Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tuesday Night Blog Murders: The Mystery of Raymond West

This was Curt Evans's idea. He is really Curtis J. Evans (not the theologian, at least I don't think so), author of a number of books about writers of the Golden Age of Detective Stories, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, Clues and Corpses: the detective fiction and mystery criticism of Todd Downing,  The Spectrum of English Murder and editor of Mysteries Unlocked: essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene to which I proudly contributed. He also runs one of the most interesting blogs dedicated to detective and mystery literature. (In parenthesis let me note that, though there are many wonderful blogs on that theme, I do intend to set up one of my own very soon.)

Why don't we or, at least, some of us, suggested Curt, write a series of blogs about Agatha Christie (this being her 125th anniversary year) on Tuesdays and call it the Tuesday Night Blogs (some of us cannot resist adding the word "Murders" to it). Any Christie afficionado will recognize the reference. The Tuesday Night Club, a short story published in The Royal Magazine in December 1927 saw the first appearance of Miss Jane Marple and signalled a tentative new departure for Agatha Christie.


Six people assemble in Miss Marple's drawing room: the hostess, her nephew, the modernist writer and poet Raymond West, the elderly local clergyman Dr Pender, the local solicitor Mr Petherick, Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Commissioner of Scotland Yard and the artist Joyce Lemprière who is also, we must assume, of the more modernist persuasion. As a result of a rather pretentious comment by Raymond West they decide to tell stories of unsolved crimes and try to come up with solutions. In fact, a certain amount of cheating goes on because the solution is known to several of the people who tell the tales but at first the crimes do appear to by rather mysterious. At first, Miss Marple is allowed to be part of the "club" on sufferance - a spinster who has lived all her life in a village, what would she know about real life or crime? Her comments about life and crime being just as real in a village as anywhere else are dismissed kindly but condescendingly, particularly by her nephew.


It is not much of a spoiler even to people who have not read these delightful stories to say that with everyone, including Sir Henry and, especially, Raymond West baffled, Miss Marple (as illustrated above) solves every single problem by using her knowledge of human nature. By the end of the series nobody can argue that village life is boring or uneventful. As Raymond West says "The cosmopolitan world seems a mild and peaceful place compared with St Mary Mead." Unfortunately, he later forgets this revelation or so it seems. The other thing we find out is that at the end of the sixth story Raymond proposes to Joyce just as Miss Marple had always known he would.

The stories were published monthly till May 1928 and a second series about Miss Marple solving crimes in a circle of dinner guests that brought back Sir Henry Clithering and introduced Arthur and Dolly Bantry, was published in The Storyteller between December 1929 and May 1930. Those six tales seem to be told in one sitting after dinner at the Bantrys while the Club was supposed to have met every Tuesday for six weeks.

The twelve stories were collected in book form in 1932 when a thirteenth one was added, Death by Drowning, in which Miss Marple solves a crime as soon as it happens, ahead of the police but we do not really see how she does it. By then, however, she had appeared in Murder at the Vicarage, published in October 1930 and a much loved (even by her creator) new detective had come into existence.


There are several questions one can ask about the Tuesday Club mysteries. Do those people really meet every Tuesday evening for six weeks at Miss Marple's small house? Can her circumstances really allow her that kind of hospitality or is it discreetly supplemented by gifts from, say, Fortnum and Mason by Raymond West or Sir Henry Clithering? Does Raymond West stay with her all those six weeks? Where do Joyce Lemprière and Sir Henry stay? If the latter with the Bantrys as he does the following year, why are they never invited? Does Dr Pender retire soon afterwards and a younger vicar, Leonard Clements, in whose study Colones Protheroe is shot, succeed him? Can someone as naive and incompetent as Sir Henry Clithering really become Commissioner of Scotland Yard?

The biggest mystery of all surrounds Raymond West. Let us see what we know of him. He is a terrifyingly intellectual and high-brow novelist and poet whose books are all about very unpleasant people doing rather strange things. He marries the artist Joyce Lemprière who, for some reason, becomes Joan in Sleeping Murder and At Bertram's Hotel. In the latter she is described by Miss Marple as Joan West, the artist. We know that Miss Marple is not given to senile forgetfulness so there must be a reason for this strange change in names but we never find out what. Did Raymond West marry two women artists, divorcing one? Would Miss Marple not refer to it in some roundabout fashion? Whose are the two (at least) sons mentioned in 4.50 from Paddington? It is, of course, possible that Joyce Lemprière works in two different genres and prefers to use one name in painting and another one in, say, book illustrations.

Raymond West appears in Murder at the Vicarage, when he comes to stay with his aunt, obviously unmarried, and pronounces on the stagnant life of the village only to be corrected gently by her: stagnant ponds, she explains, are full of life. He and his wife appear in Sleeping Murder, when Gwenda Reed stays with them at the same time as Miss Marple does and screams with terror during a production of The Duchess of Malfi. Her husband Giles is, apparently, some kind of a cousin of theirs,  which would make him Miss Marple's relative as well though she, surprisingly, pays little attention to that. On the other hand, Raymond clearly knows nothing about some other niece of Miss Marple's called Mabel about whom she tells her Tuesday night story.

In Sleeping Murder Raymond West refers to his aunt as "the original Victorian dug-out" and makes his usual condescending remarks about her knowing so little of life and spending her whole life in a village. His wife reminds him that St Mary Mead did have a rather exciting murder and Miss Marple had done rather well over that. Well yes, admits the nephew, she is good at puzzles. In other words, the Wests do know about Miss Marple's various adventures though they go on pretending that she has a very dull life.

Even their younger son, David, who works for British Rail (something of a rebel, by the sound of it) makes silly jokes about parochial scandals when his great-aunt asks him about trains that leave Paddington at a certain time.

We know that Raymond West is very fond of his aunt and often suggests treats like the latest incomprehensible Russian play as well as sending her his books. She gently refuses the treats or most of them and pretends to read his books. He suspects that she does nothing of the kind and assumes that is because her eyes are not as good as they once were. That, as it happens, is completely untrue. She remains a very sharp-eyed lady with nothing much wrong with her physically apart from rheumatism and the occasional cold that can go into bronchitis.

On a more practical basis the Wests help with money, either regularly after the Second World War when people on small set income become rather impoverished, as we know from They Do It With Mirrors or through gifts and treats such as a trip to the Caribbean after a bad bout of illness or a week at Bertram's Hotel. Both, as we know, turn into criminal investigations at which Miss Marple excels. Given that the Wests also inhabit a big house in Chelsea and have a reasonably high life style, one has to wonder where the money is coming from.

Miss Marple refers to her nephew in various other novels and stories, proudly telling everyone how successful he is and even quoting his joke about her having a mind like a Victorian sink, which would indicate that he realizes something about her activities. In fact, he and "Joan" discuss this in At Bertram's Hotel when they decide to treat her because she never leaves the village (which is patently untrue). Of course, there was her Caribbean trip and it is rather a pity, says "Joan" that she became mixed up with that murder to which Raymond replies that it is the sort of thing that tends to happen to her. Or, in other words, he knows quite well what sort of a life his aunt leads in between gardening and attending amateur performances of plays at St Mary Mead.

He makes another interesting comment in At Bertram's Hotel; his last book did very well so he is happy to pay for a treat for his aunt. Why exactly does he feel the need to spend his hard-earned money on his aunt every time and how well did that book do? The truth is that no matter how successful Raymond West's modernistic, miserable and undoubtedly boring books might be they cannot pay for his life style and all those treats for his aunt as well as the more substantial help in the years after the war, not even if his wife's income from her paintings are added to the household budget.

On the other hand, let us look at some dates. At Bertram's Hotel was published in 1965 so the events described in it must have happened in 1964, the year in which A Caribbean Mystery, Aunt Jane's murder investigation on her holiday, was published. That was immensely successful. All Miss Marple's adventures were. Could there be a connection between those two events?

One assumes that Raymond West must have done his bit during World War II and being a writer he would have been recruited into the Ministry of Information where he was told to produce literature for the masses that kept them happy. Clearly his own novels would do nothing of the kind so he reverted to something he had done some years before and wrote up one of his aunt's investigations in Gossington Hall (the Bantrys' home), St Mary Mead and the nearby seaside resort Danemouth and published in 1942. In 1930 he had come to an agreement with another author (or maybe several) and published Murder at the Vicarage under the nom de plume Agatha Christie. In 1942 he revived that and put that name to The Body in the Library. Actually, he nearly came a cropper on that as another well known writer, Ariadne Oliver, had already written a novel under that name but the publishers sorted the matter out with some help from the Ministry of Information, who were anxious to see Raymond West's book in print.

Thereafter, it all became a good deal easier. At present it is not clear what Raymond West's relationship was with the other Agatha Christie or, for that matter, Ariadne Oliver but it is surely obvious that he made his money by writing up his aunt's various investigations while pretending, ever less credibly, to dismiss her as a Victorian relic who knows nothing about life. He is unlikely to have fooled her. Being an honourable man, Raymond West felt that he must repay his debt through various gifts, treats and, when necessary, outright financial assistance. Miss Marple accepted it all (though not the Russian plays and the West novels) with a gentle smile. No doubt, when she inherited a large sum of money from Mr Rafiel at the end of Nemesis she, too, repaid by planning a few very special treats for the whole family.

Does this explain the strange name change of Raymond's wife? I think it does. If Joyce Lemprière was known as a modernist artist she would not want the critics and buyers to think that she also did illustrations to detective stories. What better way to get round that problem but to use her second Christian name, Joan, and her married name West?


9 comments:

  1. What a delightful pocket biography of Miss Marple's family tree, Helen, as well as a thoroughly delicious leg-pulling! Bravo!

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  2. Oh, lovely, Helen! That was a delightful look at the mystery of Raymond West.

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  3. Oh that's brilliant Helen! It was about time someone tried to really sort out the Marple/West family and relationship, take a proper professional view.

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  4. Brilliant, Helen! Of course . . . Why has no-one thought of this before?

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  5. Wonderful piece, you've convinced me! We'll have to see what Matthew Prichard has to say about it. ;)

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  6. Excellent piece of work, fascinating even. More please

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  7. Excellent piece of work, fascinating even. More please

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  8. Excellent piece of work, fascinating even. More please

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  9. Thank you, all. I am blushing though you cannot see it.

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