Charlie Mortdecai is an aristocratic art dealer with one foot (more likely both feet) firmly in the shadier side of the business. He lives in his London penthouse with his thug Jock, who handles all the rough stuff.
I often think that Jock should take up squash. He’d have made a splendid wall.
An old schoolfriend, Martland, is now head of the SPG (the first time I think I’ve encountered this august body in print), a police department empowered to do exactly what it likes.
Somewhere in the trash he reads Martland has read that heavy men walk with surprising lightness and grace; as a result he trips around like a portly elf hoping to be picked up by a leprechaun.
As the book opens, Martland plays Mortdecai a visit in connection with the theft of a Goya. After some bruising encounters with Martland’s colleagues, it turns out Charlie’s friends in high places have got him into an embarrassing predicament which means he has to travel to America to visit – and possibly kill – a multimillionaire client who has been dabbling in blackmail for the fun of it. Charlie has a glorious time over there:
Ten minutes later I was in an enormous taxi-cab, an air-conditioned one, hired for the day for fifty dollars; it seems an awful lot, I know, but money’s worth awfully little over there, you’d be surprised. It’s because there’s so much of it, you see.
…until he gets tangled up with the authorities in a number of inconvenient ways. Red-neck sheriffs and urbane art-dealers don’t mix well, and the CIA isn’t exactly on his side (and nor is the British Ambassador).
The stand-out feature of Don’t Point That Thing at Me is the prose style, which is extremely distinctive: simultaneously coarse and sophisticated. It’s quite timely meeting Mortdecai after reacquainting myself with P. G. Wodehouse, as the similarity in wit between the two writers is obvious (and Bonfiglioli collected Wodehouse, apparently) – although Wodehouse is obviously far more polite. Mortdecai is a little like Bertie Wooster’s evil twin and Bonfiglioli had a gift for mimicking his prose style.
Four other parallels occurred to me:
- Mortdecai is a drunk, a liar and an aesthete – similar to Richard E. Grant’s in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I, the difference being that Mortdecai can probably afford the finest wines known to humanity.
- Harry Flashman, for the self-confidence and not giving a damn about anyone else.
- Lovejoy. Occasional bursts of expertise, mixed with selfishness, thuggery and the profit motive.
- And, oddly, Geoffrey Household.
Last month, Bernadette at Reactions to Reading had some pretty damning things to say about a later book in the series, Something Nasty in the Woodshed, which concerns the hunt for a rapist.
For quite some time I wanted to hit something (throwing the book gently at the wall didn’t really cut it) and for quite some time after that I was grumbling incoherently to anyone who would listen at the outrage of such thinking being published in my own lifetime!
I could certainly see how Bonfiglioli would approach a sensitive topic ham-fistedly, but for the length of this book, Mortdecai is good fun.
Don’t Point That Thing at Me
First published 1973
This edition Penguin, 2014
Final destination: A keeper
Incidentally, the Johnny Depp film Mortdecai, which came out last year, rates a mere 30% on rottentomatoes, so it may be one to miss:
Aggressively strange and willfully unfunny, the misguided Mortdecai sounds a frightfully low note in Johnny Depp’s post-Pirates filmography.
Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays: And although I have no sense of humour, the edges of my mouth did twitch on occasion. “Don’t Point That Thing At Me” was written in the 1970’s and contains lots of attitudes that are thankfully alien today, but then so does much of Trollope. The book is a more knowing, yet still an appealing mix of Jeeves and Wooster and Richard Hannay: lots of characters meet with quite sticky ends but do so in a quietly amusing way which made the book to be a suitable antidote to the previous tear-jerker.
Rotten Tomatoes: Well lets not beat around the bush here the author of these original stories has presumably based his main character on Terry-Thomas. The first lines of dialog spoken by Depp in this movie immediately made think this was the official Terry-Thomas movie…action movie. You can quite clearly tell Depp is doing his best pompous aristocratic British accent which just happens to kinda sound like an attempt at Terry-Thomas. Of course he also looks like a typically well groomed, old fashioned dapper, debonair gentlemanly toff with his posh suits, slick back hair and walking cane. The odd thing is a lot of the plot and consequent jokes revolve around his facial hair, its like a character.