Montague Egg

(creator: Dorothy L Sayers)


Dorothy L Sayers
Montague Egg was a travelling salesman in wines and spirits. So why include him here? It was Dr Robert Zaslavsky who argued, in a footnote to his article on The Divine Detective in the Guilty Vicarage (1986) that Egg could be described as a religious detective because he was a traveller in spirits, worked for Plummet and Rose (signifying death and resurrection), and is guided by his own "Bible", the Salesman's Handbook), while the name Egg is associated with Easter, and Montague means sharp hill, as in Calvary. This would never have occurred to me in a million years - and I am far from convinced. But I've included him here just in case! To find a pdf copy of Zaslavsky's article, google The Divine Detective in the Guilty Vicarage.

Egg is "a fair-haired, well-mannered young man" who proudly describes himself as "travelling representative of Plummet & Rose, Wines and Spirits, Piccadilly". He has a chubby and cheerful face, and is very fond of quoting from the Salesman's Handbook such gems as: "The salesman with the open eye sees commissions mount up high", "If you're a salesman worth the name at all, you can sell billiards to a billiard-ball" and "A cheerful voice and cheerful look put orders in the order-book."

During the First World War, he had served two years on the Western Front, so was ready to cope with most disasters. He can be rather pompous, even if he is only following the commercial style of the period as when he writes to the Chief Commissioner of Police: "Dear Sir, understanding as per the daily Press and the B.B.C. that you desire to receive communications from all persons travelling by the 9.5 p.m. Birmingham-London express on the 4th ult., I beg to inform you that I travelled by same (3rd class) from Coventry to Euston on the date mentioned and that I am entirely at your disposal for all enquiries ..." He always "aims to make his sales talk "Smart, though not vulgar. In the wine and spirit trade we make refinement our aim". He describes himself as "Always the gentleman, that's Monty Egg. King about the house and clean with children".

He is far from perfect: in his time he had been known to hop onto trains without paying, even if only to win a wage (we are told exactly how to do it, but it would have worked better then than now) and uses this knowledge to reveal how a crime was committed. And he can be a bit of a prig, being "suitably shocked" by naughty photographs. But he is always highly observant and very much on the ball. A very good salesman, no doubt, who lives for his work but always welcomes the chance to do some detective work. He does not seem to have time for anything else: as he says, there have been "no wedding bells for Monty Egg".

Dorothy L(eigh) Sayers (1893-1957) was born in Oxford where her father was chaplain of Christ Church and headmaster of the Choir School. She was educated at the Godolphin School in Salisbury then won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford where she read modern languages and medieval literature, gaining first class honours. She taught for a time then worked in a London advertising agency. After she had published the first two of her detective novels, she married a Scottish journalist, but, due to his failing health, had to earn more and more of their income herself. She wrote a large number of detective novels, the most famous featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, the first of which appeared in1923. She also translated Dante and wrote other religious books too, as well as The Man Born to be King, a series of pioneering radio plays based on the Gospels and aimed at children.

The stories.
Montague Egg (known as Monty) appears in eleven short stories, six of which are included in Hangman's Holiday (1933) and five in In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939, the last detective book Sayers ever published). Egg himself does not go off tracking down criminals but just observes what is happening and reaches his own conclusions, sometimes helped by his inside knowledge of the wine trade. He is much helped too by his knowledge of The Salesman's Handbook that he often quotes.

But his real talent is in being at the right place at the right time ("Monty-on-the-spot" he calls himself), and being very observant. So, for example, he can give detailed descriptions to the police of the seven people who were in his railway compartment. "You're an admirable witness," the police inspector tells him.

The stories are concerned with such cases as that of a poisoned aristocrat, solved by Egg's understanding of corkscrews, a murderer on the run, solved by Egg's understanding how to take a stopper out of a bottle, and a sinister character who collects large numbers of cats, solved by Egg's powers of observation after he had rescued a cat from a tree. This is a particulary unlikely story, and it seems odd when when a young girl hops into Egg's car without a thought for her safety, even though he is a perfect stranger - although he does subsequently reassure her, "I'm quite respectable".

The best of the stories in Hangman's Holiday is Murder at Pentecost, which is set in an Oxford college where "some public benefactor has just murdered the Master". A friendly undergraduate explains to Egg that the Master had "written several learned works disproving the existence of Providence, and I must say that I, in common with the whole Pentecostal community, have always looked on him as one of Nature's worst mistakes." It is not long before forgetful and eccentric Mr Temple, one of the Dons, confesses to the crime - but it turns out that "every time a murder is committed in this country, Mr Temple confesses to it." But Egg wants to investigate his alibi and discovers that by just slipping on a gown, no-one will question his right to be admitted to the Bodleian Library. It is there that he finds the murderer, with the aid of the motto in the Salesman's Handbookthat "Discretion plays a major part in making up the salesman's art, for truths that no one can believe are calculated to deceive." It makes a thoroughly entertaining story,

The other stories are sometimes very slight but are told with a dry sense of humour, as here: "When you arrive at a person's house with no intention beyond selling him a case of whisky or a dozen or so of port, it is disconcerting to find him stretched on his own porch, it is disconcerting to find him stretched on his own kitchen floor, with his head battered to pulp."

The five Egg stories in In The Teeth of the Evidence are less appealing. However, Egg still enjoys his detective work, for to him "a murder or mystery was very nearly as satisying as an order for 12 dozen ports at 190s.(shillings) the dozen." And there are some nice moments, as when the author comments, "It is not agreeable when customers die poisoned after partaking of the drinks one has supplied to them, and it is not good for business."

But the stories themselves are more pedestrian, with the exception of The Professor's Manuscript, in whch Egg gets on the trail of a missing financier who seems to have some connection with a potential customer, the scholar Professor Pindar who "was a very bent and tottery old gentleman, and the hairiest person Mr Egg had ever set eyes upon. His beard began at his cheekbones and draped his chest as far as the penultimate waistcoat button. Over a pair of very sharp grey eyes, heavy grey eyebrows hung like a pent-house. He wore a black skull-cap, from beneath which more grey hair flowed so as to conceal his collar. .... His face (what could be seen of it) was thin, and he spoke with a curious whistle and click due to an extremely ill-fitting set of dentures." It is this click that starts Egg thinking. And he remembers that the books in Pindar's library were "all mixed up", with "all big books in one place and all small ones in another", and they were so tightly packed he had been unable to take one out. Then when Pindar goes on to talk about his forthcoming book, Hishtory of the Eearly Chrishtian Church, Egg decides to check up on him with another customer and friend, who says that he has never heard of him, but "Anybody can get a professorship from those odd American universities". It makes an amusing story.

However, Montague Egg himself, entertaining though he is, does not seem to have any real religious significance. Perhaps the religious connections suggested by Zaslavsky are just a private joke of the author's - although a very odd one. But there is a strange apparently irrelevant reference in The Professor's Manuscript to "a juicy leader-page article headed 'CAN CHRISTIANS BE COMMERCIAL TRAVELLERS? - by One of Them', which interested him (Egg), not so much because he had doubts about commercial morality as because he fancied he knew who the author was." And, odder still, this is never followed up - so what was the point of mentioning it?


There is an informative article about her on Wikipedia , a Guardian article about her, and a Dorothy L Sayers Society site (with the emphasis on Peter Wimsey but including a long list of links).




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Hangman's Holiday cover
In the Teeth of the Evidence cover
Montague Egg stories are included in both these books, which have been often reprinted with different covers.
The lower cover shows how the emphasis has shifted to the author's name and that of Wimsey, whose name was obviously a stronger selling point than that of Egg.
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