The Agatha Christie Challenge – Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934)

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?In which Bobby Jones discovers a man who has fallen from a cliff and who asks Why didn’t they ask Evans? before he promptly dies; a tragic accident perhaps, but when someone tries to poison Jones and he almost dies, he reckons there’s more to this than meets the eye. Together with his friend Lady Frances Derwent – better known as Frankie – they uncover the real identity of the dead man, and why he might have been killed – and – eventually – who is Evans! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to divulge any of its extraordinary secrets!

BoomerangThe book is dedicated to “Christopher Mallock in memory of Hinds”. Apparently, the Mallock family were friends of Christie’s from the years before her first marriage, although they aren’t mentioned by her in her autobiography. And no one seems to know a thing about what Hinds might have been. Maybe they had a liaison in the local jewellers! The book was published in the United States under the title The Boomerang Clue – which is a bit odd, as I can’t remember a boomerang featuring in it!

Champagne Afternoon TeaThis is a rip-roaring, jolly old read, featuring two splendid young things in the best Christie Tommy and Tuppence/ Secret of Chimneys tradition, although with just perhaps a hint more decent characterisation. You really do get to know Bobby and Frankie very well during the course of the book, and understand their motivations, their strengths and their weaknesses in a way that’s hardly suggested at all in the earlier books. It’s as though Christie is maturing in her writing ability but unwilling to let go of a previously winning formula. So I see this as a distinct turning point away from the flippancy of the earlier novels as she launches a run of some big hitters very soon. Three Act Tragedy, Death in the Clouds, The ABC Murders, Murder in Mesopotamia, Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile would all be hitting the bookshops in the next three years. In fact, the best part of the next decade would be dominated by the egg-shaped head of M. Hercule Poirot.

Car Cartoon with Woman DriverIt’s written in the third person, and Christie employs the tactic of writing very short chapters to help it be the fast-paced page-turner that it is. 35 chapters cover just 184 pages, which averages out at just 5.25 pages per chapter. With those constantly changing scenes, protagonists, story threads and what have yous, it’s no wonder that it bounds along at a breathless pace. About halfway through the book the reader realises that so many of the elements of the book have come together and that you’re racing through the plot at a thoroughly enjoyable rate of knots. On the downside, the element of chance in this book is enormous. There are so many lucky coincidences and some extraordinarily far-fetched events that it is almost impossible to take it seriously, even as a Christie yarn. This is very much a light-relief book, and not one to get your sharp detective brain working hard.

50There’s a rather sloppy piece of repetition early in the book – so we can’t blame that on Christie getting carried away with its pace. It’s when Bobby is reflecting on what an old fuddy-duddy his father is: “nobody over fifty has got any sense – they worry themselves to death about tuppenny-ha’penny things that don’t matter.” Now that’s a perfectly credible thing for Bobby to have said to himself. But only two pages later, when Bobby is explaining to his father about how he has found the body by the cliffs, and his father criticises him for being too light-hearted about it, he says again to himself: “but what could you expect? Nobody over fifty understood anything at all. They had the most extraordinary ideas.” Either Christie was trying to over-emphasise this “over fifty” problem or she’d forgotten that she’d already used it. Either way, it’s a bit unimaginative. As if to make up for it, she allows Frankie to have the most elegant observation in the book: “isn’t it odd? […] We seem, somehow, to have got in between the covers of a book. We’re in the middle of someone else’s story. It’s a frightfully queer feeling.” They’re like innocents abroad, in a way; caught up investigating something that has no specific link to themselves, apart from the fact that someone tried to poison Bobby (which does make it rather personal.)

CheatIn order for the narrative to work, Christie has to cheat a bit. I can’t be too explicit here, lest I give the game away. But she does ascribe some actions and speeches to one person when in fact they are delivered by another. By concealing the true identity of the person speaking, she leads her readers – and indeed her characters – up the garden path a little more before giving in and finally telling us the truth. Whilst it is an effective device at stringing out the denouement, I did feel a little cheated by Christie here; she actually tells us lies which we believe for ten minutes or so, before retracting. I can’t help but think that’s not a good narrative trait.

bobby_jonesI see that Christie gives a mention to an ABC guide in this book – it’s left by the window in the house from where the Caymans have fled. Frankie dutifully takes note of what’s on the pages on display. This does look forward to one of her masterpieces – The ABC Murders – which would appear a couple of years later. In fact this book is littered with contemporary references, many of which I had to research in order to understand. Let’s take the title character first! Bobby Jones is first seen, on the golf course, making a total mess of his shot. For Christie, a keen golfer, this is a nice moment of irony. Bobby Jones was an American golfing hero, who helped design the Augusta National Golf Club, and co-founded the Masters Tournament. He won the US Open four times, in fact he is the only player ever to have won the (pre-Masters) Grand Slam, or all four major championships, in the same calendar year (1930). That was the year he chose to retire from the game, at the grand old age of 28. By the time Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was published, he had already been retired four years.

SavoyWhen we first meet Frankie, she’s getting fed up with society parties: dinner at the Savoy at 8.30, followed by going to the Marionette and then on to the Bullring before fizzling out after breakfast. Bobby is wowed by the thought of such places but I can’t find any reference to them in real life – maybe they were just inventions of Christie. When Frankie’s just chatting with Bobby and understanding his reaction to finding the body, she commiserates: “I get you, Steve” – which is a fairly meaningless turn of phrase popular at the time – but with no particular Steve in mind. I thought perhaps it might refer to Mrs Paul Temple, but Francis Durbridge hadn’t created her by that stage.

Third BloodstainOne of the novels that Bobby toys with in hospital was written by Ouida – a name with which I was not familiar, but she was a writer of what were described as “racy and swashbuckling” novels in the late Victorian era. Here’s a conversation between Frankie and Bobby: “”Oh! But murderers are always frightfully rash. The more murders they do, the more murders they want to do.” “Like The Third Bloodstain,” said Bobby, remembering one of his favourite works of fiction. “Yes, and in real life too – Smith and his wives and Armstrong and people.”” As you might expect, Bobby’s favourite ghoulish work of fiction is precisely that – an invention of Christie. Or at least it was at the time; Kel Richards published a crime novel with that name in 1995. But Smith and his wives? Are they referring to the founder of the Mormon Church? He was murdered, but I’m not sure about his wives. The Armstrong mentioned could be Herbert Rowse Armstrong, also known as The Hay Poisoner, hanged for murder in 1922.

Adolf BeckIn a later conversation, Frankie and Bobby are discussing whether everyone has a double, and cited the case of Adolf Beck “referring lightly to the Lyons Mail.” I can do no better than to quote directly from Wikipedia: “The Adolf Beck case was a notorious incidence of wrongful conviction by mistaken identity, brought about by unreliable methods of identification, erroneous (though probably sincere) eyewitness testimony, and a rush to convict the accused. As one of the most famous causes célèbres of its time, the case led to the creation of the English Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.” The Lyons Mail, on the other hand, refers to a 1916 film, based on the 1854 play The Courier of Lyons by Charles Reade, a very popular stage work of the Victorian era, where a respectable French gentleman is mistaken for his doppelganger, a notorious highwayman.

GFS“My dear,” says Frankie to Bobby, “don’t drone on as though you were recommending a case to the Girls’ Friendly Society”. I’d never heard of them before, so I researched and discovered they were established in 1875 to address, through Christian values, the problems of working-class out-of-wedlock pregnancies. They didn’t support female emancipation but they’re still going to this day. Another society I had never heard of – The Dorcas Society – appears on the final page of the book. A Dorcas society is a local group of people, usually based in a church, with a mission of providing clothing to the poor. Their heyday was in the 19th century, but there are still a few around today.

RhylThere are also plenty of place names in this book to try and identify in real life. Marchbolt, where Bobby comes from, is said to be in Denbighshire, which of course exists, or at least did until 1974’s Local Government changes swallowed it up into Clwyd. There is no such place as Marchbolt, but the Denbighshire coast runs from Llandudno to just before Rhyl, so we can place it somewhere in that area. The local train station is at Sileham, which also doesn’t exist. Staveley, home of the Bassington-ffrenches, is described as being in Hampshire, just off the main road to Andover. Although there are several Staveleys in the UK, none of them is down in that part of the world. Ambledever is said to be ten miles away; that doesn’t exist but it does fit the location of real-life Micheldever. There isn’t a Chipping Somerton either, but both Chipping Norton and Somerton are situated within a few miles of each other in Oxfordshire. It’s also close to Christie’s Medeshot Aerodrome; in real life, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that’s based on Upper Heyford. The other location mentioned a few times in the book is 17 St Leonard’s Gardens, Paddington, home of the Caymans. There are lots of Gardens in Paddington, but none of them is St Leonard’s.

Buenos AiresAs you probably know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only a few mentioned in this book. Firstly, the amount that Bobby is offered to uproot himself and start a new life in Buenos Aires: £1,000 a year. In today’s figure, that’s an annual salary of £50,000. Yes, that’s pretty good for a starting salary for someone with absolutely no hope! However, that’s a pinprick in comparison to the amount left by Mr Savage to Mrs Templeton in his will – £700,000 – which today would be worth a staggering £35m or more. Worth committing murder for, maybe? The tenner that Frankie pays Badger for a beaten up old car would today be worth £500. Quite a lot, considering what a wreck it is!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?:

Publication Details: 1934. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in November 1972, priced 30p. Tom Adams’ cover illustration of a man falling into the sea, with a suspicious looking seagull looking after a golf ball in its nest, doesn’t really do the book justice as none of those actually represent what happens in the book.

How many pages until the first death: 4. That’s the quickest death so far in the Christie oeuvre of novels.

Funny lines out of context: Again, like Murder on the Orient Express, this book is very disappointing as far as accidentally funny lines are concerned. I will continue to keep a look out in future books!

Memorable characters:
Sadly again, there’s not a lot on offer. Whilst Frankie and Bobby are reasonably well fleshed out, the frantic pace of the book doesn’t allow for too much dwelling on the characterisations. I suppose Dr Nicholson is quite creepy; but the Bassington-ffrenches are all rather bland. Badger is quite a character, although I expect there’s more to him than just his stutter, on which Christie relies too much for humorous purposes.

Christie the Poison expert:
Bobby is poisoned with enough morphia to sink a battleship – 8 grains, which is the equivalent of 520mg, more than double the minimum lethal dose. John Savage is said to have taken a large overdose of chloral, which is responsible for deaths in The Seven Dials Mystery and The Secret Adversary. Please feel free to read that blog to find out more about it.

Class/social issues of the time:

There are some light references in this book, but again this is too flippant a book to dwell on serious subjects. However, it is class that first alerts Bobby to the possibility that the Caymans are not who they say they are: “”You don’t believe he could really have been her brother?” “Not for a moment! You know, it puzzled me all along. The Caymans were a different class altogether. The dead man was – well, it sounds a most awful thing to say and just like some deadly old retired Anglo-Indian, but the dead man was a pukka sahib.” “And the Caymans most emphatically weren’t?” “Most emphatically””. On a funnier note, Badger has his own observations about class. After Frankie pays him £10 for the Standard car, he observes: “f-f-f-first time I ever knew anyone with a t-t-t-title who c-c-could pay cash”.

This leads us on to another social issue of the time – the whole world of second-hand cars. Clearly there was no regulation in those days and you really took your life in your hands if you were to pay a few pounds for a beaten-up pile of junk! Badger’s a decent guy but even he has no compunction about selling something that’ll barely get to the end of the street. And there’s another thing – women drivers! “”Her ladyship takes some killing,” said Bobby. “Had many accidents, has she?” “She’s been lucky,” said Bobby, “but I assure you, Mr Askew, that when her ladyship’s taken over the wheel from me as she sometimes does – well, I’ve made sure my last hour has come.” Several persons present shook their heads wisely and said they didn’t wonder and it’s just what they would have thought.” No doubt women drivers have been the object of ridicule ever since cars were invented.

There’s an amusing sequence where Bobby, in order to get a doctor to stop examining Frankie, has to pretend that she’s a Christian Scientist. At the time of publication, Christian Science was really at its heyday, and it’s more or less been in decline since the 1930s. It would quite possibly have been something that trendy young things of Frankie and Bobby’s generation may have considered as a serious faith. It was an interesting time; it was now over fifteen years since the end of the First World War, and only five years before the Second, and there was still a feeling that Britain’s young men weren’t quite on top of things as they should be. When Frankie suggests using Bobby as a decoy in a ruse she’s planning, he’s not keen. “”No thank you, Frankie,” said Bobby with feeling. “I’ve been very lucky this time, but I mightn’t be so lucky again if they changed the attack to a blunt instrument. I was thinking taking a great deal of care of myself in the future. The decoy idea can be washed out.” “I was afraid you’d say that,” said Frankie with a sigh. “Young men are sadly degenerate nowadays. Father says so. They don’t enjoy being uncomfortable and doing dangerous and unpleasant things any longer. It’s a pity.” What we would today call being a snowflake.

Possibly still a hangover from the war days is the slightly racist comment from Mrs Rivington: “He’s a Canadian, you know, and I often think that Canadians are so touchy.” There’s also the unfortunate use of the word “loonies” to describe Dr Nicholson’s patients.

And there’s one more fascinating element to the story – the suggestion that Frankie and Bobby take an air taxi from Medeshot Aerodrome to Marchbolt. Today this would be a very expensive undertaking and would probably require loads of planning. Back in 1934, it seems like it was the equivalent of thumbing a lift!

Classic denouement: Not really. At first we’re all led to believe the murderer is A because Christie tells us so. Then she admits she was lying and that it’s B. Whilst the reader is confused, B manages to make an escape and confesses the crime afterwards by letter. Yes indeed, gentle reader, this is one of those occasions where the murderer gets away with it! Well not entirely, as they’re not operating solo all the time, but if I tell you more, I’ll give the game away.

Happy ending? Yes of course, you wouldn’t expect any other outcome than Frankie and Bobby getting it together romantically. It’s tinged with the sadness that justice isn’t seen to be done though, so there are shades of grey with your emotional response at the end.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely not! It’s riddled with ridiculous coincidences and far-fetched occurrences that are both amusing on the one hand and try your patience on the other! The morphia that doesn’t kill Bobby, the deus-ex-machina appearance of Badger to save their lives, and the real identity of Evans all make it very hard to believe. Even the last words of the dying man that form the title of the book are, in a sense, pointless. I simply don’t believe that that’s what he would have said!

Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10. It’s fun but it’s foolish; it’s pacey but it’s problematic.

Parker Pyne InvestigatesThanks for reading my blog of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the short story format with Parker Pyne Investigates; I’ve not read this for a very long time and I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s