New Welsh Review
The Sheriff of Geneva
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Yes, Chef! The spitting tension and steamy press of a professional kitchen is fertile creative ground. Hard-boozing, hard-bonking and filthy-mouthed – there is something of the Viking raiding party about the average crew of chefs. Or so the cliche runs: the reality, of course, is a little different. It’s hard, after all, to seamlessly deliver 300 hot meals to hungry and demanding guests whilst also colourfully bollocking your underlings and lobbing stainless steel crockery at their heads à la Gordon Ramsay.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot of fun to be had in that swearier vision. And while most great food writing tends towards to the exquisite and the evocative – Elizabeth David or Nigel Slater – there are some accomplished literary Kitchen Nightmares. Think of Anthony Bourdain’s dictum that ‘good eating is about blood and organs, cruelty and decay’, or Simon Wroe’s novel, Chop Chop,* a piquant recent dispatch from the world of slipped knives, throbbing burns and offaly funk.
Richard Williams’ novella The Sheriff of Geneva firmly inhabits that terrain. The followup to his debut novel Mostyn Thomas and the Big Rave, it is a breezier, slimmer affair than its predecessor. Like Mostyn Thomas, it is a crime caper, centred on a stolen cache of Venezuelan gold and the blood-spattered misadventures which constellate around it. But unlike the earlier novel, in which some of the sketchier plotting was redeemed by a firm sense of place and toothsome characters, The Sheriff of Geneva suffers for its slightness. It often reads more like a promising creative writing exercise than a fully-conceived narrative.
The story revolves around a Geneva fast-food joint, The Gourmet Burger Factory. Williams knows this terrain well: he founded Cardiff’s excellent The Grazing Shed and even ran a burger restaurant in Switzerland. And the opening chapters are the most fun as GBF’s co-founders – Miles and Gordy clueless and coddled products of expensive international schools – interview prospective staff. As they go, each character unfolds a lengthy – and often ludicrous – background story. Manu, for instance (a young woman with ‘an immediate presence of dark feline femininity’) reveals her father is a Johnny Halliday impersonator. In fact, that particular talent runs in the family: her grandmother does ‘Dolly Parton’ too, she tells the nonplussed lads.
It’s an entertaining conceit which allows Williams to uncover his cast of rogues and misfits with a croupier’s panache. It put me in mind of the crash zooms and Top Trumps-esque vital stats of a comic book flick or a Tarantino movie. Thus: here’s Boris the stoic Bosnian refugee with hard eyes and a mysterious past. Or: it’s Mia, ‘a glamorous-looking lady… with a gruff Eastern European voice’ who, it transpires, is a predatory transexual.
The trouble is, though, having assembled his dirty dozen, Williams isn’t really sure what to do with them. The most fleshed-out characters are Manu and Peter. The latter, the puppyish son of wealthy and careless parents, falls hopelessly in love with the hardened Manu, and becomes touchingly committed to his ersatz family of burger-flippers. ‘Your community is who you spend time with, which seems to be this motley crew in here, and that’s good,’ says Attlilia, the twinkly tramp he befriends. ‘Most people hate their jobs, and their work colleagues.’
Yet despite the capering outlandishness of the plot – which muddles together gold stashed in grease tanks, an outre villain called Mr Bonjour and bad guys blitzed, somewhat inevitably, into burger meat – the story has a ramshackle, improvisatory quality. After the taut and amusing opening chapters, it runs a bit slack. Though the novella clocks in at barely 100 pages, I found the dizzying costume changes of the villains and their interchangeable pratfall deaths confusing. And the larky suggestion that Miles is dateraped by Mia as revenge for not hiring her leaves a worse taste than those rare baddie burgers.
The wobbly plotting feels like a missed opportunity as, at a sentence level, Williams’ writing is often sharp, stylish and queasily effective. Long-past-their-prime chicken fillets ‘leave a box of toxic gloopy fowl in the darkness at the back of the meat fridge’. And Peter gets weepy at the thought of Mr Bonjour ‘hanging him by his testicles from the tram wires outside Geneva’s Cornavin train station’. Williams also has good fun with the prissy, gossipy atmosphere of Geneva: its bevvy of hypocritical NGO types and swish financiers, where everyone speaks five languages and is out to save the world – but can’t help emotionally stunting their children or sleeping with their secretaries. It’s broad-brush stuff, but Williams’ thoroughgoing evocation is authentic and darkly delicious.
Perhaps, then, his crew of outrageous rogues and Buster Keaton scenarios might have better served by further concision; The Sheriff of Geneva would have made for a sparkling one-act play. But as a novella, it’s a tad overdone.
Alex Diggins is a journalist and critic, currently working on the cultural desk at the Telegraph. He was placed second in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2019 Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. alex-diggins.com@AHABDiggins
* Monica Ali’s 2009 novel In the Kitchen also combines crime and kitchen. Ed