“The Chefs gave him a mission: to keep the world safe and well fed. … He became the greatest Chef of them all…” (5). Kevin Sylvester’s fourth installment of the Neil Flambé Capers—Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure—opens suitably with a foray into the world of manga. The short excerpt from Neil’s cousin Larry’s new online manga, The Chef, sets us up for Neil’s adventure in Japan, where his cousin Larry’s reported death leads Neil to grapple with illegal fishing practices and a maniacal competitive chef.
The pathos that news of Larry’s death produces is honest and heartfelt. Although we know that Larry can’t be dead—Sylvester wouldn’t do that to us… would he?—we tear up with Neil as he slices onions with Larry’s knife, contemplating Larry’s joie-de-vivre and laissez-faire attitude. This is a growing moment for Neil Flambé, as much as his humbling jail-time in The Marco Polo Murders (2010), or his eye-opening visit to the slums of Mexico City in The Aztec Abduction (2010). When Neil discovers an alteration in The Chef that only Larry could have made, he optimistically sets out to find his cousin and solve the mystery he knows is brewing like the finest Saki: warm and subtle, with a sharp bite at the end.
The search for Larry sets Neil up against the environmentally unethical chef Matsumoro Nori. Accompanied by Sylvester’s usually droll punnery, we travel with Neil to Japan, where he engages in a culinary competition that is straight out of James Bond, with poisoned ingredients and losers as shark bait. Between the numerous gastronomic removes of the competition, Neil and his friends collaborate on solving the mystery of Larry’s disappearance. The clues Neil receives, the cultural knowledge and wordplay required to solve them, and Sylvester’s inimitable humour make Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure a gripping, chuckle-inducing adventure. Such a delicate balance between humour and suspense is seldom achieved by other authors; it is not surprising that Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up for two awards this year.
The Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading awards are adjudicated by young readers, so winning a Silver Birch award must be extremely gratifying for an author. Sylvester is no strange to such gratification, though: Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders won the award in 2011; Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction was runner-up in 2012; and Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse was in 2013.
The Children’s Book Centre John Spray Mystery Award will be announced tomorrow (22 October 2013), which is why I have had to rise up out of my slough of inarticulateness and get this review written and posted tonight! Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up against four other books, all of which were written for an older reading audience. The best of these—Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer—will certainly give Neil Flambé a run for its money… I am not sure whether to be disturbed by the imbalance of having a humourous adventure book for 8-12 year olds set up against YA realist mysteries, or impressed that Neil Flambé should be included in such a collection. I suspect I will subscribe to the latter opinion if it wins, and almost certainly the former if it does not. So best of luck to Neil Flambé on his latest adventure out in literary-award-land. May the best chef win.