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Something Nasty

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Our Daily Correspondent

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Johnny Depp in a poster for Mortdecai.

Lately, posters for the film Mortdecai have been popping up everywhere. They feature Johnny Depp and a battalion of costars extravagantly mustachioed and looking wacky. Oh, great, I thought. More of Johnny Depp pretending to be a character actor. That’s what the world needed. Maybe in six months if I’ve seen everything else on a plane and the movies are free.

The posters were designed to intrigue, but I can’t imagine they piqued much curiosity. But of course someone, eventually, had to ask, What the Hell Is Mortdecai?, and in a weak moment, I clicked on the link. And of course, then it all made sense—kind of. The new movie is an adaptation of the Mortdecai series by Kyril Bonfiglioli. The spelling is the same, of course, but it was still hard to believe—these lighthearted posters just bear so little resemblance to the tone of the books, and the preview roams even further.

It’s true, the books are technically wacky. Here’s how Leo Carey described them in The New Yorker when the series was reissued in 2004:

Mortdecai, the son of a peer, never tires of describing the splendors of his cellar, his table, and his tailoring. There is scarcely a meal (or a drink) that is not recounted in detail and meticulously evaluated, and he cannot leave the house without telling you, “I put on a dashing little tropical-weight worsted, a curly-brimmed coker and a pair of buckskins created by Lobb in a moment of genius.” He loves to boast about the fine establishments he frequents in his London neighborhood. “I went a-slumming through the art-dealing district, carefully keeping my face straight as I looked in the shop windows—sorry, gallery windows—at the tatty Shayers and reach-me-down Koekkoeks.” (It is a typical Bonfiglioli touch that the artists mentioned—precisely the kind of respectable nineteenth-century landscapists on which a high-end Mayfair dealer thrives—are just obscure enough to impress the reader.)

You should read the whole piece to get a good sense of the series and its author. The books are kind of like Jeeves and Wooster stories—the author plays this up with Wodehouse references—if Wooster were a psychotic, misogynistic art dealer with a weight problem. Or maybe he’s more a sociopath or just a pathological narcissist. I’m not a shrink. But he’s definitely amoral, and he certainly hates women. The books came out in the seventies and have a particular sort of flinty, urbane nastiness to them: people who love them really love them. Both Frye and Laurie are on record in their admiration for the series, and if you check out any series of online reviews, you’ll see that readers are pretty much evenly divided between those who relish the books’ unflinching, un-PC meanness, and those who are appalled.

I’ll confess to falling into the latter camp. Let it be said, I understand the appeal. The series is raffish, dark, melancholy, unabashedly nostalgic, clever, brash. It takes cozy English mystery tropes and takes a sick pleasure in upending them. “For those who like that sort of thing,” said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “that is the sort of thing they like.”

It is, in fact, the sort of thing I thought I’d like. And a big part of the problem is surely that I started the series out of sequence. I read Something Nasty in the Woodshed first—partly because that was the one I first ran across, partly on the strength of the New Yorker piece, partly because people kept trumpeting the series as a “cult” phenomenon, and partly because the title references the slyly daffy Cold Comfort Farm. 

Of course, that’s Bonfiglioli all over: summoning a comforting classic (itself a send-up of hackneyed British literary tropes) and giving it a quick sheep-dip in acid. I like to think I’m able to put aside missish twenty-first-century sensibilities and read something on its merits. But I am a product of my time and a woman. And I found the book—with its caustic, rape-centric plot—ugly. The protagonist may be an unabashed narcissist and the narrator may be winking at the reader, but he certainly wasn’t winking at me. I went on to read the others—Don’t Point That Thing at Me and After You with the Pistolbut the damage had been done. I have never been eager to join clubs that don’t want me as a member. 

I imagine the film wouldn’t bother me at all—at least not in the same way. The movie, one imagines, will take away everything that people love in the books and leave only what the author was lampooning. Certainly they seem to have put Mortdecai on a diet, so one imagines he’ll restrain his other appetites with equal zeal. Or maybe I’m wrong: maybe Johnny Depp will play an untrammeled, unlovable sociopath who tramples on modern mores and has contempt for viewers. Yes, I’m sure that’s what will happen. In the tradition of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, we will see a complex antihero and be drawn to his self-loathing complexity. Done right, an adaptation could indeed be interesting.

Even more interesting—or at least, of our time—would be a portrait of the multifaceted author, who painted himself as “an accomplished fencer, a fair shot with most weapons,” “abstemious in all things except drink, food, tobacco and talking,” who battled depression and alcoholism. He died, financially insecure, before completing The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery (which title seems to have inspired the team behind the movie) and it was completed by the great literary mimic Craig Brown, under the aegis of Bonfiglioli’s widow. As Carey wrote, “The undertow of pain and despair is what gives the books an emotional charge beyond their surface urbanity, and makes them stick in the mind long after you’ve quoted all the funny bits to your friends.” On the reissue’s cover, they printed only the end of that quote.