|Rhys Bowen: A Little Slice of Evan|
Evan Can Wait, but Rhys Bowen's many fans can't -- at least not very patiently -- for the next book in her slyly engaging mystery series about the travails of Welsh constable Evan Evans.
Bowen, the bestselling author of Ten Boy Summer and other young adult novels, summered in Wales as a child. Originally, she viewed her tales of "Evans-the-Law" as a way of preserving the quirky charm of the Welsh village life she remembered. Then her characters took over. Shortly before the release of her fifth Llanfair mystery, Bowen talked to Crescent Blues about where the series and her other projects are heading.
Crescent Blues: How many Evans are there in Llanfair? How much does this reflect the reality of Welsh village life? (In other words, are the local naming customs really like that?)
Rhys Bowen: Apart from Constable Evan Evans (also known as Evans-the-Law), there is Evans-the-Meat (butcher) Evans-the-Milk (diaryman) Evans-the-Post (mailman). This nicknaming by profession was very common until recently.
There are very few Welsh surnames (most of which simply mean son of -- i.e., Evans is son of Evan). So every town had many people with the same name -- hence the colorful nicknames. Today it's not done so much, or it's moving more toward first names, as in my bulldozer operator, called Barry-the-Bucket, who really does exist.
Today Welsh villages are in the process of change. The young people are moving away as there are few jobs in the countryside and new people are moving in to open bed-and-breakfasts or restaurants, so a lot of these colorful old customs are dying out. That's one of the reasons I like writing these books -- so that readers outside of Wales can see what it was like to be truly Welsh.
Crescent Blues: Was Llanfair modeled on a real place (or a number of them)?
Rhys Bowen: Llanfair is a combination of several villages around Mt. Snowdon. However, I had to put it in a real physical spot, as I needed to use real routes up the mountain in my first book, Evans Above. The irony is that now the locals know where the village is, even though it doesn't exist. One woman wanted to know why I didn't send Evan to the youth hostel for help in a particular situation. I had to tell her that the youth hostel didn't exist in my world.
Llanfair is very typical of all the villages in that region -- two lines of cottages straggling up the mountain pass, fields of sheep behind it, a couple of little shops, a gas pump and several chapels. Apart from young people moving away, and the chapels closing for lack of attendance, not much has changed. Most people now have satellite TV and do their weekly shopping at the big supermarkets on the coast, but the villages retain their charm and identity, which is why I love going to visit every year.
Crescent Blues: Although your mother's family came from Wales, you grew up in England. How did this affect your perspective on Welsh life?
Rhys Bowen: I spent many childhood summers with relatives in Wales and heard my family talk about Wales and things Welsh from the time I was born, so I always had a sense of what being Welsh means. However, to a certain extent, I was always seeing things as an outsider. This might have been an advantage as I saw the humor in situations the local villagers took for granted.
Living in the States for so many years has been a big disadvantage. I always run the risk of making mistakes, as things can change -- and readers will always tell me when I get something wrong! I try to go back as often as I can -- at least once per book, and I have several helpful email correspondents on the spot to whom I can turn when I don't know something. During the course of a book so many little questions arise -- are fire trucks still red? What is a good name for a female sheep dog? These kind folk get me the answer by the next morning.
Crescent Blues: Did you ever worry that the setting of Constable Evans' investigations might seem too strange or foreign for a non-British audience?
Rhys Bowen: To be honest, I never thought about my potential readers when I decided to write this series. I had been telling a friend about my childhood summers in Wales. She had been laughing at my tales of Evans-the-Post reading all the mail and the two ministers being constantly at war. Then she asked, "Have you ever put this in one of your books?" And I knew what I had to write next.
I think the area's uniqueness is what makes it attractive. Mystery readers like to take a mini-vacation at the same time as reading a good story. Tony Hillerman's Southwest desert is unfamiliar territory to most of us, but it's part of the charm of reading his books. I think the vicarious travel aspect is one of the reasons readers like my books. Wales isn't just another county tacked on to England. It is a foreign land with its own unique flavor in food, speech, customs, even its own language. This is what I want to convey to readers in my books.
Crescent Blues: According to (wildly enthusiastic) advance notices, your fifth Constable Evans mystery, Evan Can Wait, breaks new ground for you as a mystery writer. What makes this book so special?
Rhys Bowen: I'm very excited about Evan Can Wait. It did break new ground for me, and I hope it will give me more credibility as a mystery writer. So-called cozy writers get little respect. My books have been called "charming and delightful," which is better than "bloody awful." But I would like to be taken seriously as a mystery writer.
Evan Can Wait is a darker and meatier book, with the story on a broader canvas than the previous ones. The plot begins with the raising of a German World War II bomber from a lake and a documentary on Wales in WWII. At the same time a parallel story is being told in the memoirs of old Trefor Thomas, who worked in a slate mine during the war. As the two stories progress, they reveal tragic similarities -- lost dreams, lost loves and maybe the same tragic ending.
I hadn't intended for the memoirs to be such a large feature of the book -- I let the old man tell his story and he just took over. Now I'm glad he did.
The book also shows more emotional depth in the relationship of Evan and Bronwen. But I've tried to keep alive the series' trademark humor that my readers have come to expect. Laura Lippman summed up very well what I was trying to achieve. She said, "Few writers are capable of this deft combination of dark and light. This is a pitch-perfect book which will charm you in one sentence, chill you in the next." I hope the book lives up to that extraordinary compliment!
Crescent Blues: Constable Evans enjoys the attentions of two Llanfair ladies, Bronwen and Betsy, who compete for his attentions and conspire to keep him from the attentions of anyone else. What's the inspiration for this unusual triangle?
Rhys Bowen: When I started the first book, I had no idea how any of the relationships would go. Bronwen and Betsy really represented the two sides of what Evan wanted in a woman. Brownen was a little too serious, Betsy a little too light and flippant. Now the characters have developed, and Evan has moved into a real relationship with Bronwen. However, Betsy is still there, lurking, tempting him and reminding him what he might be missing.
In the next book, Evans to Betsy, she will play a major part in the story.
Crescent Blues: For those accustomed to the police officers of American fiction, Constable Evans seems remarkably well grounded for a policeman. Is this a reflection of the British mystery tradition, or did the character arise from some other source?
Rhys Bowen: I can't really take credit for having created him. He just walked into my head one day. He's young and has been maturing during the first books. He's the sort of bloke you'd like to date, or your daughter to bring home. (Several readers have told me they are in love with him and jealous of Bronwen.) He's likeable and likes to please others (a trait which he probably gets from me), but he's not in any way a lightweight.
Like many British men, he keeps his emotions tightly locked away. Before the first book began he had witnessed his father being shot and then gone through something close to a breakdown. Coming to Llanfair and seeing if life in the small town made more sense was an act of desperation for him.
As the books have progressed, we see him struggling with ambition versus contentment. He likes the small town life, the fresh air, the freedom of being his own man, but increasingly he feels that he should be moving up the ladder, getting credit for his detective work and moving into a career suitable for a married man. Essentially he is growing and evolving the way we all do. I can't say where he'll end up.
I would find it much harder to write if I didn't like my main character. I can truly emphasize with what he goes through. He is never officially assigned to solve murders. He gets little credit when he does. But when he finds himself caught up in the investigation, he is driven to get to the truth, even if it means risking his career. I'd like to see this really come to a head in a future book -- maybe really having to defy some top brass to get to the truth.
Crescent Blues: How important is formula to the traditional mystery?
Rhys Bowen: Not important at all to me! Formula dictates that a body be found in the first fifty pages. My bodies usually don't appear until halfway through the book. I like to introduce all the characters, watch them interacting before one of them meets his maker. That way the reader has a basis for working out motive. I just want to tell a darned good story. If I can come up with some clever plot twists and a true surprise ending, then that is great. However it is the characters who are truly important to me.
I have to confess that I don't really know where the story is going when I start to write. I know who will be murdered. I'm pretty sure whodunit (although not always sure), but after that I just have to let things progress and be prepared to go off at unsuspected tangents sometimes. I find if I try to plot too far ahead, it comes out as stilted and wooden.
But if by formula you mean the conventions of the traditional mystery -- then I guess I adhere to certain conventions -- no grizzly violence onstage for one thing, good clues to lead readers to whodunit.
Crescent Blues: How closely do the police procedures described in your Constable Evans mysteries reflect Welsh procedure?
Rhys Bowen: If my mysteries reflected true police procedure, they'd be even funnier! When I was researching Evans Above, I went to Wales and asked at police HQ at Colwyn Bay how they would procede if they found a body on top of Mt. Snowdon. I was told that Mt. Snowdon as in the National Park and therefore handled by their station in Caernarfon. I went to Caernarfon and asked the same question. After a long pause the officer said…