Can coffee kill you? If it’s valuable enough, the answer is yes. In the entertaining murder mystery Coffee to Die For by Linda French, coffee plants provide a motive for murder.
Dr. Leo Faber, a botanist at the University of Washington with funding from biotech giant AgroGene, has developed a naturally chocolate-flavored coffee plant. As the book opens, he has scheduled a cupping of the new hybrid coffee at Seattle’s Oliveri Coffee Company.
Before the cupping, Leo’s wife Daisy confides in her sister, history professor Teodora (“Teddy”) Morelli, that Leo has been having an affair with a new assistant, Molly Thistle. Daisy is distraught, but Teddy suggests that the relationship is probably innocent. She assures Daisy that she’ll be proud of Leo when he unveils the new coffee.
Coffee expert Luigi Oliveri hosts the cupping at his company’s nine-foot blond walnut cupping table, “the only cupping table north of San Francisco.” Leo’s “R-19” hybrid is tasted along with good Brazilian and Ethiopian coffees. Mr. Oliveri likes the chocolate coffee and pronounces it a success. Leo is ecstatic. But Daisy is upset by Leo’s obvious attentions to Molly.
Leo has only a short time to enjoy his success, though. Later that night he is found murdered in his greenhouse. The murder appears to be a crime of passion, since he has been stabbed multiple times with a pair of scissors. The obvious suspect is Daisy, but Daisy says she didn’t do it and she’s sure that Molly killed Leo.
Leo’s murder is just the beginning of the mystery. Leo’s R-19 coffee plants are missing, and both the university and AgroGene want to recover them. On top of that, Leo was also growing marijuana on the side for some unsavory characters. They want their “product” or the money they paid for it.
Teddy gets involved in the case in order to help Daisy. Her primary goal is to find the missing coffee plants, which are supposed to be in a greenhouse somewhere in the woods north of Seattle. Along the way, Teddy’s investigation takes her all over northwest Washington, from urban Seattle to the granite cliffs and small towns of the Skykomish River Valley. She encounters a gallery of colorful, and in some cases dangerous, characters. But with perseverance and some luck, she solves the mystery.
Coffee to Die For by Linda French, the second of three Professor Teodora Morelli Mysteries to date, is knowledgeable about coffee. (The third book in the series, Steeped in Murder, is set in the world of tea.)
Coffee details provide a nice touch. For example, the signature Oliveri roast is “dark brown, wide-cracked, oily caffeol barely flushed to the surface.” Leo’s R-19 is described as a hybrid of “El Beso chocolate from the Venezuelan north slope” and “Ethiopian mocha from the Ahmar mountains in the east.” Late in the book, Mr. Oliveri’s son tells him that the house blend of the new coffee house opening near the university is called “Dancing Goat.” Mr. Oliveri says, “Go there. Those kids know what they’re doing,” and tells him the legend of Kaldi the goatherd’s discovery of coffee.
Without giving too much away, the biology of coffee and the economics and politics of the coffee business are central to the mystery of Leo’s murder and the hunt for the missing coffee plants. By the end of the book, it is clear why coffee can indeed be “to die for.”
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