Kevin Sylvester promises that the third installment of the fabulous Neil Flambé Capers, Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse, will be on the shelves soon. I know that lucky reviewers have their copies already, and I can’t wait to get mine! Maybe if I ask nicely Kevin will send me another autographed copy… Meanwhile, I have finally written a review of #1, Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders. To accompany it, here is a YouTube video of how Kevin draws Neil Flambé: great for all you budding author-illustrators out there!
Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders
In Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders, Kevin Sylvester serves up a fascinating menu of mystery and humour. Neil Flambé, children’s literature’s answer to Gordon Ramsey, is an over-cocky but brilliant young chef: very capable in the kitchen, but lacking the emotional intelligence and life experience necessary to survive the heat of the Hell’s Kitchen that is the professional culinary world. Usually, I don’t like bossy, self-assured characters (Artemis Fowl and I do not get on so well), but Sylvester narrates Neil’s experiences in such a way that we are tolerant of his inexperience, for the same reason his mentor, Angel Jícama, tolerates his tantrums and selfishness: for all his brashness, Neil does care for those who support him. In this first book in the series, we learn how Neil grew from infanthood into adolescence. The back story sets the tone for the excesses in Neil’s character: no baby really ever fixated on the Food Channel and learned to cook before he learned to speak… but with Neil, we believe the tale. And we are interested in seeing how this brilliant yet emotionally immature lad grows over the course of the story.
The plot of The Marco Polo Murders is as engaging as the characters. Chefs around Vancouver, Neil’s home, are being poisoned: along with the cloying scent of masala chai and… something else, small scraps of an archaic text are left with the bodies. Solving the mystery involves a knowledge of history as well as the culinary arts: history that Neil has omitted to study in his classes at school. That his seemingly unmotivated cousin Larry can contribute as much as he can to the case is humbling for Neil, who begins to learn the value in others’ ways of approaching the world, others’ talents that differ from his own. As the plot thickens, it becomes more apparent to the police—in the person of the culturally eclectic detective Sean Nakamura—that Neil is a prime suspect. His unerring sense of smell is no use when he is incarcerated for murder, and Neil must trust his sous chef and the authorities in order to save the lives of his friends. In the end, Neil’s confidence in his own abilities remains solidly intact, but his respect of others’ wisdom and experience has been blended into his essential world view, much like salt enhances a dish: you shouldn’t taste it, but you notice if it is not there.