Mystery Ahead is my every-other-Sunday newsletter.
Come escape with me.
Every edition gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the Detective Emilia Cruz series as well as my standalone suspense. Sales alerts. Exclusive excerpts. Works-in-progress. Plus a review of a book I think you’ll love while you wait for Emilia’s next mystery.
As your gift for subscribing, I’ll send you my must-read list of the Top 25 International Mystery Series.
From Norway to Brazil, each will be your new favorite.
Sample a little Mystery Ahead
43 MISSING, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6, will be available to pre-order on Thursday 9 November at the discount price of $1.99 for Kindle. The preorder price will be in effect ONLY for a week. The price goes to $4.99 on 16 November when the book is published. If you preorder the Kindle version, it will appear on your Kindle on 16 November.
The preceding book in the series, PACIFIC REAPER, is also available for $1.99 until 16 November. The action in 43 MISSING takes up where PACIFIC REAPER left off. Emilia’s battle with Santa Muerte, Mexico’s forbidden saint of death, is far from over, even as she investigates the disappearance of 43 college students.
The chapter below from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY was one of the toughest dialogue-driven scenes I’ve ever written, which wove together dialogue of the group watching television at home with the two people in the live talk show. Warning, this excerpt is a bit longer than usual.
There was coffee and arroz con leche with canela and raisins for dessert. Everyone finished in time for the show. The four girls went upstairs to play with dolls. Carmelita, Lupe, Juan Pablo, and Luz settled in front of the television.
Carmelita squeezed Luz’s hand as the show came on. Luz was as nervous as if she was going on the show, instead of Eddo.
A wildly applauding studio audience flashed on the screen, the announcer said “Live! It’s Elsa CAAAAAASO!!” and Mexico’s famous talk show siren walked onto the stage, tossing her head so that her blonde hair bounced. She wore a black leather halter dress that skimmed her knees and showed a lot of cleavage. Spike-heeled alligator boots and an armful of glittery bracelets completed the outfit. The camera zoomed in as Elsa smiled and waved to the audience. She sat on a yellow loveseat with her hem hiked up to show white thighs. Her skin looked like milk.
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” Lupe sighed.
“Nice,” smirked Juan Pablo.
Luz felt like old leather.
Elsa Caso did her usual opening gush about the evening’s guests. There was a soap opera star, a fashion show, Eddo, and then a musical group. Elsa rolled her eyes suggestively as she said, “We have a politician tonight, Eduardo Cortez Castillo. But ladies, he’s really a treat for you.”
The audience howled. Elsa frequently interacted with the audience during the hour; it was a trademark of her show, like the one serious guest and the yellow loveseat.
Elsa flipped her hair and said they’d be right back, live from the Televisa studios in Mexico City. Commercials rolled.
“More coffee anyone?” Luz asked brightly.
Lupe enjoyed the soap star and the fashion show. Carmelita looked pensive. Juan Pablo was bored. Luz drank coffee and got steadily more nervous.
Eddo finally walked onstage as Elsa stood up and applauded with the audience. Luz’s heart leaped. Eddo looked like a movie star in a gray suit, white shirt, and blue silk tie.
“Que lindo,” murmured Carmelita.
“This is your friend, Luz?” Lupe asked fearfully.
“Yes,” Luz said, bursting with pride and thrilled that Carmelita thought he was handsome.
Eddo made a courtly gesture to acknowledge the cheering audience and crossed to the yellow loveseat. Elsa greeted him effusively, pressing her breasts against him during the obligatory kiss.
Luz snapped the handle off her cup.
“It’s been so long,” Elsa Caso trilled as she and Eddo sat down on the yellow loveseat. Elsa turned to the studio audience and twitched up her skirt at the same time, making it appear an accident. “Eduardo and I are old friends.” Elsa wiggled her finger at Eddo. “We’ve got a lot of catching up.”
Luz held her breath as Eddo talked about how lucky he was to be involved in the Romero campaign and plans for legal reform. Elsa made reference to the PEMEX scandal, and introduced a film clip of an old press conference with a younger Eddo talking from a podium about illicit finance. When the view shifted back to the live show Elsa asked him some obviously scripted questions.
It’s going well, Luz thought and relaxed a little. Eddo was handling it perfectly, smoothly saying what he’d come to say and sounding brilliant. Elsa flirted outrageously, as she often did with attractive male guests, but Eddo deflected everything with humorous comments and appeals to the audience that brought more applause.
At the next commercial break, Luz leaned back against the sofa. “What do you think?” she asked.
“A pretty smart guy, Luz,” Juan Pablo said, impressed.
“I can’t believe you know him,” Lupe said.
“Elsa Caso’s falling out of her dress,” Carmelita observed and Luz laughed.
Cleanliness is Healthy faded and the show came back on. Eddo was giving some statistics on the link between rising education rates and falling crime rates when Elsa leaned forward and touched the line of silver hair.
“This is new, isn’t it?” she warbled. “Can everyone see this?”
The camera zoomed in on Eddo’s temple and the television screen filled with brown and silver hair. The view held for a second, then the camera panned over Elsa’s straining bosom. When it widened to normal view Elsa still had her hand on Eddo’s head.
“Stop that,” Luz said indignantly to the television. Those were her silver hairs. She’d seen the scar underneath. She’d held the cold pack to Eddo’s head.
“I think she wants him back, Luz,” Carmelita said.
“What?” Lupe asked.
“She’s his old girlfriend,” Luz growled, eyes glued to the screen.
“No shit?” Juan Pablo grinned.
On the yellow loveseat, Elsa Caso edged closer to Eddo. “It’s very distinguished,” she caroled.
“Now as I was saying about the key to education,” Eddo said and eased his head away.
Luz watched Eddo get the interview back on track. Although he kept smiling and talking and joking, Luz knew he was seriously annoyed.
But Elsa seemed oblivious. She turned to the audience and fluffed her hair. “Well, we’re almost out of time. Thank you, Eduardo, for coming on the show. Wasn’t I right, ladies? Smart and gorgeous.” She looked straight at the camera. “Don’t we think Eduardo should be one of our bachelors in the charity auction next week?”
The audience roared its approval. Luz clapped a hand to her mouth.
The Elsa Caso Show had been advertising an upcoming episode that was to feature a live charity auction of Mexico City’s most eligible bachelors. Wealthy women could bid to win 24 hours with the bachelor, to include dinner and dancing and whatever else happened. Most of the men being auctioned were telenovela stars or sports figures.
Eddo gestured to quiet the audience. His smile was rigid. “It’s a great cause, Elsa. But I’m not a bachelor.”
Luz dropped her hand.
“Now, Eduardo, we know you’re not married,” Elsa said.
“But I am committed,” Eddo said.
Luz glowed. Committed. He’d said that right on live television.
“That doesn’t count,” Elsa trilled happily and turned to the audience. “Don’t we think he’d be perfect?” The audience applauded.
“No, I really can’t, Elsa,” Eddo said.
She tossed her blonde curls. “It’ll be worth your while,” she said archly. The audience caught on and roared its approval. Luz wanted to reach into the television and tear out Elsa’s hair by the roots.
“I’d bid on this one,” Elsa shouted provocatively.
Eddo pulled out his cell phone. “You know, Elsa, Luz and I make all the big decisions together.”
Luz gaped at the television.
“Who’s he calling?” Lupe asked.
Luz’s brain coughed and shifted into gear. “Me. Me.” She shot off the sofa and grabbed her cell phone off the bedside table just as it started to ring. She ran back into the living room and hit the talk button. “Bueno?”
“I can’t believe you called me.” Luz heard him in her ear and from the television at the same time. It was very unreal.
“So do you think I should get auctioned off next week?”
Luz covered the phone with her hand. “Am I coming through on the television?” she hissed.
Carmelita shook her head.
“No,” Luz said, uncovering the phone. “I don’t think you should get sold off like a bull in a market.”
Eddo disguised a laugh with a cough.
“Just tell her,” Luz thought hard for a good excuse he could use. “Just say . . . um.”
“It’s your anniversary,” Carmelita supplied.
“It’s our anniversary,” Luz said into the phone, thanking Carmelita with her eyes.
“Our anniversary,” Eddo repeated, sounding as if he’d known all along. “Of course Elsa will understand that’s important.”
The audience made sympathetic sounds.
Luz stared at his image on the television. His shoulders suddenly weren’t quite so bunched.
“I think next weekend will be a lifetime since I fell in love with you,” Luz said softly.
Lupe made a hiccupping sound.
On the television, Eddo’s free hand rolled into a fist. “For me, too,” he said.
Elsa Caso fidgeted on the loveseat next to Eddo. “Stand by,” Eddo said to Luz. He turned to the talk show host. “Sorry, Elsa. Our answer is no. But we’ll match the highest bid you receive as our way of helping out.”
The audience applauded. Luz heard it coming through the phone and grinned. As she watched the television, Carmelita made an I’m impressed face.
“Oh, but you didn’t really explain,” Elsa said expansively. “Let me.” She held out her hand for Eddo’s cell phone.
The crowd got rowdy again and Elsa played to it, pressuring Eddo to hand over the phone, saying maybe there wasn’t anybody on the line after all.
“Her name is Luz de Maria and she’s an artist,” Eddo said.
“She won’t mind talking girl-to-girl,” Elsa said to the shouting audience.
“Maybe we should wrap this up,” Eddo said.
“What’s he hiding?” Elsa caroled to the audience, whipping them up further.
Luz watched in horror as Eddo reluctantly surrendered the phone before the audience rioted. She thought of just breaking the connection, but then Elsa would be proven right and Eddo would be embarrassed.
“Dios mio, Luz,” Lupe said, her eyes wide with fright.
“Hey, I’ll talk to her if you don’t want to,” Juan Pablo said.
There was a new voice in Luz’s ear. “Hello, this is Elsa Caso.” On television Elsa sat on the edge of the loveseat, her knee pressed against Eddo’s. His face was expressionless but Luz knew he was furious at being manipulated this way.
“Hello, Elsa.” Luz’s voice came out surprisingly even.
“Eduardo tells me you’re not going to let him be in my auction,” Elsa pouted. She sounded as if she was talking to a not-too-smart pet. “This is for a good cause.”
“You’re going to have to say okay, Luz,” Lupe urged.
Luz and Carmelita stared at each other until Carmelita gave a well what are you going to do about it shrug.
“I’m sorry,” Luz said into the phone. “But it’s our anniversary.”
She watched as Elsa smiled hungrily at Eddo. It didn’t seem possible that he had dated Elsa Caso for a year, they seemed so ill-suited.
“I’m sure he’ll raise a fortune,” Elsa said and gestured at the audience. The cheering swelled again. The camera zoomed in on Elsa’s smiling face, cutting out Eddo. “You can’t keep him all to yourself.”
Luz tried to think of something clever and failed. “As he said, he’s not a bachelor.”
“If there isn’t a ring, it doesn’t count,” Elsa twittered. The audience laughed uproariously.
Carmelita raised her eyebrows.
“He asked,” Luz heard herself say icily. “Don’t hold your breath for an invitation.”
“He did what?” On the television, Elsa Caso abruptly stood up and walked to the edge of the stage. The camera followed. Her expression lost a little of its exuberance.
“Eddo made his decision, Elsa,” Luz said, out of patience with the absurdity of the situation. She stood up, looming over the woman on the screen. “Probably the night he told me that I knew him better after one day than you ever did after a whole year. And he was right. You have no idea who he really is and you’re not bright enough to ever figure it out.”
Carmelita snorted. On the television, Elsa Caso froze where she stood on the edge of the stage, the phone to her ear, her face curved into a limp smile. The audience was quiet.
Luz heard her own heart pounding in her ears. She’d yelled at Elsa Caso.
The connection was still live. “As Eddo said,” Luz murmured into her phone. “We’d be glad to make a donation. After all, it’s really about those handicapped children, isn’t it?”
Elsa suddenly unfroze. “Well, I certainly understand,” she said, the phone still clapped to her ear. “Lovely meeting you. Mucho gusto.”
The connection cut off.
Luz watched Elsa Caso click across the stage and hand Eddo’s cell phone to him. “Well, I tried,” Elsa said to the audience. She didn’t look at Eddo or sit down. “But she insisted her man wasn’t free. It must be love.”
“It is,” Eddo said. He smiled directly into the camera as he put the cell phone back in his pocket. A big electric smile.
A detergent ad came on.
“Too bad you’re not going to marry this guy,” Carmelita said.
The Blackhouse by Peter May
The setting is the remote, windy, and rainswept Hebrides islands off Scotland’s western coast. The murder is gruesome and mimics a recent killing in Edinburgh being investigated by police detective Fin McLeod.
Fin’s young son has just been killed by a hit-and-run driver. His lukewarm marriage has fallen apart. So he heads to the Isle of Lewis, where he was born and raised, to vent his grief and see if the two murders are connected.
The Blackhouse is rich, dense, and real. More than just a typical whodunit, I got the feeling it was written to illustrate a unique place few have seen and fewer still have truly experienced. Life in the Hebrides is remote and difficult, squeezed between rock and ocean and constantly buffeted by winds which have scoured trees off the land.
While the setting sets The Blackhouse apart from the majority of tartan noir novels, May also uses flashbacks unlike any mystery author I have read. The book is written in third person, with Fin as the central character. But Fin also narrates many flashbacks of his youth on the Isle of Lewis, which mostly deal with his childhood friend Artair, whose father tutored both of them, and Marsiali, the woman Fin alternately loved and discarded until she finally left him and married Artair.
Fin’s flashbacks don’t come at us in chronological order but are seemingly random (but highly relevant, as we will see) memories prompted by present-day encounters. Fin runs into the unhappily married couple Artair and Marsiali. Artair is now an abusive drunk and his son has gotten a girl pregnant. Donald, another friend, is a clergyman and father of the pregnant girl.
The big climax comes with a hefty dose of local Lewis custom: the annual 12-man trip to a tiny and remote rock in the Atlantic to kill guga sea birds, considered a local delicacy. The custom has been going on since time immemorial and to be included in the guga hunt brotherhood is a rare honor.
It is at this point, we realize what a master storyteller May truly is. He draws all the threads—both from the flashbacks and the present-day murder investigation—into whole cloth as thick and durable as the Harris tweed still woven on the island. The ending is huge and heart-pounding.