Underground Reading: The Gray Flannel Shroud by Henry Slesar
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
The Gray Flannel Shroud, by Henry Slesar, is a 1957 murder mystery set in an advertising agency. The title is topical for 1957 - a twist on the familiar concept of the "man in the gray flannel suit" (a slightly derogatory reference to the expensive-garbed armies of Madison Avenue marketeers).
The title also hints at a transient wittiness; a book that's willing to poke fun at the here & now and not weigh itself down with concerns about lasting relevance. Similarly, as the cover art indicates, this is a book more invested in titillation than suspense.
Just to be clear, I've got no problem with any of that. A humorous, cheesecake-laden murder mystery set in an advertising agency? It might have well been written for me.
Our hero, Dave Robbins, is a handsome young account manager at a small Madison Avenue agency. His adventures begin with his Monday morning commute. Coming in to the city after a weekend with his photographer friend, he's rudely shoved in front of an oncoming train. Fortunately, he's quick on his feet, so Dave scrambles back onto the platform and avoids becoming a permanent part of the 7.58 to Grand Central.
However, this is only the start of an exciting week for Dave. Before the end of it, he's poisoned, punched and, ultimately, shot at. Between dodging bullets, Dave's also scrambling up to the next rung of the corporate ladder. His immediate boss has a heart attack and has to go on leave. The agency's major client, Burke Baby Foods, is now in Dave's hands. This is a major step up for Dave - previously he was only handling the advertising work for their Baked Goods division. Compared to Baby Food, Baked Goods is small potatoes.
With Dave's new power comes great responsibility - that of wrangling the obstreperous Old South client (Mr. Burke himself). It also comes with his boss' confidential files, the ones that show a mysterious $125,000 payment to "A.G.". Dave is intrigued. That's not just more money than he'll see in the next decade, that's a substantial chunk of the agency's funds. Who or what is A.G.? And what are they doing with the agency's cashflow?
Dave's investigations into the agency's (in)discretionary spending take a morbid twist when he identifies A.G. as the voluptuous Anne Granger... immediately before her untimely death. Somehow, his work on the successful "Burke Baby" advertising campaign is connected with her murder. As the week progresses, the death count rises. Characters with less tangential connections to Dave's daily life begin to die (quite painfully, at that). Dave soon worries that he's at risk as well. Not only does he suffer the fumbling assassination attempt at the train platform, but someone poisons his daily tranquilizers (don't mock - client service is a stressful job).
It is a credit to Dave's work ethic that the rash of murders takes a backseat to the stress of actually dealing with "Kermit" Burke and his baby food. Dave's own boss, Homer Hagerty, isn't helping. Dave's "on" and "off" the account on a day-by-day basis. Homer promotes him, then pulls him off, then puts him back on again - a cruel Chutes-and-Ladders game with the ambitious young man's career.
Of course, nothing is more valuable to a good account man than his relationship with his clients. As well as the bombastic Kermit Burke, Dave works with The Countess, the expatriate European noble who now runs the Baked Goods division. Dave's got a good relationship with this particular (crazy) (old) loon, but, to his horror, she seems determined to make their professional relationship into a more... personal service. The Countess has the ear of Mr. Burke, so Dave can't afford to offend her... and there's only so long he can put off her invitations.
For those that needed independent confirmation of Mad Men, the ladeez are at the heart of the late 1950s advertising industry (well, that and perpetual drunkenness). Dave's surrounded by the fair sex. He's dating his art director, Janey Hagerty, stalked by The Countess (and her daughter), and, within a few pages of the book's opening, intrigued by the mysterious & short-lived blonde, Anne Granger. Dave's got to juggle his love life, advance his work life and protect his life-life. That'd be three full-time jobs, except, in Dave's case, they're all conveniently happening simultaneously.
As a mystery, The Gray Flannel Shroud isn't exactly written in the best tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle. In-between dates and client presentations, Dave does a bit of poking around - but even then, his investigations mostly consist of heavy drinking with a reporter friend. The events unravel around him, not because of him, and Dave is less a detective than he is an opportunistic survivor. The final reveal is just that - a reveal. The final pages have Dave sitting with a friend, going through every suspect in an organized, nearly bullet-pointed way, until they unveil the name of the Real Killer. There weren't a lot of clues involved, so, as a reader, the deductive process was merely meta-detection based on narrative conventions. Who is introduced but never suspected? Who has a motive that's not the one discussed throughout the book? Who isn't "clearly" the killer? The reader can guess, even if Dave can't. But then, we have the advantage of knowing that his life is a 35 cent paperback...
Mystery (or lack thereof) aside, there's a lot to enjoy in The Gray Flannel Suit. Dave's a sort of generally-moral corporate everyman - torn between dodgy decisions and career advancement. He winds up in a lot of sticky situations and invariably chooses, if not the right path, at least an understandable one. His primary love interest, Janey, is surprisingly great. Although not involved in the "detection" process, Dave makes up plenty of excuses to go see her. Despite being the boss's niece, the author (and his hero) make great pains to show that she's a legitimate advertising talent. Janey is clever, ballsy and more than a little appealing. It is easy to see why Dave spends so much time lingering around her office.
For anyone with an advertising background, The Gray Flannel Suit comes packaged with extra joy. The clients are completely mad (but always right), the creatives are precious (but always right) and the account men are in the middle (and, if you ask me, always right). Project management are nowhere to be seen, the finance guy is grumpy and the boss's wife strolls around the office like she owns the place. The drama that surrounds the Burke Baby Food advertising campaign also strikes a familiar chord. Initially, there's the ethical jiggery-pokery that comes with any marketing based on "real people". Then, when the campaign collapses, but the media space is booked and the client needs creative yesterday? The agency proposes crowd-sourcing. 1957 or 2011, some things never change.
The Gray Flannel Shroud is a book well-worth judging by its cover. It is cheeky, lusty and a little bit goofy. There's a mystery in here, but it never gets in the way of a good story. Mr. Slesar has packed his book with endearing characters and their Madison Avenue misadventures. Even if the sleuthing is forgettable, the setting has proven oddly timeless.