Book review: After You With The Pistol by Kyril Bonfiglioli


the cover of the book

If this was written by a middle-class douchebag with all the observational skill but zero percent of the humour, it would be any Ian Fleming book.

Cover

One of those Flash-inspired vector illustrations which looked dated WHILE THEY WERE ACTUALLY BEING DRAWN. Of a guy with a bottle of booze. Who's meant to be the main character, despite lacking in the paunch area. There's also a great deal of cackular yellow. On the other hand, when you've got one of the coolest titles of all time AND a laudatory quote from Stephen Fry directly beneath it, who gives a crap?

Plot

Charlie Mortdecai is an art dealer, but no ordinary art dealer. Barely has he escaped from the prior book's cliffhanger - a cave surrounded by gunmen - than he's thrown in jail. Then he's bailed out by a gorgeous high-society nymphomaniac who demands to be married forthwith. Scarcely have the pair consummated their nuptials a handful of times when Mortdecai's new bride is asking him if he wouldn't mind assassinating the Queen. Not A queen, THE Queen. From then on, Mortdecai's marriage doesn't slow down one bit.

The good

The style will be immediately familiar if you've ever read any of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, P.G. Wodehouse's depiction of a consummately English relationship between a young man and his butler and the various upper-crust fruit baskets they encounter travelling to and from enormous country houses. Bonfiglioli is a big fan and refers to the writer and his characters on half a dozen occasions. This should be mawkish but it isn't, possibly because, though the prose and delivery are similar, Bonfigliol's book has a ribald, amoral feel, as though the whiffs of camp from Wodehouse's tales had ripened into the smoky reek of some den of vice where dissipated aristocrats negotiate pleasure with gutter dwellers and ladies of the night. The mentions of Bonfiglioli's role model thus work as juxtaposition and further enhance the richly textured odour of decayed empire, all cognac, cordite and carbon dioxide.

Something like that. If you've never heard of Wodehouse, but delight in the stylised seventies streetscapes of Guy Ritchie or Life on Mars, then you should definitely give this a try. The prose is effortlessly fluid and funny. There's a joke in every paragraph and some passages are just pure bliss. There's a three-page digression which lists the cast of your average bank job (along with their likely fates); it's the kind of thing that reads as though knocked off by a bored teenager in a funny mood yet it's pitch perfect and full of that casual insiderness that marks the best streetwise writing.

That's just one tiny example from a book chock-full of them. The author's bio speaks volumes: Kyril Bonfiglioli, now deceased was, like main character Mortdecai, a classically-educated art dealer and "a fair shot with most weapons," "abstemious in all things except food, drink, smoking and bad language," and "loved and respected by all who knew him slightly."

After You With The Pistol is a cracking caper, written with such offhand wit that you can be tricked into wondering why more people don't borrow Wodehouse's style themselves (hint: because it's EFFING IMPOSSIBLE), plus all the sex, seediness, shootouts and chicanery that Jeeves, Wooster and Psmith never bothered with. In the words of Stephen Fry: "You couldn't slip under the duvet with anything more delightful or disreputable".

The bad

I now realise that my favourite action read, Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller, owes much to this book. However, Laurie's book has a plot like a German racetrack guiding the one-liners and hardware. Wodehouse always seemed to find plots a secondary concern to tone and prose (which is somewhat understandable, given his signature gifts with those elements) and Bonfiglioli cannot maintain the story into the third act either. Sadly, also, it's a bit harder to conceal this fact within the context of a fast-paced thriller than some old rubbish about the vicar's missing pig. It might be my imagination, but I found the quality of the gags beginning to veer further into 'Allo 'Allo territory at this stage of the book, too. Events draw to a passable climax and a neat reveal, but definitely loses their way prior to this. It's a real shame as the pacing is a product of both the corking opening third AND the rhythm of the writing; then, right when it should be whitening our knuckles, it begins to slur and digress like the party wit who's been rewarding his bon mots with brandy. If you reach this stage you'll read on, though, because by then you'll have long-since fallen under the spell of a charming tall-tale wizard.

There's one other thing I should mention in column B - this was written in the seventies AND from the point of view of a man who we could charitably call "unreconstructed". Generally it's all fun and frolics (Mortdecai's wife's sexual attitudes are borderline Benny Hill, for instance, yet he's totally powerless beneath her intelligence and manipulatory skills,) but there are moments - again, most prominent during the lumpy final third - when we have to remind ourselves that thirty years ago and you were allowed to, e.g, express dramatically uninformed opinions about sexual assault in polite conversation, or whip out a zany "Chinese" "impersonation" for yuks at a dinner party. Speaking of China, to anyone who cries 'political correctness' whenever their right to public bigotry is questioned, may I suggest a trip to the world's most populous country? It might help delineate that apparently hazy line between censorship and facing the consequences of your own actions in a free society.

What I learnt

That if you're a freakin' prose natural, you really ought to knock a few novels out before you die, even if you'd much rather be doing a different job.

Go on, any old bollocks for a story will do! You owe it to humanity. And how many dead art dealers can you name who anyone cares about?



In short

Title: After You With The Pistol
Author: Kyril Bonfiglioli
Publisher: Overlook TP
ISBN: 1585675636
Year published: 2005
Pages: 198
Genre(s): Fiction, Crime, Humour