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The late showman

Christopher Hawtree has lots of fun beyond the grave; The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery by Kyril Bonfiglioli Black Spring Press, pounds 14.99, 174pp
MUCH SPLEEN has recently been vented over the posthumous tidying- up and publication of novels by Ernest Hemingway and Ralph Ellison. Discerning hearts have leapt far higher at Kyril Bonfiglioli's despatch from beyond the grave, with this fourth novel about Charlie Mortdecai. The Seventies were not a vintage period for English fiction, but these novels are an exception. Since Bonfiglioli's death in 1985, they have not been allotted any of the paraphenalia of marketing; better, they continue to win that word-of-mouth renown which has one urging them on anybody likely to relish so seamless a display of elegant bad taste.

It is difficult to imagine being friendly with anybody unable to appreciate the ad hoc sleuth Mortdecai: an erudite, ne'er-do-well art dealer with a taste for the best things in life. Their supply is delegated to his batman Jock, who finds some consolation for his toothless, one-eyed state by an undue passion for the young Shirley Temple.

Nobody need fret at an inability to give a swift summary of a Bonfiglioli plot. That, as with Congreve or Chandler, is hardly the point. Here, too, is a delight in vile situations graced by a perfectly-deployed vocabulary which does not fear to go into the red on the dial of whatever device it is that measures arcane terms.

Moustache opens with our eudaemonistic man holed up in hospital, his mind set upon a stately pile (or several). His sojourn has been a matter of specialist treatment on these obstinate veins; their submission has been accompanied by the growing of a moustache. "It tickled a bit - indeed, no fewer than two of the nurses had assured me that it tickled quite deliciously." Back home, on Jersey, Mortdecai runs into objections to this "lip-valance"; "I was not going to take that sort of thing from any mere sex- object, least of all the wife of my personal bosom."

No sooner has she withheld her favours than Mortdecai is visited by somebody from Oxford with news of the hideous death (the High; oncoming omnibus) suffered by a "she-don" from an earlier volume, here given the elegy of "enjoying a difficult menopause since early youth". There is more to this than a traffic statistic and, what with his wife Johanna's not putting out, there's no holding him from an alcohol-fuelled trail through the dark underbellies of Washington, Moscow and Princes Risborough.

One could, quite reasonably, give a whole page to this review, but now must pause only to mention that All Souls apparently anticipated Agent Cooper's penchant for cherry pie and that Jesus College, Oxford is "a sort of enclave of the Principality of Wales... it is said that if you stand in the Quadrangle of Jesus and bellow `MR JONES!' fifty grimy windows will open and fifty melodious voices will reply, `Yes, boyo?'"

One can award the satirist Craig Brown no higher praise than not mention him, so nimbly has he filled in the missing, penultimate chapter. If Bonfiglioli was writing when "Russia cannot yet afford a Mafia", Brown has filled the gap with Mortdecai's discovery of something that - if allowed to happen - will dismay edacious lips, moustached or otherwise. Such is Brown's ability to fill so many shoes that he could surely now relax a little by bringing new life to the Scottish football team.