What do you think most crime-fictional sleuths have in common? Oh, I’m not thinking so much of personality traits (although I do think most sleuths have a certain kind of intelligence and a sense of curiosity among other things). If you think about it, the majority of sleuths drink more than their share of coffee and tea. And as one who’s willingly addicted to coffee (black, no sugar) I can see why. Coffee and tea serve a couple of major purposes for those of us who drink them. One is the caffeine. If you’re addicted to caffeine then you know how welcome that first sip in the morning is. Another is that both serve as comforts. We deal with all sorts of stresses and strains in life by having a cup of coffee or tea. And then there’s the social nature of coffee and tea drinking. People share all sorts of things over a cuppa and the ritual of offering a guest a cup of coffee or tea can be very useful if you’re a sleuth. That ritual tends to put people a bit at their ease since it gives them something to do. And the more at their ease people are, the more likely they are to open up to the sleuth.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t much of a tea drinker but he knows its value for getting information. For example, in Dead Man’s Folly his friend Ariadne Oliver has asked him to join her at Nasse House in Nassecomb. She’s been commissioned by Nasse House’s owner Sir George Stubbs to plan a Murder Hunt (rather like a scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fête to be held there. Oliver suspects that something more sinister than a fête may be going on although she can’t identify exactly what that might be. Poirot travels to Nasse House to see what he can discover. Mrs. Oliver turns out to have been quite right in her fears; fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the game, is strangled. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the murderer is. One of the people he talks to is Amy Folliat, who lives in the lodge on the property and whose family actually owned Nasse House for generations. Poirot knows that he’ll find out much more from her over a cup of tea than in a police interview, and he turns out to be right. He visits her in her home a couple of times and those conversations turn out to be pivotal to the novel. Of course there’s also an Agatha Christie story or two where coffee turns out to be the murder weapon, too…
In many cultures it’s the custom when someone comes to one’s home to offer that person a cup of coffee or tea and that ritual often serves to help the sleuth win witnesses’ and suspects’ trust and get information. There are many, many examples of this in crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few. In Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits for instance, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are working together to find out who murdered Chee’s good friend and fellow officer Delbert Nez. Nez was investigating a case of vandalism when he was ambushed and murdered and his car burned. The most obvious suspect is Ashie Pinto, who was actually found near the scene of the crime and who doesn’t put up any resistance to being arrested. In fact, what he says is that he is ashamed. But Pinto’s relations don’t think he’s guilty and neither does Pinto’s attorney Janet Pete. So Chee and Leaphorn look more deeply into the case. At one point Leaphorn and anthropology professor Louisa Bourbonette travel to a general store owned by John McGinnis, who’s been in the area forever and may have some information. Despite being know for his prickliness, he offers his guests coffee because it’s part of the ritual in that area. Then he shares his perspective on Ashie Pinto and it turns out to be very useful.
In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, Göteberg detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht. At first his death looks like a suicide but he hadn’t been depressed and there seems no reason he would have ended his life. Then, little bits of forensic evidence begin to suggest that Von Knecht was murdered. This means that the team has to follow up with neighbours and others who may have been witnesses. One such person is Fru Eva Karlsson, an elderly widow who seems only too glad for the company when Huss asks to visit her. Huss arrives and Fru Karlsson lays out a full coffee feast with fresh-brewed coffee and many different kinds of pastries. It’s not what Huss had expected but she knows that if she’s too brusque she won’t get the information that she needs. Besides, the pastries look delicious. So she and Fru Karlsson settle in for a coffee party and from that Huss gains some important information.
Sometimes sleuths themselves are the ones who offer tea or coffee and that too can be useful. In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant Delhi private investigator Vishwas “Vish” Puri and his team are working on a few cases. One of them is a background investigation commissioned by Brigadier Kapoor. Kapoor wants Puri to look into the background of Mahinder Gupta who is engaged to marry Kapoor’s grand-daughter Tisca. On the surface Gupta seems a perfect candidate for marriage and for quite a while the team can find nothing even interesting, let alone nefarious, in his background. But then the team discovers that Gupta does have a secret. In order to get the full information on that secret Puri will have to talk to Tisca Kapoor, and she is not willing to have the wedding called off. But Puri treats her to tea and sandwiches and has a frank talk with her. His efforts to be hospitable turn out to be successful and Tisca tells him what he needs to know.
There are dozens of novels too in which tea or coffee is used as what used to be called a restorative after someone’s had a shock. You could probably think of lots more than I could. And of course, what would your favourite fictional sleuths be without that jolt of caffeine that comes from coffee and tea? Many sleuths (Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano being notable exceptions) occasionally go without a meal. But without coffee or tea? I don’t think so. Of course, that addiction can be dangerous too. Just ask Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. In Resurrection Men he’s remanded to Tulliallan Police College for a “one last chance” course along with several other officers who’ve had difficulty with authority. While they’re there, they’re put on the “cold case” of small-time crook Eric Lomax, whose murder was never solved. And in the end that case turns out to be related to the case that Rebus was working on before he got into trouble with his superiors. And what happened to get him into trouble like that? Tea. Rebus threw a mug of tea at his superior, which is not generally advisable.
Then of course there are several crime fiction series such as Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries that are set in coffee and teashops. Not only do those settings allow for some interesting character interactions but they also have a lot of interesting information on different varieties of coffee and tea.
But incidents like that aside, tea and coffee fuel a lot of our interactions. Lots of people are addicted to the caffeine in those drinks and they provide solace and comfort too. So whether it’s terrible instant coffee in a cheap Styrofoam cup or a delicious cup of Lapsang souchong served in delicate china, coffee and tea are woven throughout crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, the coffee’s just ready and it’s time for a break.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Famous Last Words.