Killer Nashville 2019: An excellent bunch of murderers

Killer Nashville 2019: An excellent bunch of murderers

He put the cord over my head. It scratched against my neck, heavier than I expected. My heart was beating too fast. The noise buffeted me, my vision a blur . . . 

Nope, I wasn’t strangled, but won the Silver Falchion award for THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA in the Short Story Collection/Anthology at the Killer Nashville mystery writer conference.  Competition included a story by R. L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series. 

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who received a lifetime achievement award, and David Morrell, creator of Rambo, were both in the audience.

Carmen with award


As thrilling as winning an award is, the real reason for attending the Killer Nashville conference is the ability to network with other authors. I like Killer Nashville because it is a relatively small setting, as writing conferences go, and there is time to have sidebar conversations–although never enough! 

Related post: Lessons from Killer Nashville 2018

With Mike Faricy, author of the Dev Haskell series

Amato and Baron Birtcher

With Baron Birtcher, who won 3 awards including Best Overall Novel for “Fistful of Rain”

Killer Nashville

R.G. Belsky, Carmen Amato, and conference founder Clay Stafford

Souvenirs for all

Killer Nashville is also a good place to get a dose of inspiration. Panel presentations are specific to the mystery and thriller genre. Conflict, characters, setting, red herrings. Finding out how other authors twist their plots or plan their characters is like a dose of new insights and fresh ideas.

It’s the proverbial shot in the arm.

My solo presentation “Inside the CIA” was delivered to a standing-room-only audience. Everyone stayed, despite the wonky projector that muddied my slideshow. I’ll be replaying it in a webinar for the Atlanta chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can sign up for the webinar here:

Andrea Amherst, who came all the way from Vienna, Austria (!) for the conference, joined me in leading a workshop on “How to Make Your Website Work for You.” We used this PDF checklist, which you can download here:

Observations and a suggestion

Last year, I came away from Killer Nashville with the feeling that a storm between trad and indie publishing had brewed under the surface, led by indie publishing champion Joe Konrath. He did not attend the 2019 conference, so the buzz was quieter, albeit still there.

Most of the authors still working on their first novel want a trad deal rather than “being forced” to strike out into the wilds of indie publishing. Yet almost all the authors I spoke to who were traditionally published had a nightmare story of publishers closing, editors bailing on them, contracts left in limbo, etc. Indie authors were making a decent income and liked the sense of control.

I expect this will continue to be an ongoing debate.

This year, I ran into more would-be authors who were still in various stages of completing a novel and wondering how to get it published. All seemed to be looking for a mentor. Beyond the actual writing process, they were looking for someone who could explain the publishing industry and how to market books. Maybe next year’s Killer Nashville could have a mentor program.



Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

New Release! RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7

New Release! RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7


RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7 is out now and on sale for Kindle for $0.99!

To promote the book, both PACIFIC REAPER and 43 MISSING are also on sale!

It’s a limited time event, so grab your copies now.


RUSSIAN MOJITO is a real crime fiction cocktail! Here’s a bit of the Amazon description:

Driven to the edge by her own secrets, can the first female police detective in Acapulco give Russia a dose of Mexican justice?

Survivor of a deadly cartel ambush, Detective Emilia Cruz returns to Acapulco to recover from the trauma. Before she can catch her breath, however, her penniless stepfather is kidnapped by a ruthless gang.

At the same time, a Russian guest is murdered by a cold-blooded killer in the luxury hotel managed by her boyfriend, Kurt Rucker.

As the kidnappers terrorize Emilia’s family, more Russians are killed in a gun battle that rocks Acapulco. Emilia discovers a strange connection between the triple homicide and fuel thieves robbing Mexico’s underground gas pipelines.

Still coping with the emotional fallout from the ambush and a secret that could end her police detective career, Emilia finds herself on a midnight stakeout, watching and waiting for the fuel thieves. But she’s really on a collision course with the killer . . . And his Russian boss.

To get a sample of the book, click here.


National Public Radio — “A thrilling series”
CrimeMasters of America — Poison Cup award, Outstanding Series 


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Writing a mystery: 3 essential questions

Writing a mystery: 3 essential questions

RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7, will be released on 6 June. It is undoubtedly the most complex mystery I’ve ever written.

Emilia’s whole future is on the line.

Mystery writing: the big start

Every Emilia Cruz novel has multiple plot lines. My sticky note outlines are color-coded by subplot and spread across the wall above my desk. It grows as the book evolves, like a weed watered with Miracle Gro. 

But before I can build that ever-evolving outline, I have to answer 3 essential questions:

  1. What personal aspect of Emilia’s life will be impacted?
  2. What uniquely Mexican cultural element will drive the crime?
  3. Where does Emilia end up emotionally?

Here’s how the 3 essential question exercise worked for RUSSIAN MOJITO:

1. What personal aspect of Emilia’s life will be impacted?

Detective Emilia Cruz

After the dramatic events in PACIFIC REAPER and 43 MISSING which basically destroyed Emilia’s personal relationships, in RUSSIAN MOJITO she needs to either rebuild or move on.

Emilia must decide what sort of relationship she wants with her mother, whom Emilia believes lied to her for years about the brother Emilia never knew. Emilia must also deal with the feeling that her life would have been much better if she’d been the child her mother gave away, instead of the brother who ruined all the advantages he was given.

And yes, Emilia must either salvage her affair with Kurt Rucker, the gringo manager of Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel, or finally let him go.

2. What uniquely Mexican cultural element will drive the crime?

Reuters Mexican fuel thieves

PIPELINE NO DIGGING: Warning sign at Pemex’s refinery in Salamanca, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

For some time, I’ve been tracking the phenomenon of fuel thieves in Mexico, called huachicoleros.

For most of us, living in tidy places were gas stations have credit card pumps and convenience marts, it is hard to imagine people driving through the night to the middle of nowhere to dig up a hidden gas pipeline, drill into the steel, insert a spigot, and fill cans with stolen gas to sell on the black market.

Think about the danger! Sparks from the tools used to drill through the steel. The dizzying fumes of gasoline drenching you as it gushes out of the tap. Wrangling heavy vats of gas and selling it by the gallon in some village square. The ever-present fear of fire and arrest.

It’s astounding that people are actually stealing gas out of underground pipelines but in Mexico, the problem has become big enough to close gas stations and have its own saint. Read Borderland Beat’s article about El Nino Huachicolero here. Read the Washington Post article on gas stations closing due to fuel theft here.

The danger is very real. For example, in January more than 80 people died when huachicoleros created a literal fountain of gas from a breached pipeline. Dozens of people rushed to fill containers. When the pipeline exploded, all those people were caught in a deadly fireball. Check out this stunning video from Euro News

3. Where does Emilia end up emotionally?

Again, after the cliffhanger endings of the previous two books, I wanted Emilia to get her life back on track.

RUSSIAN MOJITO has a  satisfying wrap, akin to HAT DANCE and DIABLO NIGHTS, yet also teases us with the next book in the series, NARCO NOIR.

Hey, what about the Russian angle?

Russian Mojito cover

What, there are Russians in this book? LOL Only kidding. 

Without giving away any spoilers, the Russians in RUSSIAN MOJITO insidiously find their way into every aspect of Emilia’s challenges. From her relationship with her mother, to what happens with Kurt, to multiple murders, to the huachicolero trade . . . well, you get the idea.

The cover hints at the type of cocktail the Russians bring to the party. Did I mention the cover is the 8th for the Emilia Cruz series by the talented Matt Chase?

Mark your calendars! 

23 May: Kindle pre-order

6 June: Kindle release

23 June: Paperback release

Need to catch up on Emilia’s adventures?

Get 43 MISSING on Amazon today!

 “A fast-paced procedural . . . a real page-turner [and] a very original plot.” — The Booklife Prize 

43 Missing by Carmen Amato


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

New Release! RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7

Countdown to RUSSIAN MOJITO: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7

Cue the drum roll!

RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7, will be available soon. Mark your calendar:

  • 23 May: Kindle pre-order
  • 6 June: Kindle release
  • 23 June: Paperback release


RUSSIAN MOJITO takes up where 43 MISSING left off. Emilia was the sole survivor of an attack on a extradition convoy taking cartel kingpin Diego Barrielos Luna from Mexico to the United States to stand trial. Barrielos Luna escaped, but not before promising Emilia that he’d be in touch.

Now back in Acapulco attempting to repair all her broken relationships, Emilia sees his shadow around every corner. But when her mother’s husband is kidnapped and a Russian journalist is murdered in the Palacio Real hotel managed by boyfriend Kurt Rucker, Emilia suddenly has other things on her mind.

Add a vicious attack on two more Russians and a touch of espionage gone wrong. Emilia is soon looking for answers in unusual places.

Her long-time partner Franco Silvio is a lieutenant now and the chief of detectives for the Acapulco police department. He’s busy navigating miles of red tape, union demands, and thieving baggage handlers at the airport. Is there a connection between the kidnapping, dead Russians, and airport thieves?

RUSSIAN MOJITO is the most complex Detective Emilia Cruz mystery yet. Relationships are at the heart of the novel. Some can still be salvaged, while others remain a mystery. Still more revolve around the shifting axis of mutual distrust and paranoia.

As always, my goal is to bring the reader shoulder-to-shoulder with Emilia, hearing her heart pound and helping her calculate the odds of survival.


The cover is another inspired illustration by Matt Chase. The cover is the 8th design the talented artist has created for the Detective Emilia Cruz series. His work can be seen in numerous national-level publications, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic.

The illustration is a hint at the first murder . . .

Cocktails, anyone?

Russian Mojito cover

Need to catch up?

If you need to catch up, check out 43 MISSING and the rest of the Detective Emilia Cruz books on Amazon. For other stores, check out my Books page.

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Mystery Ahead subscribers got to read selected chapters of RUSSIAN MOJITO that I didn’t share ANYWHERE else . . . were you one of them?

Don’t miss out, subscribe today!


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Two awards

Two awards

The first quarter of 2019 has been an exciting time. Two recognitions have come my way, for which I am both surprised and grateful.

CrimeMasters of America

The Detective Emilia Cruz series won the Poison Cup award from CrimeMasters. I was quite overwhelmed when the Poison Cup arrived in an enormous FedEx box and revealed itself to be an impressive trophy.

Cup winners included categories for standalone suspense, mystery series, true crime, and blogs. This is a peer-based award, which makes it doubly precious.

Hall of FAME

On 28 April, I’ll join 6 others as inductees into the Arts Hall of Fame of my hometown of Rome, NY. Every year, people who are from Rome or who have contributed to the arts life of the city, are inducted with a ceremony. There is a display of accomplishments for each inductee as well. Read the press release:

I’m working on the display right now, which will include book covers images, quotes from reviewers, and  an excerpt.


I’m coming up on my 7th anniversary of being a published author. It all started with THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, the book I wrote because I wanted to say something about Mexico’s rigid social structure.

Who expected awards!? I was thrilled if I sold a book each month.

To be honest, my goals have been small and fairly selfish:

  • Write books that aren’t the usual.
  • Challenge yourself to create puzzles and tangles that stretch your brain.
  • Meet fellow wordsmiths.
  • Catch moments of “flow” that leave you charged with adrenaline and feeling like you are growing your skills.

Thank you, CrimeMasters and the Arts Hall of Fame, for the honors.



My “Simplify” theme for 2019 led to some housekeeping and that in turn led to the discovery of a lost chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.


The novel was originally an 800 page (Not. Kidding.) all written from the point of view of the female protagonist, Luz de Maria Alba Mora. 500 of those pages were other characters explaining things to her that had happned while she wasn’t around.

Ultimately, after 8 years of editing, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY became a political thriller with a strong love interest in the style of Ken Follett’s books TRIPLE and THE KEY TO REBECCA. I always thought it would make a great movie, too.

Related: Read Chapters 1 and 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

One of the issues in the book is the slow transformation of Luz de Maria from a housemaid with big dreams to a woman unafraid to reach higher on the social ladder. The scene below ended up being surplus but I always liked the way she figured out the problem and gained confidence because of it.

The setup is that she has fallen in love with a man from Mexico’s highest social class–Eduardo “Eddo” Cortez Castillo–and he has asked her to marry him. Her answer is pending. They are in a luxury hotel and will attend a party later; Luz figures if she can survive the party it will help make up her mind.

The number 314 is symbolic; it was her number when waiting to be interviewed for a US work visa.

The lost chapter

“It’s a deal,” Eddo said and kissed her cheek. “Let’s seal it with some food. You order us up some breakfast while I take a quick shower.”

He disappeared into the bathroom. Luz went into the living room and realized she didn’t have a clue how to order room service. Her bravery popped like a bubble.

The hotel binder was on the table next to Eddo’s laptop. She scooped it up and flipped through the pages. It listed the times they served various foods but there weren’t any instructions. Luz tossed the book onto the loveseat and went over to the phone by the chair. Attached to the phone was a small card with a listing of hotel services. Reception-10, Concierge-11, Housekeeping-12, Taxis-13, Room Service-14. That couldn’t be right. No telephone number was only two digits. And every number in Mexico City started with 5.

He would just have to explain how this worked. Luz went into the bedroom and knocked on the bathroom door. The water was going. Eddo was singing Miguel Bosé’s Sólo Pienso en Ti. He didn’t hear her.

Luz sagged against the doorframe, torn between hopelessness and determination. Order us up some breakfast. She’d told herself she would let the despedida decide but maybe that had been a hollow promise. She could hardly marry Eddo if she couldn’t get food in his world.

Eddo started ringing out “Poco á poco” from the refrain. Luz shoved herself away from the doorway, thinking furiously. She went back into the living room, and hit ‘0’ on the telephone keypad. She would call the Telmex operator and ask if two digit telephone numbers were possible.

“Palacio Suites. How may I direct your call?”

“Is this still the hotel?” Luz blurted.

“Yes, señora. Were you trying to get an outside line?”

“I want to order breakfast,” Luz said.

“I’ll put you through to room service or you can dial 14 from your room phone.”

“Just ‘1’ and ‘4’? That’s not enough numbers.”

“That’s just when you’re inside the hotel, señora.” The operator paused. “Would you like me to put you through to Room Service now?”

“Yes, thank you,” Luz said.

There was a ring, then a woman’s voice. “Room Service. May I help you?”

Luz hiccupped in astonishment. It had really worked. “I’d like to order some breakfast,” she managed.

“Certainly. What is your room number, please?”

“Oh.” Luz had no idea. Who called to have food sent to their room and didn’t know what room they were in? It was good the person on the other end of the connection couldn’t see her face. “Hold please,” she said, just as Señora Vega had taught her. She looked around for a piece of paper with the room number on it but there was nothing. Even the card Eddo used to open the door, on the table with his car keys and cell phone, just had the name of the hotel on it. He was still singing in the bathroom as she flung open the door to the suite and looked outside.

Luz darted back to the phone as the door swung shut. “It’s 314,” she said breathlessly into the phone.

“Señor Cortez’s suite,” the woman verified. “El señor let us know you were coming, señora. I hope you are enjoying your stay with us.”

“Yes,” Luz said, taken aback. Did everyone in the hotel know that she was an unmarried woman sleeping with an unmarried man?

“What can we send up, señora?”


“You wished to order breakfast, señora?”

Madre de Dios, she hadn’t even thought of what food to eat. Luz smacked herself in the forehead with her hand, feeling rushed and idiotic and embarrassed. The hotel staff was going to think Eddo’s unmarried señora was dull-witted.

Luz snatched up the room service binder and flipped it open to the breakfast page. “Two omelets with mushrooms and cheese,” she decided swiftly, deliberately not looking at the prices. “A fruit plate.” Eddo always ate fruit. “And coffee.”

“For two?”


“Bacon or ham with the omelets?”

The choice paralyzed her for a second. Her mind jumped around, trying to remember the things she’d seen Eddo eat in San Miguel. He’d had both. Luz exhaled. “Ham.”

“Cream with the coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“And does el señor want his usual newspapers included with that?”

Luz closed her eyes. She had no idea what she was doing or how much this was all going to cost. “Yes.”

“It’ll be up to you in about 20 minutes.”

“Wait,” Luz gulped. Eddo liked spicy food. “Can you send some salsa roja with that?”

“Of course, señora.”

“Wait,” Luz said again. “Is it made fresh?”

“It’s made fresh daily right on the premises.”

“Thank you.” Luz hung up the phone and sank nerveless onto the loveseat. She dropped the binder and started giggling, on the edge of hysteria just for ordering some food.

Of course it wasn’t there yet. A waiter would bring the food on another little skirted trolley. An entirely new hurdle loomed as Luz realized she’d have to sign for the food, just like Eddo had done last night. And she’d have to give the waiter a tip. Nobody in Mexico performed a service without getting a propina.

Luz ran into the bedroom and pulled her purse out of the closet drawer. No doubt she had enough small bills in her wallet to give the waiter a tip. But the wallet was completely empty.

Luz dumped the contents of her purse onto the bed. Lipstick, compact, hairbrush, tissues, rosaries, cell phone, and the milky quartz stone fell out. She searched the empty purse, running her hand inside it, checking the zippered inside pocket, trying not to panic, sure that her money had to be somewhere. She opened the wallet again, frantically digging in the bill compartment, the coin purse, and in the slots for the credit cards she didn’t have. From the little slot she never used she pulled out the invalidated check for the first paintings she’d sold at el Jardin del Arte.

She sank down on the rumpled comforter, breakfast suddenly forgotten. As she unfolded the check, the humiliation and despair of that day in the bank rose up.

Chingate,” Luz said loudly.

“Did you say something?”

Luz jerked around to see Eddo coming out of the bathroom wearing a towel.

“I think I have water in my ear.” He rubbed his head then indicated the check in her hand. “What’s that?”

“Nothing.” Luz crumpled up the check. “Trash out of my wallet.”

Eddo moved over to the closet. He took out clean briefs and put them on, then walked back into the bathroom to hang up the towel. “Your clothes are still on the floor in here and mine aren’t,” he called smugly. “Just letting you know.”

“Oh!” Luz rushed into the bathroom, gave Eddo a big noisy kiss on the mouth, then pushed him back into the bedroom. “Put some pants on. Breakfast will be here any minute.”

She shut the bathroom door behind her. Her money and identity card were still in the right front pocket of her white jeans.

Luz tore the check into tiny bits and flushed it down the toilet. She had to pull the handle twice before every piece disappeared, swirling and gurgling down the bowl and into the sewer and far away.

Eddo was still buttoning his shirt in the bedroom as she signed the room service check. She had 50 pesos in her hand but didn’t need it. There was a line to write the propina. She mentally calculated ten percent.

Everything she’d ordered was there. Luz turned over the cups and poured them each some coffee.

“Omelets. Wonderful.” Eddo sat down next to her. “Thank you.”

Luz took the top off the condiment bowl. “Salsa roja?”

“Yes, please.” He beamed and spooned a large portion onto his plate. “Very nice. They usually just send up a little bit on the side.”

“Oh, yes,” Luz said airily. “I asked for them to send extra. And made sure it was fresh.”

She was quite sure it was the best breakfast ever.


The Ayotzinapa tragedy 4 years later

The Ayotzinapa tragedy 4 years later

My most recent book, 43 MISSING: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6, was inspired by the events of September 2014 when 43 students from a teacher’s college in the town of Ayotzinapa, near Acapulco in Mexico’s state of Guerrero, disappeared in the nearby town of Iguala. The book was a finalist for the Silver Falchion award for Best Procedural of 2017 from the Killer Nashville International Mystery Writer’s Conference.

43 MIssing
To mark the 4 year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa tragedy, I will donate $1.00 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for every review posted on the book’s Amazon site during September-October 2018.

In addition, the Kindle edition of the book will be on sale 21-30 September; just $0.99 for Kindle.

Four years ago this month, the crowd of students from Ayotzinapa were looking to commandeer buses to take them to an annual student rally in Mexico City which commemorates a deadly student-police clash there in 1968. The young men were probably loud and rowdy as they begged on the streets for tuition and gas money.

They found some buses and headed out of town, but the buses were attacked by local police. The students were seized. Some ran away and were hunted down. Very few escaped.

Forty-three of those students were never seen again.

Related: The real story behind 43 MISSING

Over the past four years, arrests have been made, so-called confessions obtained, and multiple motives have been offered. One of the most believable explanations is that the police were working with a regional drug gang. The students had unknowingly taken the buses used to transport drugs. 43 MISSING veers toward this answer, but takes it a step further.

Many now believe that the police handed the students to a notorious drug gang which killed all the young men, chopped up their bodies, burned the parts, then threw the remains into a remote gully.

Incidentally, the police chief of Iguala went into hiding and was arrested two years after the crime. He was found–where else–in Iguala.

As the countryside around Iguala was searched over and over for the bodies of the 43 students, over 200 unidentified bodies were found, relics of Mexico’s drug cartel violence. They did not belong to any of the 43 missing students.

The Ayotzinapa tragedy might not be the worst thing that has ever happened in Mexico. But as a writer and a mother I can’t let it go.

The uncertainty of being a parent and not knowing what happened to your child eats at my heart. I think about the horrible images going through the parents’ minds as information dribbles out about what might have happened. The dawning realization that their children died in pain and fear and that their bodies were brutally desecrated. Official blundering and obfustication to the point that little the government says about the tragedy is credible. For these parents, there is little recourse besides prayers, rallies, and protest marches. What influence does a poor rural family have when even the Organization of American States threw up its hands?

Researching the Ayotzinapa tragedy as I wrote 43 MISSING led me to the plight of other families dealing with a missing child. This fundraiser for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children aims to use the power of one small book to help.

Please write a short review of 43 MISSING. Remember, I will donate $1.00 for every review posted through 31 October. Let’s help find the missing.

I will be announcing the result to readers of Mystery Ahead newsletter on 11 November. If you would like to subscribe to Mystery Ahead, you can do so here:

10 Lessons from Killer Nashville

10 Lessons from Killer Nashville

The Killer Nashville International Writer’s Conference was the first of its kind I’ve ever attended.  I didn’t know quite what to expect but tried to put my best foot forward:

  • Served on 3 panels (Writing Spies and Espionage, Settings, Witness Reliability),
  • Was a conference sponsor, which put my name on the back of the awards dinner program and a copy of “The Beast” short story in every conference tote, and
  • Wore my lucky red dress on the first day.

At the 4-day event I connected with terrific authors I only knew from Facebook and email, including Mike Faricy (the Dev Haskell series), Jim Nesbitt (the Ed Earl Burch series), Kathryn Lane (the Nikki Garcia series), and Mike Pettit (the Jack Marsh series, the Max Simms series, etc.). I made new friends too, including Dale T. Phillips (the Zack Taylor series), Ross Carley (the Wolf Ruger series), and Margaret Mizushima (the Timber Creek K-9 mysteries).

Me and globetrotter Mike Faricy, author of the inimitable Dev Haskell series. Check out the lucky red dress.

Related: Straight Shooting with mystery author Mike Faricy

Sharing a laugh with Ed Earl Burch creator, Jim Nesbitt.

Related: Hard-core hard-boiled with Jim Nesbitt

The presentations given by experts on DNA, toxicology, and drug smuggling were outstanding. I now have a long list of terms to Google, like “volatiles” and “fracture match.” Guest speakers Jeffrey Deaver, Otto Penzler, J.A. Konrath, and Anne Perry all impressed with their experience and insights.

Major takeaways from Killer Nashville:

1. Consistent, high quality production is the name of the game. The best known authors in the mystery genre have 30 or more books to their name  . . . and a fierce work ethic.

2. Even the best need to be resilient and take the long view. Jeffrey Deaver gave a great talk at Killer Nashville in which the word “escape” figured large. Stories struggling to escape the imagination. Writers struggling to escape the ordinary. Or in Deaver’s case, he wrote to escape being a nerd. Deaver read us entries from journals in which he recorded his epic fails on the way to publishing success. From no one showing up for book signings to technical glitches that destroyed pages, he showed that no author is immune. His bottom line? Be resilient in the face of disasters and persistent when it comes to writing what you love.

3. The divide between traditional publishing and independent publishing was the ghost at the banquet. For many attendees, traditional publishing still represents “validation.” The opportunity to sit down with an agent was the main reason they were there. Yet all four of the agents on the dedicated panel agreed that it takes 3-5 years for an author to get signed and published. The tortoise-like speed of that route would seem to be a serious handicap on the road to a big backlist. See 1, above.

4. Every traditionally published author has a loss-of-control horror story. Publishers putting the wrong title on a printed book. Publishing contracts that buy book rights for the life of the author plus 70 years. Publishers that pay 6% royalty. Publishers running a marketing campaign that targets the wrong audience. Publishers closing down their mystery imprint in the middle of a contracted-for series, leaving the author unable to publish elsewhere. And so on.

5. Discoverability is the golden ticket. Best selling indie author Christopher Greyson spends $100k annually on Amazon advertising. J.A. Konrath has written dozens of short stories to build discoverabiity in addition to his horror thrillers and the Jack Daniels series. Ironically, when legendary mystery editor and publisher Otto Penzler was asked how to get included in one of his popular anthologies, he answered, “Get famous.”

6. An author’s “platform,” or online presence and ability to influence others, is today’s must-have accessory. For those yearning to go the traditional route, it is one of the first things an agent looks at. A platform (read good website)  is critical for an indie author to build an email list (with a newsletter like Mystery Ahead!)

Carmen Amato's Mystery Ahead

Should this be the new Mystery Ahead newsletter header? Wearing a red raincoat in this photo. Not to be confused with red dress.

7. Anne Perry gets it. The bestselling author of 85 books gave the keynote on the last day of the conference. According to Anne, the role of a writer is to show lives we will not live. This really resonated with me, especially in terms of writing about Mexico’s disappearances in 43 MISSING. Incidentally, her publishing contract stipulates 3 books per year, 2 of which are around 100,000 pages, and the other is a novella. See 1, above.

Related: The real story behind 43 MISSING

8. Literary reviews are only useful to an author for one reason—the promotional quote. According to Deaver, there are very few credible literary reviewers any more. Reviewers rarely put your work into context. They generally don’t compare it to works within a genre or even the author’s own body of work. So take reviews with a grain of salt and ignore the sour ones.

9. Physical book tours are not worth the time. According to Deaver, hardly anybody shows up and you are better off using the time to write another book. That being said, Greyson has ordered (and paid for) 8000 copies of his independently published bestseller to send to bookstores and I’ll bet some signings go along. Secondary lesson: What you are willing to do re discoverabiity directly relates to how “discovered” you are . . .

10. When a friend reads your work . . . From Linda Sands, author of the Cargo series: Men friends will look for themselves in the worst aspects of male characters, but women friends look for themselves in the best aspects of female characters.

One last thing . . . 43 MISSING, the 6th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, was a finalist in the Best Procedural category for the Silver Falchion award from Killer Nashville. It was a big thrill to hear my name and title read out at the awards banquet. The winner was FOREVER YOUNG by Henry Hack.

Heading to Killer Nashville

Heading to Killer Nashville

I’m heading to the Killer Nashville mystery writer’s conference, where 43 MISSING, the 6th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, is a finalist for the Silver Falchion award for Best Procedural. The award has multiple categories and many of the finalists are very well known authors so I’m amazed to be in such august company.

You can see all the finalists for all Silver Falchion categories here:

BTW, 43 MISSING is based on a true crime in rural Mexico, which nearly 4 years later is still unsolved. Does the word “Ayotzinapa” ring a bell?

43 MIssing

Related: The true story behind 43 MISSING

43 MISSING is also in contention for the conference’s Reader’s Choice award for Best Procedural, as is PACIFIC REAPER, Detective Emilia Cruz #5. I’ve been asking friends on Facebook to vote for PACIFIC REAPER.

I’m armed with new business cards, too!  This is the first time I’ve gone to a writer’s conference in my (so-far) 6-year-old writing career and I’m probably a bit too excited. No matter the outcome, I’m amazed and honored to have had both books recognized this way.

Maybe I’m on the right track after all . . .


Book review: Finland’s Maria Kallio police series

Book review: Finland’s Maria Kallio police series

Detective Maria Kallio is the first female police detective in the Violent Crime and Repeat Offender unit in Espoo, Finland. She is Finland's answer to Detective Emilia Cruz and I love her. SNOW WOMAN is the fourth book in the Maria Kallio 12-book crime fiction series...

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9 Mystery and Thriller Authors Tell All

9 Mystery and Thriller Authors Tell All

These 9 friends are all at the top of their game when it comes to fast-paced mystery and thrillers that veer toward the dark side.Check out their original interview link, and what they’ve been up to since appearing on this blog and/or in the Mystery Ahead...

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FYI: uses Amazon Affiliate links.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

More than 5 years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE and the other Arkady Renko novels were ground-breaking, taking us inside a crumbling Soviet Union and then a mafia-riddled Russia.

My book took the reader inside the real Mexico. How was it any different?

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters

The famous author didn’t care. Her sniff was audible.

“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters,” she said.And your main character is a maid. At least couldn’t you make her American?”

I made a gurgling sound.

“You know,” the author blithely went on. “A college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester. Something like that.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system. Sue and Tess were not part of that narrative.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2

Was she right?

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

Related post: How to Solve Hollywood’s Lack of Latino Roles

Trend or snub?

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

I don’t have any empirical evidence either way, as I update this in 2018. But in 2014 I wrote:

“If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.”

To play devil’s advocate, the lack of response to my queries is to be expected for most authors who try to break into traditional publishing. Some time later, an agent told me they couldn’t publish the first Detective Emilia Cruz because “I don’t know anyone who knows you.”

There are many more would-be authors knocking on agent and editor doors than there is interest in offering a contract to an unknown. But I think the message in that author’s suggestion to change the nationality of the main character speaks for itself.


Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

And this from the Literary Fiction Review: “The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato is a rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” 

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Read the first chapter of 43 MISSING

Read the first chapter of 43 MISSING

For most authors, the final draft of a mystery novel is markedly different than the first. In fact, the first chapter of 43 MISSING was rewritten a  dozen times. Nothing really clicked until the book was done. Then I went back and wrote it with a hint of premonition.


43 MISSING picks up a few weeks after the end of PACIFIC REAPER, but of course, you can read each Detective Emilia Cruz as a standalone novel.

Related: The true crime behind 43 MISSING

Here’s the very beginning. Click on the link at the bottom to read the whole first chapter right on this website.

Chapter 1

Ready, Emilia Cruz Encinos told herself. Absolutely ready.

Her fingers beat a nervous tattoo on the steering wheel as she waited for the heavy steel gate to roll aside. With a final groan of metal-on-metal, it locked into the open position. Emilia took her foot off the brake and the heavy Suburban lumbered past the high concrete wall surrounding the police station in central Acapulco.

The uniform assigned to the guard shack trotted to the driver’s window, forcing Emilia to stop and roll down her window. “Hey, Detective Cruz,” he said. “Haven’t seen you around lately. Been on vacation?”

“Sure,” Emilia lied. “What’s new?”

“Lieutenant Silvio’s kicking ass and taking names,” the uniform said, eyeing her with interest.

“Like nobody expected that,” Emilia heard herself say. His face was familiar but she didn’t know him well.

The uniformed officer gave an awkward laugh, slapped the Suburban’s white paint, and went back to his post.

It was very early and the parking lot behind the squat stucco building was mostly empty. Emilia tucked the Suburban into a space, killed the engine, and gulped air. Her heart was racing, which was ridiculous. She was a detective who knew how to do hard things, going back to work.

In more than 12 years, she’d only taken two breaks, both after being injured in the line of duty.

The first time she’d been shot.

This time was . . . worse.

Her eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. The uniform was watching her from the guard shack. With exaggerated gestures for his benefit, Emilia remade her ponytail, as if her hair was responsible for the delay in getting out of the car. Giving her hands something to do helped focus her breathing.

Emilia finally grabbed her shoulder bag from the passenger seat, and got out of the vehicle. In black jeans, loafers, denim jacket buttoned over her empty shoulder holster, and her detective badge on its lanyard around her neck, she could pretend it was just another day.

Because she was ready.

Emilia forced a tough strut into her walk as she crossed the parking lot and yanked open the rear door into the station.

Puentes, a young uniformed officer, was behind the holding cell desk. He gave a start when he saw her.

She shot him with her thumb and forefinger, the same as always.

“Detective Cruz,” Puentes said haltingly.

I’m not going to shoot you. Emilia smiled, although her face felt brittle and her heart still thumped uncomfortably fast. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“Good, good.” Puentes took a step away from the counter, putting more distance between them. “You?”

“Glad to be back.” Emilia felt his eyes follow her down the hall to the detectives squadroom. Puentes had seen her pull a gun on another cop. Emilia had been a fool to react to the garbage coming out of Detective Gomez’s mouth, but the fear on that pendejo’s face had been worth the mess that followed.

She pushed open the door and relaxed a fraction when she saw that the squadroom was empty.

The big space had been updated by the previous chief of detectives, Lieutenant Baez, but it looked even better than Emilia remembered. More organized. The walls were plastered with pictures and evidence cards from current investigations, but everything was aligned instead of the usual jumble of tacks and scribbles. The dozen metal desks each boasted two monitors. In the far corner, chairs upholstered in gray tweed ringed a sleek conference table. On the other side of the room, near the copier, a matching dark wood hutch held the coffee maker, a tray of clean mugs, and a built-in mini refrigerator.

 Madre de Dios. New computers? A refrigerator?

“Cruz.” Her former partner, Franco Silvio, filled the doorway to the lieutenant’s office. “Grab a cup of coffee. We can talk before the rest of the crew reports in.”

“Morning meeting still at 9:00 am?” Emilia asked breezily, like it was an ordinary Monday.

“Same as before,” Silvio said.

Emilia dropped her shoulder bag on her desk and got herself a cup of fresh coffee. Silvio must have just made it, knowing she was coming in early.

A good sign.      [Read the rest of 43 MISSING Chapter 1 here]

P.S. Love audio?


Don’t forget that the first four Detective Emilia Cruz novels are audiobooks, narrated by the amazing Johanna Parker! Click the image or find them on Audible here.


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

A Tale of Two  Murders, courtesy of the John Feit trial

A Tale of Two Murders, courtesy of the John Feit trial

A few days ago I got an email from Josh Gaynor, a producer for the CBS show 48 Hours. He had run across my short story “The Angler” about the 2007 murder of Father Richard Junius in Mexico City. Father Richard was the pastor of Saint Patrick’s Church when I was president of the parish council, although I’d left Mexico by the time of his death.

Gaynor and I ended up having a phone conversation surprising to both of us, although in different ways. Gaynor was following the Texas trial of John Feit, accused of murdering a woman in 1960. At the time, Feit and Father Richard were young priests assigned to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. The woman, Irene Garza, reportedly went to the church intending to speak with Father Richard but ended up speaking to Feit. More about the trial from the San Antonio Express-News:

Gaynor was trying to get a clear picture of who was who in 1960, but as I met Father Richard some 40 years later, I wasn’t much help. But I clearly surprised Gaynor when I pointed out that Irene Garza and Father Richard had died in similar fashion: tortured and strangled. Irene was raped while Father Richard’s 79-year-old naked and bound body was found with porn magazines.

Related post: How Father Richard Inspired the fictional church of Santa Clara

Father Richard’s death was first pronounced murder—which is what the head of his religious order and his family were immediately told—and then changed to death by sexual misadventure a few days later. The final verdict was greeted with massive street protests from his many faithful parishioners, protests from his Oblate missionary order, and complete disbelief from those who knew him like myself.

I told Gaynor about Father Richard’s missionary work in Mexico, his prison advocacy, and his popular radio show as well as his naiveté in dealing with criminals. While pastor at Saint Patrick’s he was defrauded by workmen as well as beaten and robbed of the collection money several times. His death in the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Mexico City, which suffered an arson attack the same night, came only days after he publicly called out the owners of a local bar for serving alcohol to minors.

Gaynor seemed shocked at the suggestion that the scene of Father Richard’s death was staged and potentially connected to the disagreement with the bar owners. “Why would anyone want to cover up a bar serving to minors?” he asked.

I tried to explain the complexities of Mexico’s drug war. Who owned the bar? Did they pay protection money and to whom? What business were they running out of the back room? Who else frequented that bar, i.e. influential gang members or minor government officials who got a kickback from the drug trade? Were the minors halcones, indispensable lookouts for drug gang transactions? The reasons not to have activity at the bar looked into were more than I could enumerate in a rushed phone call.

The next day, Gaynor emailed another question: Had I seen the police report on Father Richard’s death? I almost laughed.

The term “police report” is a much looser concept in Mexico than in the US. Not only are formal police reports a rarity—family members often have to pay for private detectives to investigate and compile reports—such reports are hardly available to the general public in a country without open trials or trials by jury. Victim advocacy is a relatively new concept.

Mexico’s drug war has seen as many as 90,000 dead or disappeared in less than a decade. Each death like Father Richard’s is a small but never-ending battle for truth and accountability.

Related: The real story behind 43 MISSING


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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