THE BOOK PAN,1968 pp 188
The very recognisable PAN photographic covers were introduced in the 1960s by David Larkin, possibly to distinguish them from the hugely popular Tom Adams covers of books by the same author for Fontana. This particular one is a beautiful book and, fifty or more years later, still in great condition.
The Tom Adams cover from the 1970s is not his finest by any means.
Vicar’s son Bobby Jones is playing golf with his friend Dr Thomas when they discover an unconscious, dying man at the bottom of a cliff. Bobby is left at the scene while the doctor goes to summon help. The man wakes, declaims “Why didn’t they ask Evans?”, and dies.
Bobby’s suspicions are aroused when the Caymans, a couple purporting to be the dead man’s relatives, visit the vicarage and ask whether the man had left any messages before he died. He shares his doubts with Lady Frances Derwent (“Frankie”), an old childhood friend, and they determine to investigate further, if only to find out who Evans was.
Bobby and Frankie form a familiar partnership. Familiar, that is, to those of Agatha Christie’s readers who had come across Tommy and Tuppence in their 1920s incarnation. This time it is the boy, not the girl, who is the child of a vicar, but otherwise the two pairs of characters could almost be interchangeable (ITV obviously agreed because they used the same two actors for each pair of characters in their 1980s adaptations).
There are other characters who seem recognisable from the earlier ‘light-hearted’ thrillers: the sinister doctor Nicholson, the terrified damsel in distress, the witless Wodehousean Badger, the affectionately-portrayed old buffer of a father … not to mention a villain who escapes justice, and at the end writes to the lead girl explaining all (as had also happened in The Man in the Brown Suit).
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
The issue of class permeates the book, in part because of the long-standing, awkward friendship between a vicar’s son and the daughter of a Lord:
The Derwents were, perhaps, a shade more friendly than they need have been as though to show that “there was no difference”. The Jones, on their side, were a shade formal, as though determined not to claim more friendship than was offered them.
People in those days, seemingly, knew their place (until the final page!). When a couple claiming to be the dead man’s relatives do not conform to the class stereotypes, Bobby’s suspicions are aroused:
‘The Caymans were a different class altogther. The dead man was … a pukka sahib.’
‘And the Caymans most emphatically weren’t?’
Here is Frankie reasoning, with undeniable if unfeeling logic, that Bobby will get away with his chauffeur’s disguise:
‘Nobody looks at a chauffeur the way that they look at a person.’
(Having served at table for a charity at a high-class feast at Madresfield Court recently, I can confirm that this observation still has the ring of truth to it.)
Bobby makes an interesting observation, one that could apply to all amateur detectives:
‘It’s as though we’d walked on to the stage in the middle of the second act and we haven’t really got parts in the play at all, but we have to pretend, and what makes it so frightfully hard is that we haven’t the faintest idea what the first act was about.’
With this observation, Agatha Christie is anticipating Tom Stoppard’s ground-breaking play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by about thirty years.
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
It is all a jolly enough story, and (as is often the case with Agatha Christie novels) the beginning is inspired, as is the book’s title, but the extremely convoluted plot takes some swallowing. There is a bit too much padding (pages and pages of Bobby and Frankie speculating about Dr Nicholson and various Bassington-ffrenches), but I guess that is understandable: this was to be the third book out of four to be published under her name in the same year (1934).
On the plus side, some of the observations in the book are very sharp and in a different league to the-bright-young-thing works of the previous decade, and the final twist at the end is very clever (and funny).
WHERE IT LED
This was the end of the line for Swigatha’s light-hearted thrillers. Things were to get a bit darker from then on.
Hugh Laurie’s version of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans was released on Britbox in 2022.
On the positive side, the main characters (Frankie, Bobby, Nicholson and Bassington-ffrench) were well-cast, so it was always worth watching and the first episode was very enjoyable.
The plot, unfortunately, became almost impossible to follow, because so many different, irrelevant elements were added to it, and hurriedly. That is a pity, because it started so well.
Very unfortunately, the brilliant joke that lay in the twist was smothered, and the escape of the ‘charismatic’ villain was erased. As a result of all the extra elements added, the explanation at the end was rushed, in much the same way that Branagh achieved in Death on the Nile.
There was a three-hour ITV adaptation in 1980 with a phenomenal cast, including John Gielgud, Eric Porter, Joan Hickson, Connie Booth, Leigh Lawson and Lynda la Plante (who later became one of the UK’s most successful crime-thriller writers). It was ‘serviceable’ but lacked the atmosphere that the Laurie version generated.
The parts of Bobby Jones and Lady Frances Derwent were played by James Warwick and Francesca Annis, who graduated from this to play another pair of bright young things in the Tommy and Tuppence series Partners in Crime. In between, Warwick had played yet another bright young thing, Jimmy Thesiger, in The Seven Dials Mystery, appearing alongside John Gielgud again.