Speaking, as we were, about ceramics, here's a link to some of my favourite novels. At the beginning of All the Tea in China, a young Carolus Mortdecai van Cleef leaves the Netherlands under a cloud, with a bag of coins and a crate of Delft china. His intention is to set himself up in London as a purveyor of fine porcelain. Karli had been schooled by his mother to “… tell pottery from porcelain with one flip of the back of my finger-nail, soft-paste from hard-paste with one nibble of the tooth, lead-glaze from tin-glaze with one caress of a wetted finger. Blindfold.” This good mother supplies “… a chest of Delft – not the choicest but good enough for the English … in London today they are crazy for blue-and-white wares and cannot tell Wan-Li from De Metalen Pot. You shall walk around and about and listen without talking and so find out what the English will pay.” Things, thankfully for the reader at least, do not go according directly to plan, and Carolus finds himself embroiled in the late Victorian world of opium trading, bound on a clipper for China.
Kyril Bonfiglioli, the author, freely admits stealing from Basil Lubbock’s The China Clippers (1914), which is a most interesting book, and mentions in passing “… that primer for mutineers,” The Seaman’s Friend by Richard Henry Dana, which is also an interesting read for the maritime-minded.
Carolus Mortdecai van Cleef is the grandfather of Bonfiglioli’s great anti-hero the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai, who really, really ought to be better known beyond his cult following. The amoral Mortdecai’s adventures begin in Don’t Point that Thing at Me, continue in Something Nasty in the Woodshed, and end with After You with the Pistol. They are available as The Mortdecai Trilogy. Bonfiglioli left The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery unfinished at his death, but it was completed by Craig Brown and is worth a read too. His ex-second wife Margaret published The Mortdecai ABC later – a collection of articles, letters, shorts and anecdotes, which is also of interest to the dedicated follower.
Mortdecai is one of last century’s wonderful comic characters. He is what Wodehouse’s Wooster would have been if he had happy-slapped by life. He is James Bond with the class that Fleming didn’t think to give him, he is Raffles without the social conscience, and Lovejoy without the mullet. By turns, he is an aesthete, epicurean, bon vivant, killer, coward and snob.
Bonfiglioli writes like an angel, wearing his learning lightly and casting his jokes like so many pearls. Many, like that one, are hidden. Others are easier to catch – Charlie’s ‘man’, his ‘hired thug’, is called Jock “…his surname escapes me, I should think it would be his mother’s.” It is, inevitably, ‘Strap’.