Evan and Elle
by Rhys Bowen
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
274 pages, 2000
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Plot au Feu
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Nowadays, the sheep that graze on rolling pastures may be the only denizens of the British countryside that are still content. An influx of yuppies paying top dollar for anything that smacks of quaintness have set defenders of the good ol' days against neighbors all too happy to sell out to the city folk. Add a restless younger generation pining for urban thrills and you have all the fixings for first-rate crime fiction. It's no wonder that land once thought of as "cozy" territory has been claimed in the name of the police procedural.
Rhys Bowen's Evan and Elle is the fourth installment in an insightful series (which began with Evans Above, 1997) about a soft-spoken Welsh constable with a flair for hard-nosed detection. Evan Evans -- known in his village's parlance as Evans-the-Law -- is a handsome, well-liked young fellow involved with Bronwyn, the schoolteacher in tiny Llanfiar. His only problem, outside of an occasional parking dispute, is an urge to vacate his one-cop town and instead try his talents in what, for North Wales, is the big-time: the detective squad at Caernarfon headquarters.
Evans' desire to move up in the investigative world is rekindled when a rash of arsons strikes Llanfiar. A farmhouse lavishly remodeled by a pair of snotty yuppies is set on fire by someone who leaves a note warning, "You're not wanted here." Then the shed behind the local tourist inn goes up in smoke. Soon Mme Yvette, the rather exotic proprietor of Llanfiar's controversial new bistro, Chez Yvette, calls late at night to report a threatening note -- "GO HOME OR ELSE" -- left at her door. (When Evan ventures out to investigate, he barely escapes the lonely widow's offer to show him the difference between a girl and a woman. "It ees not easy for a woman alone," Mme Yvette purrs, shifting closer on the sofa as he attempts to conclude the interview.) All signs point to someone trying to scare off foreigners, but that could be any of the locals who drink at the Red Dragon and grumble about newcomers.
While enjoying a romantic dinner with Bronwyn at Chez Yvette a few nights afterwards, Evans witnesses Mme Yvette oddly upset by a comment from a lone male diner. When the bistro subsequently goes up in flames, it's more than just another arson: A man's burnt body is found in the restaurant's bathroom.
The region's new arson expert, Sergeant Potter, has been hoping to get to the bottom of the Llanfiar fires, elbowing Evans aside ("Don't go mucking up my evidence," Potter warns). But when the body is discovered, the Caernarfon homicide detectives give the ungracious Potter himself the shove and take over the investigation.
Mme Yvette, though clearly frightened, is so strangely uncooperative that the detectives peg her as a murderer. Only Evan refuses to believe that the restaurateur is guilty -- even though he knows she lied to the police when she told them she'd paid no particular attention to the man dining in her establishment on the night of the fire. Evan goes on to uncover valuable physical evidence concerning the case, leading Sergeant Watkins, the detective in charge, to make a place for him on the investigative team. And it isn't much longer before Evan convinces Watkins that they must embark on an unusual journey through southern England and into France to discover the identity of the dead man -- a Frenchman who had entered the UK under a false name -- and his relationship to the ever more mysterious Mme Yvette.
A mixture of ambition, chivalry and uneasiness fuels Evan's investigation of the Frenchman's demise:
He knows that everything pointed to [Mme Yvette's] guilt, or at least to her involvement, but he didn't want to believe that she was capable of a crime. Would a woman who was contemplating a major crime actually invite intimacy with a policeman, he wondered. What if he'd taken up her up on her offer and they'd become romantically involved?
Characters such as Evan's sweetly overbearing landlady, two traditionalist ministers competing for parishioners, the condescending Potter, the libidinous Mme Yvette and the Francophobic Watkins bring more than a touch of comedy to Evan and Elle. But the lightness is sometimes deceptive. At least one of these superficially amusing characters harbors dark secrets, and the book turns out to be as complex and delicious as one of Mme Yvette's celebrated recipes. The plot thickens like a well-stirred sauce and readers will find themselves questioning the identities of victims and suspects, the integrity of villagers Evan thought he knew and trusted -- and even the motives of the charming constable himself. | June 2000
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.