It seems that Kyril Bonfiglioli, English-born and of Italian and Slovenian descent, drew on his leading character, Charlie Mortdecai, from the muddle of his own alcoholic and trauma-laden life.
Don’t Point That Thing At Me
Kyril Bonfiglioli Penguin, €9.99; Kindle: €6.49
The son of a drunken Baron and made motherless by the Blitz, his world was a blur of booze, debt, tragedy and failed marriages, with time for a little bit of writing on the side.
His half-hearted introductory insistence that “This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer,” convinces no one, and Don’t Point That Thing At Me is off to a winning start.
Charlie Mortdecai is in trouble. A precious Goya painting has been stolen and Mortdecai’s old school nemesis, Chief Superintendent Martland, is certain that the Honourable Charlie, a Raffles-type character who specialises in shifting high art, knows more than he’s letting on.
The problem is, he does. The interrogation takes place in his luxurious Mayfair home, before a fireplace being fed on an old gilt frame, and there is the sense that the painting may be very close at hand, or even underfoot.
The Goya was lifted at the behest of an American oil tycoon, who is also embroiled in blackmailing a senior British government official, and inevitably it is Mortdecai who becomes the target for all sides and whose very life is soon on the line.
Striking a deal with Martland, ostensibly to flush out — and bump off — the buyer, one Milton Krampf, he gets himself on a diplomatic passport to the States.
It is a dangerous game, but fortunately he has the protection of a faithful, if thuggish, valet, Jock Strapp, an ex-con who smilingly breathes violence, whose pockets are weighed down with brass knuckles, and who only ever seems to blossom when presented with an opportunity to smash in a face or two.
Unusually for a crime novel, even one of the farcical variety, the plot here is almost secondary. Everything is subservient to the characterisations, the bawdy gags and hardboiled one-liners, the language and voice.
The influence of PG Wodehouse is unmissable, but the reader will catch flavours of Oscar Wilde, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming and maybe even Thomas Pynchon within these pages, too. And as double-acts go, Jock and Charlie are Jeeves and Wooster turned feral, which is what makes this novel such compulsive reading.
Once in a rare while, an old and far-too-long overlooked book bobs to the surface of the current consciousness and demands its due. And even more occasionally, the world takes notice. Such was the case in recent years with John Williams’ slumbering beast of a novel, Stoner, which was swept up in a high tide of bestselling Book of the Year hyperbole some four decades after the fact of its first publication.
Reading Don’t Point That Thing At Me, originally published in 1973 as the opening gambit of a trilogy featuring “degenerate aristocrat and amoral art dealer” Charlie Mortdecai, it’s hard not to hope that such fortune would befall a novel like this.
It may or may not, because fate is endlessly fickle in these matters, but it should. A wild, irreverent and often hedonistic romp, brutally funny and with little regard for social, moral or political correctness, it is a novel both of, and very much out of, its time.
Back in print because of its tenuous connection to a new big screen adaptation starring Johnny Depp, Bonfiglioli’s novel — and indeed, his trilogy — deserves a wide and enthusiastic audience.
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