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Continental Grift

Meet Charlie Mortdecai, the Most Pompous and Insufferably Amoral Aristocrat You’ll Ever Love

Autumn Whitehurst

After You With the Pistol

Author:Kyril Bonfiglioli
Publisher:Overlook Press

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/6/2005

If you ever encountered Charlie Mortdecai, chances are you’d give him a good, swift kick to the crotch. Middle-aged, intolerably priggish, soft around the waistline, and tragically upper-crust British, Charlie Mortdecai is an archetype of man that we typically think only exists in the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, a stiff upper lip stolidly holding onto the haughtiness that borders on racism earned through Her Majesty’s world conquests, even if that era has long since passed. His clothes come from the best houses on London’s best streets, and though he’s too aloof to inform you of such, he’s not too reserved to inquire dismissively about the origins of your garish haberdashery. He also knows more than you, but isn’t above constantly proving that. He’s an unapologetic glutton, slovenly reliant on his manservant to see to his epicurean meals, daily doses of tea, and constant stream of libations. And he can unfurl the sort of elegantly vicious misogyny that only affluence, good breeding, and a world-class education fosters. In short, Charlie Mortdecai is a righteous prick, and be sure that the he thinks even less of you.

On the page, though, the Honorable Charlie Mortdecai is one of the funniest creations ever to flee from danger, harbor dreadfully disreputable thoughts about a barely legal young woman, and unapologetically drop the term “fairer sex” from his vocabulary. The creation of the late British author Kyril Bonfiglioli, Charlie Mortdecai exists only in three utterly bizarre and caustically hilarious 1970s crime novels, which are finally enjoying an American reissue via the Overlook Press. Read them not because they’ll enlighten or broaden your world; read them because you’ll laugh out loud at least once per page.

Bonfiglioli himself is an enigma. Born in 1928, he was an art dealer for most of his life before editing a British science-fiction magazine in the 1960s, and didn’t start writing novels until he was in his 40s. His Mortdecai debut, Don’t Point That Thing at Me, appeared in 1973 (reissued domestically last fall); the recently reissued After You With the Pistol was written in 1979; and the final installment in the trilogy, Something Nasty in the Woodshed (reissue due later this year), was penned in 1976. Most of what is know about Bonfiglioli comes from a 2001 quasi-biography organized by his second wife, Margaret Bonfiglioli, The Mortdecai ABC: A Kyril Bonfiglioli Reader, which invites the expected Mortdecai as Bonfiglioli alter ego, but no lit-crit analysis is needed to appreciate the entertaining, unbridled nastiness the man created. Bonfiglioli died on hard times in 1985; read these fleet narrative stylistic fireworks just to appreciate a wit whose self-penned author bio heralded his own expertise with weapons, fencing, and proudly boasted being “loved and respected by all who knew him slightly.”

And, honestly, the plots of these books hardly matter. Don’t Point That Thing at Me introduces Mortdecai as a rather unethical art dealer who has, on occasion, found it necessary to dabble in the criminal arts in order to better himself financially or merely stay alive. Mortdecai is quite adept with a firearm, but his unreliable narrator is such a reliable coward that he has a trusty manservant, ex-thug Jock, who tends to the more physical aspects of, say, beatings and killings, as well as whipping up impeccable meals, stout tea, and life-giving alcohol. Over the course of Don’t Point, Mortdecai’s run-in with a stolen Goya finds him fleeing a possibly crooked British constable to America, where a wealthy widow, Johanna, tries her best to sex Mortdecai to death, before he returns to England and decamps to the northern bogs in hiding. And that’s but a cursory synopsis.

After You picks up right where Don’t Point leaves off, and proceeds at a feverish pace through even more ribald adventures, marrying Mortdecai to Johanna to save his life, pitting him on a plot to assassinate the queen, casting him off to an all-female spy college somewhere in the English countryside, and then winnowing the increasingly disoriented Mortdecai into white-slave and heroin trades from China. Truthfully, what’s at stake in these novels never surfaces or matters. It’s all about spending time with Mortdecai as he navigates these preposterous situations.

Deal with these situations he does, in his own ludicrous fashion. After You’s 22 chapters sprint by in under 200 pages, and each begins with a peculiarly coy title (e.g., “Mortdecai takes a little more drink than is good for him and is frightened by a competent frightener”) and an epigram from Tennyson (save one, which the author admits is a “palpable forgery”). And Mortdecai survives it all as if it were an excitable night in a wood-paneled men’s club, lauding meals of kippers and haddock and kedgeree with the same expansive locution as he does fleeing a pack of women brandishing pistols with graphite bullets. And he behaves with the most outlandish sense of masculinity throughout: That he’s man enough both to hide in a tree and to assume his proper rung on society’s ladder is always assured:

“They tried to spoil the Navarin d’Agneau for me by saying that it was my turn to wash up but at this point I dug in my heels. There are some things a white man simply does not do. Yell for mercy from armed lesbians when halfway up a Douglas Fir or other conifer, yes. Wash up after them, no.”

Bonfiglioli’s prose paints Mortdecai with one foot in Wodehouse’s florid English and the other in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but something else is at work as well. Bonfiglioli takes the piss out of the posh while he admits that such a creature’s time has passed, and what could be misperceived as nostalgia’s silver underpinning is constantly dismissed by the character himself. What propels Mortdecai is a primal urge to cling to life when facing dire circumstances—even if such is but the discomfort of the first night at spy college:

“Huddled in my comfortless bed, I made shift to study the thinnest of my lesson-brochures: the one entitled Mastering the Five Simple Ways of Suicide, for this seemed to fall in with my mood at the time. I was shuddering my way through the passage about how to bite through the large blood-vessel at the base of the tongue and breathe in the resultant blood until asphyxia supervened, when the lights went out.

‘Soddem,’ I said to myself, composing myself to sleep.”

If Beckett or Sartre or some other soberly serious 20th-century writer bothered with something as base as belly laughs, they might have divined something as joyfully, reluctantly in love with life as the Honorable Charlie Mortdecai. And in the end that’s what makes Bonfiglioli such a buoyant bliss: Living well isn’t the best revenge; in these times, just living is. And he or she who has not met Bonfiglioli has yet to lead theirs to the fullest.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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