A New Hercule Ustinov Thriller
‘Evil under the Sun may be the last Agatha Christie film we make’ - film company statement.
‘Come in, Mesdames and messieurs. Please seat yourselves so that we can get on with this regrettable business. Lady Darcy, you will be comfortable here.’ Hercule Ustinov, the most famous film detective in the world, ushered the aged film critic to a chair. Lady Darcy could hardly see or hear now, but her ability to sum up a film from the press hand-out was as legendary as ever.
‘Sir Leslie, perhaps you would sit over here?’ Sir Leslie Judd, the distinguished film director, raised his eyebrows briefly and walked to the chair designated, where he sat with a slightly flouncy gesture that one associates with gays of the old school. In fact, he was as normal as an old tea cloth, but he had been around actors so long that some of it had rubbed off. Sir Leslie had won many awards, especially in the last year or so. Many of them were honorary ones to make up for the fact that in previous years he hadn’t won many, but he enjoyed receiving them, and selling them off a week later. Things were not too good with the Judd finances.
Next to him sat the young actor, Charles Landor. Landor was very handsome indeed and people were waiting to see if he had any brains to go with it. There was no sign either way so far. Next to him sat the young starlet, Diana Perkins. According to rumour, she and Charles were having a passionate affair. Charles was quite happy with the rumour. In fact, he had started it himself. As to whether there was also an affair, nobody was saying. After all, they were both happily married to other people.
There were seven other people in the room, but we shall not describe them one by one otherwise we shall be here all day. Also, research shows that the average reader cannot remember more than about four characters at a time. Rest assured we shall introduce them as and when it becomes necessary, in a most painless fashion.
‘I think we all know why we are here,’ said Hercule Ustinov, when everyone had seated themselves. All eyes were fixed on his face, and so was a large moustache. It had started to peel at one corner. Ustinov replaced it with a twirl.
‘Last night, we were all present at a film preview. To be precise, of my new film, Execution in Paradise. We were there for two hours. We were all there at the start and all there at the finish. But during those two hours one of you sneaked out, travelled a mile through London traffic to commit a crime and came back again. Yes, one of you here. The question is, which?’ Ustinov looked out under his heavily made-up eyes at all present.
‘That’s ridiculous, Ustinov,’ said Lady Darcy sharply. “We were all here. No one could have gone out unnoticed.’
‘Allow me to correct you, madame. Anyone could have gone out. During the film, all is rapt. There is great attentiveness. We glue our eyes to the screen. It is very easy to sneak out and back again. And you would not have noticed, my lady, because you were asleep thoughout. ‘ Lady Darcy snorted.
‘It is true. People do not snore when they are awake. Do you remember me going out?’
‘And yet I did. I visited the gentlemen’s toilet. Alas my bladder is not what it was.’
‘You Frenchmen all drink too much,’ said Charles Landor.
‘Belgian, monsieur. I am a Belgian, and I do not drink. But when I was in the, what does one say now, loo. I noticed Sir Leslie’s jacket hanging up there. And not just his jacket, but also his coat and trousers. Now why, I ask myself, would Sir Leslie Judd wish to change during a film?’
‘Absolute rubbish,’ said Judd hotly. ‘It was very warm in the preview cinema. Just thought I’d take a few clothes off. Nothing odd about that.’
‘And you, Charles Landor,’ said Hercule Ustinov, ignoring this. ‘I happened to notice that you were wearing a hat, and dark glasses, and scarf.’
‘Yes,’ said Charles. ‘Bit of a chill. Had to wrap up. Doctor’s orders.’
‘I suppose you remember the moment when the film broke down and the lights went on?’
‘Er, yes – yes I do. Damned nuisance.’
‘Not to you, Mr Landor. I happened to notice, during the sudden light, that although your hat and scarf and dark glasses were there, you were not in them. It was a dummy, Mr Landor.’
‘Oh, but that is absolutely ridiculous…’ Hercule Ustinov proceeded to prove with unnerving logic that everyone had left the cinema at one point or another, often for long periods, and that any one of them could be the culprit. When he had finished, there was a long silence.
‘And so you see,’ said Hercule, ‘that…’ He was never to finish the sentence
‘Just a moment, Ustinov,’ said Charles Landor. ‘We have something to say to you. Isn’t that right, everyone?’ They all nodded, except Lady Darcy, who was fast asleep.
‘It is true that we all left the cinema. But you have not mentioned the reason why. We have not mentioned the reason why, because we are too polite. But now that you have insisted on talking about it, I have to tell you that none of us could bear to watch another Hercule Ustinov film right through.’
Hercule’s mouth fell open, and his moustache wobbled.
‘Yes, monsieur, the real crime took place up there on the screen. Another two hours of torture – of motive building, of alibi-constructing, of interrogation. No wonder we all had to go out and do anything. We just could not face another Agatha Christie all-star vehicle. My God, we are all artists! To have to face that…’ His voice broke with emotion. About time too – he was already twenty-four.
‘And now, to have to sit here this evening and go through it all again. It is more than flesh and blood can bear.’
Hercule Ustinov’s mouth opened and closed, saying nothing.
‘If you really want a proper crime,’ said Sir Leslie.
‘If you really want a murder,’ said Lady Darcy, waking up unexpectedly.
‘Then we can provide it, ’ said Landor.
Hercule Ustinov suddenly realised that they had all got to their feet and were coming towards him.
‘No!’ he cried. ’Non, non, messieurs…’
Two minutes later it was all over.
The great Belgian film detective had appeared in his last feature.
(This article is shortly to be made into a major movie.
Miles and Miles 1982