Rancid Pansies, by James Hamilton-Paterson

A fright at the opera: Di haunts Tuscany
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With Cooking with Fernet Branca, James Hamilton-Paterson cut himself adrift from his substantial reputation as a writer of well-researched, well-mannered literary fictions.

Suddenly he released Gerald Samper, a brilliant, temperamental, conceited and frustrated English writer based in Tuscany. Samper suffers from delusions of creativity, grandeur and poly-sexual attractiveness. Though his publications amount to a succession of ghost-written sports memoirs, he longed throughout the second volume – Amazing Disgrace – to author an opera libretto. But he is forced to pen Millie!, a popular biography of a nightmarish, one-armed granny, beloved of the tabloid press for sailing around the world.

In Rancid Pansies – the third in an unmissable series – Samper's wish is granted. As ever, the devil lies in the detail. There are rumours of appearances of the ghost of Lady Di at the hole in the Italian soil where Samper's home used to be. These inspire him to make the princess the subject of his libretto. He delights us by selecting a familiar character, his neighbour Marta – the composer from the shady East European state of Voynovia – as collaborator. Samper's penchant for anagrams provides the opera's working title, Rancid Pansies, though by curtain-up it has become Princess Diana.

There are strong echoes of Waugh and Wodehouse in the comedy. But Samper's reactionary take on all manner of topics, as well as his capacity to make a very little knowledge or human understanding go a long, long way, makes these books very much au courant. They alert us too to how thin is the present stock of English satirical fiction, compared to the interwar period. Samper's true predecessors are found in Norman Douglas's 1928 assault on the expats of Capri, South Wind. Hamilton-Paterson's trick is to enshrine in Samper's character values which we know to laugh at, but recognise and sometimes even share.