Book Review: Fresh Brewed Murder by Emmeline Duncan

A killer is brewing up a world of trouble in this trendy new cozy mystery set in the happening coffee scene of Portland, Oregon.

Coffee-lovers, this book is for you. Fresh Brewed Coffee is set in Portland, Oregon, ground zero for coffee aficionados. Twenty-seven-year-old Sage Caplin loves coffee like “Bubba” Blue loves shrimp in Forrest Gump. Sage is knowledgeable beyond her years in the vagaries and mysteries of coffee beans, coffee drinks (hot and cold), and coffee cocktails.

Sage and her partner Harley are the brains and brewers behind Ground Rules, their new coffee cart. Thanks to Sage’s undisclosed relationship with her entrepreneurial Uncle Jimmy, they have a coveted spot in a new food truck pod. Unlike the other food trucks, Sage has her own water supply. Her hours are grueling—6:00 am to 2:00 pm, five days a week. The rest of her time is taken up with developing new beans and flavors and finding wholesale outlets for her roasted beans. 

Across the street from the food truck lot, a new high-rise building is being built. Unlike a considerable portion of new construction in Portland, the owners haven’t included a set-aside for lower-income tenants. For that reason (and perhaps just a dislike of gentrification in general), demonstrators are out in force. Sage looks on the bright side: the construction workers and demonstrators are potential patrons of Ground Rules.  

Rise and shine: it’s 6:00 am and Ground Rules is ready for its first customers. They’re friendly and appreciative. That is until Sage spots an older gentleman staring at her.

I analyzed him as he walked up. Stern face like he was angry or permanently unhappy. Hooded eyes. Even features. Button-down shirt, neatly ironed, tucked precisely into designer jeans, but finished with work boots. He’d be handsome if he smiled. I tried a cold reading on him. “You know, I bet you’ve faced some major problems in your life, but you’ve always found a way to overcome them.”


His expression didn’t waver. “Black coffee to go.”

You can’t win ‘em all. Sage is surprised when “stern guy” shows up the next day. She rationalizes that as a professional, she doesn’t need every customer to like her. When she arrives the next morning, she finds the main entrance to the Rail Yard ajar and the gate unlocked, which is not how Zarek, another cart owner, left things last night. Things get worse once Sage passes through the gates.

The overly serious man with the hooded eyes and perpetual scowl was sprawled out on the ground.


His days of ordering coffee were over.

The dead man inside the gates of the food truck pod is David Stevens, a real-estate developer who had a rivalry with Sage’s wheeler-dealer Uncle Jimmy. More uncomfortably, the box cutter Sage borrowed from a fellow food pod entrepreneur is discovered to be the murder weapon. Oh no, it’s only her third day in business. Sage’s dad is a Portland police detective so she knows a police investigation will negatively affect her operation. Sage’s fey instincts, honed at her grifter mother’s knee, warned her on opening day that her path to success would not be easy.

I’d always wanted to help people, put positive energy back into the world, and in a small way my new business could brighten everyone’s day. I saw Ground Rules as my future, but it was the first pebble in a rockslide, causing my past to come crashing into my present.

Saffron Jones, Sage’s criminal grifter mother, is trying to inveigle her way back into her daughter’s life. It’s eerie, considering her mother abandoned her when Sage was thirteen. Coincidentally, Saffron scammed David Stevens in the past—no wonder the police think Sage is a suspect. 

The investigation plays out while Harley and Sage focus on making Ground Rules a success. A restaurateur asks them to develop a special coffee menu for his new place. It’s quite an opportunity, as Harley tells Sage.

“Is he interested in carrying our beans?”


“More than that. Tanner’s café will be open from breakfast through dinner, and he wants us to come up with a specialty coffee-drink menu, both cocktails and nonalcoholic. Plus he wants us to train his staff on how to make coffee properly. He’ll buy our beans, of course.


“At least we’ll know they’ll do justice to our coffee if we train them.” Ideas started firing through my brain. We needed to find out what kind of food Tanner was planning to offer so we could pair our drinks with his menu.

The Ground Rules gals develop some amazing beverages and fortunately for us, Emmeline Duncan shares some fabulous recipes, like “Sage Coffee Soda.” It’s a fresh take on the cozy mystery genre.

Emmeline Duncan lives in Portland and the “keep Portland weird” vibe infuses her first Ground Rules mystery. Sometimes storylines impacted by homelessness, food insecurity, and gentrification can feel a little bleak, but Duncan weaves in hopeful and practical notes. For example, Sage sets up a pay-it-forward campaign, encouraging customers to pay in advance for a cup of coffee or pastry to be given to someone who is down on their luck—a signal boost for real-life Suspended Coffees

Sage Caplin is wise beyond her years thanks to her troubled early childhood. Her deep love and knowledge of Portland, as well as her motley crew of relatives and friends—encompassing bar owners, lawyers, street-wise social workers, and a grifter mother—will undoubtedly populate future storylines. I foresee many enjoyable Ground Rules mysteries to come. This is a great debut!

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