With cooking shows proliferating on TV, and with the 2007 hit movie Ratatouille (about a rat that loves to cook), it was probably inevitable that someone would take a stab at creating the sort of character Kevin Sylvester cooks up in Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders.
The first book in a mystery series called the Flambé Capers, Marco Polo Murders finds 14-year-old prodigy chef Neil Flambé trying to figure out who is killing Vancouver’s master chefs with poisonous chai. A prologue informs readers about the theft of a diary written by Marco Polo that contains information about a rare, lethal spice. Flambé, nicknamed “The Nose,” has an astoundingly refined sense of smell, and simply by sniffing the chefs’ corpses, he identifies all the tea’s ingredients except for one, that strange spice.
Riffing on the cliché of chefs as impassioned geniuses, Sylvester constructs a farcical story out of this mystery. But at 300 pages, the book feels a tad long for the intended audience, especially since Sylvester works in simplistic, goofy jokes at every possible turn, constantly stalling the momentum.
The plot is further derailed when Neil finally gets his hands on a copy of Polo’s diary but elects, for no good reason other than that he is busy running a restaurant, to lock it in a safe rather than having it translated immediately. Hey, why solve the mystery too soon? In addition, Neil is meant to be a genius chef, but when he does cook, his master dish is simply shrimp sautéed with garlic, onions, salt, and pepper.
What Sylvester does do well is conceal his killer. There is a large cast of characters, and it’s not clear until the very end whodunnit.
While the idea of a sleuthing teen chef may seem like a great one, the dish Sylvester serves up is half-baked and missing a few ingredients.