Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rhys Bowen's Evans Above

Chris reports on our discussion on January 12, 2006 of Rhys Bowen's work.
Although we sorely missed the leadership, comments, and note-taking ability of our coordinator, we still had a good meeting as we discussed Evans Above, the first in the Constable Evans series by Rhys Bowen. The story is set in Wales in an imaginary village named Llanfair, situated in the very real north Wales region of Snowdonia, home of the grim and challenging Glyderau mountains. Evan Evans has given up police work in the big city to be the constable of this charming if eccentric village, where he is distinguished from Evans-the-Meat (the butcher), Evans-the-Milk (the milkman), and Evans-the-Post (can you guess?) by being called Evans-the-Law. At first his biggest problem seems to be walking a tightrope between Betsy the voluptuous barmaid and Bronwen the classy school teacher, both of whom have set their caps for him. But then the murders in the mountains begin, and so does Evans' real detective work. And "high above, the mountain watched and waited…."
The meeting began as usual with food, this time Welsh-inspired dainties like Eccles cakes and fairy cakes. As promised, one of our new members hooked his laptop up to the digital projector and gave a stunning Powerpoint presentation on the Welsh landscape of the book, using Google Earth's satellite images to swoop down closer and closer to and through the green mountains and valleys of Snowdonia. The total effect was spectacular. He showed us the location and vistas for almost every location mentioned in the book, from the Pyg Track (image above) and Miner's Track to the views across the valleys, and also the probable location for the fictional Llanfair. Yes, with the colors and continous movement, it was like being at the movies. It reminded some of us "older ones" of the old 3-D Cinerama movies, or for the younger readers amongst us, the "Soaring over California" simulated ride at Disney's California Adventure. We saw pictures of the Snowdon Cog Railway Station, the prison, and Swansea Grammar School—alma mater of our hero Evan AND Dylan Thomas. As well as photos of flora and fauna and of hikers crossing the treacherous Crib Goch (image left), the knife-edged ridge trail that figures in the climax of Evans Above.
After that, it seemed almost anticlimactic to discuss the book, but of course we did. Members either really liked it, or really didn't. It seemed to depend on whether they liked cosies or not. But all agreed that it did fit the mold of the cosy: a closed society, in this case a village; a minimum of graphic blood and gore, even though deaths occur; and our hero, though not an amateur, is only a village constable. He solves the case though keen observation, an understanding of human nature, and, of course, by listening to village gossip. And as one (staff) member observed, everyone surely did drink a lot of tea!
The mystery was a little too cozy for some, who found the story less than gripping and thought the plot could have been more suspenseful. Others found it a fair read. The author laid plenty of clues, there were plenty of viable suspects, and the solution surprised more than a few. One member recommended sticking with the series, saying that Evans Only Knows gets a bit darker. Another recommended Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy series, set in early 1900s New York. And several said the mystery reminded them of M.C. Beaton's Hamish MacBeth series, or the movie The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. One member had the privilege of meeting Bowen at a book signing event early in her career and said that Bowen had written earlier books under a different name (According to Contemporary Authors, the author borrowed her Welsh grandfather's name as a pen name for the Constable Evan series.
Under her own name, Janet Quin-Harkin, she's written over 100 novels for young adults and children.)
The members were mostly agreed that the book's humor, characters, and Welsh setting were more entertaining than the mystery itself. While some characters were stereotypes and others more realistic, they were well drawn and added to the depiction of village life. Of course, some characters contributed more to comic relief than others, such as Mrs. Powell-Jones and the dueling vicars, and Major Anderson's identity and moral character surprised many. As for romance, the rivalry between Betsey and Bronwen is evidently developed further as the series progresses. Members found our quote that Agatha Christie disliked mysteries with a romantic subplot to be rather ironic, since such subplots are included in some of her own mysteries.
And finally, those who have traveled to Wales confirm that Bowen gives an authentic description of Welsh scenery, landmarks, and village life, and that villagers do indeed switch to the Welsh tongue when tourists enter the shop!