Friday, November 6, 2009

Questions and Answers with Cleo Coyle - Part 2

*Editor's Note: Welcome today to Part 2 of our Q&A with Cleo Coyle, whose Coffeehouse Mysteries and Haunted Bookshop Mysteries (written as Alice Kimberly) are enormous successes with lovers of Cozy Murder Mysteries. Cleo Coyle, by the way, is Alice Alfonsi who collaborates with her husband, Marc Cerasini. So, read and enjoy these answers from a respected veteran in the murder mystery field.


Now for the Q&A - Part 2:

Question: The Haunted Bookshop mystery series has the ghost of a hardboiled-type PI as one of its central characters. Do you read the older “hardboiled” private detective books to get the flavor?

CLEO/ALICE: Not just to get the flavor. I honestly enjoy reading Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane as well as those old pulp stories from Black Mask magazine. The noir films of the 1940’s and 50’s are a joy to watch, as well. They not only set the scene, they nourish me as a writer. With so many of today’s filmmakers preoccupied with big, epic tales that require green screens for emotional impact, I find it immensely inspiring to go back to a time when the screenwriter was forced to rely solely on story, dialog, and character choices to hold and "wow" an audience.

Question: I love your culinary mysteries and enjoy the information on coffee buying, roasting, grinding, and brewing. I also like that your website is rich with recipes and giveaways, too. Do you find that revealing the culinary side of your character helps to tell Clare’s story, or are the recipes and tips just a nice little added bonus?

CLEO/ALICE: First of all, thank you for the nice words about my mysteries and website—much appreciated! My amateur sleuth, Clare Cosi, makes her living as a professional barista. She’s also a former food writer for a local paper and has a daughter in culinary school. Given Clare’s intense passion for her lifelong occupation, I view the culinary and coffee information in her Coffeehouse Mysteries as an expression of her voice and character—much the same way mystery writer Dick Francis uses information about the world of horse racing as an “added bonus” for those interested in that particular theme and subject, or thriller writer Tom Clancy uses technical information about advanced weaponry as an “added bonus” for those interested in military tech.

I also enjoy using coffee to evoke setting and employ metaphors, although that idea is nothing new. David Lynch uses coffee and coffee drinking to make visual metaphors in his screen and television writing. Director Ridley Scott also did this in his film American Gangster. Nora Ephron uses food talk to great literary effect in her roman a clef Heartburn—and, yes, her witty, insightful novel about a cookbook writer also includes recipes. One of my favorite films in recent years, Sideways, is a superb movie that uses the minutia of wine making and tasting to explore the sweet and sour sides of modern relationships. I can only hope that my books follow the lead of these accomplished storytellers, who are also inspirations.

Likewise, I view the “extras” at the end of the Coffeehouse Mysteries (recipes, tips, and researched culinary information) as an extension of Clare’s fictional world. I created my official author website with the same concept in mind: is designed and run as a "virtual" Village Blend coffeehouse.

Some critics have questioned the addition of recipes in culinary-themed books, but it seems quite natural to me (and fun for the reader). After all, fantasy authors have long included maps and genealogies in their front and back matter to cleverly broaden their own fictional worlds. I would liken the recipes in the back of every Coffeehouse Mystery to the appendix in a fantasy author’s work: e.g. a map to the Netherworld of Granthea; blueprints to OutLand's Royal Airship; or a chart showing the extended clan of the warlord Sjard Yarborj. (You get the picture!)

Hey, did you know the writer/director Gurinder Chadha includes an instructional cooking video on the DVD of her wonderful film Bend it Like Beckham? Ms. Chadha’s film tells the tale of a young woman who wants to play professional soccer but her family wants her to follow a traditional path—and this includes cooking traditional food. The "Who Wants to Cook Aloo Gobi?" segment is a joyful little extension of Ms. Chadha's fictional world, and I was delighted see that she included this extra on her DVD. The recipe is delicious, too, by the way! I can only hope my readers feel the same about my Coffeehouse Mystery extras.

Question: What is the hardest part – for you - of writing murder mystery novels? (i.e.: plotting, characterization, etc.) And what is the most difficult part of writing a continuing series?

CLEO/ALICE: There is nothing difficult about writing. I love story. I love writing. I have always loved it. It is my “bliss” as Joseph Campbell described bliss: i.e., when I begin the activity, I lose track of time. I look up from my work and I am astonished how many hours have passed since I started. The difficult part is the business side; the marketing and publicity, which is not unimportant in building a lifelong career.

Writing a continuing series is great fun. I can think of only positive after positive. I love the characters that I write with my husband; coming up with their next adventures; exploring their reactions and choices; contemplating their limits.

Question: I notice you refer to your books as 'light amateur sleuth' mysteries... do you prefer that to 'cozy murder mysteries'? If yes, why? (I know some authors worry that 'cozy' sounds a dismissive or encourages critics to not take them seriously as genre fiction; I read a PW article to that effect. Not sure where you stand on that.)

CLEO/ALICE:: There's an old saying: "You can call me anything, just don't call me late for dinner." That's how I feel about these labels people put on the stories writers tell. I think the various communities that gather around genres sometimes get tripped up by things that don't matter to the reading public. Over a century after Charles Dickens' death, I am still entertained, enlightened, and enlivened by his characters. Ditto for Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare. In the end, we are all food for worms and the true test of a story's worth is whether it connects with a new generation of readers. To put it another way: "You can call me anything. If my books are being read, it really doesn't matter."

Finally: For anyone who has his or her own questions for me, I am having an Author Chat for two weeks, starting December 16th at Joining Library Thing is free. Here is the link for the chat:

Great questions, Donna, thank you!

~ Cleo Coyle aka Alice Kimberly (Alice Alfonsi)

On the Web:

Join Cleo at her own website,

And join her at the Mystery Lovers Kitchen:


  1. From a reader's point of view, the recipes in the back of the book are an added bonus. The story is great on its own, the extras are just icing on the cake.
    When you read a series and really get into the character, you feel you know them (that's the whole point) and when they talk about preparing a certain recipe you wonder about that recipe.
    Is it real, what would it taste like, could I make it? Adding the recipes gives me the reader more of a connection to that character and makes me want to come back for more.

  2. Good point! I never really thought of the recipes as a way for the reader to connect with the protagonist. Excellent!

  3. I just went over to your coffee house website - could almost smell the coffee. Now I need to go make some.