“Death was no stranger to the shadow faculty of gastronomic science…”
It’s Oxford, the year is 1969, and Ian Flitcroft’s quick-witted and, dare I say, ingenious novel opens with the introduction of the pseudo-secret Shadow Faculty of Gastronomic Science, which we soon learn is composed of a small cabal of university dons. The men and their guests are sitting down to an unique meal, where each dish and cocktail is meant to excite the diners and introduce them to something new (there are rules, of course, to this shadow faculty, which Flitcroft delightfully provides before the start of the novel).
The Reluctant Cannibals begins with one such meal, where a Japanese cultural attaché insists on preparing fugu–the extremely poisonous puffer fish–and with one small slip, he has made the grandest error. With the accidental death of the Japanese attaché looming over them, the shadow faculty, as well as the vice-chancellor of the college, is even more concerned to keep the existence of their club even quieter. But this is all muddled when one of the members bumps into a student, the ever pompous Matthew Kingsley-Hampton, and during the confusion, one of the menus is slipped into Kingsley-Hampton’s library book. The plot is made even more complicated when member Arthur Plantagenet is given a death sentence by his doctor. In his death, the portly professor is destined to solve one of gastronomy’s most sinister questions and, in doing so, lassos the remaining members of the shadow faculty into an uncomfortable and questionable plot.
Flitcroft has written an exciting tale that winds its way through fine dining, mistaken assumptions, ghostly hauntings, moral quandaries, secret societies, and humor in the most unlikely of settings. It has been ages since I’ve read a novel that has given me 100% enjoyment and The Reluctant Cannibals did not let me down. Not only was the plot engaging and often times surprising, the author’s deft ability to write a cracking good sentence was what really stood out. Each character had his own sense of humor, which Flitcroft channeled through both their dialogue and the third-person narration.
Good God man, do you expect me to swig from the bottle like an inebriated townie?
His strongest moments were when the members of the shadow faculty gathered together to solve their prickly situation, which the late Plantagenet left them with and which also has begun to spiral completely out of control. At times, I felt myself thinking, wouldn’t it be fantastic if this was adapted into a play? I would love to see how actors could deliver these fine lines.
Delectable tidbits about the shadow faculty are also kneaded into the narrative with finesse and delight,
Professor Gordon Maxwell, erstwhile Professor of Modern Languages at St Jerome’s College, was a founding member of the shadow faculty of gastronomic science who died a fine Proustian death by choking on a Madeliene several years previously.
The Reluctant Cannibals was a dark read with ribbons of comedy bursting from every which way. Flitcroft was so perfectly able to balance the engrossing plot with the desire to rush to the end to see how the shadow faculty made their way out of this enthralling mess.
The author’s publisher, Legend Press, has made a sample of the beginning available online. I recommend that you stop what you’re doing and give it read. You will be happy that you did and I hope you read the whole book. While searching the internet for more information on the author, I found a quick interview he did. Also, an interesting read. I was most taken with the final question & response about Carlos Ruiz Zafón.