Something nasty in the bookshop

UNDERRATED: The case for Kyril Bonfiglioli

The first improbable fact about Kyril Bonfiglioli (1928-1985) is that his name really was Kyril Bonfiglioli: he owed his hothouse flower of a moniker to an ancestry compounded of Italian, Yugoslavian and English blood, and (more immediately) to h is father, one Aeneas Methodius Bonfiglioli. The second improbable fact is that his name was one of the less extravagant aspects of this rogue, wit and homme de lettres - a man who, he once wrote, was "loved and respected by all who know him slightly".

A self-styled count, Bonfiglioli was, at various times, a soldier, a sabre champion, a keen if not always accurate shot, a Balliol man, an employee of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, an editor of sci-fi and an art dealer, in which last capacity he once purchased a Tintoretto for £45, having bargained its owner down from £60. His chief claim on posterity, however, is his fiction.

Bonfiglioli's first book, Don't Point That Thing at Me, was published in 1972, and bore an authorial disclaimer: "This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer" - viz the Hon Charlie Mortdecai, who narrates his ever more outlandish adventures with his faithful thug Jock in stingingly snobbish and unmistakably Wodehousian tones, though he spoke of matters which might have made even Jeeves grow pallid.

Don't Point... is about, roughly speaking, what happens to Mortdecai when he swipes a Goya from the Prado, exports it to a crazed millionaire in New Mexico and winds up being pursued by a number of unsavoury types to Morecambe Bay and, or so it appears, certain death. But the novel scooped various prizes, so, with no more than a little fancy footwork, Mortdecai and Jock were resurrected for After You with the Pistol (Mortdecai finds himself in the embarrassing position of having to assassinate the Queen) and Something Nasty in the Woodshed (Mortdecai and Jock tangle with Satanism on Jersey).

Alas, all three volumes soon lapsed from print, as did Bonfiglioli's sole venture into historical fiction, All the Tea in China, and Bonfiglioli was all but forgotten save by a handful of admirers (a group that includes Julian Barnes, Brian Aldiss and Stephen Fry). Things looked up a year or two ago, when Black Spring Press republished all Bonfiglioli's completed work.Now there are rumours of two further treats: Craig Brown is said to have agreed to complete the Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery, and the author's widow is editing a Bonfiglioli Reader. What Bonfiglioli's reputation really needs, though, is the kind of popularity conferred by a film or televison adaptation: he deserves better than cult status.

Kevin Jackson

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