Rancid Pansies opens with an eye-watering set piece of high comic farce that caused me to creep out of bed and seek medication lest I wake the entire household with snorts of mirth. After a 50th birthday party which ended in his remote Tuscan eyrie going over a cliff, the eccentric ex-pat Gerald Samper is lodging at Crendlesham Hall, the Suffolk estate of the world famous conductor Max Christ. A self-proclaimed "culinary genius", Samper is invited to provide hors d'ouevres at a family dinner party. He excels with a variant of "Samper's justly renowned Mice Krispies", which involves delicately hashed mouse meat baked in vol-au-vent cases (so easily becoming vole-au-vent, he quips, with a subtle alteration to the rodent filling). The result is wall-to-wall vomit and a possible manslaughter charge pertaining to one of the older guests.
Four years ago, Samper's first hilarious outing in Cooking With Fernet Branca established his credentials as an urbane, erudite gastronome very much in the mould of the lethal chef of John Lanchester's splendid epicurean debut, The Debt to Pleasure. It introduced Samper's hatred of his day job as a freelance ghost writer to egotistical sporting celebrities, as well as his penchants for belting out off-key arias and for rustling up unorthodox morceaux such as Otter with Lobster Sauce. A sequel, Amazing Disgrace, made more mischief with the same ingredients: Samper's lofty disdain for vulgarity (and English popular culture in general) and the sexually ambiguous war of attrition with Marta, his scattily passionate neighbour of East European gangster stock. Both were at the anniversary feast where Samper's pièce de résistance, Badger Wellington stuffed with hallucinogens, was served shortly before the whole property slid off the hill.
Rumours that a vision of Princess Diana had caused Samper's guests to escape from his suddenly mobile home gives Rancid Pansies its arch plot. Samper returns from Suffolk to find a Diana cult burgeoning on his former doorstep. The local mayor, anticipating a Tuscan Lourdes, and the bewigged, weaselly estate agent with whom Samper exchanges lavishly barbed gallantries, court Samper's collusion in encouraging the credulous pilgrims. Samper, meanwhile, finds a vehicle for his own aesthetic ambition, teaming up with Marta to write a comic opera about the princess. "The very essence of opera (not to mention musicals) is cod philosophy and stock human emotion," he quickly pleads, against the inevitable assumption that "Rancid Pansies" (his irreverently anagrammatic working title) will be a confection of kitsch banalities.
Despite its triumphant libretto, this perky plot remains entirely subservient to the brilliant, self-confident voice of its vainglorious hero. Witty, defiant and blind to his own vulnerabilities, Samper engages in close combat with verbal stilettos and a killing turn of phrase, such as his description of the obese local mayor as "mortally portly". He is a hugely joyous creation who – given his craving for limelight – might, I hope, return again to share more Prosecco, guerrilla cuisine and venomous prejudices.Reuse content