By John Lanchester
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996
ISBN # 0-8050-4388-8
251 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2010

This is one of the most difficult books to write about which I have ever read. I can hardly say anything about the book without it being a spoiler. I first thought I would write a few things about the overall novel, and then put a huge warning: SPOILER and write what I have to say.

That’s sort of the decision I’ve finally made, but the more I attempted to say “little” about the book first, the more and more I had to reduce it. Thus, what follows is first a very few SENTENCES about the novel. However, if you wish to read a quite amazing book, one of the more astonishing stories I’ve read in ages, then STOP READING these notes at the warning sign below and read the novel itself.

However, the one thing that tended to be CONSISTENT throughout the novel, perhaps the only thing, was the humor of some of the narrator’s comments. I will site some of my favorites of these to potential readers as sort of a lure into the novel. But, beware – the humor, delightful as it is, is merely one small sideline of a very very different sort of novel.

Before the spoilers: Some fun passages which won’t spoil anything:

The author is quite funny, and a few line actually brought on rather raucous and spontaneous out-loud laughing for me. This actually brought about a fun encounter on a public bus one day when I was lost in my book and all of a sudden exploded into laughter at a line. A nearby passenger was intrigued and said: “I noticed you so lost in your book I was worried if you’d miss your stop. What are you reading that delights you so? . . . “

And thus began a fun conversation. I’ll conclude this section with a couple of examples of this delightful wit.

One of my belly-laughs came when he tells us that there were only three positive contributions to modern times: “. . . dentistry, canned tomatoes and the compact disc.”

Another comment that just cracked me up was about their family cook, Mitthaug and his love of fresh fish:

“Mitthaug used to prepare with great displays of energy in his attempts to get the freshest imaginable, cod and coley, rising before dawn to go to Billingsgate and returning with fish which, as my father observed, a competent veterinarian ought to have been able to resuscitate. . .”

If you have not read the novel and might some day, then I highly recommend you stop here. What follows would dull some of the delights of the reading itself.

If, on the other hand you have already read the book, or believe you won’t read it at all – your loss – then you might well read on.



I think the way for me to describe my experience of reading this book is to do a sort of chronology of my changing views of the novel as I read it.

I don’t remember how I happened to have picked this book up and put in on my “possible-books-to-read” shelf, but when I was looking for a book a couple weeks ago, there it was. I checked it out. It looked like a rather interesting and strange book, a cook book, but one written in the form of a novel? That itself was such a novel idea that I couldn’t resist, and, let it be known, while I don’t regard myself as a “chef” in any serious sense, I do love to cook and take my cooking with growing seriousness. I thought I might well learn some things.

It started out well. It appeared that we would begin with winter and do the four seasons, ending with some full-meal menus through spring. I was immediately taken with the author/narrator and his seeming incredible erudition. However, after a while what I had at first read as his erudition began to get on my nerves and I began to feel he was just phenomenally arrogant and a bit unlikeable. Yet, I was willing to hang with him and grant him his excesses, perhaps because I liked a couple of the recipes and especially enjoyed a good deal of his humor.

My first realization that things might not be what they seem came when I sensed I was more and more disliking this character, and despite the belly-laughs provided now and again, I just couldn’t much stomach him and his arrogance. Then he stopped providing recipes for some of the menu items, even telling us that for a lemon custard we should just buy a good one. This led me to begin to wonder about the author and what sort of fellow he really was. Then it hit me like a sledge hammer: the title is: A DEBT TO PLEASURE: A NOVEL. I had started reading this as a sort of cutely disguised cook book. But now I realized more and more that is was “becoming” a novel, and that I had been making a great mistake in equating the main character with the author. A very dumb mistake, but given that it is totally a first person narrative and that I went into it thinking it as being a disguised cookbook, I just made this major mistake.

Now I was a bit confused, I wasn’t sure what was going on, and I was already fairly far into the book.

The next realization I had came when the narrator (still unnamed in my memory) began to act like some super spy character and to place a tape recorder into the room of a recently married English couple on honeymoon in the same hotel he was staying, and in a few pages, planted a tracking device in their car. I was asking myself: what in the hell is going on?

I think I was amazingly slow to get it. It wasn’t really until p. 208 when he names himself, and I had to face it that I was definitely right there was a world of difference between the author and the narrator, that I began to recognize I was reading a magnificently disguised crime novel and that this narrator/character was up to something very mysterious and devious.

The pace of relevant details does hasten after about 200 pages and the last fifty are quite gruesome as we discover the narrator has murdered three household servants, his parents, his brother and is now in the process of setting up the murder of the journalist interviewing him and her new husband, the couple he’s been spying on and following..

But the author hasn’t finished playing with us yet either since he outlines the essence of the plot just 22 pages before the end of the novel.

This novel was a very eerie read, and for me, very slowly revealed itself for what it was, going from a rather chatty, seemingly erudite cookbook to being the tale of a sadistic and extremely successful murderer. But, too the end – a FUNNY man.

Also, while I was fairly early on disabused of the idea that this was a cook book, there were two recipes in it which I do intend to make, one within the next week or two. Those are the Irish stew recipe (which I’ll save for next winter) and the aioli recipe which I hope to make next week. However, given the tricks of the narrator, I went on line to CONFIRM the recipe to be sure I wasn’t being tricked into some joke or even worse. The on-line recipes for aioli were fairly much as the narrator presented them.

I do think this is a novel well worth reading, and quite disturbing at the same time.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett