I first tried Slesar’s work in 2017 with the brilliant Enter Murderers (1960), so I was strongly anticipating this next read. This was Slesar’s debut novel, and it won the Edgar for best first novel in 1960.
‘An ad-man’s life is not a happy one. Or so Dave Robbins must have reflected when he was put in charge of the Burke Baby Food account. For who would bear the whips and scorn of Kermit Burke, the shrewd, wisecracking ruler of the Burke empire? But if things were difficult at the start, they became positively fatal later on, when blackmail and murder surrounded the innocent figure of America’s favourite infant, the Burke baby!’
Slesar’s novel enters, an albeit small niche, of advertising agency themed mysteries. The earliest example I have read is Plain Murder (1930) by C. S. Forester, whose enjoyable book was followed by the even more enjoyable Murder Must Advertise by Sayers (1933) and Murder Isn’t Easy (1936) by Richard Hull. However, such a setting does not guarantee a strong read as there is of course Julian Symons’ A Man Called Jones (1947) and The Thirty-First of February (1950), which were both something of a snooze fest if I recall. What I liked about Slesar’s mystery is that the advertising agency is not just an excuse for word play, or a different type of office setting to put a dead body in. The work of the agency is pivotal to the plot and very much propels the crimes that take place, as well as providing an interesting murder motive. I could say more but I don’t want to spoil it for readers.
The author’s dark humour easily finds an outlet within such a setting, with his satirising of the human condition/nature, perhaps being a bit more savage than that found in Sayers’ title. For example, Jane Hagarty, Dave Robbin’s fractious love interest, when discussing free promotional toys suggests: ‘How about a little vial of prussic acid? Be the First Kid on Your Block to Disfigure Mummy’ or ‘How about a kiddie-size prophylactic kit; an education toy? Or one of those little miniature liquor bottles? Just like the one Daddy keeps under his pillow…’ It is these suggestions which cause Dave to call her Charles Addams, (a contemporary cartoonist known for his macabre humour and style of artwork).
The Green Penguin edition misleadingly concludes its synopsis by saying that ‘Dave turned for comfort to his own particular baby – Janey from the art department.’ The play on words, in conjunction with the rest of the synopsis somewhat light heartedly infantilises Janey, and I guess it is of its era, yet it is in fact not very accurate in depicting her. Janey’s haircut is described as mannish, her clothes are sensible, and she can’t be bothered with makeup. When Dave annoys her, which he does on a regular basis, she lets him know about it and is no soppy heroine figure, as supported by the quotes in the last paragraph.
Not all the satire is set within the agency and the opening of the novel argubaly cocks a snook at cold war fears:
‘It was a moody, mysterious morning, heavy with melancholy; there was something positively Russian about it. Dave checked that thought in a hurry, and looked at the men he would be sharing railway seats with on the ride into New York.’
The military motif lingers as later Dave muses that: ‘But here, gathered like a silent regiment awaiting orders, surrounded by bleak hills and open sky, they seemed strangely transformed.’
The opening chapter is effective at getting the reader up to speed on the different accounts and the importance of the Burke one and we can already see the signs of strain Dave is under, as well as clock the foreboding comments inserted here and there. The first third of the book sets up Dave noticing a lot of dubious events at work, and then fearing they are connected to dark events outside of the office. The narrative then sees our protagonist trying to unearth more information to find out what is really going on at the agency. Janey is not involved in any of this and is quite cool towards his detecting activities, since she thinks he is trying to get her uncle arrested. Moreover, as evidence comes to light of the duplicitous activities going on, she is quite blasé about them and doesn’t see them as something to be concerned about.
Where I think this book loses its edge is in the final third, where the speed and power behind the story lessens. Slesar goes for an anti-climactic moment 3/4s of the way through, perhaps to shock the reader, yet I don’t feel it achieves this goal and the ending is somewhat flat. I might have found it so because of how good a read Enter Murderers is. Then again, The Grey Flannel Shroud was Slesar’s first book, so this issue is less surprising, and he certainly improves on it in his next book, whose plotting is deftly done.