The Observer's Jay Rayner (you'll also see him on BBC1's The One Show talking about food matters) is not the only food writer to have dipped a spoon into the saucepan of fiction but on the evidence so far, he's certainly the best (one might argue, on the basis of Prue Leith's novel 'The Choral Society' that food critics should stay clear of the genre entirely). I loved his novel The Apologist and was keen to read more.
The Oyster House Siege sees Rayner take a darker turn, this time into thriller territory though a comparison with Jake Arnott in the cover blurb should be taken lightly because, for all the gruesome goings on in this story of a robbery gone wrong, this is a black comedy which occasionally brushes shoulders with the farcical. I don't believe that Jay Rayner ever intended his novel to turn out this way; I sincerely believe he meant to write a hard hitting crime thriller, but with such transparent and stereotypical characters - as well as a couple of undeniably preposterous protagonists into the bargain - he was always going to be wide of the mark .
The action takes place on election night 1983 and in the Jermyn Street Oyster House service is well underway. Among the customers are the Conservative Party treasurer and a well know food critic. Dinner comes to an unexpected halt when firing is heard in the street and two gunmen come crashing into the restaurant, seeking a hiding place after a botched robbery at a nearby exclusive jeweller's shop. As the diners object to this intrusion in their pleasant evening the maitre d' gets a fork in the neck and, not wishing to bite off more than they can chew, the robbers allow some of the diners to go free. Those left behind are marched to the kitchen where they and the staff are to be held hostage.
On the outside the police want to see a speedy conclusion to the siege: rumours start to fly that this may be something to do with Irish terrorism and the Prime Minister makes it quite clear that the country won't be held to ransom by such people. Telephone contact is made with the kitchen; stalling for a bit of breathing space while he plans his next move, Nathan James sees a recipe sheet on the wall and asks for the ingredients listed to be sent into the restaurant. As it happens the tubby middle aged police officer sent to do the shopping is something of a foodie and he recognises that the ingredients requested are those used in the classic dish Wiener Holstein: one key ingredient is missing and he includes it in the delivery, believing that this will some how communicate a message to those inside the restaurant that there is a sympathetic ear on the outside. What he doesn't know, however, is that though Nathan is the one on the phone, his amphetamine fuelled sidekick, Trevor, is really the one calling the shots.
The novel starts at the end: the reader knows that the siege is ended by the SAS and that not everyone survives. This can be a clever device in the right hands and Rayner employs it skilfully. The chapters are short and each one ends with a big surprise, a structure that keeps the pace moving nicely and conveys quite well the passage of time during the siege.
Although Rayner does violence well - remind me never to cross him in a kitchen - I couldn't help thinking that crime wasn't really what he wanted to write when he had the idea for this novel. Real crime doesn't need a back story; crime, and violence, can exist in its own right, as the grotesquely psychotic Trevor, Nathan's sidekick proves brilliantly. Nathan is a cardboard character: a rough diamond, a professional dope dealer who would never trade in anything as bad as cocaine, a lad who would have had a different life had he not been orphaned as a child. Does Rayner really expect his readers to believe that within hours of leading an armed robbery, Nathan James his discovered a so far unrecognised love of good food? Regardless of whether Nathan is a predictable and stereotypical character, Rayner has invested much effort and page space in developing the character and his motivation: to suddenly change him to allow the story that the author prefers is a let down.
I still enjoyed this novel a great deal, but I enjoyed it as a black comedy, not the crime thriller the publisher would have you believe. Jay Rayner is funny and sharp and his writing captures the essence of 1980s events and attitudes. He writes, as you would expect, passionately about food and with great authority about the workings of a professional kitchen. He shines when writing about what he knows best. Only if you stick rigidly to the idea of this being crime writing can you be really disappointed. Jay Rayner does comedy well, at times with shades of Tom Sharpe, especially in the gun toting aristocratic owner of the restaurant who takes up a hidden position with the aim of ensuring the restaurant remains in his family's hands. With touches like that I can't believe Jay Rayner was serious; this novel is funny by design, not by accident.
This casserole of cooking and comedy is a winner with me; the transparent characters aside, this is a cracking read. Not for the squeamish there's blood by the bucketload and gallons of chillingly dark humour. Recommended for readers who like their food with a kick.