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“The Debt to Pleasure” by Robert Lanchester – book review

It took me a long, long time to get into this novel, which defies easy categorisation (Is it a comedy? Is it a suspense thriller? Is it simply taking the piss?) – but when I did, I loved it.

For me the hurdle was the delusional and pompous narrator, Tarquin Winot, who seems like a cross between the TV character Frasier and Ignatius from Confederacy of Dunces – but with a serial killer edge. Although Confederacy is one of my favourite novels, and Frasier one of my favourite comedies, in this book it just seemed … well, like I’ve seen and read it all before. I was wrong, but that was my initial impression.

Another problem is that when you have a pompous narrator, the writing itself becomes pompous and painful (which Confederacy avoided by being written in the third person). You either need to surrender yourself to the language or give up.

I gave up – multiple times. I bought this over a decade ago and it was only because a drunken friend urged me to persist that I forced myself to give it yet another try. The first chapter damn near killed me, but I plugged on and by the time I got a third way through I realised I’d been too harsh – and by halfway I was loving it. 

The novel’s written as a faux cookbook, where Tarquin combines increasingly half-hearted recipes with tales of his twisted childhood and current adventures, which – without wanting to reveal too much – involves trailing someone across France.

It’s both tense and comic, with both elements escalating dramatically until by the end you don’t know whether to laugh or take a valium.

I did, however, know I was glad I acquired the taste for this. For all my earlier bitching, I genuinely didn’t want it to end. 

Don’t make the mistake I did: you should definitely give The Debt to Pleasure a shot. 

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