Colin Dexter’s “Evans Tries an O-level” follows kleptomaniac James Evans’s creative and highly complicated attempts to break out of prison. After three escapes at various maximum-security prisons, Evans is transferred to Oxford Prison, overseen by the prideful, no-nonsense Governor. Despite the Governor’s best efforts, Evans escapes yet again—he studies O-level German for six months, sits for the final exam, and escapes disguised as the proctor in the final moments. Although Evans’s deception is not necessarily lauded as something the reader should replicate, Dexter takes a permissive, almost admiring attitude toward Evans’s trickery. As the story unfolds, Dexter suggests that Evans’s deception is successful—and somewhat commendable—because it requires intelligence, careful preparation, and flexibility.
Throughout the story, Evans displays various kinds of intelligence, all of which work together to ensure his successful escape from prison. In preparing for his escape, Evans uses his emotional intelligence to cleverly appeal to the senior prison officer’s empathy and make sure his plan goes according to plan. On the day of Evans’s exam, the officer, Jackson, gruffly tells Evans to clean himself up and take off his filthy hat. Readers immediately get the sense that the hat is somehow critical to Evans’s escape plan; the prisoner instantly tries to make himself seem as pitiful and humble as possible so that Jackson will allow him to keep it on. With one hand resting “lovingly on top of the filthy woollen,” Evans “smile[s] sadly” and tells Jackson that his old cap is “the only thing that’s ever brought me any sort o’ luck in life. Kind o’ lucky charm […] And today I thought—well, with me exam and all that…” As Evans trails off, he thinks to himself that there must be “a tiny core of compassion” that is “buried somewhere in Jackson.” Evans is permitted to keep his hat—but “Just this once, then, Shirley Temple”—showing that he used his emotional intelligence to skillfully manipulate the otherwise gruff officer’s emotions. Evans demonstrates his intelligence in other ways, too. During the actual exam, Evans picks up on the extremely subtle clues that his proctor (one of Evans’s accomplices disguised as a parson named Reverend Stuart McLeery) leaves for him. For example, when McLeery tells Evans to write his “index number” and “centre number” in the corner of his exam (313 and 271, respectively), Evans discerns that this is actually a six-figure reference on a map: 313/271 on the Ordnance Survey Map for Oxfordshire points to the nearby city of Chipping Norton. He also knows that he’s specifically supposed to go to the Golden Lion Hotel in that town because of a different clue McLeery (and another accomplice, posing as the Assistant Secretary at the Examinations Board) dropped during the exam, pointing out that a certain phrase on Evans’s exam sheet contains a typo and should actually read “zum goldenen Löwen,” or “golden lion.”
When the Governor catches up to Evans after his escape from prison, Evans shows off a surprisingly academic brand of intelligence. Despite his struggles with German (he openly admits that he barely understood any German over the six months he “studied” it), he demonstrates his inexplicable knowledge of chemistry. He explains to the Governor that the blood he doused himself in when pretending to be the freshly attacked McLeery was actually pig’s blood. Obtaining the blood wasn’t too difficult, but clotting was the real issue: “to stop it clotting you’ve got to mix yer actual blood (…) with one tenth of its own volume of 3.8 per cent trisodium citrate! Didn’t know that, did you sir?” All the Governor can do is slowly shake his head in “reluctant admiration” for the surprisingly astute Renaissance Man that Evans is shaping up to be.
Evans’s meticulous preparation and flexibility when things go astray also play a key role in his deception and success. When Jackson tells Evans that it’s no use trying to escape today—his cell his bugged, and both Jackson and the Governor will be “watching [him] like a hawk” during his exam—Evans is unruffled. The extra eyes don’t concern him, because “He’d already thought of that, and Number Two Handkerchief was lying ready on the bunk—a neatly folded square of white linen.” Although readers aren’t yet given insight into how the handkerchief will aid his plot (or the meaning behind its name), it seems to be somehow part of Evans’s well-thought-out plan. (Later, the handkerchief appears as part of Evans’s careful disguise as McLeery.) Near the end of the story, it’s clear that the man whom the Secretary of the Examinations Board arranges as the proctor, Reverend Stuart McLeery, is not the real McLeery but is one of Evans’s cronies from the outside. Evans’s careful planning extends even to the fake McLeery, somehow instructing him ahead of time to bring a “smallish semi-inflated rubber ring” in his briefcase and to pass it off as a special cushion to sit on that alleviates his chronic hemorrhoid problem. This ring, which is covertly filled with pig’s blood, is essential in Evans’s plan to disguise himself as the proctor who has been brutally attacked by Evans. When the prison officers search McLeery’s briefcase and question him about the rubber ring, he tersely explains its use, and the officers blush and allow McLeery to carry on (though they do confiscate the proctor’s metal paper knife). It seems that Evans’ ingenuity led him to choose bizarre “tools” that would not be at risk of being confiscated.
When things diverge from the plan, like when Evans successfully escapes but is then found at his hotel room, he manages to think quickly and adjust his plan accordingly. As the Governor leads Evans into a prison van, readers rooting for the loveable antagonist may believe all hope is lost. However, as the Governor watches the van drive away toward the prison, the scene suddenly shifts to inside the van, where someone is quickly unlocking Evans’s handcuffs and discussing where they should run off to now.
Intelligence and Deception ThemeTracker
Intelligence and Deception 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.”
“See you soon, Evans.” It was almost as if the Governor were saying farewell to an old friend after a cocktail party.
“Cheerio, sir. I, er, I was just wonderin’. I know your German’s pretty good, sir, but do you know any more o’ these modern languages?”
“Not very well. Why?”
Evans settled himself comfortably on the back seat, and grinned happily. “Nothin’, really. I just ‘appened to notice that you’ve got some O-level Italian classes comin’ up next September, that’s all.”
“Perhaps you won’t be with us next September, Evans.”
James Roderick Evans appeared to ponder the Governor’s words deeply. “No. P’r’aps I won’t,” he said.