In Dead to the Last Drop by Cleo Coyle, the fifteenth installment in the best-selling Coffeehouse Mystery series, Clare Cosi is living in Washington D.C., rather than in her familiar Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York City.
Clare’s octogenarian employer, Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois, has decided to expand the venerable Village Blend coffeehouse business to the nation’s capital. As Madame proposed in the epilogue of Once Upon a Grind, this second location includes a jazz club as well as a coffeehouse. Jazz musician Gardner Evans, a part-time barista at the original Village Blend, is managing the jazz club. Clare is managing the coffeehouse and roasting the coffee beans.
Not incidentally, Clare’s move to DC enables her to be close to her boyfriend, NYPD Detective Mike Quinn, while he is on special assignment with the Justice Department.
The Village Blend, DC has a very desirable location in a historic building on Wisconsin Avenue just off M Street in the heart of Georgetown. But despite the location, the great Village Blend coffee, and the excellent jazz upstairs, the Village Blend, DC has been struggling in the first two months it’s been open.
The problem, Clare and Gardner agree, is the food menu. Madame hired a famous gourmet chef to run the kitchen, but his fussy, pricey menu isn’t going over well with the patrons or the food critics. Nor is the chef’s arrogant personality helping the situation. Clare is determined that he must go, despite his ironclad contract. She wants to replace him with assistant chef Luther Bell.
But if employee relations and other business problems were the only elements of the story, Dead to the Last Drop wouldn’t be a Coffeehouse Mystery. Not to worry. In fact, it’s clear from the opening pages of the book that mystery, crime, and danger are afoot.
In the prologue, Mike Quinn races an SUV through Washington towards the Village Blend, DC, dodging heavy traffic and numerous pedestrians who are in town for the Cherry Blossom Festival. When he arrives, he insists that Clare leave with him immediately. As soon as they’re in the car, Mike warns Clare their lives are in danger, and he gives her a gun. As they speed away, Mike asks Clare to tell him everything about Abby.
Abby, it turns out, is the President’s daughter. A student at American University in DC, Abby is also a talented jazz pianist. Using a stage name to conceal her identity, she had been playing on Open Mike Night at the Village Blend’s jazz club. Although Abby is very reticent about her playing, Gardner and his band mates, along with Clare, convince her to perform in her own show. When someone leaks the word that the pianist is actually the President’s daughter, Abby’s show becomes a huge event. It looks like the Village Blend, DC will finally turn a profit.
Meanwhile, however, the DC Metro police have identified Clare as their chief suspect in a murder. One night, after hours, a State Department employee collapsed at the Village Blend while apparently trying to give Abby a message. In order to protect Abby, Clare didn’t tell the police she was there. As far as the police know, Clare was alone with the victim, so naturally they suspect her.
When Abby disappears several days later in a suspected kidnapping, the FBI wants to bring Clare in for questioning. With both the local police and the feds looking for her, Mike knows that Clare has to go on the run for her own safety. The situation gets even more complicated when one of Clare’s acquaintances is poisoned, and the evidence in that case also points to Clare. Is it just coincidence, or is she being set up? Clare and Mike need to solve the mysteries of Abby’s disappearance and the other crimes. A tall order for any barista!
But faithful readers of the Coffeehouse Mystery series will have confidence that Clare can come through, especially with Mike Quinn at her side.
Because this book is set in Washington, D.C., the rest of Clare’s usual supporting cast is not as prominently involved as in other books. But most do at least make an appearance, as they’re pressed into action to help manage the logistics for Abby’s jazz show: Madame, Clare’s business partner and ex-husband Matteo Allegro, their daughter Joy, baristas Tucker Burton and Esther Best all respond to Clare’s call for help.
Just as author Cleo Coyle treats readers to details of the New York environs where most of the books are set, here she shares interesting facts and observations about Washington, D.C., including its history, architecture, and culture. The story even includes some commentary about political practices at the highest level of government.
Georgetown is prominently featured: Not only is the Village Blend, DC, located in the 1200 block of Wisconsin Avenue, at the heart of Georgetown’s commercial district, but the mansion for which Clare is house-sitting is one of the Federal-style houses in historic Cox’s Row on N Street. Clare also visits the White House, and readers are given an inside look at the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, the Diplomatic Reception Room, and more. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History also figures prominently in the story, because the museum is mounting an exhibit on coffee in America for which Clare is an expert advisor.
And of course, there’s lots of coffee. When Clare and Quinn are on the run, they stop at a donut shop. Clare evaluates the coffee: “Colombian large batch. City or city plus …” Mike asks her to explain, giving her an opening to explain the different coffee roasting levels. In the White House, the First Lady serves the Village Blend’s Krakatoa Blend, a blend of beans that Matt sourced in Ethiopia and Sumatra “with notes of cocoa, sweet dried cherry, and fresh-grated cinnamon.” The “transcendent” Sulawesi with its “fragrant, colorful notes” is a special favorite. When Clare worries about going to prison, she worries about the coffee: “Would I be drinking prison coffee for the rest of my natural life?”
There’s lots of coffee history too, tied into the story courtesy of the Smithsonian exhibit. In the White House, Clare tells the First Lady several anecdotes about coffee and the Presidents. The Smithsonian exhibit includes a number of coffee-related Presidential artifacts, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s “bathtub-sized” coffee cup and the coffee cup from which Abraham Lincoln last drank before leaving for Ford’s Theatre.
Author Coyle expands on this with an educational “Coffee and the Presidents” appendix to the book, which describes the coffee preferences and habits of a dozen American Presidents ranging from George Washington and John Adams to George H. W. Bush.
Food, along with coffee, is big in the Coffeehouse Mystery books, and each book includes an appendix with tantalizing recipes for dishes and baked goods that have been featured in the story. Dead to the Last Drop is no exception. In addition to recipes for muffins (blueberry, chocolate chip, and corn), brownies, cookies, cakes, and other desserts, the appendix includes numerous recipes for more substantial fare like glazed chicken wings, pork tenderloin, barbecued chicken, and steak (“Luther’s Bourbon and Brown Sugar Steak”). It’s hard to decide, but I think I’ll start with a double-chocolate espresso cupcake and a cup of Sulawesi coffee.
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