What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Mortdecai Trilogy
by Kyril Bonfiglioli

Field-Tested by Andy Ross

on a plane headed to Wisconsin

I had heard somewhere that the Charlie Mortdecai books by Kyril Bonfiglioli were terrific — the bright, circuitous language of Wodehouse, mixed with a biting, misanthropic wit. I picked up all three, looking forward to the escapist plotlines of a gentleman art dealer, rolling up his well-tailored sleeves for some counterfeiting, smuggling, and espionage. Then, my father-in-law died.

This was three months after my own dad had passed away, and six after my wife and I had moved to New York. We were flying back to Wisconsin for a second, difficult homecoming, still worn out from the first. I read on the plane, ready for a little diversion.

It turns out that these books are more complicated than the escapist thrillers I had expected. Charlie, for all his charm and skill, is a functioning alcoholic, tossed around like a juggling ball between enemies and friendly conspirators, all smarter and more powerful than him. There is bone-crunching murder and terrifying sexual assault. There are eyes gouged and ears cut off. Holy cow, I was not ready for that. I felt fragile, reading while the flight attendant demonstrated crash procedures. The last thing I wanted to think about was death.

To make my discomfort worse, Bonfiglioli’s books are hilarious. I kept stifling laughter. Very inappropriate of me. Charlie delights in eating and dressing well, and he takes time out from each dark episode to describe, in snobbish detail, the objects of his affluent lifestyle. Guns are valued as much for their antique handles as for their ability to kill. A disguise for the dapper Charlie, as he prepares for a monarch’s assassination, is simply a gaudy, ill-fitting suit. He savors small, intellectual victories over boorish villains, even while they are punching him in the kidneys. The disconnect is perfect. I kept wanting to lean over to my wife to read her sentences. I don’t think she likes me doing that, even under better circumstances.

The plots are complicated, bordering on messy. Characters speak bluntly, detached from the death around them. On those plane rides, I could identify with that. Messiness felt true and detachment seemed like a good thing, if you could get it.

There we were, wearing our nicest funereal clothes (too nice to be folded into a rolling suitcase) and sitting in the cushy, leather, Midwest Airlines seats our bereavement tickets bought us. Like Charlie Mortdecai, we were enjoying luxury even while we were surrounded by mortality. The flight attendants gave us freshly-baked cookies. We made jokes. It was what we needed.

Andy Ross is a comedy writer and stand-up living in New York. He can be found at his website.

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