Title: Buffalo West Wing
Author: Julie Hyzy
Copyright: 2011 (Berkley); 275 pgs.
Series: White House Chef Mystery #4
SPOILERS! But NOT for the Mystery!
It’s Inauguration Day, so things are busy for Ollie and her staff at the White House. A box of take-out chicken wings, intended for First Kids Abigail and Josh Hyden, mysteriously shows up in the kitchen. There is no note explaining who it came from and no eyewitnesses to verify how it got into the White House. Ollie follows protocol and puts it aside to give to the Secret Service. However, the First Kids see the box and, of course, they’re eager to dig in. Ollie refuses to give it to them until it’s been cleared, disappointing the youngsters. Several people, including the First Lady, think that Ollie’s over-reacting, that she should have given the box of wings to Abby and Josh.
Ollie soon learns that the wings were, in fact, poisoned. However, the Secret Service has forbidden those who are privy to this knowledge from mentioning it to anyone else, including the First Lady. This doesn’t bode well for Ollie, since she’s gotten off on the wrong foot with Mrs. Hyden for not consulting her about the wings in the first place, and now it looks like Ollie might be out of a job since the Hyden’s are bringing in their personal chef.
Comments: This book is my favorite one, so far, in this series. The mystery and the secondary story lines really worked for me. Ollie has matured in her role as the executive chef. She’s gotten better at handling Peter Sargeant, the snobby and pompous sensitivity director, who constantly hopes she gets fired. Added to the mix is Virgil Ballantine, personal chef to the First Family. On several occasions, his actions either make Ollie look bad or puts her in a difficult position. Ollie handles each situation like a mature, reasonable adult. She is dedicated to doing her best, and doesn’t require the press and notoriety the others — people like Sargeant and Virgil — seek out.
I really do like Ollie, even with her flaws. It makes her real. She has an earnest desire to help protect the White House and the First Family. But there’s a big difference between keeping a low profile, yet still be vigilant to suspicious activity — and putting one’s nose into the Secret Service’s business, questioning their decisions, etc. Ollie may think she’s being helpful, but in a town where appearances are so important, her intentions are almost irrelevant . First, her behavior gives the impression that the Secret Service can’t do its job; that the cook had to save the day while they bumbled around like the Keystone Cops. Secondly, people like Sargeant will see Ollie’s involvement as her trying to score points with the First Family. The end of the scene were Sargeant smugly informs Ollie he intends to “keep close tabs on the children” during their transition illustrates this:
“It’s about time the First Family sees my worth rather than be dazzled by the stunts you pull. I’m looking forward to the next several weeks.”
I glared at him, knowing in my heart he was wrong, but knowing just as clearly that he would never admit it. My “stunts” had saved the White House — and its staff — from several embarrassing incidents. Was it too much to ask for a little respect from our sensitivity director?
At the door, he turned back. “After all your shenanigans, it’s my turn now.”
Ollie maybe better at handling his annoying commentary and hints, but she doesn’t truly understands him. Sargeant is all about getting ahead, being “teacher’s pet”, and nothing is going to make him see her actions in any other light. The book doesn’t show his reaction to Ollie’s heroics in this book, but even if Ollie were to take a bullet for the president himself, Sargeant would still see her “stunt” as trying to insinuate herself into the First Family’s good graces. It would never occur to him that she would do something selfless out of respect for the office or for the greater good, that such acts are part of her nature.
Later in the book, after Ollie tells Bucky and Cyan about Virgil and they discuss whether her past “shenanigans” may contribute to the Hydens booting her permanently, Bucky remarks:
“I know you don’t want to talk about why you and Tom broke up, but I have my suspicions. You’ve got to true to your nature, Ollie, and you usually are. But don’t for minute underestimate the challenges you’re stuck with because of it.”
One of the reasons I think the author saddles Ollie with the likes Sargeant and Virgil is to illustrate that point. Both men are self-serving jerks, each in their own way, yet Ollie suffers for doing the right thing, or for what she believes is the right thing.
Which brings me to Tom. If a reader picked this book up before reading the earlier ones, they would think that Tom MacKenzie was a control freak who didn’t appreciate or understand Ollie, based on her views of him and their past together. Tom is a sweetheart of a guy. While it’s true he was never happy with her getting involved in the cases, he didn’t try to run her life. Tom is a dedicated and as serious about his job as Ollie is regarding her own. Ollie would not be any more pleased to have some unqualified person — Sargeant, for example — questioning her ability to cater a State dinner, than members of the PPD would be with Ollie’s inquisitiveness. In the previous book, Ollie ended the relationship initially citing the threat Tom’s boss made regarding holding him responsible for her behavior. Shortly afterward, she does wonder if she was being completely altruistic in her motives, that she did it so she could freely poke her nose into thing with a clear conscience.
My heart truly aches for Tom. When they broke up, Ollie also told Tom she couldn’t stay with him because she couldn’t be herself when she was with him. This admission hit Tom hard, “like somebody punched him in the gut”. I think that Tom is still in love with Ollie. And to add insult to injury, she seems to be seriously interested in another agent, one who doesn’t work in the White House — one who seems just as much as a sweetheart as Tom, but also seems to understand her “need to be useful”. When Ollie visits Tom’s office on a job-related matter, she also asks whether the other agent has been reassigned since she hasn’t heard from him for several days. Tom looks “hurt, curious, and sad”. He assures her that the agent in question is still on the investigation, but will not be in communication with the PPD for a period of time. Ollie presses for a more specific time frame and Tom tells her:
“Don’t push me, Ollie. This is hard enough.”
“I understand,” I said, even though I didn’t.
And that, Ollie, is part of the problem.
Despite this, I still loved the book. It made me think and care about the character’s future. I understand that, if Ollie wasn’t inquisitive or in the thick of things, there would be no series. And I can also understand why there might have been a reason (for the author) to end the relationship. There is no realistic way Tom could turn a blind eye to Ollie’s actions and still be the head of the PPD. People (Sargeant, again!) would see such behavior as his condoning it. The new guy is different in that he doesn’t work in the same environment, so he won’t always be around as much (or so I assume). He also comes with his own history, so there’s no way to predict how the relationship will develop. I also think he’s perceptive enough to have picked up on Tom’s true feelings for Ollie and that could add another aspect to the development. I’m looking forward to seeing how thing will proceed, and I’m very eager for the next White House Chef book.
Start: 10 January 2011
Finished: 16 January 2011
Other Books in the Series: