Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Rhys Bowen's Evanly Bodies

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has successfully arrived at our fifth stop - the letter "E." Thanks, as always, to our guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us safe and for choosing excellent accommodations ;-). For this stop on our murderous journey, I've chosen Rhys Bowen's Evanly Bodies. Published in 2006, it's the tenth in her Constable Evan Evans series.

The novel begins with the arrival of the Khan family in the Welsh village of Llanfair, the home of Constable Evans and his new wife Bronwen. No-one's really comfortable with the new arrivals. The locals are rather suspicious of foreigners anyway, and the Khan family is Pakistani, with different customs and religious traditions. For their part, the Khans have experienced quite a lot of prejudice already, and are wary of their new neighbours. But when Jamila Khan, the family's sixteen-year-old daughter, helps Bronwen with groceries and is invited for dinner, Bronwen and Jamila strike up a friendship.

Meanwhile, Evan gets news of a new initiative in the police department to get police from different areas to work together, and to cut down on response times when a major crime occurs. Three new Major Incident response teams are being created, each to be staffed with an Inspector, a Sergeant and two Constables. These teams will take turns being "on call" in case of a major crime. The team to which Evans has been assigned gets its first chance to go into action almost immediately when Martin Rogers, a professor in the History Department at the University in Bangor, is shot through his kitchen window. The team is investigating this shooting when there's another, very similar shooting. This time, Luigi Alessi, the owner of an Italian café, is the victim. The two victims seem to have almost nothing in common. They'd never met, didn't move in the same circles and didn't live in the same town. Then, there's a third shooting; Terry Owens, an out-of-work machinist, is shot in the same way as the first two victims. The only thing these three murders really have in common is that the same weapon's been used.

While Evans' team is trying to make sense of the three shootings, trouble erupts on another front. Jamila Khan has disappeared, and it's presumed she's run away because her family has planned to send her back to Pakistan to get married. The Khan family blames Bronwen Evans at first, and accuses her of shielding Jamila. Even when they're persuaded that the Evans family had nothing to do with Jamila's disappearance, tensions between the Khans and the other villagers rise and Bronwen begs her husband to help find the girl. Evans decides to risk his new boss' wrath and get involved in the case even though he's been told to leave that political "hot potato" alone. In the end, Evans' decision to help find out what happened to Jamila proves to be the right one; his search for her leads him to the vital connection among the three murders he and his team are investigating.

Some very interesting elements are woven throughout this story. One of them is the blurring of lines between right and wrong. For instance, when Evans discovers what the connection is that links the three murders, there's a real feeling of sympathy for the killer. We understand completely why the murders have occurred and although it's hard to justify killing, we can see why in this case, the murderer felt driven to kill. And yet, as Evans' boss Inspector Bragg says, it's not the detectives' job to determine whether a killing is justified. Their duty is to catch criminals.

Jamila Khan's disappearance also raises moral and ethical questions. Her family blames the Evans family and the local culture for what's happened to Jamila. They're bitter and angry and they feel that none of what befalls them would have happened if they'd been treated differently. For their parts, the villagers feel that Jamila should have the right to marry whom she wishes to marry, when she wishes to do so, and that the family is putting Jamila in danger by planning to send her back to Pakistan. There are painful and insulting things said by both sides in this conflict. And yet, Rhys Bowen does not use this sub-plot to preach; rather, we see the effect of this set of questions and of this prejudice on the individuals involved.

This novel is a police procedural, although it's not a dark, gritty one. So another element we see in the story is the details of a criminal investigation. We follow the team as evidence is collected, witnesses interviewed, leads followed, and "wrong turns" made. We also see the politics of police work. For instance, feathers are ruffled when the Major Incident teams are created; in a few places in the story, the local police are put off by the team's arrival and there's jockeying for position, as there nearly always is when one team arrives on another's patch. There's also quite a bit of politics within Evans' team itself. Inspector Bragg is skilled enough, but he's not particularly imaginative or creative, and he has no respect for the members of his team. For instance, when the team is first investigating Rogers' murder, Bragg wonders aloud where the shot came from, since the evidence is puzzling.

"'The shot could have come in through the window, sir,' Evan said.

Bragg turned on him with a patronizing smirk. 'Through the window, Constable? The
window, in case you haven't noticed, is closed.'

'Somebody could have closed it,' Evan said.

'He's not wrong sir,' Detective Sergeant Wingate said, looking out into the garden."

It turns out that Evans is correct and that the murderer closed the window, but Bragg refuses to give him any credit for that observation (or many others he makes) because he (Bragg) is in charge. In fact, when the murders are solved, it's Bragg that takes the public credit for the case. And yet, Bragg isn't painted in a completely negative way. He works as hard as any of the team members, and he's determined that his Major Incident team will get "good marks" with the top brass and distinguish itself.

Throughout the novel, there's also a strong sense of the Welsh culture and language. For instance, Evans himself is bilingual, and several of the other characters also speak Welsh. For example, at one point, Evans uses Welsh to ask Gwyneth Humphries, one of Martin Rogers' colleagues in the History Department, for some of her time. She says

"'I suppose I can manage to spare you a few minutes…And why didn't you tell me you spoke Welsh yesterday? I much prefer using my own language in my own country, if you please.'

'Inspector Bragg, who is my boss, isn't fluent enough to conduct his interviews in Welsh,' Evan said."

The use of that language lends a real sense of place and people to the novel.

This is the tenth in Bowen's series about Constable Evans, but it's really not necessary to have read the previous nine in order to enjoy this one. But what do you think? Have you read Evanly Bodies or any of the other novels in the series? If you have, what elements have you seen?


  1. Yet another new writer to add to the list (but not to buy yet - oh no).

    I like her puns on the name of Evans.

  2. I wish I had the time to read them all, Margot. I don't complain for the amount of books, but for the little time available to read them.

  3. Dorte - I know exactly what you mean about the difference between adding books to the list and actually buying them. I don't even want to think about my list *shudder*. And yes, I like her puns very much, too.

    José Ignacio - *Sigh* I agree completely! There is just never enough time to read all of the books I want to read...

  4. I do like Rhys Bowen books - I just haven't read enough of them. Thanks for participating in this week's CFA

  5. I haven't read any of Rhys Bowen's books. I would have thought from the title that this is a 'cozy', would you say it is?

  6. Not read any of her books, but this book definitely sounds like a Must Read for me. More so because of the cultural associations of the Pakistani family- I have relatives in the US who are living in a timewarp, and can't even imagine some of the things I took for granted.
    My cousin (six years YOUNGER), for instance, was never allowed to go out with boys, and she's been conditioned to think she can only marry a man of her parent's choosing. My parents met my husband, only after we had been going around for a bit- and I am the one born and brought up in India.

  7. Kerrie - I know what you mean; I haven't read enough of them, either but like you, I do like them.

    Margaret - I actually would call this a cosy. That said, though, there is definitely depth and "bite" to this one. It's a light right but not "froth," if you get my point.

    Rayna - How interesting that your U.S.-based relations have such very different ideas about what is right and wrong to those you and your family have. I'm not a sociologist, but it would be very interesting to do a study of how living in a different country affects a family's cultures, values, etc..

    I think one thing that makes this novel work is that all of the characters are presented as real people. I'm not Pakistani, so I am not in position to really say, but the Khan family didn't seem a group of caricatures.

  8. Cool! After you mentioned it in a previous post, I've been wanting to read it! Thank you.

  9. Clarissa - It is a good 'un, I think. It's a cosy, as I mentioned to Margaret, but it's got things to think about and some "bite" to it. I hope you'll enjoy it.

  10. You're right--the Evans books are good fun with a bit to think about in them. I've got EVAN'S GATE sitting on the TBR pile right now....
    Here's my "E":

  11. Bev - Oh, you put that quite well :-). The Constable Evans books are fun, but there are things to think about, too.... And thanks for posting your link. Heading there now...

  12. Another 'new to me' book to add to my must read list. You've peaked my interest with this post. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  13. Mason - I'm glad your interest has been piqued; this one is a nicely-done part of a solid series, and I hope you'll like it.

  14. This sounds very very good. I will check it out.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: E post!

  15. Gautami - Thanks; I do think you will like it. And thanks for sharing your own post. You've chosen a very intriguing-sounding book :-).