14 April 2018

On Coffee

by Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore
I turned the hot water on and got the coffee maker down off the shelf. I wet the rod and measured the stuff into the top and by that time the water was steaming. I filled the lower half of the dingus and set it on the flame, I set the upper part on top and gave it a twist so it would bind.
The coffee maker was almost ready to bubble. I turned the flame low and watched the water rise. It hung just a little at the bottom of the glass tube. I turned the flame up just enough to get it oer the hump and then turned it low again quickly. I stirred the coffee and covered it. I set my timer for three minutes. Very methodical guy, Marlowe. Nothing must interfere with his coffee technique. Not even a gun in the hand of a desperate character.
— Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Percolator, French press, drip or Keurig, from carts and convenience stores, artisanal shops and vending machines, coffee is the unsung hero of the crime novel. Black and bitter or hot and life-saving, it can sooth an anxious gunman, fix a hangover or keep you up long enough to solve that murder/heist/kidnapping that has plagued you for 200 pages. 

My own writing time starts with a coffee ritual. I wake up, usually around 6 a.m. (having set the alarm for 5:51 a.m., which gives me enough time to hit snooze once and snuggle with my husband and cat). I use a French press, a tip I picked up from the same college English professor who taught me about crime fiction (and who gave me the copy of The Long Goodbye that I re-read every year) and coarse-ground coffee, preferably from Fairway (I stock up at the store at 74th and Broadway). I will make due with other coffee, if I have to. I vary on the flavor; currently I’m using the traditional Fairway blend.

I heat the water in the red teakettle my husband and I bought when we first moved in together. Not quite to boiling; I listen until it just starts to rumble a little. While the water is doing its thing, I prep the French press. Two scoops, with about a quarter of a scoop extra. I don’t know why I do this. Luck, maybe.  A couple flicks of cinnamon too, just to help me wake up. Brain food.

While the coffee is brewing, I make my playlist. Can’t write without the playlist.

I used to take mine with Carnation evaporated milk when I was going through a weird 1950s housewife phase. Then I took it with half and half, but lately, I’ve been drinking it black, with raw sugar. 

I feel like you can tell a lot about a person by what kind of coffee mug they use. Is it personalized? Did it come from a special event, a concert, a vacation destination? Or is it plain, nondescript, something that came in a set of four from WalMart. Maybe it was stolen from a stakeout at a fancy hotel. I only have a handful of coffee mugs, all of them from special events – the 2016 Steely Dan tour, my beloved Beverly’s in Oklahoma City, a bookstore in Austin, Texas, where my Dad proudly bought copies of The Big Rewind for his co-workers. Guess he figured I already had a copy and bought me a mug instead.

When it’s ready, it’s ready, and I can finally sit down to write.

But maybe your detective drinks tea instead. Or yerba mate. Or energy drinks that make his heart feel like it’s going to explode all over his laptop. Whatever it is, make a ritual of it. Let her live fully in that moment, that ritual. Let it be a piece of his day, ahead of the robberies and the dead bodies, tap into a grand genre tradition. 

How do you make and take your coffee?


  1. Uh-oh! What about those of us who don't/can't drink coffee? Sure, I do self-medicate with kilos of caffeine (it 'cools the ADD brain'), but due to a down-country boyhood incident (featuring bumblebees, barns, and benadryl) I can't drink coffee. I can't even drink whiskey straight from the desk drawer bottle! There goes my macho image. It must mean I'm not worthy of Spade and Marlowe! Damn, even Velma can outdrink me!

    I like the double-entendre of the title, Libby.

  2. Coffee. Si, signora. A Mr. Coffee machine using Italian Roast coffee from World Market, alternating pots of dark roast coffee-and-chicory New Orleans blend. Or espresso using a Krups espresso machine. Coffee early and often. All of my recurring characters drink coffee-and-chicory. One lives near the Mississippi River warehouses that import coffee - the aroma rolling in from the river. Gotta have it.

  3. I've only started drinking coffee in the last few months--here at 50 years old, yikes! I basically make an Americano each afternoon these days for a quick burst of... something. (Tea in the morning; a longer standing routine there.) We have a bunch of mugs, but my favorite these days is one my wife got for me for Christmas a few years ago: a Masterpiece Mystery mug with Edward Gorey figures on it, three suspects and one detective.

  4. I'm a tea-drinker ever since the Great Coffee Freeze of 1972, when I couldn't afford it anymore. But tea-drinking is a ritual in and of itself. You have to get the water boiling, which gives you time to meditate and check any aches and pains, including the bruises from that last encounter with the suspect's goon squad. Then you pour it, and wait exactly five minutes (I like mine strong, thank you). More time to study the weather (we're in a blizzard RIGHT NOW - 12 inches by sunset), or whatever comes to mind. Then you can pour it and smell the first wonderful scent... And my mug is a hand-made salt-fired mug with a Japanese-style drawing of a galloping horse that I've been using for years...

  5. Coffee, thick and black. Not quite spoon-stands-up-in-it thick, but I boil what comes from the coffee maker for a couple of minutes. Then I let it cool a little so I don't burn my mouth, and down it gets gulped. I use a mug from the Seattle Bouchercon, dark blue. I have several of them. At least 2 cups in the morning, another late morning, at least one more mid-afternoon. Yum.

  6. French or Italian coffees -- in France or Italy.

  7. Used to have a Gevalia coffee machine but it never worked right. Husband, who can fix anything, couldn't fix that so we bought a Mr. Coffee. I make a pot at a time of store-brand coffee. I drink mine with a 1/2 packet of hot chocolate powder & a tablespoon of milk. He's diabetic so I give him Splenda.

    We basically live in each other's pockets, which I realize isn't healthy, but in spite of that we always drink out of our own mugs. His two are identical, designed by an old girlfriend. I have one that sez "Bo & Liz" with linked hearts, & another from Rutgers University when I gave a presentation there.

  8. I gave in to French press and regretted years of bad coffee. I drink Community Coffee Between Toast. In the summer I make a Louisiana cold brew. You soak a pound in 9 cups of water overnight and get rocket fuel that you dilute with water and milk. So smooth.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>