As The Lemon begins, John Doe, world-traveling chef and food showman, dies by his own hand in his Belfast hotel room. His hanging death isn't suspicious, nor is it a murder dressed up to look like a suicide. And yet this frequently brilliant and, despite its bleak central plot point, hilarious novel--the maiden voyage of S.E. Boyd, a pseudonym of journalists Kevin Alexander and Joe Keohane and editor Alessandra Lusardi--has the feel of a mystery. After all, it's populated with a clutch of scheming individuals whose lives are potentially altered for the better by John's death.
Hotel employee Charlie McCree finds John's body, but not just John's body: he also happens upon chef Paolo Cabrini, owner of a prestige-dripping New York restaurant. Paolo is standing before the corpse of his best friend and doing something innocent that nevertheless, he recognizes, looks compromising. Out comes Charlie's camera phone. Paolo gives Charlie some cash for his silence and an enthusiasm-free invitation to look him up should Charlie ever find himself in New York. Not lost on Charlie is that there are worse places than New York to try to realize one's rock star dreams.
Then there's the fallen food star who gave John his start and figures he's in a prime position to take over the dead man's television show. There's John's shrewd but weary agent, who's doing damage control but also looking out for her own hide. There's a struggling young writer at a digital media company who's desperate for the $150 her boss is offering the employee who can create the most shared piece about John by 11 a.m. And there's the immigrant owner of a Georgian restaurant who's perplexed to find that his modest establishment is suddenly a destination for grieving fans of John Doe--whoever that is.
Every story line offers suspense and surprises, and the book's deadpan humor is unremitting. One character's mother "seemed sad even for an Irishwoman." Someone "sat watchful and motionless like a cat who had been presented with a Roomba." As the novel's point of view wanders among its six key players, readers may sense a vulture circling John's corpse. The Lemon is a full-bore spoof of monetization mania and foodie culture, and through it all, the specter of the late Anthony Bourdain, whose profile shares similarities with John Doe's, doesn't hover over the story so much as saunter alongside it. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Shelf Talker: Despite its bleak central plot point--a world-traveling chef dies by suicide--this frequently brilliant debut novel is a hilarious spoof of monetization mania and foodie culture.