Some 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.