Friday, September 18, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe,” by Nan and Ivan Lyons

(Editor’s note: This is the 63rd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Making today’s selection is New Jersey resident Jeffrey Cohen, author of both the Double Feature Mysteries [A Night at the Operation] and the Aaron Tucker Mysteries [As Dog Is My Witness]. When not producing freelance articles, crafting screenplays, or trying to come up with new book series, Cohen blogs at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.)

I specifically did not re-read Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe before writing this article. If it isn’t as much fun as I remember it being, I don’t want to know.

Also, I don’t own a copy of the novel, and neither does my local library. You have to be practical about some things.

This book, which was written by Nan and Ivan Lyons and published in 1976, concerns itself with a scenario right out of a Vincent Price movie (specifically, Theatre of Blood, but that’s another story entirely): a morbidly obese food critic named Achille van Golk is given a dire prognosis by his doctor, based on his overwhelming love of his work. Achille then sets out to eliminate the chefs who have made him this way, and because he has a sense of style, he kills them in manners that echo their signature dishes.

Chief among his targets is the creator of Achille’s favorite dessert, Natasha O’Brien, whose loving ex-husband, Millie (you read that right) Ogden, flies to her side to protect her as it becomes obvious that Natasha will be last on the “menu”; also he wants her to endorse his new enterprise, which will serve high-class fast food in America (ugh! America!), introducing fresh ingredients and preparations to the dismal McFood style to which we’ve become accustomed.

Got all that?

Each murder is a set piece, with each chef (all of them comic caricatures, from the arrogant Frenchman to the overly emotional Italian) dying in food-oriented ways. And with Achille orchestrating the proceedings with the most innocent of demeanors, Natasha is persuaded at one point that the murderer has been identified and caught, while at other times Millie is considered a suspect because one of the dead chefs was Natasha’s latest lover.

So Natasha has no qualms (well, maybe one qualm) about going on television and producing, yes, Achille’s favorite dessert--get ready for it--a bombe (a sphere-shaped ice-cream confection). I mean, the woman’s practically begging to get blown up. Will Millie get to her side in time?

Amazing how much I can remember about this book without having re-read it, no? It’s been a good 30 years. Well, there were a couple of rough spots in the early ’80s, but mostly a good 30 years.

The Lyonses’ novel was very popular upon its release, but the authors never achieved those heights again. Later efforts, including The President’s Coming for Lunch (1988) and a Chefs sequel (1993’s Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of America), fizzled rather than sizzled. A shame, because their 1976 novel really combined a number of (please forgive me) ingredients to create something very special.

See, when Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe was published, I was all of 18 years old, and had not even considered the idea of writing a mystery novel, or anything longer than a laundry list (and I wrote a hell of a laundry list, I’ll have you know--one of them was almost turned into a miniseries, but I digress). And no, I’m not going to tell you that Nan and Ivan Lyons’ immortal work inspired me to go on to create great art, or even that I have ever picked up a pen (metaphorically--I work on an iMac) thinking that today, I must live up to their substantial legacy.

In fact, I have not ever thought of Nan or Ivan Lyons when writing. But then, I’ve never thought of Mr. Clean while taking a shower or Ed Sullivan while trying to pick out a Beatles tune on acoustic 12-string. Inspiration isn’t the point. Today.

Today’s topic, class, is forgotten but great books. Great? Nan and Ivan Lyons? Great? OK, that might be a little overstatement. Or maybe not. Let’s examine:

The thing that sticks out for me about Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe is not the extremely formulaic premise--from page 3, you know what’s going to happen: there will be a series of killings of chefs in various culinary styles. And because our heroine (who is unbearably sexy and wanted by every man she meets: Do you think Ivan or Nan wrote those scenes?) makes the dessert, she will be last on the list. And we can bet that no matter how many times someone says to her, “all you have to do is not go on TV and make the bombe,” she’s going to do it, because otherwise, there’s no ending.

Mentally, the murders themselves haven’t made the trip from 1976 for me. I honestly remember only one, and that’s because it was depicted on the cover of the Chefs copy I read: a culinary genius (whose specialty was similar to turducken, only with all ducks, as I recall) ends his days with his head caught in a duck press. Sure, that’s the gimmick of the book, but it’s not, at least to this reader, the most memorable element of the story.

What have stayed with me best are the characters. Witty and sophisticated (at least by an 18-year-old’s standards), they quipped their way through the ordeal the authors had concocted for them. But--and this is a BIG but--they never stopped acting like people. The sense of danger and suspense (palpable and remarkable for a book whose ending you could predict from the opening scene) is never undermined by the humor. There were no “wacky” characters, and the murders--sensational and over-the-top though they were--were never presented as trivial or ridiculous.

I remember turning those pages pretty quickly back in the day. Not because I was doubled over with laughter (to be honest, the Lyonses were good at banter, but they weren’t going to knock you off your chair--their goal was to present their story and have you enjoy the experience), but because I wanted to see how this comedy mystery was going to resolve itself.

There was, you might be aware, a 1978 movie made from Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe. It was, in true Hollywood fashion, retitled Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? This was done mostly because the filmmakers decided that Achille (renamed Max for the movie) was too lovable a character to be the murderer, and instead they randomly pinned the slayings on an extremely secondary player just so the principals (George Segal as Millie, renamed Robby, Jacqueline Bisset as Natasha, and especially the wonderful Robert Morley in the plum Achille/Max role) could banter their way into the sunset at the end.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. What should have been a dream cast turned into something of a flat soufflé, excepting the performance of Morley, who was truly swell in his comic turn. This story couldn’t take much tampering, and a heavy-handed approach to something this ethereal was, you should pardon the expression, deadly.

What I took from Chefs as a writer was the knowledge that humor need not diminish the characters to one-dimensional joke machines, or the plot to a series of “madcap” situations that nobody would care about. Is this a great book? Maybe not. But a lot of writers of humorous (I prefer the term “funny,” but that’s just me) mysteries might benefit from an informed reading of the book.

A toast, then: Here’s to you, Nan and Ivan Lyons. I hope there’s Champagne wherever you are now.


Rural View said...

After reading this review, I absolutely HAVE to read your books and your blog. So funny!

Chef said...

This book sounds great. Someone needs to re-write it based on todays chefs or even celeb chefs...Kitchen Nightmares, Hells kitchen !

Chefs Books

Judy said...

Loved the book and the movie way back when. Actually, saw the movie first and then located the book. Judy in CA