Brendan's Reviews > State of the Onion

State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy
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's review
Jun 08, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 2011, adventure-thriller, book-club, fiction, mystery

I don't usually like the culinary murder mysteries but my mystery book club picked this one to read, and it was a delight. The State of the Onion follows White House Assistant Chef Olivia Paras (who goes by "Ollie") as she gets tangled up in an intrigue at the executive mansion. She's cooking up justice! Sorry.

A few thoughts:

Early in the book, I was finding myself cringing at the central problem with all amateur detective mysteries, the means and motives for the investigator to conduct the investigation. Series books face this problem in spades, as the most obvious motive for investigating a crime as an amateur is personal involvement, something that gets more tenuous with each story (viz Murder, She Wrote). Couple that with the high stakes of any kind of crime happening at the White House, and Paras got on my nerves early on. But the events quickly became exciting enough that I stopped being annoyed about this aspect of the story.
The kitchen intrigue in the book works very well. I love the mix of personal concerns and the mystery component; in fact, it was the tensions over the events in the kitchen that drove my feverish final reading session (I crashed through the last 130 pages in one sitting, staying up way late to do so). International treaties? Bah. Murder and espionage? Seen it. Cooks face off in a battle of skillets for the White House Chef position? Gripping!
As a mystery, Hyzy sets up a believable resolution with reasonable clues, but without the fair play aspect that might have given the reader the eureka moment to know for sure that they were right. There were a couple key suspects that stayed in the frame for most of the book, but one interesting aspect is that we don't even know, for sure, what crime is being planned.
It still amazes me that there can be a whole subgenre of mystery-solving chefs. I suppose the crossover aspect is part of what works (HONK HONK HONK - major generalization coming up - HONK HONK HONK), since a large swath of the cozy genre readership have traditionally been 'housewives' who also traditionally do a lot of cooking. Since culinary mysteries always have recipe sets in the back (or sprinkled throughout), the books appeal to this audience on two registers. That said, there's perhaps something more primal about combining the life-giving aspect of food with the deadly art of murder. These books have it all!

The State of the Onion is a great culinary mystery, with solid characters and a fast-paced plot. I recommend it to people who enjoy this kind of genre fiction, certainly. I will certainly be reading the rest of the series, at least if the others are this good.

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