Tuesday, January 25, 2011

White House mysteries

I've been a fan of Julie Hyzy's White House Chef mystery series for all four books. They have everything I like in a book--cozy mystery, cooking and food, and a likeable heroine, albeit with a messed-up love relationship. Ollie Paras starts her career as executive chef of the White House in the first book and holds on to it through a series of murders and mishaps, always sure she's in jeopardy of losing her job. There's enough White House lore for history buffs, and the details of cooking and planning a state dinner will intrigue wannabe chefs like myself. I recommend you read them in order--State of the Onion, Hail to the Chef, Eggsecutive Orders, and the brand new Buffalo West Wing.
The newest book comes perilously close to home--a new president moves his family, including two pre-teen children, into the White House, and Ollie must adjust to working for a new administration, especially a new First Lady--and to having young children in the mansion for the first time in years. The parallels to the Obama administration are clear though Julie agreed that Michelle Obama would be a lot more fun to work with than the fictional Mrs. Hyden, who is made difficult for the sake of conflict to keep the book going. In her first move, an attempt to protect the presidential children, Ollie refuses to serve the children a box of chicken wings that mysteriously appears in the kitchen. If Ollie doesn't know where the food came from, it's not going to the First Family, but that move sets her off on the wrong foot with the new First Lady and it only gets worse from there.
Mrs. Hyden brings in a personal chef to cook the family meals, and the tension is immediately obvious. Virgil thought he was going to be the executive chef and is not pleased that he reports to Ollie. Mrs. Obama also brought in a personal chef, but  current White House chef Cristeta Comerford reports they get along very well. Once again that doesn't make as good a story as unpleasantness and conflict.
The threat to the children is obvious from the beginning of this book--and leads to some hair-raising suspense that kept me reading late into the night. But it also got me to wondering about White House reaction. Not that the Secret Service isn't already always on the alert against kidnapping, but how did they react to this fictional version? So I asked Julie Hyzy about the degree of cooperation, if any, with the White House.
She replied that she has had no cooperaton. She contacted the Bush White House when she was working on the first book and was told to send them a list of questions about the kitchen. She did, but never got a response. She was able to talk with former executive chef Walter Sheib (author of White House Chef), and she has talked to Secret Service agents and former aides.
Julie Hyzy has never stepped foot into the White House kitchen--she hopes to soon, but she has studied pictures, floor plans, and watched every recording filmed there. Her dream? An invitation.
As for the Secret Service being disturbed by her plot, she can't imagine they bother reading her books. She says she may have raised a few red flags when she started writing the first book, but by now they have to know that she writes fiction.
Even if the Secret Service doesn't bother to read Julie's White House Chef books, you should. They're pure delight for mystery lovers, and they do give a good glimpse, well researched, into at least some of the workings of the White House. Warning: you may stay up too late turning pages.

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