It has been a while since I last posted an installment in my attempt to read all of Agatha Christie’s non-series works. I still have several of the big titles left to read but, keen to save those for a rainy day, I am instead opting to focus my efforts on wading through some of her thrillers.
After much consideration I opted to read Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Technically this counts as a reread for me but given that I last read this in my early teen years I had little memory of the details beyond the meaning of the title and the golfing sequence that opens the book.
Bobby Jones, the vocationally-challenged fourth son of the Vicar of Marchbolt, is playing a round of golf with a friend when he hits his ball over the cliff edge. Working his way down the slope in the hope of recovering it he finds a man lying below and, fearing his errant ball is responsible, he and his golfing companion investigate. Finding that the man is dying, his friend goes off in search of help while Bobby stands guard over the body, hearing the man’s mysterious last words: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” and finding the photograph of a woman in his pocket but no papers to identify him.
After waiting for a while, Bobby remembers that he needs to go play the organ for the evening service and so when a stranger, a Roger Bassington-ffrench, offers to stand guard in his place he takes up the offer. Later, after giving evidence at the inquest, Bobby realizes that he failed to tell the victim’s family about the man’s last words and so he writes to them, setting in motion a very strange set of events. This is just the starting point for one of Christie’s more meandering and sensational adventures which also features instances of poisoning, kidnapping as well as a mysterious death in a locked room…
I was just a few chapters into the book when I listened to JJ and Brad’s podcast discussion about Agatha Christie’s locked room mysteries and I was a little surprised to find that the book did not get a particularly favorable hearing. After all, I had found those first few chapters to be really quite entertaining.
Bobby is one of Christie’s more light-hearted creations – a little as if Hastings were left to drift through an investigation without the help of his friend Poirot. He takes people at face value, seeming to drift through life, and has little instinct for investigation. Some of the things he says and the situations he puts himself in are really quite funny such as his plan to start up a business with his friend Badger where they buy junk cars, give them a lick of paint and try to resell them at a profit.
He is supported in his investigations by an old friend, Frankie, who he encounters on a train. She is, in my mind, the best thing about the book by a long way. She is far more practical than Bobby and throws herself into the investigation with little thought to her own safety, coming up with a plan to gain entry to the home of the victim’s family to snoop around and learn more about them. I found her to be easily the most likeable of the heroines I have encountered in any of the Christie thrillers to date and while Bobby could be a bit of an ass at points in the story, I did enjoy their interactions with each other.
The problems I had with the book really begin with the portion of the novel where Frankie goes undercover however as it quickly became clear to me that the story would draw on some elements I associate more with sensation fiction. There are brooding, withdrawn husbands, eerie sanitariums where there might be strange goings-on as well as a few kidnappings. It all feels very dramatic but I never felt any rush of excitement or discovery as Bobby and Frankie carried out their investigation.
There are a couple of reasons that I think this adventure left me cold. One of them is that there are several moments where characters are rescued from situations in ways that seem rather incredible (the standout example for me being a situation involving a skylight late in the novel). I think the bigger issues however lie in Christie’s development of her villain or villains.
From a very early point in the novel it seemed clear to me who the guilty party would be, not based on evidence but based on the way I felt the book was leading me. Now it is hardly unusual for Christie to attempt to make one character suspicious while hiding a killer in the background but it simply doesn’t work here. The problem is that once you look past the suspect who is made to appear guilty, there really aren’t many other credible suspects left.
The weakness of the whodunnit aspect of the story is not necessarily a problem in itself – after all, Christie wrote several perfectly serviceable thriller-type tales that didn’t really rely on trying to make the reader guess the guilty party’s identity. The problem here is that this is that the narrative is structured to make that the focus, even though the questions of why the victim was killed and the meaning of those strange last words are far more interesting.
Though I am no great fan of dying words mysteries, the question of what is meant by “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” is wonderfully handled, playing fair with the reader. That is no doubt one of the reasons the explanation remained so clear in my mind even though almost twenty years had passed since I last read it. The meaning is simple but very clever as all Christie’s best puzzles are.
This presents me with a bit of a problem when it comes to assessing how I feel about the book. The book is certainly worth reading for that aspect of its solution alone but the journey to that point feels pretty uninspiring and far from Christie at her best, particularly if you don’t warm to Bobby or Frankie the way I did (based on some of the comments I have read it seems that Bobby is an acquired taste).
To put it in the context of Christie’s other thrillers I have read, it is far better than Passenger to Frankfurt but I would pick either Destination Unknown or The Man in the Brown Suit over this as I found each of those titles to be more entertaining.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Comic/humorous novel (What)