RogerBW's Blog

Don't Point That Thing At Me, Kyril Bonfiglioli 17 August 2015

1972 comedy, first in the Mortdecai Trilogy. Charlie Mortdecai is a cheerfully corrupt, vaguely aristocratic and thoroughly cowardly art dealer, who finds himself called on to act as an unwilling assassin.

This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.

One of P. G. Wodehouse's stock plots had Bertie Wooster being forced into petty crime. This thoroughgoing homage to Wodehouse, with a side note of Ian Fleming at his most brand-name-happy, has the Wooster-equivalent already gladly engaged in petty crime, only to find it's rather larger than he had expected.

That's not a bad idea, but sadly Bonfiglioli is no Wodehouse; he doesn't quite have the wit, and he has nowhere near the gift for characterisation. On one hand he has many excellent lines, such as:

Ignoring the more inviting bottles on the drinks tray, he unerringly snared the great Rodney decanter from underneath and poured himself a gross amount of what he thought would be my Taylor '31. A score to me already, for I had filled it with Invalid Port of an unbelievable nastiness. He didn't notice: score two to me. Of course, he is only a policeman.

but somehow things never quite gel into an interesting overall plot. Charlie and his thug ("Jock Strapp", har har) are mildly unpleasant to everyone they meet, so when unpleasantness is done to them one just feels that they had it coming. Everyone else is pretty much a cardboard cutout: nasty policeman, nasty federal agent, nasty young rich beautiful recent widow who is apparently smitten on sight by this unappealing fellow. And yet there are still moments:

Calling for coat and hat I tripped downstairs – I never use the lift on Saturdays, it's my day for exercise. (Well, I use it going up, naturally.)

Charlie is constantly drinking, and in person would probably be explaining that he was ver', ver', drunk, which may account for the casual dismissal of an old colleague shot while Charlie's talking with him. Some time later, this finally gets mentioned:

Spinoza's foreman, with almost Japanese good taste, had not hammered out the bullet dimple in the door but had drilled it out and inlaid a disc of burnished brass, neatly engraved with Spinoza's initials and the date on which he had gone to meet his jealous god — 'the Maker of the makers of all makes' as Kipling has so deftly put it.

So that's all right then. I know, I know, you're not supposed to need sympathetic characters, particularly in a comedy where you can just laugh at the antics of the silly man, but this peevish and snobbish voice isn't one I have any interest in listening to. He's fascinated by the sound of his own voice, and I've met people like that.

I read this book because of the recent film, which was universally panned and nearly six months after release has made back around half of its $60 million budget. I wanted to know whether it was a matter of poor source material or poor filmmaking. I can see just why Johnny Depp might have been interested in the role, given his usual typecasting these days, but Rotten Tomatoes' consensus describes the film as "aggressively strange and willfully unfunny", and that sounds like a fair summation of the book as well. Followed by After You with the Pistol.

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