07 Apr 2010

Charlie Mortdecai Mysteries

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Cyril Emmanuel George Bonfiglioli, 1928-1985

Several books I was in the middle of, or planning to read next, temporarily vanished in the course of the great migration southward to our new home in Fauquier County, so I was obliged to forage.

I happened to pick up The Mortdecai Trilogy, which I purchased a couple of years ago, doubtless as the result of a recommendation from one of those “lists of mysteries you need to read” sort of articles.

The author, who write under the name Kyril Bonfiglioli, was one of those more-English-than-most-English semi-exotics (like Benjamin Disraeli or Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts and Coronets). Just like the fictional tenth Duke of Chalfont, Bonfiglioli had an Italian-named father and an English mother. His father, however, was actually a Slovenian émigré antiquarian bookdealer.

Bonfiglioli served in the ranks of the British Army in West Africa in the 1950s before matriculating at Oxford (Balliol College). During his time at university, he was a widower with two young children. After graduating, he became an art dealer in London.

He had been a sabre champion in the Army, and once purchased a Tintoretto at a country auction for forty pounds. Bonfiglioli was evidently himself a marvellous example of the superbly-well-educated English roué and (inevitably) succumbed to cirrhosis at 59.

His detective hero, the Honorable Charlie Strafford Van Cleef Mortdecai obviously represents a more fortunate and affluent version of the author. Charlie Mortdecai is, more or less, what you might have gotten had Bertie Wooster been crossed with one of the more louche members of the Brideshead circle. I don’t suppose many of my readers know Simon Raven, but he and Bonfiglioli were indubitably kindred spirits, reactionary connoisseurs of the pleasures of art, snobbery, and the pleasures of the flesh (including those associated with the wrong element at British public schools). Not the sort of people you’d want to lend money to, or have marry your sister, but wonderfully amusing raconteurs over a drink at the club bar.

Charlie Mortdecai contrives, in Don’t Point That Thing at Me, to extort a Queen’s Messenger appointment conferring diplomatic immunity and allowing him to smuggle whatever he pleases into the United States in a classic Rolls Silver Ghost. Upon his arrival in Washington, he makes a courtesy call at the British Embassy:

Now, for practical purposes the ordinary consumer can divide Ambassadors into two classes: the thin ones who tend to be suave, well-bred, affable; and the fleshier chaps who are none of these things. His present Excellency definitely fell into the latter grade: his ample mush was pleated with fat, wormed with the great pox and so bresprent with whelks, bubukles and burst capillaries that it seemed like a contour map of the Trossachs. His great plum-coloured gobbler hung slack and he sprayed one when he spoke. I couldn’t find it in my heart to love him but, poor chap, he was probably a Labour appointment: his corridors of power led only to the Gents.

‘I won’t beat around the bush, Mortdecai,’ he honked, ‘you are clearly an awful man. Here we are, trying to establish an image of a white-hot technological Britain, ready to compete on modern terms with any jet-age country in the world and here you are, walking about Washington in a sort of Bertie Wooster outfit as though you were something the Tourist Board had dreamed up to advertise Ye Olde Brytysshe Raylewayes.’

‘I say,’ I said, ‘you pronounced that last bit marvellously.’

‘Moreover,’ he ground on ‘your ridiculous bowler is dented, your absurd umbrella bent, your shirt covered in blood and you have a black eye.’

‘You should see the other feller?’ I chirrupped brightly, but it did not go down a bit well. He was in his stride now.

‘The fact that you are quote evidently as drunk as a fiddler’s bitch in no way excuses a man your age’ — a nasty one, that — ‘looking and behaving like a fugitive from a home for alcoholic music-hall artistes. I know little of why you are here and I wish to know nothing. I have been asked to assist you if possible, but I have not been instructed to do so: you may assume that I shall not. The only advice I offer is that you do not apply to this Embassy for help when you outrage the laws of the United States, for I shall unhesitatingly disown you and recommend imprisonment and deportation. If you turn right when you leave this room you will see the Chancery, where you will be given a receipt for your Silver Greyhound [the insignia of a Queen’s Messenger – JDZ] and a temporary civil passport in exchange for your Diplomatic one, which should never have been issued. Good day, Mr. Mortdecai.’

With that, he started signing letters grimly or whatever it is that Ambassadors grimly sign when they want you to leave. I considered being horribly sick on his desk but feared he might declare me a Distressed British Subject there and then, so I simply left the room in a marked manner and stayed not on the order of my going. But I turned left as I went out of the room, which took me into a typists’ pool, through which I strolled debonairely, twirling my brolly and whistling a few staves of ‘Show Us Your Knickers, Elsie.’

Deathless prose.

New Yorker article on Bonfiglioli.

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Dom

I have read this post with further interest. As I was reading the excerpt you chose, a recollection of something of a similar value spontaneously arose in my mind; and I thought it could be of some interest to you too since you appreciate this style. Here I am making allusion to The Case of Four Friends, written by J. C. Masterman and first published in 1956.
I ordered a used copy of this novel, 3 or 4 years ago, because I previously enjoyed reading an account of a particular episode of the WWII written by this same author. I couldn’t suspect I would similarly appreciate The Case of Four Friends for a very different reason: its writing style.

If ever you happen not to know J. C. Masterman, then let me assume that you won’t regret purchasing this 223 pages long novel written by a fine expert in criminal psychology. Do not waste your time looking for this title in a bookstore; it is no longer printed since long already.



Don Wells

I knew the man, briefly but memorably. We were Education Sergeants attached to the Gordon Highlanders in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1954. Neither Wikipedia (surprise!) nor even his 2nd wife Margaret were aware of this episode in his pre-novelist life. He taught me fencing, knife-throwing and how to fry peas in Worcester sauce. I’ve just finished a blog which will interest you – ‘Bonfiglioli remembered’.



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