Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1934
First published in the United States as The Boomerang Clue

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)

Why I Love… The Third Man

A few weeks ago I was asked to pick my favorite film as part of a getting to know you exercise. While some people agonized over their choices, I found it to be a really easy question to answer because that film has been my favorite since I first discovered it in my teen years. In fact, it was a sufficient draw for me that I bought my first Blu-Ray player specifically to watch it when Criterion reissued it a number of years ago.

Of course once I gave it as my answer I felt drawn to rewatch it again and, in doing so, I was left with a strong desire to post about it here. As it happens I already planned to discuss the novella Greene wrote (while he was commissioned to write a screenplay, he found it easier to write a story that he could then adapt – a practice Disney would use a few years later on Lady and the Tramp). This struck me as an ideal opportunity to play around with the video camera a little bit more and explain my thoughts about the film.

So, here they are – my thoughts on what I consider to be my favorite film and one that I think mystery fans ought to watch. I did keep my comments spoiler-free and if you haven’t seen it yet I would strongly suggest avoiding reading anything else about it before you do – even the blurbs tend to spoil the film’s biggest moment…

Whether you agree with me or not, I would love to hear your own thoughts about the film and, if not, of course I’d be interested in your own picks!

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Allison Markin Powell

The Gun
Fuminori Nakamura
Originally published as 銃 in 2003
English translation published in 2015

The Gun is the story of a young man’s growing obsession with a gun he discovers next to a body under a bridge near the river while wandering late at night. Instinctively picking it up, he takes it home with him where he cleans it and examines it more closely, finding there are four bullets left in its chamber.

After he starts to carry it with him everywhere he begins to fantasize about firing the gun…

Though it is labelled a crime novel, I think it would be more accurate to describe The Gun as a piece of literary fiction, albeit one placed in the noir tradition. After all, for most of the novel’s page count there are no crimes beyond the possession of the gun itself and our focus is on exploring the protagonist’s precarious mental state.

The narrator, Nishikawa, is a university student who is something of a loner. While the novel begins with the discovery of the gun we get an impression of his life prior to that moment and it is clear that he was already exhibiting some warning signs.

He has one friend, Keisuke, but he has little affection for him, seeming disgusted by his lifestyle of heavy drinking and womanizing. While he also seduces women, he has little interest in them afterwards and certainly no interest in forming anything approaching a relationship. Not that he seems to find much pleasure in those pursuits either…

Possessing the gun does not change Nishikawa so much as it encourages some dormant personality traits to develop and emerge. In effect it serves as a catalyst, giving him the power and the confidence to become the person he would like to be and ignore his inhibitions. We see this manifest itself in several ways including his interactions with two women (it would be misleading to call them relationships or either woman a romantic interest). His behavior in both encounters becomes increasingly less responsive to the women’s preferences.

One of the most successful aspects of the novella is in the way it conveys the sense of obsession. The word gun appears frequently throughout the story, sometimes as often as every two or three lines and this is a really effective way of suggesting just how ever-present it is in Nishikawa’s thoughts. The writing conveys a fascination with the mechanism and with the sense of power it bestows and while I think there is a sense of inevitability about the story’s ultimate destination, I did find it interesting to witness some of the developments that push the story towards that conclusion.

The other aspect of the novella that I found to be particularly successful was the way it posed the question of whether the gun gives Nishikawa power or whether it is actually exerting it over him. At times the gun seems to almost possess a personality or an aura and seems to be willing him to act in particular ways and the reader may question whether this is simply a projection of his own desires or if it really does have a sort of hold over him. After all, he tells us quite clearly that he never had any interest in guns prior to finding this one and we have little reason to think he is manipulating us. Is it simply the allure of the forbidden or is there something almost supernatural about the gun?

As interesting as that idea can be, the problem for me was that the plot was not sufficiently complex. Indeed there is relatively little incident at all beyond his interactions with the two girls and a subplot involving a trip to the hospital to visit his father. The latter sequence provides an interesting viewpoint of his mindset and sense of priorities and self but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have been expanded on to explore the origins of Nishikawa’s sociopathic tendencies.

Instead the author chooses to provide the reader with suggestive moments but no clear answers. Denying the reader answers or a sense of resolution can be an interesting choice as it can provoke and engage a reader but here it feels that it simply fell outside the scope of the writer’s interest.

This is a shame because I think at its best the author’s depiction of obsession can be really quite effective. The problem is that as the novella strikes one note repeatedly, it ends up feeling a little repetitive by the point we reach the end and it fails to develop any great moments of surprise or the sense that the reader is engaging in an act of discovery.

So, overall this didn’t quite work for me but while I was a little underwhelmed by some aspects of this particular title I did enjoy the writing style enough that I am keen to try more of his work.

Hopefully the next title I pick will be more to my taste.

Further Reading

Normally I link to other blog reviews but I found this discussion between the author and his French translator and discussion of the film adaptation so interesting that I had to link to it. I will say that while I had some reservations about the novella, I am intrigued by the stills from the movie adaptation and would be curious to see it for myself.

Unboxing: Coffee and Crime (August 2019)

It has only been a couple of weeks since I opened my first Coffee and Crime subscription box on camera but I came home to find bookpost waiting for me and I couldn’t resist doing it all over again.

The Coffee and Crime subscription box is a venture by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime where the recipient receives a box containing two vintage crime novels (in very good condition) and other assorted goodies that crime fiction fans will enjoy. You can find out more details about the box itself and the various subscription offers at Kate’s Etsy store.

I paid full price for my own three month subscription and I have really enjoyed the surprise of discovering just what lies inside the boxes. Last month’s authors were both pretty much unknown to me and so far I have already tucked into (and loved) the spy thriller by Holly Roth. As you will see, I was much better acquainted with both of the authors – enough that I could actually comment a little about them.

Once again I was very happy with the package overall though I think my favorite surprise was the postcard. Which reminds me that I really ought to get around to writing (or perhaps talking about) that series of films in more detail…

Notes

My review of Holly Roth’s The Sleeper.

You can see my thoughts on the Elizabeth Daly novels I have read so far here.

Thoughts on the Ellery Queen novels.

The Opening Night Murders by James Scott Byrnside

The Opening Night Murders
James Scott Byrnside
Originally Published 2019
Rowan Mallory #2
Preceded by Goodnight Irene

I was recently looking back over my past few months of reviews and I came to a shocking realization: it has been almost half a year since I last read an impossible crime novel (that was The Tiger’s Head by Paul Halter). Clearly that couldn’t be allowed to stand so after a quick review of my TBR pile I decided to give James Scott Byrnside’s The Opening Night Murders a shot.

Detective Rowan Mallory is approached by the actress Lisa Pluviam who tells him that she has received an anonymous death threat warning her that she will be killed on her play’s opening night. She asks him for his protection which he agrees to give, noting that the letter could only have been placed in her dressing room by one of the cast or crew.

During the performance Rowan and his partner Walter have each of the suspects under observation when Lisa topples over the balcony and falls to her death. No one was near her at the time she fell and yet while the police want to declare the death an accident, Rowan isn’t so sure…

That is a rather cut-down plot synopsis but I think it gives us a solid starting point to work from. For one thing this blend of the forewarned and impossible crime styles means that we are looking not only for tensions but for the possible mechanisms that might be used long before the murder actually takes place, effectively building up our tension and interest in those early chapters as we get to know the characters.

One of the things I appreciated about Byrnside’s writing of these early chapters is the clarity he is able to provide about characters’ positioning at the key moments leading up to and after the murder takes place. I had no difficulty visualizing the appearance of the crime and I liked that the alibis are not established by third parties but by the detectives themselves, allowing us to have confidence in the facts of the case.

The chapters that follow are just as strong as Byrnside drops a multitude of hints (and a fair few red herrings) that help build our understanding of each of the suspects and seem to suggest different possible explanations for why they would want Lisa dead. Following some of those trails can be quite exhilarating, in part because Byrnside paces those moments so well that it feels that you are almost always encountering some new fact or idea that changes your conception of the case.

One of the biggest moments comes with the second murder in the novel which is a vicious and apparently quite instinctive affair that seems quite different from Lisa’s death. Understanding how those two crimes relate to one another is key to figuring out what has happened and why and yet Byrnside’s construction of the story is so cleverly handled that I felt genuinely awestruck by that aspect of the explanation at the end (see TomCat’s review, linked below, for an even better explanation of why that is one of the most interesting parts of the novel).

Byrnside does provide us with a number of suspects to consider and does a pretty good job of distinguishing them, making it fairly easy to follow this phase of the novel. This is just as well as he does not do much to whittle down the suspect list for much of the story, with most suspects remaining highly credible until the big reveal takes place.

On the subject of the solution my feelings are a little mixed. On a mechanical level I think the plan was very creative and original and I was pleasantly surprised that the psychology of the crime is treated as being as important to the solution as those mechanisms. Everything felt logical and consistent to me, even if I was taken in by a false solution.

The reason I was a little disappointed was that the way that information is relayed to the reader. While the ideas are logical and interesting, they are quite complex and it is communicated to the reader in quite a long and dense speech in which alternative possibilities are acknowledged. I understand why this choice was made and I would concede that it pays off positively in other respects but I think it both highlights the artificiality of that moment that the sleuth wouldn’t be very direct and adds a possibility of confusion at a moment where the goal should be clarity. That being said, the pay-off to that sequence is so good that I can be persuaded to overlook it.

I did really enjoy spending time with Byrnside’s pair of sleuths and I respected that he is able to provide them with quite distinctive voices and personalities. Their friendship is so central to the novel and I loved the sort of friendly rivalry and conflict they have at times, particularly on the question of what should come next for them. I should acknowledge however that while their relationship is perfectly clear for anyone who might pick up this book before the previous title in the series, readers should be aware that it spoils substantial parts of the solution to that story. This, in my opinion, is unfortunate, particularly as that information is not really used for any great purpose here and I think the scene could have been just as effective if the case had been discussed in a more abstract way.

As for the period setting, I think it is sometimes used quite effectively. For instance, the sequence in which we see some characters attend a party struck me as done effectively, showing a different side to this era than we will often see represented. On the other hand, there are some uses of language that struck me as a little anachronistic but not in such a way as it felt like it was being done deliberately as a stylistic choice. I can’t say that it undermined my enjoyment of the story in any significant way but it does mean that while I enjoyed the setting, I wouldn’t recommend it as an example of the historical mystery novel genre.

I would have no compunction however in happily recommending it to any readers who enjoy an impossible crime. The premise is clever, the solution imaginative and the characters, compelling – particularly the two sleuths who I look forward to encountering again in the vampire-themed prequel that gets referenced during this adventure.

Further Reading

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time declares the novel another sign of a really exciting new voice in neo-orthodox mystery writing (I love that description by the way). I agree with almost everything in that review – particularly the comments about the comparison between the first and second murders which are really perceptive.

JJ @ The Invisible Event is similarly very excited by Byrnside’s work although he does suggest that the solution, while smart and inventive, requires some careful reading to understand.

Meanwhile Brad @ Ah, Sweet Mystery provides some superb perspective on the theater angles of the novel and while he prefers the first installment, heartily recommends it.

Unexpected Night by Elizabeth Daly

Unexpected Night
Elizabeth Daly
Originally Published 1940
Henry Gamadge #1
Followed by Deadly Nightshade

Back at the start of the year I posted about my excitement at finding an affordable vintage crime novel in a local second hand book store. Since then I returned to the same book store and found that they had acquired used copies of most of the rest of Elizabeth Daly’s works. It was a pretty simple decision to go ahead and buy up their stock for a rainy day…

That previous experience of Daly was with her last book, The Book of the Crime, so it is nice to be able to jump back and start the Gamadge series at the beginning. Unexpected Night introduces us to Daly’s antiquarian bookseller sleuth as he finds himself pulled into a case as an expert in handwriting analysis.

The story concerns Amberley Cowden, a young but very sickly man who will inherit a great fortune if he lives past midnight when he reaches the age of majority. He and his family check into a hotel where he celebrates his birthday only to sneak out from his room during the night. When his body is found at the foot of a cliff it appears he has met with an unfortunate accident but the timing of the death, so soon after he inherited his fortune, leads the authorities to want to look at the matter more closely.

As set-ups for mysteries go, this makes for a pretty intriguing start to a case. Why was Cowden walking along the cliffs so late at night? If he was killed, why do it so soon after he reached his birthday and knowing that a natural death would likely occur within the next year or two? There is a lot to make sense of – fortunately Gamadge is up to the task!

When I wrote about The Book of the Crime one of my complaints was that I felt that we didn’t really get to know Daly’s sleuth. While I think he is not sketched in enormous detail here either, I did feel I had a better grip on his personality throughout the novel and understood why he was curious about particular details of the investigation.

One of the big challenges with any amateur detective is creating a credible reason that they might find themselves involved in an investigation. I appreciated that Daly does not shy away from this problem, having Gamadge say pretty bluntly that he is not really qualified to help on several occasions and quickly steering the investigation away from his area of expertise (though not in such a way that it becomes irrelevant). After a while however his curiosity is clearly aroused and he finds himself drawn to protect one of the family members who he sees as vulnerable, creating a compelling reason for him to keep investigating.

One of the nicest things about the character is that he exudes a warmth that I am not used to from several of the more famous series detectives of this period. He cares about the people involved in this case and works hard to take their feelings into account as he pursues the truth. This connection to his humanity is rather refreshing and I also appreciated that he never really feels the need to show off his skills – his ego being confined to his own area of professional expertise.

Daly also introduces an interesting dynamic between him and the Police, having him work as a sort of informal consultant. This works nicely as it allows them to share information but it also enables her to show how Gamadge possesses a brilliant and creative mind, building him up without diminishing the police (also fairly unusual in my experience of this era of detective fiction). Essentially the contrast comes down to one of flexibility – Gamadge dares to question some of the details of the case taken as facts and, in doing so, is able to envisage the case in a different way.

In her review (I have linked below), Kate suggests that Daly does not offer quite enough evidence to back up some aspects of the conclusion. I think that it is true that Gamadge should not be able to prove his case with the evidence the reader has been given at the moment of the reveal and, thus, the book perhaps doesn’t quite play fair. That being said, I do see how Gamadge’s solution (even lacking evidence to prove it in a court of law) could be seen to offer a tidiness that no alternative reading of the facts would allow. The way Daly opts to have the case proved though is quite lazy, relying on a third party to confirm a significant chunk of the solution he could otherwise only guess at and I do think it is those final two chapters feel a little rushed and unsatisfying as a result.

There are many other aspects of the book that I responded very well to however, not least the interesting cast of suspects Daly develops. Cowden’s family make up an interesting blend of types, clearly all financially dependent on their relative to some extent. Daly does a good job of allowing their personalities and feelings towards Amberley to emerge over the course of the novel as I found that I remained uncertain of several characters’ motivations and sincerity until close to the end of the novel. This added to the intrigue of the situation and made aspects of the conclusion all the more compelling to me.

I also appreciated the wonderful descriptions of the small theatre that Atwood has created on an old pier with the actors using tents on the sand for changing rooms and all the small cast having to double or triple up on parts. I found this an easy location to imagine and felt that Daly did a good job of bringing her cast of theatrical characters to life.

All in all, I found this second experience with Gamadge to be a much more satisfying encounter than my first. The mystery, while not perfectly clued, is engaging and presents a solid puzzle for the reader to solve and I found the sleuth entertaining company for a couple of hours. As I noted at the start of this article, I own most of Daly’s works so I am confident that I will be returning to experience more of his adventures soon.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime found the book uneven, though she had praise for the sleuth himself and Daly’s writing style. I cannot disagree with her opinion that the evidence for the conclusion rests a lot on a statement from a third party.

Les @ Classic Mysteries suggests that while this is an entertaining read, it is far from Daly’s strongest work. He suggests that as they do not need to be read in order that some may want to start with a later title and then return to this.

The Sleeper by Holly Roth

The Sleeper
Holly Roth
Originally Published 1955

The Sleeper was one of the two books I received in my first Coffee and Crime shipment and after a quick skim of the blurb it immediately leapt to the top of my TBR pile.

The novel is a Cold War-era spy-thriller from the American author Holly Roth. Writer Robert Kendall is surprised when representatives of the FBI and Counter Intelligence Corps turn up to investigate an attempted robbery at his home. As he is questioned he becomes certain that the thieves were seeking notes he may have made relating to a series of articles he is writing for The Courier about an army lieutenant who had been sentenced for treason.

The nature of the crimes committed by Lieutenant Hollister were not known to the public. After receiving heavy criticism for its handling of the affair, the army agreed to allow a journalist of their choosing to write a general profile of the man on the condition that the article would not touch on any specifics of the case.

This conversation begins a cagey game played between Kendall and the two agents throughout the novel as they each attempt to extract some information from the other party. This leads Kendall to follow up on some leads from his article as he attempts to understand what the attempted burglars hoped to find hidden in his notes and what crime Hollister had committed.

Perhaps the weakest part of the book is the question concerning the nature of Hollister’s crime. Roth basically tells the reader what he is accused of in the title and so the revelation will hardly come as a surprise to most. Fortunately it doesn’t take long to get to that point and once this information is broken however, deeper and more complex questions and puzzles follow. There is some really clever and thoughtful plotting and I was pleasantly surprised by how many opportunities Roth provides for the reader to engage in ratiocination – a far from typical feature in the spy thriller genre.

One of the cleverest aspects of Roth’s story is the way she constructs the narrative, starting us at the point at which Kendall learns about the government’s suspicions. This produces a slightly disorienting effect as we wait to learn more details about Kendall’s circumstances but it does allow Roth to focus on providing us with the most important information up front, filling in the details once the reader has been hooked with the promise of detecting some sort of conspiracy or cracking a code. In essence it enables Roth to compact her narrative, creating an intriguing situation where Hollister is much talked about but never actually present.

This choice also highlights the importance of the characters of the two agents, Gregory and Windham, and the tension that is created with Kendall. The relationships between these three men really dominate the rest of the story, providing it with much of its intrigue and tension, and it is interesting to ponder whether this is an aspect of the book that would be read differently today by modern readers than its contemporary audience. I certainly was struck by how hard it is to get a solid read on the men and their intentions and while I do not think that Roth’s presentation of these two government officials would register as provocative today, there is a certain cynicism in the way they are attempting to manage things that I find fascinating and ahead of its time.

The character of Marta Wentwirth is also quite curious, appearing quite enigmatically throughout much of the story. I appreciated that Roth writes her as being intelligent and acting independently of the other characters, in part because her interests in the case are quite different (she feels her reputation was damaged by Kendall’s article). Roth does a good job of keeping characters’ allegiances ambiguous, helping to build that sense of mystery as to just what is going on. If there is an issue it is with the attempts to build up the character as a sort of love interest, though the lack of depth to that relationship is perhaps inevitable given the length of the novel and the extreme circumstances in which the characters are thrown together.

While I would describe Roth’s story as a thriller, I suppose it should be said that the emphasis here is on understanding situations rather than action sequences. There is only one sequence in the whole book that really fits that description and even that is kept quite short with the emphasis falling on the discovering the reasons for that situation rather than describing the action. Regardless I found the work to be very effective at building tension, particularly as Kendall spends so much of the story acting instinctively without all of the information he needs to make informed decisions.

Roth’s story builds to a really strong, dramatic conclusion that I mostly liked. Here, once again, I think that the book reflects the time it was written in and while it wasn’t necessarily the ending I would have written, I still found it made for a striking conclusion to a story that I had found thoroughly engaging and entertaining.

Overall, my first experience of Holly Roth was an overwhelmingly positive one. I was impressed by how compact this story was, feeling that not a page was wasted and that everything served the narrative and its themes well. While the overall direction of the story will probably be anticipated by most modern readers, I think it is executed quite brilliantly and dramatically, building some clever puzzles and proving interesting thematically.

If you can track down an affordable copy, I would thoroughly recommend this.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Out of your comfort zone (Why)