IF, LIKE me, you have read every line of PG Wodehouse’s 90-odd books – at least half a dozen times each in the case of the Jeeves novels – your attention might be piqued, if piqued is the word I seek, by one of the Master’s disciples. His name is Kyril Bonfiglioli.
In a trilogy about an art dealer named Charlie Mortdecai based loosely on himself, Bonfiglioli, or Bon as his friends and enemies called him, combines a Woosterish turn of phrase with lashings of sex, violence, murder and drunkenness. Mortdecai is snobbish, greedy, lustful, unscrupulous, untrustworthy, gloriously politically incorrect and hilarious to boot.
The first book, Don’t Point That Thing At Me, was published in 1973, two years before Wodehouse died. In a short foreword, Bon writes: ‘This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.’
The action begins with Mortdecai in his Mayfair mansion burning a gilt picture frame in the fireplace. He, of course, has a sidekick whose name begins with J but Jock has little in common with Bertie Wooster’s loyal manservant. As Bon puts it, ‘Jock is a sort of anti-Jeeves; silent, resourceful, respectful even, when the mood takes him, but sort of drunk all the time, really, and fond of smashing people’s faces in. You can’t run a fine-arts business these days without a thug and Jock is one of the best in the trade . . . his idea of a civil smile is rolling back part of his upper lip from a long, yellow dogtooth. It frightens me.
‘Having introduced Jock – his surname escapes me, I should think it would be his mother’s – I suppose I had better give a few facts about myself. I am in the prime of life, if that tells you anything, of barely average height, of sadly over-average weight and am possessed of the intriguing remains of rather flashy good looks. (Sometimes, in a subdued light and with my tummy tucked in, I could almost fancy me myself.) I like art and money and dirty jokes and drink. I am very successful. I discovered at my goodish second-rate public school that almost anyone can win a fight if he is prepared to put his thumb into the other fellow’s eye.’
Charlie is receiving a visit from a fat policeman named Martland who suspects him, correctly, of involvement in the theft of a Goya from Madrid five days earlier.
‘Somewhere in the trash he reads, Martland has read that heavy men walk with surprising lightness and grace; as a result he trips about like a portly elf hoping to be picked up by a leprechaun. In he pranced, all silent and catlike and absurd, buttocks swaying noiselessly. “Don’t get up,” he sneered, when he saw that I had no intention of doing so. “I’ll help myself, shall I?”
‘Ignoring the more inviting bottles on the drinks tray, he unerringly snared the great Rodney decanter from underneath and poured himself a gross amount of what he thought would be my Taylor ’31. A score to me already, for I had filled it with Invalid Port of an unbelievable nastiness. He didn’t notice: score two to me. Of course he is only a policeman.’
Martland features heavily in the ensuing romp, which involves several murders, a journey across America in a Rolls-Royce, a nymphomaniac millionairess and a remote cave near Silverdale, Lancashire.
The next book, After You With The Pistol, involves a conspiracy of women seeking world domination and a plot to shoot the Queen, while the third, Something Nasty In The Woodshed, features unpleasant events on the island of Jersey. Copies of the complete Mortdecai Trilogy are still available.
Bon had lived in both Silverdale and Jersey before moving to Ireland, where he died of cirrhosis in 1983, aged 56. By his own description he was ‘an accomplished fencer, a fair shot with most weapons and a serial marrier of beautiful women . . . abstemious in all things except drink, food, tobacco and talking . . . and loved and respected by all who knew him slightly’.
In a 2004 article for the New Yorker, Leo Carey wrote: ‘One reason that Bonfiglioli’s books have never quite found the readership they deserve is that, although they are ostensibly crime novels, they are far too badly behaved – too full of improbability and capricious digression – to please crime fans. The plot of Don’t Point That Thing At Me is too complicated to be properly explained, and much too silly.
‘Though Bonfiglioli has a knack for cliffhangers, the plots are little more than excuses for displaying Mortdecai in all his dandyish glory. Mortdecai, the son of a peer, never tires of describing the splendours of his cellar, his table, and his tailoring. There is scarcely a meal (or a drink) that is not recounted in detail and meticulously evaluated, and he cannot leave the house without telling you, “I put on a dashing little tropical-weight worsted, a curly-brimmed coker and a pair of buckskins created by Lobb in a moment of genius.”
‘In his judgment, “the only month one can depend on is January, when the cold is always as promised and one can still sometimes hear the ring of skates on the frozen tarn and, if one is lucky, the shriek of a drowning skater.”
‘The novels hark back to a time when everything a gentleman needed could be obtained within a square mile of St James’s, and Mortdecai himself, alternately pottering around the West End and shuttling around the world on dangerous missions, seems like the result of an unholy collaboration between PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. There is also a distinct debt to Raffles, the iconic gentleman thief created by the Edwardian writer E W Hornung. But whereas Raffles does subscribe to some code of honour (friendship, school, cricket), Mortdecai is pure self-interest and proud of it: “‘Idle, intelligent, devious; a survivor,’ read the summary of my character on my last school report and I have not changed”.’
Kyril Bonfiglioli also wrote a historical novel, All The Tea In China, and an unfinished effort, The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery, which following his death was completed by Craig Brown. Bon’s widow Margaret compiled an entertaining anthology of his works and anecdotes, The Mortdecai ABC. There is also a 2015 movie, Mortdecai, starring Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow, based (extremely) loosely on Don’t Point That Thing At Me. It was loathed by the critics, bombed at the box office and lost its makers many millions.
Hurried and often slapdash, none of Bon’s works can hold a candle to the intricately plotted stories of the Master himself. But they’re bloody funny and I like them a lot.
I couldn’t resist including this provocative passage from Something Nasty In The Woodshed for all the humourless ladies I have met over the years:
‘You see, we anti-feminists don’t dislike women in the least; we prize, cherish and pity them. We are compassionate. Goodness, to think of the poor wretches having to waddle through life with all these absurd fatty appendages sticking out of them; to have all the useful part of their lives made miserable by the triple plague of constipation, menstruation and parturition; worst of all, to have to cope with these handicaps with only a kind of fuzzy half-brain – a pretty head randomly filled, like a tiddly-winks cup, with brightly coloured scraps of rubbish – why, it wrings the very heart with pity. You know how your dog sometimes gazes anguishedly at you, its almost-human eyes yearning to understand, longing to communicate? You remember how often you have felt that it was on the very brink of breaking through the barrier and joining you? I think that’s why you and I are so kind to women, bless ’em. (Moreover, you scarcely ever see them chasing cats or fouling the footpaths.)’
Old jokes’ home
A devout Christian northern woman dies and to mark her love of God her widower asks for her gravestone to be marked: SHE WAS THINE. When it is installed he is horrified that it reads: SHE WAS THIN. He complains to the stonemason that an E has been missed off. The next week he finds it says: E SHE WAS THIN.
A PS from PG
In English country towns, if the public houses do not actually outnumber the inhabitants, they all do an excellent trade. It is only when they are two to one that hard times hit them and set the innkeepers to blaming the government.
PG Wodehouse: Something Fresh