Celebrations for a right Charlie
Author Kyril Bonfiglioli is dead, but his portly and dissolute alter-ego Charlie Mortdecai is making a comeback.
Monday 19 July 1999
Allow me to expand a little. Charlie Mortdecai is the improbably named protagonist of a series of nasty, brutish, short and blissfully funny thrillers by the yet more improbably named Kyril Bonfiglioli (1928-1985; yes, he really existed; no, this article is not a spoof). At the time of his death, Bonfiglioli had published just three Mortdecai books - Don't Point That Thing At Me (1973), After You With the Pistol (1979) and Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1976). (And, before you set indignantly quivering pen to paper: yes, I am aware that these titles look as if they're listed in the wrong order. He wrote them out of narrative sequence.) He was also the author of a knockabout historical novel concerning one of Charlie Mortdecai's more raffish ancestors, All The Tea in China (1978), plus a few short stories and assorted literary oddments, and that was about it.
Those of us who are unhealthily obsessed by Bonfiglioli's juicy, succulent prose - part PG Wodehouse, part Raymond Chandler, part Alan Clark's Diaries, seasoned well with some dashes of recondite learning, served chilled with a long, thin slice of pure horror - have thus far had to content ourselves with endless re-readings of the so-called Mortdecai Trilogy.
Bonfiglioli, by the way, enjoys a nicer class of fan. Those who have sung, muttered or typed his praises include the likes of Julian Barnes, Stephen Fry and the noted parodist Craig Brown; it's the last of these worthies who has finally come to our rescue by completing the fourth and final part of what may now be called a tetralogy, The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery.
Actually, this was a somewhat less than epic job of reconstructive pastiche for Mr Brown, since Bonfiglioli had completed 20 out of the 21 chapters which make up this shortish book; it seems somehow expressive of his idiosyncratic working methods that the unfinished chapter in question was not the final, but the penultimate one. Still, credit where it's due and so forth: thanks to Craig Brown, the world of letters is richer by one ripe new comic confection.
I'll leave it to the reviewers to tangle with the job of explaining the plot, which (as usual) is an outlandish, Heath Robinson affair which serves more as an excuse for jokes and set-pieces than your standard suspense machine.
Let's just say that it deals mainly with the suspicious death of an Oxford "she-don", boasts various sinister capers involving Russian spies and Dominican monks, and that the only mysterious thing about the facial growth referred to in the title is the enigma of why Mortdecai continues to cultivate the unsightly thing so stubbornly despite his (gorgeous, fragrant etc ) wife's refusal to resume conjugal negotiations until he has shaved the offending article off. Far more importantly, all the usual Bonfiglioli elements are present and correct: Charlie's chronic guzzling of rich foodstuffs and hard liquors, particularly of the 12-year-old variety ("We burst in, fell upon the nutritious fluid with beastly snarls - Hogarth or Rowlandson would have whipped out their sketchbooks in a trice..."); Charlie's unsettlingly copious store of out-of-the-way knowledge ("I said that my first problem concerned the `tierced in pairle reversed' of the von Haldermanstettens: a famous heraldic crux..."); Charlie's caddishness and misogyny ("I was not going to take that sort of thing from any mere sex-object, least of all the wife of my personal bosom..."); and Charlie's faithful thug-cum-manservant, the psychopathic Jeeves to his depraved Bertie, the terrifying Jock Strapp: "He is not quite sane and never quite sober, but he can still pop out seven streetlights with nine shots from his old Luger while ramming his monstrous motorbike through heavy after- theatre traffic..."
Shrewd readers will no doubt have guessed by now that, fantastical and downright damn-fool as Charlie's exploits generally are, the character himself has rather more than a faint tincture of autobiography in his makeup. Bonfiglioli underlined the point by prefacing his first Mortdecai novel with the admonition: "This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer."
"Art dealer" was just one of Bonfiglioli's callings. He was also, among other things, a soldier in West Africa (where he became a sabre champion and first-class shot), a mature student of English at Balliol, an assistant at the Ashmolean (where he astonished the staff with the precision of his eye and the range of his visual memory), a columnist for the Oxford Mail, a lecturer on antiques, the editor of a science-fiction magazine, and a stout-hearted, stout-framed bon viveur. Let's be frank: he was rather too vigorous and relentless a bon viveur, and his last years, passed mainly in Jersey and the Irish Republic, were often drunken and often sad, though seldom lacking in incident. Shame there's no room here for the one about Bonfiglioli, the IRA hard man, and the pub that wouldn't serve our hero a drink.
Bonfiglioli - "Bon" to his loved ones - was the sort of man to whom extraordinary things happened with disconcerting regularity; his biographer will have a lot of fun. Here, let one anecdote stand for dozens of others. In 1964, Bon heard rumours that a Resurrection by a certain well-known 16th-century Venetian master was up for sale at an absurdly low reserve price. He went to the auction, joined in the general pooh-poohing of the crowd at the obvious inauthenticity of the thing, and bought it, as if on an absent-minded whim, for 40 quid. It was, as he had immediately seen, a genuine Tintoretto. He immediately sold it for pounds 40,000 - a not inconsiderable sum that could buy you quite a few rounds back in the Sixties.
As his widow, Margaret, has pointed out, that Resurrection, or ideas vaguely inspired by it, tends to crop up again and again in his fiction. Both Charlie and Jock, for example, appear to die at the conclusion of Don't Point That Thing At Me, but bounce back - Jock minus one eye - for the sequel. Alas, there will be no more resurrections for Charlie and Jock after The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery, for the projected fifth volume of their adventures, which had the working titles of Lord Mortdecai and Cross My Art exists only in scraps or fragments.
Said scraps and fragments, however, will be included in a volume of Bonfiglioli nachlass, edited by Margaret Bonfiglioli as The Mortdecai ABC, which should be arriving in our bookshops as the leaves turn brown. There has also been, and continues to be, talk about the possibilities of a Mortdecai jape or two on the big or small screen: a bit like Lovejoy, perhaps, as rewritten by Thomas de Quincey and Groucho Marx.
Until someone cracks the problem of making Charlie a movie star (I could see Albert Finney in the role), however, we can console ourselves with yet another re-reading of the three - sorry, make that four - Mortdecai novels. Which is more than satisfactory, even for the very greedy.
The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery is published by Black Spring Press at pounds 14.99
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