Foodie novel finds the gravy train gives a bumpy ride

Whitbread Prize: Marianne Macdonald assesses this year's shortlist, while Boyd Tonkin, `The Independent's' new literary editor, offers publishers and aspiring novelists a cautionary tale on the insidious perils of hype
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The Independent Online
If food really is the new rock-and-roll, then a stylish and erudite novel featuring a gourmet psychopath might be expected to shoot to the top of the charts and stay there. Or so the publisher Picador must have thought when it blew a fat slice of its annual budget on John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, which today appears on the shortlist for the Whitbread First Novel Award.

Lanchester - a restaurant critic and editor at the London Review of Books - found that his fictional debut became the focus of one of the most intensive hearts-and-minds campaigns ever mounted on behalf of a novel in Britain.

Picador bought up the front cover of the biannual bumper issue of The Bookseller magazine - early warning of a blockbuster to the people who will have to sell it in the bookstores.

Postcards of the jacket illustration - luscious lemons from a still- life - were scattered all over Britain. Translation deals were done for a dozen European languages. Picador held a party for Lanchester at the 1995 Frankfurt Book Fair, five months prior to British publication.

But even in an age of hype, publishers cannot buy acclaim. As a debut novel in hardback, The Debt to Pleasure did reasonably well, with British sales edging towards 10,000. But after all the fanfare it sank like a mistimed souffle. Many critics turned up their noses at its dislikeable narrator, Tarquin Winot, and his foodie flourishes.

The Whitbread shortlist represents Lanchester's second serious sniff at a major prize. His book surfaced on the unofficial long list for this year's Booker Prize, and bizarrely won a Betty Trask Award - designed to recognise romantic fiction.

Lanchester's publishers will not mind too much about tepid British reactions. With the Provencal setting and multi-lingual kitchen chatter, his book embodies fiction for the single European Union market. By the time it appeared in March, 12 translations were under way, including Catalan, Turkish and Danish versions. Now, the list of 20 translations includes Korean, Hebrew and Croatian. This international profile makes it a perfect choice for Picador, part of the Macmillan group.

Until last year, Macmillan - the family company of the former Tory premier, Harold - was as British as roast beef and malt whisky. Then, in a pounds 200m buyout, it passed to Holtzbrinck, a German media multinational whose interests range from Scientific American magazine to the New York publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Holtzbrinck takes a hands-off approach to its new British acquisition, but Picador's cosmopolitan murder yarn now has a publisher to match.

In today's book business, the grumbles of a few domestic reviewers are unlikely to stop other markets from making a meal of The Debt to Pleasure. Author, agents, translators and publishers will be well fed by its global reach. But some of Picador's other authors, who may find next year's advances cupboard looking will go hungry.