Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
Don’t Point That Thing At Me was originally published in 1972, and is the first in a trilogy of novels featuring The Hon. Charlie Mortdecai; a fourth was left unfinished at the author’s death and a fifth book is a prequel about an ancestor of Charlie’s. Apparently, they were a bit of a cult – so much so, that Bonfiglioli’s name doesn’t feature in any of my reference books, though I did discover that Hugh Laurie is a fan.
They are soon to hit the big-time, however, as a movie is due next year of the fourth novel, now finished by Craig Brown. Why can’t adaptations for the screen start at the beginning of a series? As it happens, that’s not going to be a problem for me as I loved the first novel so much, I’ve ordered the complete set and will surely have read them all by the time the movie premieres. I won’t mention the film any more in this review – I don’t want to influence you, for my vision of Mortdecai in the book was entirely different (although I think the actor in question will be very good).
A Iittle digging about Bonfiglioli, who was half English, half Italo-Slovene, reveals that he was his own model for Charlie Mortdecai, being badly behaved, drunk and an art dealer; he died an alcoholic in 1985.
I’d better move on to introduce you to Charlie proper… He’s a minor aristocrat who has whisky for breakfast, dinner and lunch and deals in art when he can be bothered. In his own words, he describes himself thus:
I am Charlie Mortdecai. I like art and money and dirty jokes and drink. I am very successful…
On one hand Charlie is posh, impeccably tailored, public-school educated, well-read and he really knows the art business. On the other, he also has very few morals and knows all those useful people who live in the shadows and can be helpful to move or tinker with a dodgy painting or what have you.
He lives in luxury assisted by his manservant cum thug Jock, and they have a perfect symbiotic relationship – a sort of anti-establishment Jeeves and Wooster – they may be master and servant, but they’re also friends, sitting down to watch the wrestling together (in the 1970s, the wrestling was pure entertainment!).
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. Well, you know, was.
The story is narrated by Charlie, and as the novel starts, Chief Inspector Martland – the bane of Charlie’s life since they were at school together — is paying a visit. He’s on the trail of a stolen Goya…
He lowered his massive bum into my little Régence fauteuil and smacked his lips courteously over the crimson garbage [cheap port] in his glass. I could almost hear him scrabbling about in his brain for a deft light opening. His Oscar Wilde touch. Martland has only two personalities – Wilde and Eeyore. Nevertheless, he is a very cruel and dangerous policeman. Or perhaps ‘was’ – or have I said that?
All these descriptions of people as ‘was’ – a bit ominous wouldn’t you say?
Of course Charlie knows where the stolen Goya is, and he has a buyer in the USA if he can get it there. Martland is after Charlie’s buyer too and after some nasty torture (possibly inspired by James Bond’s treatment by Le Chiffre in Casino Royale), he’s no nearer to finding out about the Goya. He does however have a bit of leverage on Charlie and is willing to do a deal to get at the buyer Krampf, who is due to have his Rolls Royce shipped out to the States. Charlie can be the courier and sort out Krampf for Martland who then doesn’t have to get his fingers dirty. Charlie sees the advantages in this scheme, particularly as he’ll travel under a diplomatic passport…
The outward feel of this novel may be pure Wodehouse updated to the 1970s and Charlie himself references Jeeves and Wooster frequently, but, as the story progresses, you can see a bit of homage to Ian Fleming creeping in too alongside Charlie’s throwaway one-liners. All the stock in trade features you hope for are there: guns, car-chases, spying, a femme fatale, a surprising amount of death and other violence – Charlie himself proves to be rather useful in a tough situation.
You oughtn’t to like Charlie, but he does have a certain charisma to him which attracted me to this anti-hero; in that respect he’s rather like Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser’s popular series. With his selfishness and ruthless streak, not to mention his totally non-PC narration, he won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you know that if you were friends with him, you’d have one helluva good time! Likewise Jock is so viciously attentive, you couldn’t wish for a better man at your side when the going gets tough, and his relationship with Charlie is, for the most part(!), rather sweet.
Between the action and all the wheeling and dealing, though we get to hear Charlie’s views on life, the universe and everything – which are quite non-PC. I shall leave you with naughty Charlie’s perspective on bed and sex:
Bed is the only place for protracted telephoning. It is also excellently suited to reading, sleeping and listening to canaries. It is not at all a good place for sex: sex should take place in armchairs, or in bathrooms, or on lawns which have been brushed but not too recently mown, or on sandy beaches if you happen to be circumcised. […] Women are the great advocates of sex in bed because they have bad figures to hide (usually) and cold feet to warm (always). Boys are different, of course. But you probably knew that. I must try not to be didactic.
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors. She can’t wait to read the rest of the books, and yes, she is looking forward to the movie.
Don’t Point That Thing At Me, Kyril Bonfiglioli (Penguin resissue 2014) paperback 166 pages.