Charlie Mortdecai
(creator: Kyril Bonfiglioli))

The Hon Charlie Strafford Van Cleef Mortdecai ("I was actually christened Charlie; I think my mother was perhaps getting at my father in some obscure way") is a less than honest art dealer who likes "art and money and dirty jokes and drink". He was the creation of Kyril (originally Cyril) Emmanuel George Bonfiglioli (1928-1985), the son of an Italo-Slovene father and English mother. After leaving school at 16, Bonfiglioli spent 5 years in the army before being admitted (as a widower with two small children) to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read English, after which he set up as an art dealer in Oxford and claimed to be "loved and respected by all who knew him slightly".

Despite a talent for finding items of value (he once paid only £40 for a Tintoretto), he had a struggle to make ends meet. This was partly why he wrote four books featuring Charlie Mortdecai: Don't Point That Thing at Me (1973), Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1976), the much less inventive After You With the Pistol (1979), and (completed after Bonfiglioli's death by Craig Brown) The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery (1996, still amusing but not nearly as good as the first two books that are both recommended). As Bonfiglioli explained at the start of the first of these, "This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer". Mortdecai, being a minor sort of crook, tries to detect but is more often detected, but I've included him here because of the sheer exuberance and comic appeal which make the books so entertaining to read. And on one occasion he does use a passport made out to "Father Thomas Rosenthal, SJ ; occupation: Curial Secretary", so perhaps he could be counted as a clerical detective too!

There's plenty of violence involved, so he needs the support of his manservant, the expert cook (there's a lot about food in the books) and ex-con Jock, whom he describes as "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 without a thug and Jock is one of the best in the trade". The mention of Jeeves is significant: Bonfiglioli was a great admirer (and collector) of P.G.Wodehouse. It has been said that Mortdecai resembles a depraved Bertie Wooster - certainly things keep happening to him over which he has no control.

It is the outrageous and snobbish Mortdecai ("a nice, rich, cowardly fun-loving art dealer who dabbles in crime to take his mind off his haemorrhoids") who himself tells the stories. His first main protagonist is Extra Chief Superintendent (the title being a typical Bonfiglioli invention) Mortland, head of the the Special Powers Group, set up by the Home Office and "allowed to get away with murder - to say the least - so long as they get results". He tortures - and is tortured: "Jock," I said crisply, " we are going to defenestrate Mr Marland." Jock's eyes lit up. "I'll get a razor blade, Mr Charlie." "No no, Jock, wrong word. I mean we're going to push him out of a window." The involved plots (including the secret services, Chinese Tong gangs, Mortdecai's attempt to shoot the Queen, the Dingley Dell Ladies Training College and its possible connections with white slavery, and so on) and the characters may be absurd, but the politically incorrect, irrepressible and totally irresponsible humour never fails to entertain.

Mortdecai got his Hon title, by the way, not for outstanding services to the crown, but because he was the second son of a baron who was awarded "his barony ostensibly for giving the nation a third of a million pounds' worth of good but unsaleable art, but actually for forgetting something embarrassing he knew about someone." Just what you'd expect in a Bonfiglioli book, as are all the amusing digressions, as when Mortdecai explains: "Cipriani of Harry's Bar in Venice once told me why waiters of the better sort call that huge pepper-grinder a 'Rubi'; it is in honour of the late, celebrated Brazilian playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. I don't understand it myself because my mind is pure".

There's a very informative piece about Bonfiglioli and the novels on The New Yorker site. It also explains how his last years were far from happy, and how he died, aged 59, from cirrhosis of the liver.

There is further interesting biographical information about Bonfiglioli (widely known as Bon) in The Mortdecai ABC (1991) by his divorced second wife, Margaret Bonfiglioli (he officially married twice, but had various other partnerships, declaring himself "a dedicated marrier of beautiful women", and fathering five children). It and The Mortdecai Trilogy, an omnibus volume of the first three books, published by Penguin, are available new, as is The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!

If you enjoy this sort of approach, you may also be interested in the work of Mark Schweizer.


Mortdecai Trilogy cover
This Penguin anthology contains the first three books. The cover certainly suggests the character of Mortdecai, slipping away before you can catch him.
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