In Colin Dexter’s “Evans Tries an O-Level,” a notorious kleptomaniac named James Evans makes his fourth escape from prison, this time from Oxford Prison, overseen by the no-nonsense Governor and a senior prison officer named Jackson. A tension between appearances and reality runs throughout the story, as many characters—especially Evans—subvert the expectations and judgments other people make of them based on their appearance. This impulse to judge based on appearance is particularly dangerous in the world of this mystery story, which is filled with deception and disguises. Dexter ultimately highlights how making judgments based on appearances is an unproductive habit, and that people and situations are not always what they seem.
It’s the grubby James Evans—who is terrible at German, dresses in ridiculous clothes, and cracks jokes so frequently that no one sees him as a “real burden”—who outwits everyone, showing that appearances can be deeply deceiving. Evans’s silly “red-and-white bobble hat” symbolizes the way Evans intentionally fulfills and subverts people’s expectations of him based on his appearance. The hat, a grimy knit beanie with a massive pom-pom fastened to the top, plays into people’s perceptions of him as a cheerful, ridiculous trickster. The Governor himself articulates the common stereotype of Evans at the beginning of the story: “Quite a pleasant sort of chap […] Bit of a card, really. One of the stars at the Christmas concert. Imitations, you know the sort of thing: Mike Yarwood stuff.” Evans’s penchant for impressions sums up the story’s warning of mistaking appearances for reality. Like Mike Yarwood—the 1960s impressionist, actor, and comedian—Evans has the capacity to convincingly pretend to be other people. However, this isn’t always for comedic effect; his well-honed acting skills allow him to believably impersonate his test proctor, McLeery, taking on the man’s clerical dress, Scottish accent, choppy haircut, and general demeanor in order to break out of prison. The extent to which appearances are misleading run even deeper in the story, however, when it’s revealed that Evans is actually doing an impersonation of an impersonation—the so-called Reverend McLeery who comes to conduct Evans’s German exam is an imposter himself (one of Evans’s many accomplices), as the real McLeery is bound and gagged back at his apartment.
The aftermath of Evans’s clever escape also reveals the futility of trusting in appearances. The two detectives, Detective Superintendent Carter and Chief Inspector Bell, are supposed to be the ones to solve the crime—once a prisoner has escaped the prison’s walls, it’s “a police job.” However, the confident detectives prove incompetent and fade from the story soon after being introduced. Despite being a “good-for-a-giggle, gullible governor” (as he assumes the police see him), the Governor is the one who cracks the case of Evans’s escape from Oxford Prison, piecing together Evans’s convoluted clues and ultimately tracking him down in the nearby city of Chipping Norton.
The story closes with yet another startling reminder that not everything is what it seems. After tracking down Evans, the Governor gloats quietly as he watches a silent prison officer handcuff Evans outside the Golden Lion Hotel and load him up in the prison van to be transported back to Oxford Prison. The Governor tells Evans that he’ll see him soon, and the two men say goodbye like “old friend[s] after a cocktail party,” leading the reader to believe that this a story that ends neatly with the “good guy” winning and the “bad guy” being successfully captured and sent back to prison. However, as the Governor watches the van drive away, the narrative suddenly jumps to the conversation unfolding inside the van, where the silent prison officer is unlocking Evans’s handcuffs and bickering with the driver about where they should run off to next. Once again, Evans (with help from his friends) has outsmarted everyone, a bittersweet ending that leaves readers with the unsettling reminder that appearances aren’t always trustworthy.
Appearances vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearances vs. Reality Quotes in Evans Tries an O-Level
“There’s no record of violence. Quite a pleasant sort of chap, they tell me. Bit of a card, really. One of the stars at the Christmas concert. Imitations, you know the sort of thing: Mike Yarwood stuff. No, he’s just a congenital kleptomaniac, that’s all.”
“Me ‘at? Huh!” Evans put his right hand lovingly on top of the filthy woollen, and smiled sadly. “D’you know, Mr Jackson, it’s the only thing that’s ever brought me any sort o’ luck in life. Kind o’ lucky charm, if you know what I mean. And today I thought—well, with me exam and all that…”
Buried somewhere in Jackson was a tiny core of compassion; and Evans knew it.
“Just this once, then, Shirley Temple.” (If there was one thing that Jackson genuinely loathed about Evans it was his long, wavy hair.)
“In the top right-hand corner write your index number—313. And in the box just below that, write your centre number—271. A’ right?”
“Will ye please stop writing a wee while, Mr Evans, and listen carefully. Candidates offering German, 021-1, should note the following correction. ‘On page three, line fifteen, the fourth word should read goldenen, not goldene; and the whole phrase will therefore read zum goldenen Löwen, not zum goldene Löwen.’ I will repeat that…”
There, sprawled back in Evans’s chair was a man (for a semi second Stephens thought it must be Evans), a grey regulation blanket slipping from his shoulders, the front of his closely cropped, irregularly tufted hair awash with fierce red blood which had dropped already through the small black beard, and was even now spreading horribly over the white clerical collar and down into the black clerical front […] the minister’s hand felt feebly for a handkerchief from his pocket, and held it to his bleeding head, the blood seeping slowly through the white linen.
“And which one of you two morons was it who took Evans for a nice little walk to the main gates and waved him bye-bye?”
“It was me, sir,” stammered Stephens. “Just like you told me, sir. I could have sworn—”
“What? Just like I told you, you say? What the hell—?”
“When you rang, sir, and told me to—”
“When was that?” The Governor’s voice was a whiplash now.
“You know, sir. About twenty past eleven just before—”
“You blithering idiot, man! It wasn’t me who rang you. Don’t you realise—” But what was the use? He had used the telephone at that time, but only to try (unsuccessfully, once more) to get through to the Examinations Board.
Yes, it had been a jolly good idea for “McLeery” to wear two black fronts, two collars. But that top collar! Phew! It had kept on slipping off the back stud; and there’d been that one panicky moment when “McLeery” had only just got his hand up to his neck in time to stop the collars springing apart before Stephens… Ah! They’d got that little problem worked out all right […] But all that fiddling about under the blanket with the black front and the stud at the back of the collar—that had been far more difficult than they’d ever bargained for […].
“Tell me, Evans. How did you manage to plan all this business? You’ve had no visitors—I’ve seen to that. You’ve had no letters—”
“I’ve got lots of friends, though.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Me German teacher, for a start.”
“You mean—? But he was from the Technical College.”
“Was ‘e?” Evans was almost enjoying it all now. “Ever check up on ‘im, sir?”
“God Almighty! There’s far more going on than I—”
“Always will be, sir.”