Evans Tries an O-Level by Colin Dexter is an interesting story depicting how a young prisoner called James Evans befools the officers of the prison to escape under a well-laid out plan. Despite all precautions of the prison authorities, Evans is able to escape.
It is early March when the story opens. The Secretary of the Examinations Board received a telephonic request from the Governor of the Oxford Prison to create an examination centre in jail for one candidate named Evans. He started night classes in O-Level German last September. He was the only one in the class. The Governor enquires about the procedure. The Secretary asks him not to worry about it. He will be sending him all the forms and other necessary things. He enquires about Evans. The Governor assures him that there is no record of violence against Evans. It is decided to examine him in his prison cell. One of the persons from St. Mary Mags is arranged to invigilate. The Governor did not tell the Secretary that ‘Evans the Break’ had already escaped from prison three times. He would have done so from Oxford Prison if there had not been unrest in the maximum security establishments up north.
The Governor of Oxford Prison took personal interest to see that Evans got no chance to escape. One day prior to the examination i.e., on Monday 7 June, Evans’ German teacher shook him by the hand at 8:30 p.m. and wished him good luck. They met in the heavily guarded Recreational Block, just across from D. Wing. At 8:30, the following morning (Tuesday 8 June), Evans had two visitors – Mr. Jackson and Stephens. Jackson was the senior prison officer on D. Wing. He and Evans had already become ‘warm enemies’. Stephens was a burly-surly officer. Evans’ face is unshaven. He wears a dirty red and white bobble hat upon his head. They make sure that his razor and nail-scissors are taken away. He is given half an hour to smarten himself.
McLeery carries a brown suitcase. It contains all necessary papers, including a sealed question paper envelope. The two hour examination is to start at 9:15 a.m. Stephens brings two small square tables and two hard chairs and places them opposite to each other. They are taking no chance with Evans. Stuart McLeery is greeted by Jackson at D. Wing in the prison. It will be very difficult for Evans to make another break. He is sitting in a locked cell and all the prison officers are on alert. The invigilator’s duty is to ensure that the strictest silence is observed. The Governor is worried about McLeery. If he has brought something, even a Jack-knife, Evans can hold him hostage with such a weapon.
The examinee and the invigilator have already been introduced by Stephens. McLeery gives necessary instructions to the candidate regarding writing down the paper’s name, index number and centre number. Stephens is in the cell until now but Evans does not like his presence. The Governer asks Jackson to call him out. Finally, the examination begins at 9:25 a.m. At 9:40 a.m., the Assistant Secretary for Modern Languages informs the Governor over the phone about the correction slip not being put in the examination package. The Governor takes all necessary Precautions and Evans is told about the corrections on page three line fifteen by the invigilator. The Governor also knew some German and was confident that McLeery understood everything. But he had some doubts about Evans.
For the first quarter of an hour, Stephens had dutifully checked on Evans through ‘the peep-hole. He saw Evans, with his pen between his lips, staring at the door. At 10:50 a.m. Evans requested for a blanket. He is feeling cold. At 10:51 a.m. Stephens was surprised to see a grey blanket draped around Evans’ shoulders. Stephens wonders if Evans is not planning in the blanket. At 11:20 a.m. McLeery informs Evans that only five minutes remain. At 11:22 a.m. Governor wants to speak to Stephens. He wants him to accompany McLeery to the main gates. At 11:25 a.m. McLeery announces “Stop writing, please.” Stephens walks with McLeery to the main gates. Two abnormalities can be noticed here. McLeery’s Scots accent seems broader than ever. His long black overcoat is reaching almost to his knees.
Stephens wants to take just one last look at Evans. He makes his way to Evans’ cell. He opens the peep-hole once more. “Oh, no, Christ, No”, Stephens cries. In Evans’ chair is lying a man. His blanket is slipping from his shoulders. His tufted hair are awash with red blood. The man is McLeery. Stephens shouts loudly for Jackson. McLeery gives a long moan and tries to speak. He asks them to get the police. He knows where Evans has gone. Almost immediately sirens start sounding. And within a minute McLeery, with Jackson and Stephens supporting him on either side, is greeted by the Governor.
McLeery shows him a photocopied sheet cleverly super-imposed over the last page of the question paper. The Governor reads.”… Don’t hit him too hard—remember, he’s a minister! And don’t overdo the Scots accent when ….” McLeery cries “Elsfield Way”. Evans has gone there. The Governor is furious. He asks who took Evans to the main gates. Stephens says that he acted as he was directed. The Governor is angry again. He calls Stephens a ‘blithering idiot.’ It was not he who rang them at 11:20 a.m. He also tells Jackson that his “Skull’s empty”. It was Jackson who spent two hours in Evans’ cell and reported that there was nothing hidden there. And yet Evans managed to conceal a false beard, a pair of spectacles and also a sort of weapon with which he had given McLeery such a terrible blow. The Governor read the last line of the paper left by Evans in German” … make your way to … to Neugraben”.
The Governor lights a cigarette. It had been a “beautiful laid plan”. He had left that question paper behind. Perhaps he was careless to leave that clue. He is sure that ‘Mr. clever-clever Evans’ will be back inside his cell again. Then information comes that McLeery has spotted Evans driving off along Elsfield Way.
The Governor asks Carter if he has managed to get McLeery to hospital all right. He is told that McLeery is in the Radcliffe hosptial. A few minutes later the Governor rings the hospital. The reply comes that no one named McLeery is there. The ambulance was sent to Elsfield to pick him up but he vanished. A quarter of an hour later they find S. McLeery, securely bound and gagged study in Broad Street. He had been there since 8:15 a.m. Eventually, everybody comes to know that Evans impersonating McLeery had not walked out, but had actually stayed in the prison itself.
Evans walks up to the reception desk of the Golden Lion Hotel. He is still wearing the parson’s clothes. He is happy with his successful escape. But he regrets cutting his long hair. However, he had been fortunate as he was not asked to take off his hat. He is walking to his room. He opens the door and his heart skips a beat. The Governor is sitting on the narrow bed in the room.
The Governor tells him how he reached the hotel room. The correction slip provided the clue about the hotel’s name. The index number 313 and centre number 271 referred to the area where Evans could be. It was the Golden Lion of Chipping Norton.
Evans, similarly, tells him about the skill in getting the blood to splatter on the head. Actually, the rubber ring contains pig’s blood!
The Governor enquires how Evans could plan out everything when he had no visitors. A delighted Evans tells him that he has a lot of friends. The German teacher was one of them and he was of immense help to him.
A silent prison officer handcuffs the recaptured Evans. He does not resist. Two men clambered into the back seat of the prison van. The Governor says farewell to him like a good old friend. The prison van turns right on to the Oxford road. The silent prison officer unlocks Evans’ handcuffs. He asks the driver to ‘move on’ to Newbury. “It won’t take them long to find out—”. Thus Evans moves on to freedom proving that the Governor was a fool and only “good-for-a–giggle”. The man who removes his handcuffs is Evans’ own man.