Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (Agatha Christie)

  • By Agatha Christie
  • First published: UK: Collins, September 1934; USA: Dodd Mead, 1935, as The Boomerang Clue

Bobby Jones, a Welsh vicar’s son, foozles his golf shot, drives it over a cliff – and finds a dying man. ‘W.d.t.E.?’ asks this cove before snuffing it. A woman claiming to be his sister turns up to identify the body; Bobby lets slip that he overheard the dying words; and somebody slips him eight grains of morphia – 16 times the lethal dose. Fortunately, Bobby has a strong constitution. Nothing daunted, he and flapper girlfriend Lady Frankie Derwent set out to nab the crooks.

Evans was Christie’s last hurrah for the light-hearted thriller. Goodbye to Tommy and Tuppence and Chimneys; hello to Poirot for the next 10 novels; and no more thrillers for almost a decade. Gangs are “low taste”, Frankie remarks: “A single-handed murder is much higher class.” But Christie bids adieu with panache.

Evans is almost a catalogue of early Golden Age devices: the wrongly identified corpse; the substituted photograph; the witness who doesn’t know what he knows; the attempt to kill him; the death of a millionaire; the will made under the influence of a bad, beautiful woman; impersonation; dope addicts and drug smugglers; a private asylum run by a sinister doctor; a frightened woman who fears someone is trying to kill her; and a locked-room murder.

The plot is a shaggy-dog story, but Christie has rarely been in higher spirits. Her plucky pair of amateurs stage automobile crashes, impersonate chauffeurs and solicitors, are tied up, hit on the head, poisoned, threatened with guns, and find true love. Lady Frankie chatters on as frenziedly as a Rossinian singer (Christie shares her thoughts about Macbeth, a play that fascinated her). The reader should be able to spot the villains without too much trouble; there are few red herrings, and those that are present, not easy to swallow; the emphasis is on the Wodehousian detection lark and Derwent do of the young people (and what very good fun it is, too!).

Blurb (UK)

Believe it or not, Bobby Jones had topped his drive!  He was badly bunkered.  There were no eager crowds to groan with dismay.  That is easily explained – for Bobby was merely the fourth son of the Vicar of Marchbolt, a small golfing resort on the Welsh coast.  And Bobby, in spite of his name, was not much of a golfer.  Still, that game was destined to be a memorable one.  On going to play his ball, Bobby suddenly came upon the body of a man.  He bent over him.  The man was not yet dead.  “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” he said, and then the eyelids dropped, the jaw fell…  It was the beginning of a most baffling mystery.  That strange question of the dying man is the recurring theme of Agatha Christie’s magnificent story.  Read it and enjoy it.

Blurb (US)

“We find the deceased came to his death by misadventure and we wish to add that the Town Council should immediately place a fence on the sea side of the path where it skirts the chasm.”

The coroner nodded approval.  The inquest was over.

And the entire case would have terminated just as quietly if young Bobby’s stomach had not miraculously resisted a dose of morphia large enough to kill three ordinary men.  By that feat the stomach became famous in medical circles, but it also aroused the suspicion of young Lady Frances Derwent, commonly known as Frankie.  Bobby knew very little about that mysterious “accident” which the jury had dismissed.  But evidently what he did know was enough to provide someone with a desire to murder him.

And thus commences one of Agatha Christie’s most swiftly-moving, lively and baffling cases.  The sleuths are a vivacious young couple who substitute inspiration and sharp wits for the usual police methods.  A number of “red herrings” result and they plunge into risks that would appal an experienced detective.  But that all adds immeasurably to the headlong enjoyment of the reader.

Here, in short, is a new Agatha Christie.  You will expect new thrills, new ideas, and new surprises.  You will get them.

Contemporary reviews

John O’London’s Weekly (8th September 1934):

Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 9th September 1934): Mrs. Christie’s new book is much more comfortable reading [than Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt].  The plot is very elaborate and full of surprises and adventures, but the great merit of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? lies in the delightful, easy dialogue and the really charming characters of the two young people who do the detecting.  One is, of course, sorry to miss Monsieur Poirot, but the greatest of detectives must take a rest sometimes, and Bobby Jones and Lady Frances (“Frankie”) Derwent are a most attractive substitute.  With them Mrs. Christie has been much more successful than with her earlier pair of youthful investigators, Tommy and Tuppence, who were a trifle sentimental and tiresome.  Bobby and Frankie are really jolly youngsters with a tang to their talk.

The tale starts on a golf course and ends in a madhouse—well, no, not quite there, for there is a comic and quite natural twist in the tail of it, and the actual finish is elsewhere.  But the madhouse produces many exciting scenes, though nothing so genuinely mad and bad and dreadful as the madness in The Murder of My Aunt.  This is one of Mrs. Christie’s best and liveliest stories, and may be enjoyed without a qualm from cover to cover.

The Guardian (Milward Kennedy, 21 September 1934): In life there always seems to be a number of people who, at the end of a murder trial, remain passionately sure that the man convicted by the jury is innocent. In a detective story the reader must be left with no such doubts; the author’s verdict must be unquestionable. Perhaps that is why authors are prone to endow their villains with a Brides-in-the-Bath tendency to be dissatisfied with a single crime.

In Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? there are two murders. It is not, however, the repetition of murder but an unsuccessful attempt which primarily causes the undoing of the villains. Two golfers find a man fallen over a cliff. “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” he inquires before he dies; and the dying question was intelligent, though one which, in Wales, presented obvious difficulties. Poirot has no part in this book; instead, a young man and a young woman who blend charm and irresponsibility with shrewdness and good luck contrive amusingly and successfully to usurp the functions of the police. The fault which I find is the overimportance of luck. For the villains it was, for example, singular good luck which enabled them to discover and identify an obscure vicar’s fourth son asleep on a solitary picnic; it was very bad luck for them that he was able to assimilate a sixteen times fatal dose of morphia. They were lucky, again, in having always at hand the properties required to make an extempore murder seem something else; and as for the Bright Young Couple – but these are defects which are little noticeable in the gay stream of Mrs. Christie’s narrative. Perhaps I should not have noticed them had I not read the book so quickly that, in a secluded village, there was nothing for it next day but to read it again with a sterner eye but no less enjoyment.

Times Literary Supplement (27th September 1934): Who on earth was Evans?  This was the question which Bobby Jones and his charming companion, Lady Frances (Frankie) Derwent were faced with when Bobby, while chasing a lost golf ball on the cliffs at Marchbolt, found instead the body of a dying man.  The stranger, whoever he was, had died without giving any clue to his identity or to how he had fallen over the cliff beyond the photograph of a woman and the rhetorical question which Mrs. Agatha Christie has used as a title for her latest novel.  In the absence of Poirot, who, we must presume, is still on holiday, these two young things decided to investigate for themselves.  With the assistance of a big green Bentley, a chauffeur’s uniform and plenty of natural charm and enthusiasm Bobby and Frankie insinuated themselves into the Bassington-ffrench household in Hampshire.  Mrs. Christie describes the risks they ran in her lightest and most sympathetic manner, playing with her characters as a kitten will play on a ball of wool, and imposing no greater strain on her readers than the pleasure of reading at a sitting a story that tickles and tantalises but never exhausts their patience or ingenuity.

Books (Will Cuppy, 22nd September 1935, 230w): This is Agatha Christie at her likeable best—minus Hercule Poirot, but thoroughly entertaining in a not too solemn way.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 28th September 1935, 170w): The book is full of amusing chatter and a satisfactory love story develops.  In spite of a murder or two there is scarcely a grim moment, so light hearted are all concerned.

Sat R of Lit (28th September 1935, 50w)

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 29th September 1935, 280w)

Boston Transcript (5th October 1935, 230w): Mrs. Christie knows her business.  We have, therefore, all the elements of a successful mystery, but its conclusion somehow leaves us unconvinced.  The long arm of coincidence has been stretched so far that one more pull will wrench it from its socket.

Booklist (November 1935)

Time and Tide: I would hold Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? up to aspiring writers as a model of what a detective story should be.  It has all the classic virtues of economy of effect, effortlessness of plot, and sustainment of interest.

Manchester Evening Chronicle: Mrs. Christie at her best…  A neat and logical mystery, in which all clues are fairly given.

Glasgow Bulletin: Mrs. Agatha Christie at her best is one of the most ingenious of ‘thriller’ writers…  I’d be sorry for any one who couldn’t get some excitement out of this book.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The story hinges on an English custom which affects the witnessing of a will.  The detection is done by a titled lady and her (not very bright) sweetheart.  The merit consists largely in Agatha’s maintaining suspense about the small mystery of a name.

Agatha Christie: A Talent to Deceive (Robert Barnard): Lively, with occasional glimpses of a Vile Bodies world, though one short on Waugh’s anarchic humour and long on snobbery (“Nobody looks at a chauffeur the way they look at a person”).  Weakened by lack of proper detective: the investigating pair are bumbling amateurs, with more than a touch of Tommy and Tuppence.

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