Friday, September 1, 2023
An apparent suicide in a Corfu hotel and an unexpected investigator. Thus begins the novel with which the writer returns to the genre of intrigue and which arrives in bookstores on Tuesday
In the early afternoon, the guests sat with Mrs Auslander in the drawing room – Nordic-style furniture and framed Corfu landscapes on the walls – where the hotel owner gave a detailed and very calm account of Edith’s suicide. Mander. In cinematographic terms, that could be considered a kind of ‘establishing shot’, or preparatory general shot: besides me there were Pietro Malerba and La Farjallah, Dr. Karabin, Paco Foxá and the Klemmer couple. Raquel Auslander had once again contacted the main Corfu police station by radio, she explained to us, and there they assured that when the weather improved they would come with a judge to take care of the body. The official action would take a while, and the reasonable thing to do while the island remained incommunicado was to return to normality, or try to.
It was the doctor who first raised the matter. He had just left Vesper Dundas in her room in the care of Evangelia, after giving the Englishwoman a dose of veronal that would make her rest for the rest of the day. She scratched her beard, cleared her throat slightly, and spoke.
“Until the police and the judge arrive, and as the owner of this place, you, Mrs. Auslander, are the authority here.” He glanced at us to make sure we were all on the same page. It isn’t true?
“We could look at it that way,” she replied after a short hesitation.
Karabin made a gesture that included Foxá, Malerba and me.
“In that case, do we close our investigation?”
Raquel Auslander gave him a suspicious look.
“It’s excessive to call her that,” he hesitated again for a moment. They came to the pavilion more as witnesses than anything else.
“Of course.” Karabin was uncertain. However, I have some doubts. And maybe it’s not just me who has them.
Uncomfortable, the hotel owner touched the two wedding rings she was wearing on her right hand.
I don’t understand what you mean.
The doctor seemed to be searching for the right words.
“There are unclear aspects,” he said at last, “in the unfortunate accident of the pavilion.
Pietro Malerba gave a vulgar laugh. He had a glass of whiskey in his hands and his eyes narrowed sourly.
“Are we going back to what might not be a suicide?”
“I don’t say anything except what I’ve said.
The producer growled, jaded.
—You found the same thing in the pavilion as the others. Everything was in sight.
“Except what might not be there,” the doctor pointed at me, worried. Some observations made by this gentleman disturb me a little.
I bore the general scrutiny impassively. Suddenly, we all looked at each other as if we were suspicious.
“In any case, it’s a matter for the police,” said Hans Klemmer.
He was stout, sanguine, with pale blue eyes identical to his wife’s. A horizontal scar ran across his left cheek: the unmistakable student mark of the old German universities. I wondered, not without malice, what he had done during the last war.
“The police,” he insisted with evident Germanic faith in the institutions.
“It will take days to arrive,” Karabin objected. Besides, no matter how hard we try to delay it, that poor woman’s body will go into decomposition.
“My God, I hadn’t thought of that,” Najat Farjallah wailed.
She had turned pale. Malerba gave him an encouraging smile.
“Laws of nature, my dear. Dust to dust, with a rather unpleasant intermediate phase.
“And what do you suggest, doctor?” Foxa inquired.
Karabin was looking at Mrs. Auslander.
“I’m not a medical examiner, but I’m qualified for a closer study.”
-Autopsy? she asked.
—I’m not going that far, although I could check some additional details.
“About the suicide?”
“About what happened.”
A tense pause followed. Paco Foxá was contemplating a wall as if he expected to see ominous signs appear on it; the Klemmers held hands; Malerba had taken out a cigar and was turning it between his fingers without deciding to light it; and beside him, sitting on the edge of the sofa they both occupied, the Farjallah was looking around her suspiciously.
‘The Ultimate Problem’, by Arthur Perez-Reverte. Alphaguara Publishing House. 328 pages. 21.90 euros.
“What is it based on, doctor?” Foxá wanted to know.
“I’m not relying on anything. However, there are details…
He wanted to leave it there, but the other insisted.
-I don’t know. Details, finally. Things that don’t add up,” she addressed Mrs. Auslander, appealing to her good judgment. And that perhaps it is not the place or time to raise.
“Maybe not,” she commented cautiously.
Too late. The bewilderment in the room had turned to suspicion.
“Are you insinuating…?” Klemmer began with a start.
“I’m not implying anything.” Karabin shook his head. I’m only offering to examine the body more thoroughly.
“And what do we do with it?” Malerba inquired. What is the difference?
—Whoever advises is not usually the one who pays.
Another awkward silence reigned. It was Paco Foxá who ended up breaking it.
“The difference is whether Edith Mander really committed suicide or whether someone else intervened. Is that what she’s trying to say?
“Not so bluntly,” Karabin replied.
The Spaniard smiled impertinently. His air seemed too light to me, in such circumstances. As if the death of a woman in the pavilion on the beach seemed like a minor incident.
But that’s what you mean.
Neither the doctor nor anyone else said anything. Foxá looked at all of us until finally stopping at Mrs. Auslander.
“The question, in such a case,” he pointed out, “is that waiting idly for the storm to end would not be convenient.” At this point he paused rather dramatically. I mean if the person responsible for the death was one of us.
A chorus of protests erupted. La Farjallah’s bracelets trembled with excitement.
-One of us? Oh my GOD! —Lebanese Christian as she was, she crossed herself shamelessly. Do you think it is possible?
“How bad that sounds,” Malerba agreed sarcastically.
-A responsable? in here? Klemmer had raised a stroke of blood to his face. He made to get up, and dropped back on the sofa. It’s stupid! We couldn’t sleep peacefully.
“That is precisely what it is about,” Foxá calmly argued. To sleep peacefully or not to sleep.
“It seems crazy to me,” the German commented, dragging his r’s, and his wife nodded sympathetically.
—Perhaps what Mr. Foxá is pointing out is not nonsense.
It was Mrs. Auslander who said that, and we turned to look at her.
“Are you saying…?” Klemmer started to say, but he didn’t go any further, as if frightened by his own conclusions.
-Yeah. That’s what I’m saying.
She was convinced, very serene, as if she had come to the end of a long and detailed reasoning.
“It would take a policeman,” someone suggested. A detective.
“We have one,” Foxá said.
He said it facing me, and everyone followed the direction of his gaze. From the chair in which I had remained immobile, silent and on the sidelines, I looked around at first surprised, then irritated or appearing irritated. Deep down I was flattered; but that was my business.
“Why are they looking at me?” I asked.
“You know very well why,” Foxá replied.
“That’s ridiculous… have they gone crazy?”
“When a set of facts is known, anyone can predict the outcome. Another thing is, from the result, to establish the facts.
“You were Sherlock Holmes.”
I opened my mouth appropriately, as if not giving credit to my ears.
‘Nobody was Sherlock Holmes.’ After a moment, I uncrossed my legs and leaned a little to one side in the chair. By Jupiter. That detective never existed. It is a literary invention.
—That you incarnated in an admirable way.
“That was at the movies.” I leaned back and shrugged. It had nothing to do with real life.
“You made fifteen films about the character,” Malerba pointed out, amused.
“So what, Peter?” Other actors played him too: Gillette, Clive Brook, Barrymore… Even Peter Cushing, though he’s short and nervous, just did it. There were at least a dozen.
“But no one did it like you,” Foxá interjected. Everyone remembers him with his face, his gestures and his voice.
I waved a hand in the air as if to brush away a fly or an idea.
“That was nothing out of the ordinary. They chose me because no one in Hollywood spoke proper English except Ronald Colman, David Niven and me; and above all because it looked like the illustrations in ‘The Strand Magazine’, where Conan Doyle published his stories.
“Few remember those illustrations,” commented Hans Klemmer. Modern editions don’t usually bring them.
“We have a facsimile edition in the reading room,” Mrs. Auslander said. On the top shelf of the bookcase, next to the novels by Remarque and Colette.
“Novels or movies,” Foxá insisted, “the obvious fact is that the face associated with one and the other is yours, Basil.”
I had recovered my phlegm.
“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” I said.
After saying that I wrinkled my forehead, as if surprised by my own comment. Then I shifted in the chair, feigning discomfort, before crossing my legs again. My brown suede shoes still had grains of sand attached to them.
“See?… You can’t help it,” Malerba laughed. Like it or not, you are the quintessential detective.
I shook my head.
“You’re wrong,” I said with the appropriate dryness. I only pretended to be for a while.
“Almost twenty years.
—Fifteen, to be exact: those between ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Dog of Baskerville’… Precisely because I got fed up with seeming so, or the public got fed up, or we all got fed up, my career faded away.
“It might have gone out just the same,” Malerba opined with equanimous cruelty. We live other times.
I remained silent, aware of their stares. Thinking about what he had just said. It is impossible to express what a pigeonholed interpreter who is tied to the sword and the horse feels; or, in my case, to the pipe, the magnifying glass and the elemental, dear Watson. Eager to remind the world that he is a good actor first and foremost.
No one took their eyes off me.
“They’re wrong about me,” I finally said.
Paco Foxá smiled, politely ironic.
“Are you sure about that?”
-Completely. When you see a character on screen, you don’t really see him, but an actor doing what he does best, which is acting.
“I watched him when we were in the pavilion,” said the Spaniard, “how he studied the corpse, the broken rope, the footprints in the sand… And at that moment he didn’t have a movie camera nearby.” He wasn’t acting. Yet he behaved like Sherlock Holmes.
“It’s true,” confirmed Malerba, who was having a great time.
“Ridiculous,” I repeated.
“No, not at all,” Foxá returned to the charge. Did you see Rear Window?
—¿La de Hitchcock?
-That. The protagonist looks, sees, reacts. A mental process that starts from visual elements. He becomes a detective without meaning to.
“And where do you want to go with that?”
—Because I don’t know how much the detective in your movies touched you, or how he influenced your personality. Or maybe it was you who marked the character… But that doesn’t matter now. Who was in the pavilion a few hours ago was not the actor Hopalong Basil, but the detective of 221B Baker Street: the man who never was and never died.
I looked around the room. They looked at me in admiration, and the truth is that I myself was beginning to get into the situation, as if the lights had just been turned on and I heard the soft noise of the camera rolling. The idea gave me a smile that I was able to suppress in time. My proverbial British phlegm. Even so, I decided to remain silent, fingers crossed under my chin, to prolong the effect of that pleasant stimulus. I hadn’t enjoyed it so much, I confess, since the filming of ‘The Hound of Baskerville’.
- Arturo Perez-Reverte