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.


Itzel’s story, or how she came to be in a thriller

Itzel’s story, or how she came to be in a thriller

Many of the pivotal moments in my life have happened over a good meal.

One time, however, the meal wasn’t even cooked.

There was a thriving expatriate community in Mexico City when we lived there. Soon after arriving, I met Delia from South Carolina. Her husband worked for a cell service company and they had two boys, both younger than my kids. Delia and Bob ended up renting a house near ours in the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood. Delia and I both belonged to a small English-language writing group and the Newcomer’s Club.

Neither Delia nor I had ever hired domestic help when we lived in the United States but in Mexico it was somewhere between an obligation and a necessity. Domestic help was a big segment of the local economy. Salaries were low compared to the US. Houses were huge and pollution left a fine black ash on everything. Everyone had at least a maid and a gardener.

Related post: Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

Expatriates had a lively underground network when it came to hiring. We heard which maids were looking for a post because their family had moved back to the US, who was lazy, who ran around, which placement services were reliable, and so on.

Delia hired a full time maid through a placement agency. Shortly thereafter, she invited us to a dinner party.

After drinks in the dining room, we four couples sat in the dining room set with Delia’s antique silver and crystal. Itzel, the new maid was very young and her navy blue uniform hung on her thin frame. She served the appetizer on individual plates and darted back into the kitchen through the swinging door. Later, she collected the empty plates and again disappeared into the kitchen.

We chatted while we waited for the main course.

And waited.

And waited.

Delia finally excused herself and went into the kitchen.

A minute later she asked me to come into the kitchen, too.

I found Itzel sobbing. Delia, whose Spanish was still at the beginner level, had no idea why there was no dinner.

The mystery was soon cleared up. Itzel had seasoned the fish as instructed, turned on the oven, and put in the pan.. But the fish didn’t cook. She fiddled with the scary knobs on the scary range, but 45 minutes later, the fish was still raw.

I’d seen this problem before. The young woman had put the fish into the storage drawer at the bottom of the range, not into the actual oven.

We quickly fried the fish in butter on the stove. Dinner was saved.

Later, I talked to Itzel. She was 16 and this was her first job as a muchacha planta, a live-in housemaid. It was also the first time she’d lived in a house with a stove, an oven, and a flush toilet. She was overwhelmed by the size of the house, all the different things she was expected to know, and the challenge of communicating with a family still learning Spanish.

But she was earning good money and got every other weekend off, when she went home to Veracruz.

Itzel unwittingly provided me with the outline of a character. Over the next few months, I colored in that outline until I had Luz de Maria, the woman who would anchor THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.



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

Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

I’ve always liked to be in the water, but by no stretch of the imagination can I call myself a strong swimmer.

I didn’t take swimming lessons until I was in 5th grade, when I learned to do a passable crawl and a backstroke that always sent me into the next lane over. Years later, I got my scuba certification and travelled the Pacific with my gear in tow.

My husband is a swimmer, too. He competed on his high school swim team and still likes to swim laps to keep fit. Our best vacations have been on the shores of Adirondack lakes.

We lived in Mexico when our kids were ready to learn to swim. The American school had an enormous pool used for regional competitions, with football stadium-style bleachers running along one side of the modern pool house.

Lessons were held after school when a legion of mothers, maids, and chauffeurs invaded the locker rooms to get the elementary students ready. The mothers wore stiletto heels, skinny pants, and pounds of jewelry, along with the obligatory sleek ponytail. Maids were limited to navy, black, or gray dresses with white cotton trim. A few pinks stood out, indication of a dedicated nanny. Chauffeurs always wore suits and ties.

Once the children were chivvied to the pool, mothers, maids, and chauffeurs took to the stands, although not together. The mothers sat in a tight clique on the lower benches, with their employees scattered above. Most maids used the time to do the children’s homework.

The swim coach was a handsome young man who strode up and down the pool deck in sweatpants and a coral necklace. The rumor was that he was a former Olympic athlete.

He never got in the pool, but merely called out instruction to the flailing kids. No one seemed to care. I got the feeling, as he preened around the pool, that being a swim coach wasn’t his only source of income.

After the lesson, the locker rooms filled again. Most of the children left the school grounds in pajamas and bathrobe, some carried across campus to the cars by the chauffeur.

My kids survived having neither maid nor chauffeur and figured out the swimming process on their own. My son was a lifeguard through high school. My daughter got her scuba certification when she was 14.

But the Mexican swim coach lives on in fiction. He anchored a memorable moment in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY:

Hector took Luz to the Colegio Americano for Victoria’s swimming lesson. Luz met the little girl at the school’s aquatic facility, got her suited up, then carried Victoria’s towel and backpack to the bleachers.

The little girl scampered over to her class. The swimming teacher was Coach Carlos, a muscular young man who taught the children by walking along the edge of the pool in tight warm-up pants and no shirt, flexing his biceps. Most of the mothers sitting in the bleachers during swim lessons couldn’t keep their eyes off him. There were far more maids than mother in the bleachers, however, all staring at the Coach Carlos show. Luz usually looked, too, although he was cocky and arrogant and way out of her league.

Coach Carlos said something to Victoria. He lifted her into the water, the muscles in his back rippling as he bent. He probably has lots of parent-teacher conferences, Luz thought. She pulled her eyes away and opened Victoria’s backpack. English homework again.

When the lesson was over Victoria ran back to Luz to be dried off. They went into the locker room and Luz dressed Victoria in pajamas and robe for the ride home and an early bedtime.

They were walking toward the front gate of the school, where Hector waited with the Suburban, when Luz heard the click of high heels on pavement. A hand tapped her on the shoulder.

It was Señora Portillo, with her son whining next to her and the Portillo’s chauffeur walking behind with the boy’s backpack and swim bag. Señora Vega and Señora Portillo were friends, part of a circle of beautiful coffee-drinking women who met regularly at the upscale Café O on Monte Libano in Lomas Virreyes.

“Luz de Maria, are you free to work for me the Saturday after next?” Señora Portillo asked. “I need some extra hands for Enrique’s birthday party and Selena said you can sometimes be helpful.”

“Saturday after next?” Luz verified.


Luz was off again that weekend. If she worked for Señora Portillo on Saturday it meant she could not go home. But it also meant another 200 pesos and that was a real windfall so Luz said yes.

“Alberto can pick you up.” Señora Portillo indicated the chauffeur. She extended a piece of paper to Luz with the date, time, and address on it. Her attention immediately refocused on a high-heeled mother strolling by who was obviously a friend.

The chauffeur nodded at Luz as his employer chattered to her friend. He was a blunt-faced tank of a man poured into a sharkskin suit. Almost certainly a former boxer. “I am Alberto Gonzalez Ruiz,” he said.

He spoke formally, but his diction was sloppy. Luz had the sudden silly thought that he probably had gotten hit in the head a lot during his boxing career.

She gave him a weak half-smile.

“I shall be pleased to see you that day,” he said meaningfully. Señora Portillo ended her other conversation and Gonzalez Ruiz followed her out of the school gate.

Luz watched him go, her mouth dry. Chauffeurs made lots of money. Lots.

“Rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” — Literary Fiction Review



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

El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

Everybody has heard of Don Quixote. The image of the fictional tilter-at-windmills is everywhere in Mexico, which has long adopted Spanish literature and legends as its own. But when I went looking for the literary hero for my fictional Mexican hero in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, I needed someone more, ahem, successful than Don Quixote.

El Cid movie posterMovie star

El Cid was a character I’d seen mentioned by Mexican authors. With little more context than the Charleton Heston movie, I assumed he was a fictional creation like Don Quixote.

But I was wrong. It only took a little digging to find El Cantar de Mio Cid, or The Poem of the Cid, the only surviving epic poem from medieval Spain. The poem, similar in form to The Song of Roland, recounts the adventures of the real Spanish warlord and nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. He was called El Cid Campeador, a title that reflected the esteem in which he was held by both the Moors and the Spanish. “El cid” was derived from the Moorish al-sidi, meaning sir or lord, while “campeador” means champion in Spanish.

El Cantar de Mio Cid is a dramatic retelling of daring deeds with a heroic figure, facing down enemies with courage and his sword. A continued refrain in the poem is that El Cid, with zest for the fight, was born in a fortunate time.

Historic figure

El Cid had already made a name for himself fighting the Moors for King Ferdinand when the king died. The lands Ferdinand had ruled were divided among his five children. They immediately started fighting each other. Sancho, the son who’d inherited Castile, named El Cid commander of his armies. When Sancho was assassinated, his brother King Alfonso was the chief suspect. El Cid made Alfonso publicly proclaim his innocence. Angered, Alfonso forced El Cid into exile alone, in effect holding his daughters and beloved wife Jimena hostage.

On his warhorse Babieca and brandishing his sword Tizona, El Cid became a mercenary, mainly fighting the Moors but not being too fussy in his choice of employer. Eventually he managed to squeeze Alfonso into relenting on the exile and was reunited with his family. Aligned once again with Alfonso, El Cid conquered Valencia where he and Jimena ruled in Alfonso’s name until El Cid died in 1099. His daughters became queens of Aragon and Navarre. His sword is preserved in Spain’s Museum of the Army.

Role model

El Cantar de Mio Cid is as much about leadership as anything else. Surprising for his time, El Cid often “took counsel,” asked his men for input, and actually listened to their advice. As a result, his men were fiercely loyal to him; 115 knights spurned King Alfonso, went into exile with El Cid, and fought by his side as mercenaries.

This was the perfect role model I’d been looking for as my fiction hero, Eduardo Cortez Castillo, leads a brotherhood of cops sworn to be incorruptible. In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, “Los Hierros,” the Iron Ones, will take on not just police corruption but a scheme to allow Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel to buy political power through the Mexican presidential elections.

El Cid’s relationship with his beloved wife Jimena gave the role model an extra dimension. Like El Cid, Eduardo falls in love, although with a woman who by the unspoken laws of Mexico’s rigid class structure, cannot stand by his side. Yet Eduardo tells Luz de Maria about his role model and references to El Cid become a secret code between the two lovers.

I hope you check out THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and find the clues to El Cid.

But most of all, may you, like El Cid, live in a fortunate time.


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

The Great Madonna Mistake

The Great Madonna Mistake

It took me five years to realize the mistake. The Madonna mistake.

In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, Luz de Maria is a maid in Mexico City who returns home to the small town of Soledad de Doblado after losing her job. There she sees a news report that leads her to believe the upper class man with whom she had a brief—but emotionally charged encounter—is dead. Blind with anger over the loss, she destroys the family’s shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. To make amends she paints a Madonna and Child for her family; an unintended self-portrait that becomes a small but pivotal plot element. (Sorry, no spoilers)

Related: The Hidden Light of Mexico City dreamcast and Chapters 1-2

Here’s the description of what she painted:

“Luz had sketched the third Madonna furiously one night after having the dream about Eddo again. The colors were cool grays and blues. El Greco colors, she thought and closed her eyes tiredly. That one was easy to name. La Virgen de las Lágrimas. Madonna of the Tears . . .

“In the painting, Mary wore a sheer rebozo shawl over straight dark hair. Her head was tilted to one side. Under the rebozo, Luz’s face gazed at the child in her arms, looking as if there was no happiness left in the world.”

As I wrote, in my mind’s eye I could see the painting.

The woman. The child. Her expression. Her cloak.

Everything except Mary’s halo.

When I realized that I’d never described the halo of Luz’s painting, I started looking at Madonna pictures. Mary’s halo is variously depicted as a circle of stars, a bright light shining behind Her head, a gold crown, a simple gold circlet, etc, etc.

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child portrait hanging in vestibule of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Vienna, VA

Virgin of Guadalupe

The famous Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, always shows Mary with a full body halo that resembles a gold shell.

My favorite Madonna hangs in my dining room. She is dressed as medieval Spanish royalty and wears a hat. Tiny gold flecks on it suggest a halo. The painting is from Peru but I bought it in Mexico.

Carmen Amato's Virgin from Peru

My Madonna from Peru, in Spanish dress

Although omitting mention of a halo might have been oversight, I’d like to think that in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, there is a reason why Luz’s Madonna does not have a halo.

It is a self-portrait of a woman who is simply very human.

Like all of us.



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

How to write a political thriller

How to write a political thriller

One of the most often-asked questions for a mystery and thriller author is “Where does your inspiration come from?” Political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY had quite the auspicious beginning . . .

Fateful dinner party

We were invited to a dinner party at the home of another expatriate family in Mexico City. I’d met the mom, Amanda, at a school function. Amanda was a writer and we both participated in an English-speaking writer’s group. Her boys were close enough in age to my kids for them to play together.

A dozen guests sipped cocktails on the patio, then went into a dining room glowing with fine crystal and china. A lovely gazpacho started the meal, prepared and served by the family’s new maid. Itzel was about 18, wearing a stiffly starched uniform and a nervous smile.

We waited quite a long time after the soup for the main course. Amanda excused herself and went into the kitchen. A few minutes later she asked me to come with her.

The main course was fish but it was still raw. Amanda looked close to tears as she contemplated the ruin of her dinner party. She didn’t understand Itzel’s frantic explanation.

But I did. Itzel had turned on the heat and put the pan of fish in the broiler. Nothing had happened, she wailed, and began to cry.

I nearly laughed. She’d put the fish into the storage drawer under the oven, thinking it was the broiler.

We found a frying pan and some butter. Ten minutes later the guests were eating trout almondine while Itzel recovered in the kitchen.

Itzel and I talked after that. This was her first job as a maid. Itzel was from a small town near Veracruz and had never lived with electric appliances, air conditioning, or flush toilets. The young girl went home every other weekend and supported her mother and siblings.

Itzel’s story became that of Luz de Maria Alba Mora, the central female character in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. I left out the part about the oven, however.

Gotta save something for the next book.

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

Inspiring reads

Itzel’s story was only one source of inspiration. Two books also guided the narrative.

Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA has always been a favorite, for its characterizations, pacing, and points of view. I wanted HIDDEN LIGHT to have that same sense of developing danger–whether from the drug cartels or Luz’s risks–and for readers to have the same insight into the hero as the villain. Set against the backdrop of WWII and the British campaign in north Africa, it is probably the best thriller I’ve ever read.

The other book which provided inspiration was THE EAGLE’S THRONE by Carlos Fuentes. In this novel, Mexico’s power players are forced to conduct their political intrigues via letters. The result is a tribute to cunning craftsmanship. But more importantly, from my optic, the book perfectly captured the tone of Mexico’s politics. I wanted to portray the same sense of mistrust, intrigue, and constant one-upmanship.

Musical Interlude

Many authors talk about music they play as they write. I like silence–my head is always crowded with dialogue so things are noisy enough as they are. But I like to match music with characters.

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass was one of the first Latino music superstars. The Lonely Bull is one of my favorite albums. If HIDDEN LIGHT is ever made into a movie, that title song will be the theme of the main male character Eduardo Cortez Castillo.

Putting it All Together

Pinterest is where all my inspiration for THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY comes together. There’s a board called “Inspiration for a Thriller,” with tons of pictures and videos that reflect the book and the elements that inspired it. If you’re on Pinterest, please follow along!


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

From Panama to Mexico and back again

From Panama to Mexico and back again

Every thriller needs the big climax, right? But suspense needs to be built with action scenes that intrigue us.

The mystery setting

Remember how in THE KEY TO REBECCA, there’s the big climax in the desert as the spy, Wolff, tries to get the radio he’s left with the Bedouins so he can transmit the stolen plans for D-Day? Author Ken Follett had already shown us the desert–we already knew its dangers and difficulties–in his careful build-up to the finale.

In the same manner, political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY takes us to the ocean at night. On the edge of a city called Panama, there’s a marina full of boats promising an instant getaway. Rain falls from an ashen sky and water swirls around the dock. It’s a build-up to the cartel jefe and the storm and the yacht and . . .

Er, well, sorry.

No spoiler today, just an explanation how a yacht came to feature in a thriller largely set in land-locked Mexico City.

Carmen at Panama City marina

Not the best picture I’ve ever taken but that’s me looking out over the marina by the Amador Causeway

Stormy skies over Panama

Panama is a skinny country bisected by the famous Canal and flanked by two oceans. Panama City is on the Pacific side of the country, with a marina where the rich and famous park their yachts. When I saw the marina for the first time, I knew it could be the ultimate mystery setting for some very nefarious business.

A black yacht, radar domes atop ocean-going vessels, locked piers–they were all found under a stormy sky at the end of a long strip of tarmac jutting into the ocean like an accusing finger.

Inspiration and illustration

Here are the pictures I took of Panama City’s marina, and the scene in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY they inspired:

Marina in Panama

You can see Panama City’s skyscrapers in the distance

The ocean rippled gray under the night sky. In the far distance they saw the lights of ships lined up to pass through the Panama Canal. The soft rain made Eddo feel soggy but no cooler.

Panama City’s Amador Causeway ended in a parking lot that led to a pedestrian plaza lit by streetlamps and surrounded by water on three sides. A cluster of popular restaurants served people from the cruise ships docked nearby. Further from the parking lot, with the water lapping up to the railings, was a Duty Free store and a restaurant called Alfredo’s Café. Across the wide open space was a private marina full of glittering white yachts with signs to keep out those who didn’t belong. The marina was full.

Alfredo's cafe, Panam City

Alfredo’s Cafe occupies the left side of this building. The colored windows are a duty-free store for cruise ship passengers.

People could be seen through the windows of Alfredo’s Café. The sound of muted speech and laughter drifted along on the moist air from the covered outdoor seating areas of the restaurants beyond the parking lot. Eddo and Tomás strolled along the water’s edge, the only people outside in the soft night rain. Eddo resisted an urge to look at his watch.

“Ana and I decided to . . . uh . . . do the family thing when I get back,” Tomás said. His face was still puffy from yesterday’s punch.

Yachts against stormy sky

The dock next to the yachts bounces as the water laps at the boats

“About time,” Eddo said, forcing a smile.

A thin man in black, no bigger than a shadow, crossed the plaza from the distant parking lot. He stopped several yards from them, vaguely Asian in the uneven light. “Cortez?” His voice was a gravelly whisper.

“Yes,” Eddo said.

“Follow me.”

The thin man walked past them and they followed him to the marina gate. He unlocked it and gestured for them to step down onto the floating pier. Eddo heard Tomás say “Fuck” as the pier heaved under their weight.

They continued walking down the pier, the boats on either side moving gently in the swell caused by their passing. At the end of the pier the thin man indicated a boat. He said something to someone on board and a light flashed on.

Yacht with black hull

This yacht’s black hull made it the most striking boat in Panama City’s marina. I wondered who the owner might be . . .

The boat was one of the smallest in the marina. Eddo grabbed the ladder at the stern and clambered up. Another man dressed all in black met him at the top and pulled him into a dark cabin. Tomás got similar treatment.

From inside the cabin, the boat’s running lights glinted through the windows, making small, angular patterns on the walls. Engines revved and the boat began sliding out of the slip, throwing Eddo and Tomás against the built-in benches that lined the cabin. No one spoke as they were righted and roughly patted down. The lights of the Amador Causeway receded as the boat picked up speed, churning the gray ocean into dirty foam. They passed a few yachts anchored beyond the marina and kept going, apparently headed for open water.

Panama City marina in sunshine

A rare sunny day visit to the marina gave me this view of boats, taken while standing in front of the duty free store next to Alfredo’s

Eddo’s cell phone was pulled out of his pocket and handed to a guard who left the cabin. Through the window they watched him dump it over the side. Tomás swallowed a protest as his phone went overboard, too. The man in black found the CD.

“Señor Cortez can keep his CD.”

If you have read the book, please remember to leave a review on Amazon. It’s the best way to let other readers know the quality of a book and help an author at the same time.


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

Matching Books with Museums in Mexico City

Matching Books with Museums in Mexico City

There you are, strolling through amazing exhibits and you know something’s missing.

Like the backstory.

Wish you’d known more before going? But there wasn’t time. Besides,  research before going to a museum sounds too much like work.

So prep with a little fiction! Have fun and get the backstory before you go by pairing a good book with a counterpart museum. It’s like pairing white wine with fish or a cabernet with a good steak; each tastes better with the other.

Here are some suggestions for pairing fiction books with museums in Mexico City. Just like Corona with carnitas!

Chapultepec Castle and The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo

Chapultepec castle

Chapultepec Castle photo courtesy wikipedia

The museum: Perched on top of a hill, with sweeping views over Mexico City’s western sprawl, the fortress-style castle was home to the ill-fated Emperor Maxmillian I and his empress, Carlota, during the Second Mexican Empire from 1864 to 1867. You can walk through the rooms, which are arranged shotgun fashion–each leading into the other–insuring that no one at the court had much privacy. The gilded, delicate French-style furniture is an indication just how out of touch the royal court was from real life in Mexico. Take the trolley from street level up the hill, otherwise you’ll be too exhausted from the climb to appreciate the museum.

The book: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a fictionalized account of the Second Mexican Empire seen mostly through the eyes of the American woman whose son was adopted (or seized depending on your point of view) by the childless Maxmillian and Carlota in the vain attempt to establish an heir to the Mexican throne. The book is a real gem and shows off both amazingly detailed research into the life and times of the Second Mexican Empire and the author’s ability to create wholly believable historical characters. Get it here.

The Palacio Nacional and The Eagle’s Throne by Carlos Fuentes

Palacio Nacional Mexico City

Palacio Nacional photo courtesy wikipedia

The museum: This long, stately building rises impressively along one side of Mexico City’s enormous Zócalo central square. It is a working government building but visitors flock there to see the famous murals by Diego Rivera that adorn the main stairwell and the walls of the second floor. Grandly titled “The Epic of the Mexican People,” the murals were painted between 1929 and 1935 and tell Mexico’s story from the Aztecs to the worker of Rivera’s times. Above the building’s central doorway, facing the Zócalo, is the main balcony where just before 11:00 pm every 15 September, the president of Mexico gives el Grito de Dolores, the infamous cry for independence from Spain originally made by national hero Miguel Hidalgo. Hidalgo’s church bell from the church of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, hangs above the balcony.

The book: The murals and the el grito commemoration are integral parts of Mexio’s turbulent and at times visceral political rivalries and history. The Eagle’s Throne, written as a series of letters by a tangled net of political players, is a masterfully crafted inside look at that game. The letters reveal the story bit by tantalizing bit, with allegiances, conflicts, brinkmanship, and manipulation driving the narrative. An amazingly complex and skillful book, there is nothing else that so perfectly takes the reader inside Mexico’s political world. Get it here.

La Casa Azul (Frida Kahlo’s house) and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Casa Azul

la Casa Azul photo courtesy wikipedia

The museum: This cobalt blue house in the artsy Coyoacán suburb of Mexico City was the family home to iconic painter Frida Kahlo and where muralist Diego Rivera also lived during his stormy marriage to her. Kahlo and Rivera were socialist sympathizers and la Casa Azul was an intermittant refuge for Leon Trotsky 1937-39 when he fled Stalin’s Russia. The house contains numerous Kahlo artifacts and pieces of artwork. An outdoor room built by Rivera and encrusted with shells shows just how unrestricted the two were in their creativity.

The book: The Lacuna traces the life of a troubled young American man who was raised (by a free spirit mother) in Mexico City and becomes assistant, chef, and secretary to Kahlo and Rivera. Rich in imagery, poetic prose, and character development, we see the conflict and intimate life of the two artists through his own troubled eyes. Their commitment to Trotsky and the latter’s exile in Mexico City is the real centerpiece of the book. I didn’t love the end, but the novel is a dense, lavish telling of the story of Kahlo and Rivera—and all that had happened in that house. Get it here.

The Rufino Tamayo Museum and The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato

Tamayo Museum

Tamayo Museum photo courtesy

The museum: The Tamayo Museum is the queen of contemporary art in Mexico, drawing A-list international artists and fearlessly promoting new ideas and installations in the art world. A huge curved sign occupies prime real estate on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main drag, advertising the museum’s ever-changing array of exhibits. The building itself is a piece of sculpture, a nice contrast to its neighbor, the more stolid Anthropology Museum. Well curated, it is rarely crowded and always gives fresh perspectives. Also, the small restaurant has very good coffee.

The book: In The Hidden Light of Mexico City, anti-corruption attorney Eddo Cortez Castillo talks to housemaid Luz de Maria Alba Mora in front of the museum and mistakes her for an art teacher. Their tour of the museum brings the reader right along, showing the variety of things one is likely to see in the Tamayo, from video installations, to 3-D objects of startling variety and materials, to classics like actual paint on canvas. Like it does to everybody, the Tamayo startled Eddo and Luz but also hugely entertained, leading to an unforgettable conversation about life, history, and love. Of course more happens after that—Eddo’s hunting a corrupt Minister of Public Security and an elusive cartel leader while Luz’s family implodes—but you’ll have to read the book to see how it all works out. The book takes on Mexico’s rigid social system as well as government corruption. Get it here.

Check out for more ideas.


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

The Hidden Lovers of San Miguel

The Hidden Lovers of San Miguel

In the political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, Luz and Eddo briefly escape a political scheme to buy the Mexican presidency with drug money, and spend time away from the world in the lovely Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende.  A 4-hour drive northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its creative atmosphere.  The historic streets are lined with shops full of Mexico’s best handicrafts and artwork, the architecture is a wonderful mix of European inspiration and Mexican flare, and it is home to the annual San Miguel Writers Conference and Literary Festival.

Related: Read HIDDEN LIGHT’S First 2 Chapters

Creative mecca

The conference website says it all: The cradle of Mexican Independence, San Miguel de Allende has long been a mecca for social creatives – writers, painters, musicians, poets, philosophers, liberation theology clergy. Maybe it’s the crisp mountain air. Maybe it’s the thermal pools infused with natural lithium. Maybe it’s the Dalai Lama’s blessing. Maybe it’s you.

Several years ago our family joined two others for a wonderful and memorable trip to the city.

We stayed at a “villa,” which was really a long, low house near a hotel. Perfect for a group as big as ours, the location was secluded yet within walking distance of the hotel where we went for breakfast. There was a big field in front where the kids ran around with toys we bought in the square called El Jardin: balls on a string outfitted with long flashing streamers.

The villa and the field would create a pivotal setting for the novel. Two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum in Mexico–and it is an unforgiving fact of life there–in a place where no one knows them.

No one knows who they are or what they have been through.

No one to approve or disapprove of what they want.

Photo journal

I was experimenting with art and photography at the time, and the resulting pictures inspired the trip that Luz and Eddo take in the book.

Antique lanterns in San Miguel de Allende


View of La Parroquia from the villa


El Jardin

El Jardin bustling with people and energy


The cathedral of La Parroquia


The front entrance of San Miguel’s famous cathedral, thought to be designed by a local stoneworker after seeing pictures of European cathedrals


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

Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

The Hidden Light of Mexico City contains a number of references from my own experiences in Mexico City.  I’ve already written about the  class struggle of simply standing in a line but also wanted to share a sadder, more compelling event that helped shape the book’s narrative through the character of Father Santiago.

Related: Read HIDDEN LIGHT’S First 2 Chapters

Father Richard

Father Richard Junius–or Padre Ricardo–was the pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mexico City when I lived there.  He was an Oblate Missionary who had been in Mexico for years, ministering mostly to the rural poor.  St. Patrick’s was a sizeable urban parish  in a fairly tough neighborhood. It was the only designated English-speaking church in the city.

Fr Richard Junius

Years ago the church had sold off the school building next door. Funds from the sale  were held in escrow by the diocese for maintenance of the church and attached rectory.  The previous pastor had been removed due to a number of misconducts; when Father Richard arrived we were all cautiously hopeful that the new priest would set things right.

St. Patrick’s sacristy was a place I came to know well; the ladies of the parish cleaned it up for the incoming priest, removing layers of grime and polishing the few silver items the church possessed. My son was an altar server and I remade and cleaned all of the altar server vestments, hanging them in the room’s small closet.  The description of the sacristy of the church of Santa Clara in The Hidden Light of Mexico City is based on St. Patrick’s.


Father Richard was old and patient and tireless in his efforts to reach out to the local community and deal with their family issues. He made his new English-speaking congregation aware of prison irregularities in Mexico and didn’t flinch when an armed drug addict, stoned out of his mind, walked through the church and accosted him on the altar during midnight Mass.  He spent nothing on his clothing, wearing threadbare corduroy pants and sweaters that became the fictional Father Santiago’s wardrobe. 


Father Richard had spent most of his time in Mexico in rural areas. Now in Mexico City, he seemed naive in the midst of Mexico’s spiraling crime and drug war. 

Twice he was assaulted and robbed while alone in the church counting  the Sunday collection. When parishioners insisted that the funds be handled differently, he disagreed, adamant that church funds were solely his responsibility and that he would not close the church at any time. 

He lent a substantial amount from the maintenance funds to an unscrupulous businessman man who never repaid the loan. Father Richard contracted for the bathroom repair without consulting with the parish council. Again, funds disappeared. The job was left half done and toilets didn’t flush.

Never afraid of controversy, he petitioned the bishop to change the church’s status from English-speaking to multi-lingual. The move angered some of the original congregation, but was welcomed by local families.

Much of the English-speaking congregation moved on, angered by his financial floundering. Several years later I was to learn that he’d been murdered.

A violent death

In August 2007, Father Richard was found stripped, tortured, bound and strangled to death in his bedroom in the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mexico City.  His body was found the morning after a fire had broken out in the basement of the church late at night.  Initial Mexican news reports speculated that the death was a result of “sexual misconduct,” and downplayed the fire as well as the theft of several items from the church.  The charges were heatedly denied by Catholic Church officials in Mexico, thousands of faithful, and the  Oblates, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Other reports of his death noted that he’d been in conflict with the owner of  a bar near the church whom Father Richard had publicly called out for serving alcohol to minors. The Oblate website reported that “many believe that the brutal crime was in retaliation for Fr. Ricardo’s efforts to impede the drug traffic and the sale of alcohol to minors in the neighborhood. He had reported to the police that such activities were taking place in a building near the corner of the parish church.”

From the family

Fr. Richard’s cousin got in touch with me in April 2016 as a result of this blog post. In an exchange of emails, she related how she was informed by the Oblate Provincial in Belleville, Illinois that Fr. Richard was murdered:

“After I explained my connection, the Provincial began hesitantly stating, “I don’t even know how to say this.” When I asked what he needed to say, he responded that Father Richard had been murdered between the Saturday night Mass of Anticipation and the early Sunday morning Mass. I later heard that his sister expected his body to be returned to Eagle Pass for burial near the grave of his cousin, my uncle Father Bernard C. Junius, OMI. Sadly, the Mexican authorities buried the body quickly in Mexico City.
Prior to his death, Father Richard had written a lengthy letter to my uncle Paul explaining all of the activities he was involved in – a thrift store, a radio show, marrying Spanish and Anglo couples. His passion for service and love of those he served threaded through the letter. His death seemed like the waste of a true servant of the people.”

Catching his killer

Father Richard was 79 at the time of his death and only a month away from celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest.  To my knowledge, his murderer has never been brought to justice and the official record remains death by misadventure.
Not content with that, I wrote “The Angler,” a novella based on the murder of Father Richard. In “The Angler,” Detective Emilia Cruz, the first female police detective in Acapulco, faces a similar crime. This time, the murder is solved.

The Angler by Carmen Amato



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

Why Read a Book About Mexico Now

Reading about Mexico now is a mix of highs and lows. Fiction can’t substitute for facts but it can lead us to become interested enough in an issue to find out what is really going on.  That is the impact I hope The Hidden Light of Mexico City can have.

The press release says:

 The classic Cinderella story moves to Mexico against a backdrop of government corruption, drug cartel violence, and pending presidential elections.  The Hidden Light of Mexico City’s raw exposé of Mexico’s rigid class society makes this political thriller a must-read before America’s next debate over immigration.

Why is this important

What’s happening today is Mexico is fairly staggering.  As reported by The New York Times, based on Mexican Government statistics released in January, over 47,000 people have been killed in the country’s crackdown against the cartels.  It’s common knowledge that many are dead as the result of competition between rival cartels. Other dead are those who were transiting cartel territory as they tried to immigrate and were pressed into service to the cartels and then killed.  Stories of the “disappeared” and mass graves remind me of news reports of Cambodia back in the day, of “The Killing Fields” movie.

The killing fields are spilling over onto America’s doorstep. Last September the New York Times published an interactive map showing Mexican drug cartel reach across the border and a map of US drug seizures from Mexican cartel shipments to the US.  Disturbing, hardhitting.

CNN’s  recent series is even more compelling. The reporting takes us from a walk through a cemetary in drug kingpin El Chapo’s home state of Sinaloa, to a cold hard look at the numbers, to the search for those missing amid the violence.

Mexico’s drug war isn’t just about the fight between the cartels and the military, about political will to stamp out evil or even about guns and agents moving across the US-Mexican border. More than anything, it is about a people and a culture under attack.

This is where fiction can help tell a vital story, by imagining the lives of those living through the struggle, making them breathe and love and cry and fight. Fiction can hold attention and provoke emotion in a way that the news might not.

Update 2016

The numbers of those missing or known dead in Mexico continues to rise. The re-arrest of El Chapo kept the various cartels at each others’ throats in the quest to dominate drug routes into the ever-voracious US, and violence continues in many parts of Mexico.

Whatever the US presidential election holds for us, the US-Mexico relationship is back on the agenda after having been eclipsed for quite some time by the Middle East. The southern border, immigration, and undocumented folks are likely to be addressed one way or another. If fiction can help focus attention on improving relations between these critical neighbors, so much the better.


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

A tale of Mexico: the school bus and the thriller

A tale of Mexico: the school bus and the thriller

THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY is a political thriller, with characters based on many people I met in Mexico City.

And a bus.

The setting

Let me set this up for you.

Our house was at the start of the school bus route going home. My children had a 10 minute ride. In the morning; they’d be the last to be picked up for a short ride through Chapultepec Park to the American School. To give you an idea of the student body, one of the other students was the son of a Mexican diputado. His bodyguards rode in an unmarked follow car. We never saw the bodyguards in the afternoon; I presume the chauffeur picked up the child like so many other children who attended that school.

One afternoon, a late model sedan parked near our house. A woman got out of the back seat, wearing a stylish dress, heels and ropes of gold chain. She introduced herself as Marit and said that her children rode the same school bus as my children.

They lived at the end of the bus line, she explained, and while she wanted her son and daughter to have the experience of riding on a school bus, it took too long.  In future her children would get off at our house and be driven home by the chauffeur.

Related: Reads Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

A tenuous friendship

We spoke a number of times after that, me in my jeans on the stoop and she in her designer clothes from the window of the car.  When she learned I was new to Mexico City she took it upon herself to give me a tour of the best shops and restaurants in our neighborhood. The children and I were invited to a midday meal with her husband and children.  The event included lunch at their house–about 15 minutes away–and a stop in the kitchen to view the 5 uniformed staff and present my compliments to the cook in her white jacket.

Related post: Swimming lessons or how he wound up in a thriller

Soon after, Marit came over for coffee before meeting the bus. Our housekeeper, a wonderful young woman whom we did not require to wear a uniform, met us in the living room.  I introduced them as I would any two people, using full names.  To my surprise Marit immediately addressed the housekeeper using a common nickname rather than the housekeeper’s actual name. The grilling about work hours came next. It was an effective and not very subtle message: the housekeeper was getting above herself using her full name, not wearing a uniform, and leaving the kitchen instead of waiting to be assigned her work.

Related post: Itzel’s story or how she came to be in my novel

Marit also called me the next day and took me to task for not making the housekeeper work more hours–a day maid should show up to work at 7:00 am at least. By asking the housekeeper to come at 10:00 I was only encouraging her to become lazy.  I should note here that my husband generally referred to the housekeeper as the “Mexican Tornado” for her amazing work ethic. Marit’s words told me that there’s a caste system in Mexico that bottles up more people than just the Mexican Tornado.  So escape it, people will mule drugs or risk an illegal crossing into the United States.  Or both.

Be careful, I’m a writer

There were no more coffee or lunches after that but the final break came when Marit called to ask if, as an American, I could get her maid a visa. The family wanted to go to Disneyworld and take their maid to look after the children in the evenings.

The visa process took too much time, Marit said.  If the maid had to stand in line at the US Embassy she’d miss work.

I replied that I had no ability to obtain a visa for her maid and I never heard from Marit again. The car no longer stopped in front of my house to pick up her children.

But I had stored up enough from her tone, mannerisms, and home tour to cast Marit as Selena de Vega and transpose her home and servants into the Vega home. There are some differences to be sure, but the social ladder that Marit showed me became the impossible mountain that fictional maid Luz de Maria must climb in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.


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

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