REVIEW: Holiday Grind

Note: This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's November mystery section.

Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle
Berkley, paperback reprint (November 2010)

Rating: 9 (Excellent) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10.)

For fans of: Diane Mott Davidson, Joanne Fluke

Village Blend manager and head barista Clare Cosi is in the holiday spirit. Christmas carols are playing, the Blend's decked out in red and green, and Clare and her employees are working on a new menu of Fa-la-la-la Lattes that are sure to bring lots of thirsty shoppers through the doors. But when Clare steps out for a walk in the snow and stumbles across the corpse of Traveling Santa (and Blend friend) Alf Glockner, her mood becomes a little less merry. The NYPD officer assigned to the case, Sergeant Emmanuel "General" Franco, dismisses Alf's death as a mugging-gone-wrong and seems more interested in hitting on Clare than in catching Alf's killer. Clare's positive Alf's death wasn't just a random act of street violence, though, and when Alf's daughter Vicki asks Clare for help in solving her father's murder, Clare can't say no. Can Clare unwrap the mystery surrounding the slain Santa without becoming a victim herself?

I admit, I don't usually like Christmas-themed mysteries; more often than not, they sacrifice plot and pacing for schmaltz and sentimentality. Author Cleo Coyle does go a little heavy on the cozy here, what with her Dickens references and her Salvation-Army-esque Traveling Santas. That does not, however, mean that Holiday Grind isn't worth your time; despite the tinsel, this is a cracking good mystery, chock full of murder, sex, blackmail, and intrigue. The book's got a strong narrative drive, an intricate storyline, and a great sense of atmosphere. And if when you're done, you don't emerge itching for a perfectly drawn espresso or a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain, there's a good chance you're dead inside.

If Coyle's writing has one fault, it's her minor characters. The Village Blend's baristas -- flamboyant actor-playwright Tucker, hip jazz musician Gardner, grad student and slam poetess Esther, and tattooed fine-arts painter Dante -- are little more than caricatures of people you'd expect to find in a Village coffeehouse. Traveling Santa and down-on-his-luck standup-comic-wannabe Alf Glockner is annoying even in death. And with his cowboy boots, Yankees jacket, and red, white, and blue do-rag, Sergeant Franco is patently ridiculous.

Her main characters more than make up for this flaw, though. Clare makes for a smart, plucky heroine, hunky NYPD Detective Mike Quinn is everything you could hope for in a series love interest, and the romance between the two throws off plenty of sparks. Clare's "family" -- reformed-bad-boy and ex-husband Matteo Allegro, sophisticated socialite and ex-mother-in-law Madame Allegro, and daughter Joy -- are also compelling characters, and are a big part of what makes Coyle's fictional world feel so lifelike.

Holiday Grind is the eighth installment in Cleo Coyle's Coffeehouse Mystery series. I'm an avid fan, having purchased and read every installment -- the last few in hardcover. Trust me when I tell you there's a reason Coyle's become a big name on the cozy scene. Her books don't disappoint. Do yourself a favor, and go out and buy one today.