Bonfiglioli. Kyril (1973, 2014), Don’t Point That Thing At Me, Penguin
If you ever read one of my reviews and thought – yeah, ok, but why aren’t these a bit shorter? You are in luck! Having recently finished Don’t point that thing at me by English novelist and art dealer Kyril Bonfiglioli, I really wanted to review it, but I don’t really have a lot of context for the genre. The obvious reason why I stumbled across this lovely nasty little book is because of Mortdecai, the Johnny Depp-led film that was made based on its protagonist. In this case, the book is absolutely lovely and it’s the movie that is almost spectacularly bad. The novel, the first of overall 4 ½ novels in the same vein, is short, incredibly entertaining, well written, well structured and is threaded through and through by a surprising amount of unexpurgated violence. I have not read the other books and I am not entirely sure I will do so anytime soon because Don’t point that thing at me ends on a perfect note, with a desperate, drunk art dealer charging the police, Goya and gun in hand. There. I spoiled it in the first paragraph. But the book, despite being very clearly a mystery novel and not some literary novelist’s tired attempt at genre (I’m looking at you, McCarthy!), also doesn’t really run on suspense. About halfway through the book, the reader, Mortdecai, and various other principal participants in the plot, have stopped running the usual passing routes and a mild form of chaos descends on the book’s events. I don’t know what I expected – but I do know that I was delighted to find this Wodehouse/Hammett/Chandler hybrid, which comes with a strong and well-sculpted voice, sharp and precise writing and a plot that knows when and how to raise the stakes. It’s not perfect, but for a quickly written 1973 thriller it weathered the passing time remarkably well, much better than some other would-be genre classics I’m currently reading. What’s more, it cleverly touches in passing on Jewish and literary issues, without ever being weighed down by any of it, and parts of it will remind the reader of Baudrillard’s time spent “dans les déserts et sur les routes” of America.
The protagonist of Don’t point that thing at me is Charlie Mortdecai, an honest art dealer – as honest as an art dealer can get who deals in stolen or otherwise crooked art. He’s fairly well off, petty, not the youngest anymore and of “above-average weight” – making Johnny Depp a curious casting choice. He has one foot in British aristocracy and the other foot firmly planted in the grit and dirt of a life lived at the margins of legality. The plot of the novel leads the book’s hero from the UK to the US and back, and at times you can see the author toying with the conventions of Ian Fleming’s classic spy novels as they intersect with the Hammett/Chandler school of writing. He shares with them the sense of overwhelming darkness and corruption, in which the protagonist has to fulfill a task. The goal, as it does in many Chandler novels, changes multiple times during the book, as Mortdecai scrambles to adapt. He is not, however, a hapless idiot, as he’s interpreted by Mr. Depp. Mortdecai is a capable fighter, drinker and negotiator. He prides himself on his brain, much as he is aware of its limits. His wit isn’t subtle, but it’s subtle enough not to really be coarse, even when he thinks or speaks badly of his fellow man. The book is supposedly written from his perspective and he keeps interrogating and tweaking the conventions of how to write a genre novel. I say he’s the author and not just the narrator, because the book, at the end, takes care to preserve suspense by giving up the coherent genteel novel structure for short, dashed off diary entries. Mortdecai mocks everything – including his criminal life and the culture around him. He’s literate, but in a dashed-off, almost superficial way – as when he quotes a famous line by Mallarmé, which you’ll find much more often quoted by Brits than by French writers.
This pretend erudition is curiously mirrored by the author himself who has attached epigraphs from Robert Browning’s poetry to each chapter – and moreover, the book’s final action packed encounter takes place in the lake district, an area of Britain indelibly connected to the work of Wordsworth. There is a paper waiting to be written about the Browning – Wordsworth tension and how it’s reflected in the plot of this little British potboiler. Another interesting angle of the book is its connection to Jewishness. There’s a peculiar history in British culture to Jewishness (for contemporary comment see the work of Howard Jacobson or Anthony Julius’ recent romp through British literary and cultural history), and I can’t help but feel the book at times toy with it. There’s Mortdecai himself, whose name carries “a hint of Jewry” and later on we are introduced to other Jewish people with various connections to Europe and history. None of this is foregrounded, and in a way, the central passages of the book that sees Mortdecai travel through the US have a whiff of the laid-back anthropology of Jean Baudrillard’s anthropology-road trip. The elements are there: we have the desert, the wideness of space, the overdetermined, hyperreal, “déserts du trop de signification.” But none of this weighs down the book in any way, we witness the book nodding to certain figures of thought here and there, but it all happens en passant.
And there’s more: despite all the levity of Mortdecai’s tone and the games he plays with genre expectations – the world of the novel is by turns dark and grotesque. A nymphomaniac Jewish woman from Vienna who married (and possibly killed) a famous (and criminal) art collector, living on a farm somewhere in the American heartland? Surely grotesque. Police and other government agencies that are corrupt, unscrupulous and brutal, willing to torture, kill and deceive to protect politicians from scandal? Dark but not necessarily grotesque. It is amusing that the movie Mortdecai kept some of the murders and (in the movie: attempted) torture scenes, but hands them over to stereotypical Chinese or Russian villains. I think it speaks to Bonfiglioli’s novel that it managed to combine humor and brutality in one cohesive story, and it was too dicey or difficult for the movie version to do the same, so the movie went back to the Hot Shots school of villainy, except it also lacked the commitment to pure unadulterated silliness. As an art world noir, Don’t Point That Thing At Me is a rousing success, a book much more complicated and interesting than we might be tempted to think. And the writing itself is just such a joy. And its standout lines stick with you, so much so that, upon watching the ill-conceived Depp vehicle, you notice each and every direct quote from the book. Not because you remember them from reading – but because in a mediocre, tired script, they shine like some purloined jewelry in the dry summer grass.
The first epigraph of the novel is from Pippa Passes, Browning’s first major post-Sordello work. Pippa Passes is noteworthy in part because of the non-judgmental way it depicts immorality. The epigraph chosen by Bonfiglioli is “So old a story and tell it no better?” – divorced from Browning’s context (the Intendant’s plans for Pippa), it’s also significant for the book itself. Coming this early in the book, it works like a challenge from Bonfiglioli, a mischievous, spirited writer if I ever saw one, to himself. And he tells it much better.
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