In Shot in the Dark by Cleo Coyle, the aptly titled 17th entry in Coyle’s best-selling Coffeehouse Mystery series, Clare Cosi’s beloved Village Blend coffeehouse becomes a crime scene when murder is added to the menu.
The Village Blend has become a hot spot for dates and hookups thanks to a recommendation from a popular dating app called Cinder, which lets women make the first move to meet men they’ve connected with through the app. The Village Blend has been identified by app users as a top venue for meeting their dates. Even Clare’s ex-husband Matt Allegro, the Village Blend’s coffee buyer, has become an avid Cinder user to connect with “Cinderellas.”
As the story opens, the Village Blend is packed with customers, including Matt and many other Cinder users. Uncharacteristically, renowned ladies man Matt has struck out with several dates, so he offers to lend a hand behind the coffee bar. But first he needs a Red Eye, otherwise known as a “Shot in the Dark,” a shot of espresso poured into a high-caffeine light roast coffee. Clare makes it for him but expresses her skepticism about the dating app culture. As Matt is explaining how Cinder works, gunshots ring out upstairs in the second floor lounge.
As customers rush for the exit, Clare hurries upstairs to find a young woman brandishing a pistol at a man. Distraught, she says he humiliated her after they met through Cinder. Clare helps to defuse the situation, and the young woman is arrested. But the man, identified as Richard Crest, comes off as an arrogant jerk, which reinforces Clare’s negative view of the dating app scene.
Even Clare’s elegant octogenarian mother-in-law, “Madame” Blanche Dubois, has joined the dating app culture. But when a man she meets at the Village Blend leaves her “in a pickle” at Pier 66 Maritime Bar & Grill on the Hudson River, Madame asks Clare to meet her there. As they talk over dinner, Clare is startled to see the body of a young woman floating in the river. Clare recognizes her as a Village Blend customer.
The NYPD Harbor Patrol thinks she was a suicide, but Clare doesn’t agree. A video of the Village Blend shooting incident is discovered in the young woman’s backpack. Clare also learns that Richard Crest and this woman had been seen together at the Village Blend. As a result, Clare theorizes that her death was related to the shooting incident and that Crest was involved. She enlists her fiancé, NYPD Detective Lieutenant Mike Quinn, to help her investigate. Mike thinks the young woman was probably mugged.
Meanwhile, the Village Blend has lost a lot of customers due to viral videos of the shooting incident on social media. Cinder users no longer view the coffeehouse as a safe destination for meeting their dates. Since Cinder has also been losing business, its CEO suggests to Clare that they work together to “turn the story around” and fix the problem. Despite her skepticism about Cinder, Clare agrees.
As their plan unfolds, Clare gets increasingly immersed in the dating app world, and new questions and new dangers emerge. It all culminates in another shooting at the Village Blend, and this time the shooter shoots to kill.
Shot in the Dark features a well-crafted, consistently surprising plot and some compelling characters. Besides the new characters introduced for this specific story, virtually all of the regular characters that readers of Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries have come to know and love are here. Besides Clare, Quinn, Matt, and Madame, the Village Blend baristas all make appearances — Tucker Burton (along with his boyfriend Punch), Esther Best, Dante Silva, and Nancy Kelly — as do Clare and Matt’s daughter Joy and her boyfriend, NYPD Sergeant Emmanuel Franco.
One of my favorite aspects of this series is the sense of place that it creates through its New York City setting. One can almost (but not quite) pinpoint the Village Blend’s location on Hudson Street in the West Village (near Barrow Street). Hudson River Park features prominently: as noted above, Clare meets Madame after Madame’s ill-fated date at Pier 66 Maritime Bar & Grill in the park, next to the historic lightship (floating lighthouse) Frying Pan. Clare and Matt search for clues in the Habitat Garden just north of Pier 66. Another location mentioned is the Veselka restaurant on Second Avenue in the East Village, where Clare and Mike have dinner.
Shot in the Dark also delves into New York City history. Madame recounts to Clare the story of the notorious 1967 “Groovy Murders” in the East Village, in which two young people were killed. One was a 21-year-old wanderer; the other was a teenage girl from a very wealthy family who had only recently arrived in the Village. As Madame tells Clare, the shocking double murder effectively killed the Greenwich Village hippie culture after the “Summer of Love.”
Naturally, numerous pots of coffee are brewed and numerous shots of espresso are pulled in Shot in the Dark. There’s the titular Shot in the Dark that Clare makes for Matt in the opening chapter. Then Clare tells the police that on the day the body of the Village Blend customer was found in the river, the coffeehouse served different coffees at different times of the day, ranging from a single-origin Ethiopia, to an estate Panama, to the “Fireside Blend” featuring a Sumatran coffee from small farmers. At another point, Matt brews a delicious coffee that he sourced on Mount Ramelau in East Timor. And many more. It’s a treat for coffee lovers to read about the different beans, roasting levels, and brewing methods in the context of a great story.
Like all the books in the Coffeehouse Mystery Series, Shot in the Dark includes an appendix that’s chock full of recipes for dishes, desserts, and drinks mentioned in the story. Some that are especially appealing to me are the Village Blend’s Espresso Shortbread, the Blueberry Cream Cheese Scones with Vanilla-Lemon Glaze, and the Euclid’s World Famous Banana Smoothie. I could trying making them myself, or maybe Clare Cosi will invite me over sometime!
I really liked Shot in the Dark, and I think it’s one of the strongest entries in the series. For those who wonder whether you can read this one without having read the other Coffeehouse Mystery Series books, the answer is yes. Cleo Coyle does a superb job of filling in the necessary background of the Village Blend and the key characters for the benefit of new readers, without boring readers who are familiar with the series. But I strongly recommend the whole series. The world of Clare Cosi and the Village Blend is always a good place to visit. The recurring characters are likable, and the coffee is always fresh. What more could one ask?
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