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The mysterious minds of Murder 203, Part 3: Cleo Coyle (Q&A)

Today, Hartford Books Examiner counts down to Murder 203: Connecticut’s Mystery Festival with Cleo Coyle.

Cleo Coyle is a pseudonym for Alice Alfonsi and her husband, Marc Cerasini. Like their ten Coffeehouse Mystery titles, their five Haunted Bookshop novels are national bestselling works of amateur sleuth fiction for Penguin. When not haunting coffeehouses or hunting ghosts, Alice and Marc are NY Times bestselling media tie-in writers who have penned properties for Lucasfilm, NBC, Fox, Disney, Imagine, and MGM. Alice is a former journalist; Marc an author of military nonfiction and thrillers. They live and work in New York City. To find out more, visit their online coffeehouse at http://www.coffeehousemystery.com.


The most recent Coffeehouse Mystery, Murder by Mocha (Berkley Hardcover, $25.95), was released last August and quickly became both a bestseller and a ‘Best of the Year’ entrant on four reviewer’s lists.  Publishers Weekly praised the book as “a tasty espresso-dark tale of multigenerational crime and punishment lightened by the Blend’s frothy cast of lovable eccentrics? while RT Book Reviews noted, “This rich and entertaining mystery blends atmosphere, unforgettable characters, and a killer plot that will leave readers hooked until the very end…?

From the publisher:

A divorced, single mom in her forties, Clare Cosi is a coffee shop manager by day, an irrepressible snoop by night. When something is wrong, she considers it her mission in life to right it, and murder is as wrong as it gets.

Can coffee enhance your love life?Clare's Village Blend coffee beans are being used to create a new java love potion: a Mocha Magic Coffee that's laced with an herbal aphrodisiac. The product, expected to rake in millions, will be sold exclusively on Aphrodite's Village, one of the most popular online communities for women. But at the product's launch party, one of the website's editors is murdered. Clare is convinced someone wants control of the coffee's secret formula and is willing to kill to get it. Can she stir up evidence against this bitter killer? Or will she be next on the hit list?

Now, the dynamic duo of Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini take readers inside their mysterious writers’ mind…

1) What do you consider to be literary caffeine – the ingredients that give your readers that extra jolt of adrenaline?  

The primary juice for our readers is our cast of characters. They tell us our characters have come alive for them. Consequently, they care what happens to our cast from book to book. Other elements they’ve cited include the pleasure of trying to solve the puzzle of “whodunit,? the lively setting of New York City, and the intriguing backdrop of the coffee trade. What do they mean by that? Well, Dick Francis used the world of horse racing to frame his mysteries. We use the world of coffee. Readers tell us they enjoy learning about the quirky world of the coffee business and the people who inhabit it—from the coffee hunter who travels to far-flung lands where beans are farmed to the master roaster who selects the optimum roast and the barista who pulls their espresso shots.

How do you keep the elements fresh?

For any writer of a long-running series, that’s an excellent question. We’re eleven books in now, with Penguin set to release A Brew to a Kill in hardcover this August, and we’re as concerned as ever with surprising and entertaining our readers. So where do we go for fresh inspiration? We’re already there—New York City.

Almost everything in our daily lives serves up literary fuel (from weighty to absurd): the latest headlines; a ride on the subway; the ranting of a taxi driver. With every trip to a grocery store, the DMV, an emergency room, or police precinct, we find something new to share with readers. Our ongoing conversations with neighbors, cops, and firefighters inspire us, as well.

In Roast Mortem, for example, we were moved by a real incident that led to the needless deaths of two firefighters. From there, we developed the murder mystery and finally (for the lighter side of the book) the firehouse cooking aspect of the story.

Murder by Mocha came to us after touring a bean-to-bar chocolatier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For our upcoming release, A Brew to a Kill, a cup of Joe on Astor Place from the famous Mud Truck led to some wonderful brainstorming and a trip to New York’s annual Vendy Awards on Governors Island. A full-blown plot emerged from that research, and we hope our readers enjoy the ride.

2) Your web sites provide an interactive experience for visitors.  How important is this in developing/maintaining readers?  

Because we write about a fictional coffeehouse in New York’s Greenwich Village, we created a virtual coffeehouse online at www.CoffeeehouseMystery.com. This is not your typical author website. We designed it as an extension of our fictional world.

For aspiring authors out there, note that we did not launch this site with book one of the series. We launched it after several Coffeehouse Mysteries became national bestsellers, including three #1 Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestsellers. In other words, we already had an audience for our novels. We created the website to support that audience, interact with it, and grow it. The site did not create the reading audience, the books did.

How else do you solidify your relationship with readers?

By sharing our main character’s passions with our audience—coffee and cooking.

As an Italian-American woman, Clare Cosi grew up in the kitchen beside a grandmother who ran a popular neighborhood grocery/deli. Clare is also an art school drop out with a strong connection to her senses, which is why the sight, smell, taste, and texture of foods (and the sense memories of cooking) are important to her. As a result, they become an important aspect of our storytelling. Clare also lives in a city with a high degree of cultural diversity, and each of these cultures makes its own unique culinary contributions to her life—and our tales. We try to reflect Clare’s passion for cooking and her appreciation for New York’s diversity in the recipes and foodie blog posts we share with readers.

Some readers may wonder why an author of fiction would publish a recipe. The answer is simple. Like a hand-drawn map in a work of fantasy, a recipe in a culinary mystery is a way to help the book’s world come alive for its audience. A recipe can extend the story beyond the page. When published online, a recipe can facilitate an author’s interaction with his or her readers.

On that front, the digital age has provided amazing opportunities for authors. In our case, we enjoy sharing foodie posts with the worldwide Foodbuzz community; contributing recipes to New Jersey Family magazine (online and print); and participating in a group blog with other culinary mystery authors. (Drop by our website for more information and links at www.CoffeehouseMystery.com .)

Hey, who knows, in another ten years, Mark Zuckerberg may give us a Smell This button. In the meantime, we invite anyone reading this to follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/CleoCoyle and/or friend us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/CleoCoyle .

3) You also write the Haunted Bookshop Mysteries under the name Alice Kimberly.  How does writing about a bookshop owner allow you to reflect the ever-changing literary climate?  How have your personal experiences within the industry changed over the years?

For those unfamiliar with the Haunted Bookshop novels, these are light amateur sleuth mysteries with two main characters—one living and one dead. A prim Rhode Island widow runs a bookstore that happens to be haunted by the ghost of a hard-boiled P.I. from the 1940’s, an archetype right out of the Black Mask School. The “what if? goes something like: What if a young Miss Marple were to be haunted by the ghost of a Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe?

The changing world of publishing and bookselling has been reflected in the series from book #1 The Ghost and Mrs. McClure and will continue as we move forward. We’ve worn many hats in the worlds of journalism, writing, and book publishing and those years of experience have given us a story or two (and an opinion or two). We enjoy putting these to use in our Haunted Bookshop Mysteries. Sharing them here would eat up most of the Examiner’s server space. So we’ll have to leave it at this: Our answers to your questions can be found in our fiction.

4) ‘Cleo Coyle’ is a pseudonym.  Tell us a bit about the collaborative process...  What’s the key to a symbiotic (read: non-homicidal) relationship?

Many people have asked us how we write murder mysteries together without killing each other. Our answer (sans punch line)—long experience. We were both multi-published authors before we met, and we each hit New York Times bestseller lists with solo efforts before we started writing together. Consequently, both of us were more than passing familiar with the highs, lows, twists, turns, and hellacious snags that come with penning novel-length fiction.

Some say publishing is not a business, it’s a casino. Certainly writing as a profession is far from a sure thing, but then we were wed at The Little Church of the West in Las Vegas. What keeps us going is a fairly simple philosophy, one we hope all writers can share: Stay at the table. The dice will be nice to you eventually, but only if you keep throwing. Caffeine doesn't hurt, either.

5) What are your expectations of Murder 203 – and what do you hope that attendees will gain from the conference?

Although the changes in publishing over the last few years look quite dramatic, the 1980’s and 1990’s had their dramas, too. We’re sure the topic of print versus digital will be discussed along with “big six? contracts versus Amazon and others. In our experience, however, it still comes down to telling a story that connects with an audience.

We’re looking forward to conversing with our audience and anyone else curious about what we do or how and why we do it. If aspiring writers have questions, we’ll do our best to provide them with helpful answers, and we hope attendees come away from the conference inspired in some way—be it in their reading or their writing.


With thanks to Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini for their generous contribution of time and thought.


Coming tomorrow: An interview with Murder 203 participant Brad Parks.

Murder 203: Connecticut’s Mystery Festival will take place on April 14th and 15th in Easton, with seventeen mystery authors in attendance. The event fee is $75 (cash, check or Visa/Master Card/Discover) to be paid at the door, and includes panel discussions, book signings, writing tips from the pros, opportunities to mingle with fellow crime fiction enthusiasts, raffles/auctions and a Cocktails and Crime party. Other registration options include a Saturday day pass ($50), Cocktails & Crime only ($25) and a Sunday day pass ($25). Visit Murder 203’s official site to learn more.

, Hartford Books Examiner

John Valeri is a twenty-something aspiring writer who has been carrying on a lifelong love affair with books. He is proud to say that the (written) words do indeed get in the way. Contact John at OyeJohn52@aol.com.

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