The Coffee Tasted So Fine*

CoffeehousesSome places are natural magnets that invite people to ‘come in and stay a while.’ Good coffeehouses are like that. They may not have full restaurant menus (‘though many do offer small food items), but the atmosphere and the coffee or tea are enough to keep patrons sitting and sipping.

Coffeehouses have undergone a lot of changes over time. But the good ones are still places where you can enjoy a coffee or tea, perhaps listen to some music or poetry, or just catch up with a friend or a date. They’re also, incidentally, terrific places for writing inspiration. Just sit in any coffee house for twenty minutes with your choice of hot beverage and watch the interactions, and you’ll see what I mean. As you can imagine, the coffeehouse is woven throughout crime fiction, too, and that makes sense given the possibilities the setting offers.

In centuries gone by, coffeehouses used to be an important place for people to meet to discuss business, catch up on the local news and sometimes, to be seen. There’s an element of that in Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, part of his historical Fideles and Cragg series. Titus Cragg is an attorney and also coroner of Preston. Luke Fideles is the local doctor. They’re friends as well as professional allies, and in this novel, they put their skills together to solve the murder of pawnbroker/would-be banker Philip Pimbo. More than once in the novel, Cragg and Fideles meet at the Turk’s Head coffeehouse, where they exchange notes and follow leads. One interesting thing about coffeehouses of this era: they also sell wine and meals. In that sense they’re more like today’s pubs than modern coffeehouses tend to be. They also serve as places where someone might stop in often enough to arrange to receive letters and other messages there. It’s a very different perspective on this sort of gathering place.

Coffeehouses have also been known for a long time as places to hear live music, poetry, and book readings. They can be terrific for authors who want to set up signings and readings, too. Trust me. And trust Talba Wallis, the New Orleans PI who features in one of Julie Smith’s series. When she’s not ‘on the job,’ Wallis is a poet who goes by the name of ‘Baroness Pontalba.’ She’s fortunate to be living in a city with a very vibrant cultural life, so she goes regularly to poetry readings at coffeehouses and at the place where she had her first public reading, Reggie and Chaz. Coffeehouse audiences can be very receptive to different kinds of poetry and music, so coffeehouses can be very good places to begin if one’s not an established artist.

Even when they don’t feature events or performances, today’s coffeehouses are often popular local places. There are also, of course, large ‘chain’ coffeehouses. In Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, for instance, Toronto police officer Daniel Kennicott is helping to investigate the murder of Katherine Thorn. Her common-law husband, star radio personality Kevin Brace, is the most likely suspect, and has even said that he killed her. But there are other possibilities too. One of those is another radio personality, Donald Dundas, who might have committed the murder for more than one reason. Kennicott wants to track Dundas down and ask him some questions, so he goes to some coffee shops near the station’s building:

‘He couldn’t see Dundas going to Starbucks. The man was always doing nostalgic pieces about things like small-town general stores. He liked championing the ‘little people.’ On the south side of the building, there was a friendly-looking coffee shop with a collection of antique teapots in the window. That’s it, Kennicott thought.’

And he’s right. Dundas is indeed in that shop, ready to read his Globe and Mail when Kennicott sees him. Oh, and I can’t resist mentioning the terrific nickname given to that small coffeeshop’s big competitor in this novel:

‘Kennicott noticed a lot of the company employees trooping out this door and heading zombielike for their doses of caffeine. ‘Time for some four-bucks,’ he overheard one of them say.’

A nice touch, in my opinion.

Many times, coffeehouses serve as good places to meet up for a mix of business and friendship. That’s what we see in Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent, the first of her novels featuring pathologist/forensic physician Anya Crichton her friend, DS Kate Farrer. In one scene in this novel, Crichton happens to run into Farrer at the local courthouse. They decide to catch up, as they haven’t seen each other lately, and head for a nearby coffeehouse/café. That’s where Farrer tells Crichton about a strange case of suicide (or is it?) she’s working. She asks for Crichton’s input, and the two are soon drawn into a bizarre case of multiple murder.

There are also mystery series that take place in coffeehouses. One, for instance, is the Coffeehouse Mysteries, authored by husband-and-wife team Mark Cerasini and Alice Alfonsi, who use the pen name Cleo Coyle. When you consider the different kinds of people who go to coffeehouses, the different sorts of events that can take place, and the conflicts that can arise, the setting makes a lot of sense as a mystery context.

Coffeehouses are also of course effective places to look at the way society has changed over time. And, speaking on a personal level, I appreciate the fact that coffeehouses are often welcoming to people who don’t have international ‘brand names’ as writers, or perhaps write and play music that hasn’t (yet) drawn a stadium crowd. I salute them all!

If you go to coffeehouses, have you noticed how they reflect the times? Writers and performers, do you have ‘coffeehouse stories’ to share?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray Smith and Tony Colton’s The Coffee Song, recorded by Cream.


Filed under Alice Alfonsi, Cleo Coyle, Julie Smith, Kathryn Fox, Mark Cerasini, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Blake

55 responses to “The Coffee Tasted So Fine*

  1. Ah, coffee, one of my favourite subjects… or beverages… and how could I not be so, when I grew up in Vienna, homeground of coffee houses and cafe culture and cafe conversations that extended well into the next day? So all of the crime fiction set in Vienna will of necessity include a trip or two to a well-known cafe, where you can meet all your acquaintances (a bit like the local pub in English fiction). I’m thinking not just Austrian writers such as Andreas Pittler, Stefan Slupetsky, Wolf Haas, but also foreign writers who set their work there (usually, historical crime fiction), like Frank Tallis, William Boyd, even Philip Kerr has one of his Gunther series set in Vienna of 1947.

    • You know, Marina Sofia, I could easily have named this post Vienna Waits For You, from Billy Joel’s Vienna. It probably would have resonated just as much (perhaps more) given the love affair Vienna has always had with coffee, coffeehouses and coffeehouse conversation. So many literary, political, sociological and other ideas have had their birth, or at the very least been widely debated, in those coffeehouses. I’m so glad you brought that up, as of course you know the city so well. There’s nothing like a good coffeehouse conversation, and the authors you’ve mentioned bring it all to life in fiction. And now you’ve made me painfully aware that I need to put some of this work in the spotlight. Shame on me!

  2. I fear most of the fraternisation in Scottish crime takes place over alcohol rather than coffee, but the ubiquitous chains have got themselves fully established now, so we might see that change. Though I just can’t see Rebus with a triple venti, half sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato, can you?

    • Oh, goodness no, I can’t, FictionFan!!! No. Just…no. And it’s interesting how the Scottish culture features pubs over coffeehouses. Just goes to show that each culture is different, and that there are different ways of going about sharing ideas, gossip and the like. Wonder how long it’ll be ’till the big chains work that one out. 😉

  3. I’m a huge fan of coffee and love people watching in coffee shops! If you’re really lucky you can also listen in on some really bizarre conversations too. For all of that, despite racking my brain, I can’t come up with a single example.

    • I know what you mean, Cleo. If you sit in the right place and pay attention, there’s no telling at all what you might hear, and it’s all grist for the writing mill. 🙂 It’s one of the appeals of coffeehouses for me anyway.

  4. I certainly seem to spend more and more time in them, that’s for sure! Thanks for that Margot

  5. tracybham

    I am a tea drinker myself. I have been planning on trying the Coffeehouse Mysteries, because I heard that they are good.

  6. Kathy D.

    I love coffee houses in fiction or in real life. I bemoan that there are none near my house and very few left in The Big Apple, unlike the existence of many during my youth. (Starbucks doesn’t cut it on this.)
    Although I’m a tea drinker mostly, I will still drink a cup of coffee if it’s good, not mediocre. And I certainly love the conversation in coffee houses or cafes.
    After returning from a trip to Europe, I asked my father his favorite spot and experience: He quickly replied that sitting in a cafe in Budapest, looking over the Danube River, sipping coffee and eating a pastry, was the high point of his trip.
    I wish such an experience existed in my city.
    In fiction, I note that Guido Brunetti finds small cafes in Venice where he gets coffee, sometimes a pastry, thinking or talking to a colleague.

    • Coffeehouses really have such vibrant lives, don’t they, Kathy? There’s such good conversation and such an interesting atmosphere. I’m not surprised your father had such good memories of the Budapest coffeehouse. I wish there were more where I live, too. And yes, in fiction, Brunetti certainly knows where to stop for coffee and a pastry.

  7. Coffee – good coffee – one of my passions Margot. And I do come across plenty of coffee houses in my crime reads, they are perfect place to set up meetings and sharing of info.

    • I love really good coffee too, Carol :-). And I like the way coffee houses are used in crime fiction, too. As you say, they’re good settings and they’re terrific places for characters to meet, etc..

  8. Margot: In The Coffee Trader by David Liss coffee has just been introduced to the Netherlands. It has become a valuable commodity in Amsterdam leading to business and personal complications.

    Another book by Robert Rotenberg, Stray Bullets, features a murder just outside a Tim Horton’s coffee shop. (People in Canada would look blankly if you asked about going to a coffee house. It is a coffee shop in the North.) Since it is an actual chain I have wondered how Tim Horton’s, the company, felt about one of their shops being the setting for fictional murder.

    • Bill – Interesting isn’t it how people use different names for the same thing, depending on where one lives. For a lot of people too there’s a difference between a coffee shop (like Tim Horton’s) and a coffee house (with live music, readings, etc..). Not everyone makes that distinction, though, and I find that fascinating too. And now you mention it, I wonder, too, how the Tim Horton’s people about being featured in that way in Stray Bullets.

  9. Kathy D.

    In the U.S., there are a plethora of coffee shops, but dwindling coffee houses. Not the same thing. I’d love to find a coffee house or a cafe as existed in the 1960s and 1970s, where one could even find folksingers or poets in the midst of coffee and conversation.
    Coffee shops are a dime a dozen; there is not usually good coffee nor good food and definitely no folksingers or poets. There are vinyl booths, and nary a jukebox to be found.
    Oh, for old days of coffee houses in the West Village or the Lower East Side. Maybe there still a few around, but I don’t see them.

    • It is interesting, Kathy, what people call those places. For many people, there really is a difference between a coffee shop and a coffeehouse. A lot of people make no distinction. In the town where I used to teach, there were, I think, four coffee places on the same main street. One was vintage West Village, with poetry, music, the whole thing. Another had live music sometimes. The other two didn’t have readings, music, etc. They just had coffee and small selections of snacks. Everyone called them all coffeehouses. I’d love to know what happened to the real ‘old school’ Village coffeehouses – the kind you had in mind with your comment…

  10. Col

    Can’t recall any featuring prominently in my own reading, I’m afraid. Rotenberg’s book sounds good, but another book…really, do I need one?

    • Everyone always needs books, Col. Start with that 😉 – I do know what you mean about the teetering TBR syndrome, to be honest. But the Rotenberg series is a good one, which I recommend when you do get the chance to try it.

  11. Margot, I have read more American detective fiction than British crime fiction and I’m intrigued how popular coffee is among sleuths and investigators in your part of the world. I have read some hardboiled crime stories where the private eye drinks a lot of coffee to keep him going through sleepless nights of investigation. I suppose, the same can be said for tea-drinking detectives across the Atlantic.

    In India, we have coffee shops including the more celebrated Starbucks but the popularity of the two beverages is divided right down the middle — tea being popular in the west (where I live) and north, and coffee in greater demand in the south and east. In fact, “cutting chai” or half a shot glass of roadside tea is immensely popular in Mumbai where people consume no less than six to eight glasses of tea a day. Dipping biscuits and buttered buns in one’s tea is a common sight. On the other hand, filter coffee rules in South India.

    • Oh, that’s fascinating, Prashant, about the coffee/tea divide in India. I wonder if it has to do with the different climates in those different regions, or with the different cultures in them? I’d read about ‘cutting chai’ before, but didn’t realise it’s regional rather than national. That’s really interesting!
      And you’re right of course about how popular coffee is among American fictional detectives. It is more popular than tea among them I think. That’s not as much the case, as you say, on the other side of the Atlantic. But then of course, French fictional detectives tend to be ‘coffee people.’ Interesting differences, I think…

    • Prashant, I have enjoyed both beverages in the north and south of India. One of my loveliest memories of train travel in northern India in the 1990s was of the chai wallahs selling tea in unfired earthenware cups. When you finished your tea, you threw the cup out the train window in a glorious ‘dust to dust’ gesture. Sadly, the unfired clay has been replaced by plastic, and the cups still get thrown out the windows…

  12. Coffeehouses are among my favorite places! The white noise makes a nice background as we write. 🙂

    • I love ’em, too, Elizabeth! And you’re right about the ‘white noise.’ It helps in concentration, doesn’t it? And sometimes, just being there and watching people can really be inspiring.

  13. Count me in as another coffee addict. My favourite coffee shop scene is the opening of a very under-rated Agatha Christie, The Pale Horse

    • Honestly, Martin, I believe that for many writers, coffee is a major food group. And thank you for mentioning The Pale Horse. It’s not a story that gets the attention that some of Christie’s other word does, and as you say, it’s a good ‘un. That’s actually an interesting topic it in itself: Christie’s ‘hidden gems.’

  14. Kathy D.

    I wonder if the areas there coffee is more popular in India are heavily populated by people from the U.S.
    And Starbucks is not a coffeehouse! It’s a store chain that sells coffees. In New York, it’s like going to a fast food restaurant, only for coffee and snacks.
    Oh, for the days of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Gil Scott-Heron, and the other great singers.

    • No, Starbucks is most definitely not a coffeehouse, Kathy. I like your description of it very much. Would that there were still really good places for fine folk music, poetry, readings and so on.

  15. Kathy, I’m sorry I missed the difference. I thought Starbucks was a coffeehouse because it has tables and chairs and it serves varieties of coffee and some snacks, and people hang around the place with their friends and laptops, and drink coffee. I have been to Starbucks just once and I didn’t care much for the coffee. But then, I’m a tea drinker! India has an equal number of tea and coffee drinkers.

  16. Kathy D.

    I became a tea drinker years ago for health reasons — and I love good tea. A neighbor from England and I compare teas. I look for the best around here. I inspect the shelves at Whole Foods for the best tea. I drink it hot, cold. Nothing is as refreshing on a hot summer day as iced tea.
    I learned to make sun tea, a Southern method, where one puts teabags in a big glass jar with water and then leaves it on a sunny windowsill; the tea makes itself.
    I do wonder about fictional European detectives. They do seem to drink coffee, as Guido Brunetti does in Venice. In Sweden, they drink coffee.
    What do British detectives drink? Whenever I read a scene where someone invites someone into their homes in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland,, including police, they offer them tea — and a biscuit. I know biscuits are cookies — but I wonder what is the usual type offered and served.

    • Kathy, I did not know about sun tea — interesting. With abundance of sunlight in India, I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on here. We have some good region specific tea brands that are popular the world over, such as Darjeeling and Assam tea. I think, the Indian lower and middle class would frown upon teabags since people are particular about their morning tea, spending several minutes brewing it. For instance, the crushed juice of a ginger pod in tea, as it is made in western India, makes the beverage strong and refreshing, not to mention healthy. At home, we often have tea made out of tea leaves, mint leaves, and lemon grass, mixed with a spot of milk. Others squeeze a little lime into their tea.

      • Oh, Prashant, your tea does sound very good. And I think one thing many tea and coffee drinkers have in common is that they are particular about the way it should taste. It’s got to be done in a certain way if it’s to be done right.

    • Kathy – Oh, that’s interesting that you learned to make sun tea. I used to make that myself, actually, and it can be a terrific way to enjoy tea. I drink tea at times, but honestly, I am a coffee person.
      You ask a really good question about the way different fictional detectives in different parts of the world do things. I find those cultural differences fascinating actually. Since I’m not UK, I’ll turn the mike over. Folks who know, what sort of biscuits would you usually serve up in those situations?

  17. In Call for the Dead by John Le Carré (1961) George Smiley recalls a meeting with a now deceased civil servant at an espresso bar. Smiley has to explain to his perplexed superior that this is a place where they serve a special kind of coffee that costs a shilling a cup. Always makes me smile.

    Starbucks opened the first of 85 stores in Australia in 2000 and racked up over a hundred million dollars in losses before closing most of the stores and finally exiting the business. They sold the name to 7-11. Australians are very particular about their coffee.

    • And it pays off, Geoff. Some of the best coffee I’ve had has been in Australia. And you get good coffee even in places where you wouldn’t expect them to pay that much attention to the quality. But they do. So I’m not surprised Starbucks ultimately didn’t succeed. Shows you have to fit the market, not vice versa.
      Thanks too for the mention of Call for the Dead. I feel terribly remiss that I’ve not yet spotlighted a single one of John le Carré’s novels. I really must do that.

      • Hi Margot, It was a re-reading of Call for the Dead that made me decide to get on my butt and have a real go at writing so I have a great affection for the book and for the incredible depth of Le Carré’s characters.

        As a professional photographer, turned teacher, turned author I’m sure you can imagine how much coffee I have to drink every day just to keep up my credentials.

        • Oh, I didn’t know you had that connection, Geoff. So you have an especial reason to be fond of le Carré’s work in general and that novel in particular. Well, I can’t say’s I blame you one bit. A master of character development, I think.
          And as for coffee? I empathise. For me, coffee is a major food group. It really is.

  18. I love my coffee, love my coffeeshops, and when I first went to Starbucks it was a small local chain in Seattle, not the behemoth it has become. One of my favourite sections in any crime book (and I know I have mentioned it before here, and I know that you know and love it too!) is the part of Sayers’ Strong Poison where Miss Climpson has to infiltrate a house by cultivating the resident nurse. She forms her plan (fake séance) by watching to see which of the tea/coffeeshops the nurse chooses in the small local town – Miss C reckons she can read character from that. I’ve always loved that bit of detection….

    • Oh, yes, Moira, that is a classic scene in Strong Poison! I love it too. And you’re right about Starbucks. It started out small, local, and not at all what it is today. In that way, I think it no longer has its original unique character. But that chain aside, I love coffeehouses and coffee too. I love the atmosphere, and of course, there’s the coffee…

  19. Kathy D.

    Oh, but do those of you who live in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland love tea? And what kind of biscuits do you serve to friends who drop by? This has come up when I see this in mysteries when people offer tea and biscuits to their company.
    And, as another point about people in India who are particular about their tea, a friend whose family is from Mumbai carries about teabags of Assam tea and always fills me in on the best tea. And I have to write this down!

  20. Kathy D.

    But I want that biscuit information; it plagues me. I want to get exactly the right kind for guests — and for myself — to go with tea.

    • If you find out, Kathy, I hope you’ll share it with us.

      • Kathy, I think we like biscuits (cookies) with our tea because there is a feeling that we are having a break, we are going to sit and either relax quietly or chat with a friend. So there is a tradition of serving biscuits, and so one would automatically do that for the policeman. And there is another tradition, which is that you ‘dunk’ your biscuit into the tea, and then eat the dunked bit quickly – before it disintegrates.
        Traditionally (because of the dunking) this would be a plain biscuit – a common one would be a digestive, which is the same as a US Graham cracker, but ALWAYS circular in shape, about 3″ across. But nowadays people will often prefer a more luxurious chocolate biscuit, and a very popular one would be a chocolate digestive: the above biscuit, half-coated with chocolate. Very popular amongst students in my day – when deciding whose room to go to for tea or coffee, someone would say ‘come to me, I’ve got chocolate digestives’. And as you’ll gather from that, coffee is just as likely as tea, and we have biscuits with coffee too. And there are plenty of other kinds of biscuits/cookies which would go with the hot drink too. Don’t even start me on the upstart addition to the menu called HobNobs …

  21. Pingback: Living in a New World* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  22. Kathy D.

    Yes, I surely will. i may even ask my British neighbor who looks for the best tea.

  23. Kathy, I think the think about biscuits with tea is that drinking tannins on an empty stomach can make some people nauseous; the carbohydrates in biscuits counteract this. I don’t think the variety of biscuit matters, so long as it’s laced with gluten, saturated fats and sugar 😉

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