“The perfect cup of coffee is a mystifying thing,” says Clare Cosi, the manager of the historic Village Blend coffeehouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village. So begins On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle, the first book in her Coffeehouse Mystery series.
But what is even more mystifying is how the Blend’s part-time assistant manager, young dancer Annabelle Hart, ended up unconscious at the bottom of the basement stairs.
Annabelle appeared to be alone, with all the doors locked and no sign of forced entry. The police conclude that her fall was an accident. To them, the evidence suggests she fell on a batch of slippery coffee grounds.
But Clare, who has only recently returned to manage the Blend after ten years in the suburbs, thinks the coffee grounds tell a different story. Clare is convinced that Annabelle was pushed. She is determined to find out who did it, and why.
Clare’s investigation is complicated by the reappearance of her ex-husband, Matteo Allegro. Matt is the Blend’s coffee buyer and the son of its owner, the eccentric Madame Blanche Dreyfus Allegro Dubois (“Madame”). Not only is he still attracted to Clare, but unbeknownst to either Matt or Clare, Madame has arranged for the two of them to share ownership of the Blend and to share the duplex apartment upstairs.
Meanwhile, Clare leaves no coffee cup unturned as she follows her conviction that foul play was involved in Annabelle’s fall. She finds no shortage of potential perpetrators. Some are especially suspect because they are, of all things, tea drinkers. Among those that appear to have a motive to harm Annabelle are several of her fellow dancers, her gold-digging stepmother, and her former boyfriend.
This cozy mystery gets the best-selling Coffeehouse Mystery series off to a good start. Coffee is central to the story, and author Cleo Coyle (a pseudonym for Alice Alfonsi, writing with her husband, Marc Cerasini) clearly knows her beans. The Village Blend is portrayed as a popular, even beloved, neighborhood institution. Clare wants to solve the mystery as much to benefit the Blend as to get justice for Annabelle.
The characters, especially Clare, brew, drink, and talk about coffee throughout the book. Early on, Clare charms one of the investigating policemen, who is of Greek descent, by making him Greek coffee in an ibrik. The lead investigator, Detective Quinn, is used to drinking cheap, bad coffee from the local bodega. Clare is determined to convert him to high-quality Village Blend coffee and lattes. Her opinions of people rise when they compliment her coffee, and she’s offended when they don’t.
The book is chock full of coffee tips and coffee lore. Clare talks about the proper way to make espresso. She shares her best practices for making coffee with the Melitta method. She reveals the right way to store coffee. She is even skilled at coffee tasseography — the art of reading patterns in coffee grounds to foretell the future.
The mystery investigation in On What Grounds is fast-moving and engaging. The coffee education, including coffee-related recipes, is a pleasurable bonus.
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