This is the first of a trilogy of Mortdecai novels. Mortdecai is a decadent bon viveur who is also a dodgy art dealer trying to get rid of a stolen Goya. This makes for an elaborate, zesty plot which darts around London before nipping over the Atlantic to take in Washington and Texas (road journey incluido) before hopping back, via Eire, for a dénouement in the Lake District.
The plot is ridiculous and a coat-hanger on which to hang the wit and wisdom of Mortdecai himself. He’s a deliciously British figure, second cousin to Bond, whose amoral approach to life doesn’t prevent him from having rigid codes of behaviour and a clear idea of what’s right and wrong. Although what’s wrong might be the way you pour your tea or knot your tie, rather than whether or not you’re prepared to murder or fence stolen goods. Of course, Mortdecai’s amorality is something he shares with the workings of the British state, which has no qualms about murdering or torturing if it feels the need, and in this the book, written in the early seventies, is still timely.
The London section of the book is set in a world of Mayfair art galleries and Gentleman’s clubs. It might be one of the few corners of the capital that has not changed beyond recognition. A vivid description of a visit to the East End shows the lost London of small, artisanal barrios, which reminded me of the London I knew thirty years ago.
Bonfiglioli, hardly a household name, has been something of a connoisseur’s delight for decades. All this is about to change as, having completed the book, I learned via the interweb that a great big movie starring Johnny Depp is about to be released, based on the Mortdecai adventures. One can’t help feeling that the protagonist of the novels might have felt, or indeed be feeling (do literary characters ever really die?) somewhat dubious about the prospect. Nevertheless, Bonfiglioli deserves the larger public he’s about to get and would no doubt be sanguine about the trade-off between commerce and art which one is sometimes forced to make.