg is suspicious of this advert so decides to take Jean to the address. On arrival though it seems many other cat owners have seen the advertisement, reminding me a little of Doyle’s ‘The Red Headed League’ (1891). But Egg’s salesman skills once again prove successful as he manages to convince John Doe to buy her cat, Maher-Shala-Hashbaz. However, it transpires a week later that Jean’s cat has returned to her, starving and that when she tried to return the money to the couple, it turns out unsurprisingly that they were never heard of at that address before. But the mystery although perplexing is not left so for long as Egg becomes involves and he reveals a rather disturbing turns of events. After all why are there lots of dead cats in the garden? The solution to this mystery is so harrowing to Montague Egg, for a brief moment he reminded me of Lord Peter Wimsey who also suffers mental anxiety in the course of his detective work. Wimsey may have Harriet Vane to comfort him at such moments, but Montage Egg has the trusty salesman’s handbook and I doubt if asked he would swop positions with Wimsey.
Overall I think Sayers is a much better novel writer, as although in these short stories her narrative style is usually engaging and entertaining, I think the puzzle/clue element is much weaker. Gaillard (1981) suggests that ‘the consistency of… [Sayers’] imagination in the Montague Egg stories effectively substitutes single tricks for long investigations…’ (Gaillard, 1981: 18). I agree with this, but I wouldn’t necessarily say these tricks are fair play ones and consequently would disagree with Catherine Aird that in the ‘Montague Egg stories… [there is] more plain deduction,’ (Aird, 1993: 84) as I think for this to be the case the clues should have been more evident and visible to the reader. Aird also asserts that Montague Egg is ‘not as convincing a character as Lord Peter Wimsey’ (Aird, 1993: 84) but again I would question this, as I think these characters in some ways are not comparable. A comic amateur sleuth seen only in short stories is never going to be shown in such developed detail as Lord Peter Wimsey, who alongside being in short stories, also features in 11 novels. Such characters consequently have different purposes and I think Montague Egg is designed to be a slightly less than real humorous character who can’t see quite how ridiculous he is. On the whole I think she is good at placing the mysteries within plausible surroundings for Montague Egg to appear, though I think readers’ may be stretched to credit the scenario of the last story. In short I probably wouldn’t recommend these short stories to Sayer novices as I don’t think such readers will see what Sayers is fully capable of from them.
Gaillard, D. (1981). Dorothy L Sayers. New York: F. Ungar Publishing Company.
Aird, C. (1993). It was the cat!. In: Dale, A. S. Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration. Lincoln: Author’s Guild Backinprint.com edition. pp. 79-108.