Meet the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai, art dealer, aristocrat and assassin, in the opening chapter of our Fiction Book of the Month, Don’t Point That Thing at Me…
So old a story, and tell it no better?
When you burn an old carved and gilt picture frame it makes a muted hissing noise in the grate – a sort of genteel fooh – and the gold leaf tints the flames a wonderful peacock blue-green. I was watching this effect smugly on Wednesday evening when Martland came to see me. He rang the bell three times very fast, an imperious man in a hurry. I was more or less expecting him, so when my thug Jock put his head around the door, eyebrows elaborately raised, I was able to put a certain aplomb into my ‘Wheel him in.’
Somewhere in the trash he reads Martland has read that heavy men walk with surprising lightness and grace; as a result he trips about like a portly elf hoping to be picked up by a leprechaun. In he pranced, all silent and catlike and absurd, buttocks swaying noiselessly.
‘Don’t get up,’ he sneered, when he saw that I had no intention of doing so. ‘I’ll help myself, shall I?’
Ignoring the more inviting bottles on the drinks tray, he unerringly snared the great Rodney decanter from underneath and poured himself a gross amount of what he thought would be my Taylor ’31. A score to me already, for I had filled it with Invalid Port of an unbelievable nastiness. He didn’t notice: score two to me. Of course, he is only a policeman. Perhaps ‘was’ by now.
He lowered his massive bum into my little Régence fauteuil and smacked his lips courteously over the crimson garbage in his glass. I could almost hear him scrabbling about in his brain for a deft, light opening. His Oscar Wilde touch. Martland has only two personalities – Wilde and Eeyore. Nevertheless, he is a very cruel and dangerous policeman. Or perhaps ‘was’ – or have I said that?
‘My dear boy,’ he said finally, ‘such ostentation. Even your firewood is gilded now.’
‘An old frame,’ I said, playing it straight. ‘Thought I’d burn it.’
‘But such a waste. A nice Louis Seize carved frame …’
‘You know bloody well it isn’t a nice Louis anything frame,’ I snarled. ‘It’s a repro Chippendale trailing-vine pattern made about last week by one of those firms in the Greyhound Road. Came off a picture I bought the other day.’
You never know what Martland knows or doesn’t know, but I felt fairly safe on the subject of antique frames: even Martland couldn’t have taken a course on them, I thought.
‘Would have been interesting if it had been a Louis Seize one though, you must admit; say about 50 by 110 centimetres,’ he mumbled, gazing meditatively at the last of it glowing in the grate.
At that point my thug came in and deposited about twenty pounds of coal onto it and retired after giving Martland a civil smile. Jock’s idea of a civil smile is rolling back part of his upper lip from a long, yellow dogtooth. It frightens me.
‘Listen, Martland,’ I said evenly. ‘If I had lifted that Goya, or fenced it, you can’t really think that I’d bring it here in its frame, for God’s sake? And then burn the frame in my own grate? I mean, I’m not a dullard, am I?’
He made embarrassed, protesting noises as though nothing was further from his thoughts than the princely Goya whose theft from Madrid had filled the newspapers for the past five days. He helped out the noises by flapping his hands a bit, slopping some of the alleged wine onto a nearby rug.
‘That,’ I said crisply, ‘is a valuable Savonnerie rug. Port is bad for it. Moreover, there is probably a priceless Old Master cunningly concealed beneath it. Port would be very bad for that.’
He leered at me nastily, knowing that I was quite possibly telling the truth. I leered back coyly, knowing that I was telling the truth. From the shadows beyond the doorway my thug Jock was smiling his civilest smile. We were all happy to the casual eye, had there been such an eye on the premises.
At this stage, before anyone starts to think that Martland is, or was, an ineffectual neddy, I had better fill in a bit of background. You doubtless know that, except under very extraordinary circumstances, English policemen never carry any weapon but the old Punch-and-Judy wooden truncheon. You know too that they never, never resort to physical unkindness – they dare not even spank the bottoms of little boys caught scrumping apples nowadays, for fear of assault charges and official inquiries and Amnesty International.
You know all this for certain, because you have never heard of the Special Powers Group – SPG – which is a peculiar kind of outsider-police squad conjured up by the Home Office during a fit of fact-facing in the weeks following the Great Train Robbery. The SPG was engendered by an Order in Council and has something called a Sealed Mandate from the Home Secretary and one of his more permanent civil servants. It is said to cover five sheets of brief-paper and has to be signed afresh every three months. The burden of its song is that only the nicest and most balanced chaps are to be recruited into the SPG, but that, once in, they are to be allowed to get away with murder – to say the least – so long as they get results. There are to be no more Great Train jobs, even if this entails – perish the thought – bashing a few baddies without first standing them expensive trials. (It’s saved a fortune in dock-briefs already.) All the newspapers, even the Australian-owned sort, have made a deal with the Home Office whereby they get the stories hot from the septic tank in exchange for sieving out the firearms-and-torture bit. Charming.
I have never been so near to getting a knuckle-sandwich in my life. Luckily for what’s left of my patrician profile, Jock aptly entered, bearing the television set before him like an unabashed unmarried mum.
The SPG – or SOGPU as I’ve heard it called – needs have no further truck with the Civil Service except for one horrified little man in the Treasury; and its Mandate instructs – if you please instructs – Commissioners of Police to afford them ‘all administrative facilities without disciplinary obligations or clerical formalities’. The regular police love that bit, naturally. The SPG is answerable only to the Queen’s First Minister through its Procurator, who is a belted Earl and a Privy Councillor and hangs about public lavatories late at night.
Its actual, executive head is a former colonel of paratroops who was at school with me and has the curious rank of Extra Chief Superintendent. Very able chap, name of Martland. Likes hurting people, a lot.
He would clearly have liked to hurt me a bit there and then, in an inquiring sort of way, but Jock was hovering outside the door, belching demurely now and then to remind me that he was on call if required. Jock is a sort of anti-Jeeves: silent, resourceful, respectful even, when the mood takes him, but sort of drunk all the time, really, and fond of smashing people’s faces in. You can’t run a fine-arts business these days without a thug and Jock is one of the best in the trade. Well, you know, was.
Having introduced Jock – his surname escapes me, I should think it would be his mother’s – I suppose I had better give a few facts about myself. I am Charlie Mortdecai. I mean, I was actually christened Charlie; I think my mother was perhaps getting at my father in some obscure way. The Mortdecai tag I am very happy with: a touch of ancientry, a hint of Jewry, a whiff of corruption – no collector can resist crossing swords with a dealer called Mortdecai, for God’s sake. I am in the prime of life, if that tells you anything, of barely average height, of sadly over-average weight and am possessed of the intriguing remains of rather flashy good looks. (Sometimes, in a subdued light, and with my tummy tucked in, I could almost fancy me myself.) I like art and money and dirty jokes and drink. I am very successful. I discovered at my goodish second-rate Public School that almost anyone can win a fight if he is prepared to put his thumb into the other fellow’s eye. Most people cannot bring themselves to do it, did you know that?
Moreover, I’m a Hon., for my daddy was Bernard, First Baron Mortdecai of Silverdale in the County Palatine of Lancaster. He was the second greatest art dealer of the century: he poisoned his life trying to overprice Duveen out of the field. He got his barony ostensibly for giving the nation a third of a million pounds’ worth of good but unsaleable art, but actually for forgetting something embarrassing he knew about someone. His memoirs are to be published after my brother’s death, say about next April, with any luck. I recommend them.
Meanwhile, back at the Mortdecai bunkhouse, old straw boss Martland was fretting, or pretending to. He is a terrible actor, but then he is pretty terrible when he’s not acting, so it’s often difficult to tell, if you follow me.
‘Oh, come on, Charlie,’ he said petulantly. I gave just enough flicker of the eyebrow to indicate that we had not been at school together all that recently.
‘How do you mean, “Come on”?’ I asked.
‘I mean, let’s stop playing silly buggers.’
I considered three clever retorts to that one but found that I couldn’t really be bothered. There are times when I am prepared to bandy words with Martland, but this was one of the other times.
‘Just what,’ I asked reasonably, ‘do you think I might give you that you think you might want?’
‘Any sort of a lead on the Goya job,’ he said in his defeated Eeyore voice. I raised an icy eyebrow or two. He squirmed a bit.
‘There are diplomatic considerations, you know,’ he moaned faintly.
‘Yes,’ I said with some satisfaction, ‘I see how there might be.’
‘Just a name or an address, Charlie. Or anything, really. You must have heard something.’
‘And where would the old cui bono enter in?’ I asked. ‘Where is the well-known carrot? Or are you leaning on the old school spirit again?’
‘It could buy you a lot of peace and quiet, Charlie. Unless, of course, you happened to be in the Goya trade yourself, as a principal.’
I pondered ostentatiously awhile, careful not to seem too eager, thoughtfully guzzling the real Taylor ’31 which was inhabiting my glass.
‘All right,’ I said at last. ‘Middle-aged, rough-spoken chap in the National Gallery, name of Jim Turner.’
The Martland ballpoint skittered happily over the regulation notebook.
‘Full name?’ he asked briskly.
‘James Mallord William.’
He started to write it down, then froze, glaring at me evilly.
‘1775 to 1851,’ I quipped. ‘Stole from Goya all the time. But then old Goya was a bit of a tea leaf himself, wasn’t he?’
I have never been so near to getting a knuckle-sandwich in my life. Luckily for what’s left of my patrician profile, Jock aptly entered, bearing the television set before him like an unabashed unmarried mum. Martland let prudence rule.
‘Har har,’ he said politely, putting the notebook away.
‘Tonight is Wednesday, you see,’ I explained.
‘Professional wrestling. On the telly. Jock and I never miss it; so many of his friends play.
Won’t you stay and watch?’
‘Good night,’ said Martland.
For nearly an hour Jock and I regaled ourselves – and the SPG tape recorders – with the grunts and brays of the catchweight kings and the astonishingly lucid commentary of Mr Kent Walton, the only man I can think of who is wholly good at his job.
‘That man is astonishingly lucid, etc.,’ I said to Jock.
‘Yeah. For a minute back there I thought he’d have had the other bugger’s ear off.’
‘No, Jock, not Pallo. Kent Walton.’
‘Well, it looks like Pallo to me.’
‘Never mind, Jock.’
‘O.K., Mr Charlie.’
It was a splendid programme: all the baddies cheated shamefully, the referee never quite caught them at it, but the good guys always won by a folding press at the last minute. Except in the Pallo bout, naturally. So satisfactory. It was satisfactory, too, to think of all the clever young career bobbies who would, even then, be checking every Turner in the National Gallery. There are a great many Turners in the National Gallery. Martland was smart enough to know that I wouldn’t have made a feeble joke just to tease him: every Turner would be checked. Tucked behind one of them, no doubt, his men would find an envelope. Inside – again, no doubt – would be one of those photographs.
When the last bout had ended – with a dramatic Boston Crab this time – Jock and I drank some whisky together, as is our custom on wrestling nights. Red Hackle de Luxe for me and Johnny Walker for Jock. He prefers it; also, he knows his station in life. We had by then, of course, unstuck the little microphone that Martland had carelessly left behind under the seat of the fauteuil. (Jock had been sitting there, so the recorder had doubtless picked up rude noises as well as the wrestling.) Jock, with rare imagination, dropped the little bug into a tumbler, adding water and an Alka-Seltzer tablet. Then he got the giggles, a horrid sight and sound.
‘Calm yourself, Jock,’ I said, ‘for there is work to be done. Que hodie non est, eras erit, which means that tomorrow, at about noon, I expect to be arrested. This must take place in the Park if possible, so that I can make a scene if I think fit. Immediately afterwards this flat will be searched. You must not be here, nor must you-know-what. Put it in the headcloth of the hardtop as before, put the hardtop on the MGB and take it to Spinoza’s for service. Make sure that you see Mr Spinoza himself. Be there at eight sharp. Got that?’
‘Yes, Mr Charlie.’
With that he toddled off to his bedroom down the hall, where I could hear him still giggling and farting happily. His bedroom is neat, simply furnished, full of fresh air: just what you would wish your Rover Scout son’s room to be. On the wall hangs a chart of the Badges and Ranks of the British Army; on the bedside table is a framed photograph of Shirley Temple; on the chest of drawers stands a model galleon, not quite finished, and a tidy pile of Motor Cycle magazines. I think he used to use pine disinfectant as an after-shave lotion.
My own bedroom is a pretty faithful reconstruction of the business premises of an expensive whore of the Directoire period. For me it is full of charming memories but it would probably make you – manly British reader – vomit. But there.
I sank into a happy, dream-free sleep, for there is nothing like your catchweight wrestling for purging the mind with pity and terror; it is the only mental catharsis worth the name. Nor is there any sleep so sweet as that of the unjust.
That was Wednesday night and nobody woke me up.
Taken from Don’t Point That Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli