One of my favorite debates in evaluating media is determining what constitutes a “guilty pleasure” or if the term is even appropriate. “Guilt” implies that we should not be engaging with such media, but I like to think (hope?) that when we frequently revisit a film, book, or television series, we do so because there are elements that are objectively good.
Like many others, I spent last week binging on the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards and talking with friends in person and on social media about why I was feverishly consuming it. Its representation of American politics is rooted in some accuracy, though the way events in the White House and congress unfold tends to be pretty ludicrous. The dialogue is often over-explanatory and laughable. Kevin Spacey’s Foghorn Leghorn accent and faux-Shakespearean asides often grate the nerves. The show does, however, boast some impressive cinematography, great pacing, and continually excellent work from Robin Wright. Those elements are enough incentive for me to invest my time and make the show less guilty and more of a pleasure.
I’m happy to report that specialty coffee has its own House of Cards-style not-so-guilty pleasure: Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries.
The Coffeehouse Mysteries are a part of the Cozy subgenre of crime fiction. Cozies are light mysteries in which an amateur sleuth (usually female) solves murders in a small community. Think Miss Marple or Murder, She Wrote. There is an educational aspect depending on the profession of the sleuth and food and beverage cozies often have recipes in the back of the book. In this particular Cozy, protagonist Clare Cosi runs The Village Blend, a century-old coffee shop in Greenwich Village renowned for quality and customer service. Murders occur in or around the coffee shop, leading Clare to ferret out the killer in a breezy 300 pages. Clare has a wealth of coffee information, enabling her to charm many potential suitors including her dashing ex-husband, Matteo “Matt” Allegro, the adventurous green coffee buyer for The Village Blend, and NYPD detective Mike Quinn, who reluctantly accepts her assistance in solving the murders.
The Coffeehouse Mysteries often have cute titles like On What Grounds, A Brew to a Kill, and my favorite, Roast Mortem. The thirteenth and most recent installment, Billionaire Blend, is a particularly gripping coffee fantasy. After Clare saves tech billionaire Eric Thorner from a car bomb that damages the shop, Thorner repairs the shop, buys Clare a brand new Slayer espresso machine, and hires Clare and Matt to create a Billionaire Blend using the rarest and tastiest coffees in the world. In the midst of her whirlwind coffee adventure, Clare must also discover who planted the car bomb and may have to come to terms with the possibility that Thorner may himself be a slayer.
Clare and Matt’s international coffee adventure takes them to Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, Haiti, Jakarta, Hawaii, and the fictitious Caribbean island of Costa Gravas, where Matt’s childhood friend developed the world’s first naturally decaffeinated coffee in the fifth Coffeehouse Mystery, Decaffeinated Corpse. The coffee hunters also visit Thailand to test Black Ivory elephant poop coffee. While the animal crap coffee phenomenon is always an eye roller, credit goes to Coyle for taking a dig at the highly controversial Kopi Luwak. Despite the focus on sourcing ridiculously expensive coffee, the adventure is balanced with social responsibility. Thorner invests in farms with potential, paying good wages and putting up the money for washing stations and other much needed supplies. Clare bemoans the exclusivity of the product, but takes comfort in the benefit to farmers.
Cleo Coyle is a pseudonym for husband-and-wife writers Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini. While it does not appear that either has a specialty coffee background, their interest in exploring coffee traditions and trends alongside the thrill of murder mysteries makes the series fun and informative. The series debuted in 2003 and the Coyle team has shown a dedication to keeping up with coffee trends without any air of snobbery. The Coffeehouse Mysteries’ greatest strength is protagonist Clare Cosi’s admirable management skills. Clare has an extensive training program for her baristas and values excellent customer service. She shows respect for and loyalty to her employees, making them feel a part of a team that makes invaluable contributions to the community. It may seem ludicrous that Clare has mostly had the same staff since the first book, but it warms my heart that she makes career baristas out of her diverse staff.
The Coyle team are doing something very special with their writing. They are presenting valuable information about the coffee industry to an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to what goes into making a good cup of coffee. I never imagined that I would find the kind of feel-good coffee literature I desired in the tiny paperbacks in the mystery section of a bookstore, but perhaps it was my preconceived notions about such mysteries being nothing more than guilty pleasures. It is all pleasure and no guilt for me when I read The Coffeehouse Mysteries and with three new installments hitting bookshelves in the next few years, the pleasures will keep brewing. Here’s to hoping one of the future installments will take place at a barista competition. Signature beverage creation can be murder.