Forgotten authors No 56: Kyril Bonfiglioli

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 08 August 2010 00:00 BST

Imagine a politically incorrect combination of Bertie Wooster, Falstaff and Raffles, and you get an idea of Kyril Bonfiglioli's fictional hero.

The author was born to an English mother and Italian-Slovenian antiquarian book-selling father in Eastbourne in 1928. After 15 years as an art dealer in Oxford, an experience that clearly provided the background for his books, he became the editor of small science-fiction magazines, although his own writings show little interest in that direction. Other seeming biographical information about Bonfiglioli – that he was an expert swordsman, a good shot and a teetotaller, for example – is entirely wrong. Luckily, we now have his second wife's biography, The Mortdecai ABC , to thank for the facts.

Before his first book, Don't Point That Thing at Me , has even started, Bonfiglioli warns, "This is not an autobiographical novel. It is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer." In fact, the first line is: "When you burn an old carved and gilt picture frame it makes a muted hissing noise in the grate – a sort of genteel fooh – and the gold leaf tints the flames a wonderful peacock blue-green." This is his cowardly dandy art thief Charlie Mortdecai speaking before fencing a Goya. Mortdecai is a delicious creation who, accompanied by his thuggish sidekick Jock, outrages the art-world dullards of the 1970s as he heads towards comeuppance and a disgraceful cliffhanger of an ending.

Mortdecai returned (with no explanation for the precipitous season-end interim) in After You With the Pistol , Something Nasty in the Woodshed and three-quarters of The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery , which was published posthumously, having been finished by the literary mimic Craig Brown, a forgery act Bonfiglioli would surely have adored. His only other work is the hilarious All the Tea in China , which features a scurrilous Dutch ancestor of Mortdecai's.

Everyone agrees that Bonfiglioli should have been world-famous. The sad truth was that although his joyous books would have you believe otherwise, he lived in various states of poverty and alcoholism, and died of cirrhosis. His novels aren't ordinary enough to be simple crime capers; they're scabrous, witty and rude in the very best sense. He never found the right fans in his lifetime, but has become a true cult hero.

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