James Patterson entertained with Killer Chef, a novella about people showing up mysteriously dead at New Orleans restaurants, and the one chef/policeman who has the dual knowledge bases to crack the case. This time, Patterson teams up with a different co-writer, Max Dilallo, switches to first person narration, and flattens his characters and setting into an unfocused terror plot.
New Orleans Detective and food truck chef Caleb Rooney is sent off duty pending an investigation into his involvement into the death of a young black man. Rather than taking the opportunity to focus on his cooking, Rooney secretly undertakes an investigation into a potential terrorist attack looming over the coming Mardi Gras.
Patterson very narrowly avoids making this foray into New Orleans policing a Blue Lives Matter book, which would have been reason enough to instantly bin it. He also flirts with the Islamophobia that has haunted the genre for the century to date, but dials it back before going too far. That’s the whole book: constantly on the verge of offending, but pulling back from the precipice enough to give the reader vertigo.
It means that The Chef doesn’t commit to anything one way or another. Rooney doesn’t seem to be particularly good at either of his jobs: to begin with, he’s killed a suspect; on the food side he’s a good chef but he repeatedly walks out in the middle of service. His sole character trait, an addiction to popping jalapeño peppers, is largely forgotten, and Dilallo doesn’t try to make Rooney distinctive or intelligent: the man’s impulsiveness gets him into mortal peril more than once, and the conclusions that he leaps to lack substance more often than not.
There is a lucrative sideline in novels that mix crime with food, and many of them have recipes at the back. The Chef boasts six, but it’s not a quaint enough novel to pull it off. Killer Chef, published without any instructions, could have pulled it off; it understood that the lives of an entire city did not have to hang in the balance in a way that The Chef never could. On top of that, Killer Chef already took the prime title away.
With no humour, a jumbled story that cashes in on the cheapest fears gripping the American psyche and a conclusion that is half-baked at best, The Chef can’t be recommended in the field of culinary crime. James Patterson’s career is such that if readers don’t embrace Caleb Rooney, he’ll still be worth $750 million and can continue publishing whatever he wants without ever typing a word.