REVIEW: Buffalo West Wing

Note: This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's January mystery section.

Buffalo West Wing by Julie Hyzy
Berkley Prime Crime, January 2011

Rating: 10 (Perfection!) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10)

For fans of: Diane Mott Davidson and Phyllis Richman

It's Inauguration Day, and White House Executive Chef Olivia "Ollie" Paras is doing everything she can to make a good impression on her new employers; after all, she was hired by the outgoing administration, and it's no guarantee President and Mrs. Hayden will decide to keep her on. Everything's going smoothly until a box of chicken wings from a local take-out chain mysteriously appears in Ollie's kitchen with a note indicating they're for First Kids Abigail and Josh. The wings are the children's favorite, but because Ollie doesn't know where they came from, she follows proper security protocol and refuses to serve them -- upsetting not only Abigail and Josh, but the First Lady, as well. Ollie is sure they can put the incident behind them, but when it's announced that Mrs. Hayden has decided to hire a personal chef to cook all of the family's meals, she begins to wonder if her days in the White House kitchen are numbered.

To add to Ollie's problems, it soon comes to light that the mystery wings were, in fact, poisoned. The box could only have been put in the kitchen by someone with clearance, but who? And why would anyone want to harm Abigail and Josh? The Secret Service decides to keep the plot from Mrs. Hayden and her children until more information is known, putting Ollie in one heck of a tough spot. Can she discover who planted the poisoned food in her kitchen and prevent any further attacks, all the while fighting to get back into the good graces of the First Family and fending off the chef who's now gunning for her job?

Buffalo West Wing is the fourth in Julie Hyzy's White House Chef Mystery series, and it's one of the best books I've read this year. Hyzy's latest is everything you hope for when you crack the cover of a novel: the plot is intricate, the mystery is clever, the dialogue is witty and natural, and the prose is a joy to read. And if you like your books to hurtle along like a rollercoaster at top speed, boy howdy, are you in for a treat.

Buffalo West Wing starts with a bang. It then grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. I became so quickly and so thoroughly invested in this story that I found it practically impossible to put down. (Note: Do not try to mop your floors while reading a book; I can tell you from experience, it won't end well.) By setting this series in the White House, Hyzy has essentially guaranteed that the stakes will always be high, but with Buffalo West Wing, the stakes start out high and then get astronomical. You start out worried Ollie will lose her job, but you quickly end up worried that Ollie will lose her life.

In my opinion, a big part of what makes Hyzy's books so compelling is her pitch-perfect character development. Hyzy's created a first-rate heroine in Ollie; ambitious and talented yet thoughtful and caring, you'll find yourself rooting for her from page one. The First Family's personal chef, Virgil Ballantine, is the perfect arch-rival; arrogant, self-centered, and slimy, he's a villain you'll love to hate. And the book's minor players are no slouch, either; from assistant chefs Cyan and Bucky to First Kids Abigail and Josh to Ollie's awful date Reggie, each character has his or her own distinct personality; there are no cardboard cutouts to be found here.

Hyzy also does a marvelous job developing the relationships between her characters. I especially loved Ollie's scenes with ex-lover (and Secret Service Presidential Protective Division Head) Tom MacKenzie and potential love interest Special Agent in Charge Leonard "Gav" Gavin; most authors use romance to create drama and conflict, and Hyzy's no exception, but what makes Hyzy stand out from the pack is her ability to successfully convey the complex emotions that come with falling in and out of love.

In sum, I can't praise this book highly enough. It's tense and twisty and fabulous. Start your New Year right and go out and buy it ASAP; you'll be happy you did.