Open Letter to 2019

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019,

With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.  

Love, Carmen

From 2018, with love

Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions, I choose a theme for my year. This year it’s “Simplify.”

Last year was a year of big change for me. New state, new house, new community. New challenges trying to transform a house with mud brown walls into a loveable, livable, and light-filled farmhouse while also writing a book, this blog, and growing the Mystery Ahead newsletter all at the same time. Oh, and trying to keep up with social media. And marketing. And book reviewing. 

Things got messy.

Basically, I was doing FAR too many things and spending FAR too much time in the weeds doing time consuming things that didn’t take me where I wanted to go as an author. Too much time was going down the rabbit hole instead of being used for what I wanted to do–write compelling books about the things that intrigue me.

In short, I have always been susceptible to the alluring yet deadly disease called Shiny Object Syndrome. In 2018 this translated into an epic time management fail:

  • I over processed simple tasks, creating more work than necessary.
  • I chased after activities that weren’t aligned with my priorities.
  • I left opportunities on the table.
  • RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7 simply wasn’t getting finished.

Theme for 2019: “Simplify”

After a hard look at where my energies were going, and some hard questions to myself, I knew I needed to simplify, streamline, and get back to my top priorities.

Here is how that will look:

Simpler newsletter: Each edition of Mystery Ahead will have my latest #booknews, exclusive #excerpts, and a mystery #review of a book I think you’ll love. This eliminates the author interviews (simply too time consuming to continue) and the protips (not relevant to my readership). Bonus for me–by sharing excerpts, I’ll be motivated to finish works in progress.

Simpler website: I firmly believe that every professional author needs a professional website. It is the hub of your platform. Social media platforms, book sales pages, etc. are the spokes. That being said, I was still learning the all-powerful Divi theme for WordPress last year and experimented with many of its features. (A particularly virulent case of Shiny Object Syndrome) As a result, blog posts looked uneven and the navigation got unwieldy. After a week of updates, the site is refreshed and easier to navigate. All my books are listed on one page and there is a sub-menu so anyone who wants to know everything about the Detective Emilia Cruz series can find it. Coming soon: better opt-in pages.

Which brings us to social media. A free way to introduce readers to a new author vs an echoing, time-eating cavern with occasional toxic sinkholes. Facebook will be my primary social media outlet in 2019, followed closely by Pinterest. I created a cheatsheet so posting is fun, not a chore. Twitter is off the radar. 

What’s ahead in 2019

The word Simplify has allowed me to clear my head, assess priorities, and make an GREAT action list that doesn’t include the kitchen sink. Here’s the plan:

New books: RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7 and NARCO NOIR, Book 8, plus updated book descriptions across sales platforms.

Boxed sets: Detective Emilia Cruz Greatest Hits: Vol 1 (CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, DIABLO NIGHTS) and Vol 2 (KING PESO, PACIFIC REAPER, 43 MISSING).

Articles: Guest post collaboration with Jeanine Kitchel, exploring issues from the viewpoint of two female thriller authors.

New project: Preliminary research into the mystery series I’ll start in 2020, which takes place in Norway during WWII.

Outreach: Collaborations to promote the Mystery Ahead newsletter. 

AND a secret project I hope to be able to share mid-year. (Mystery Ahead subscribers will get the news first so sign up now).

What’s your theme for 2019?

Let’s help each other do great things in 2019!

What’s your one word theme for the year?

The mystery of the disappearing home office

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition.

We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of creative energy and a friendly community.

Related: Saga of the koi pond

In the 6.5 years since my first book was published, we’ve moved 4 times. Each house offered different places for me to write and I found that environment shaped my writing routine.

This house is no different, but it has taken me longer to figure that out.

Where she writes, take 1

When we moved into the Dream House with an open concept blueprint, we switched up how the rooms were used. The cavernous family room would be our Banquet Hall. The previous owner’s formal dining room–essentially an extension of the front hallway–would become my combo work and home office.

In our previous house, my writing desk was in the former living room. For as long as we lived there, I swore my next office would have a door.

But being a bear of very little brain . . .

I took out the chair rail, slathered the mud-brown walls with Benjamin Moore’s Heaven, hung buffalo plaid curtains, and replaced the chandelier with a sputnik fixture from Sazerac Stitches in New Orleans. Gorgeous.

Rainbox chandelier Sazerac Stitches

I plunked down a bed for the dog, tacked up my outline for Detective Emilia Cruz #7, and got to work.

Sort of.

The open concept guaranteed interruption. No, let me rephrase that.

Fostered interruption.

Front door, television, kitchen, laundry room. Everything within reach and making noise. Family members talking to me because, hey, I’m basically sitting in the middle of a hallway everyone passes through on the way to everywhere else.

Compounding the mistake, I created a mashup of office purposes. Now, if you have ever moved to a new place and had to get a new driver’s license, car registration, accounts for gas, electric, water, etc, you know how it goes. Moreover, after nearly 3 decades of blissful ignorance, we found that our marriage certificate was incorrect!

Bottom line, lots of distractions. Minimal progress on the novel, despite a knockout outline and complete mental mastery of the entwining plot lines.

(Yes. Mental mastery. Having a good day.)

Aaaand, take 2

Fast forward a few months. I’ve declared defeat at the hands of the open concept house and commandeered an upstairs bedroom for my new writing lair. Home office stuff stays downstairs.

It’s a bare bones situation so far, but I’m already feeling more productive. (Witness “mental mastery” line above.)

A few overdue lessons learned, too, which might be helpful to fellow creatives:

  1. If I can’t see it, I won’t do it. This applies to outlines, social media updates, etc. Things need to go up on the wall and be visual reminders.
  2. I need to assign specific tasks to different days of the week. For years, I have paid bills on Mondays. The newsletter goes out every other Sunday. I’ve fallen off the wagon when it comes to social media and blogging, but these need to be scheduled.
  3. If I write down 3 goals for the next day every night, I won’t waste time idly surfing Pinterest the next day.

So now here I am, with a secluded but bland beige new work space. Time to tape up the outline  and the big map of Acapulco, and get to work on RUSSIAN MOJITO, Emilia #7.

novel outline

Office décor suggestions much appreciated.

Welcome to the opioid crisis

Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of employees in multiple locations across Western Hemisphere.”

Hidden in those phrases are the risks, relationships, and experiences that I have funneled into the Detective Emilia Cruz series set in Acapulco. Every day, Emilia faces down violent cartels and official corruption stemming from drug money.

But for all my work, and the work of thousands of others in the intelligence and law enforcement communities, the drug war rages on.

Right in my back yard.

Hello, I’m Marnie and I’m here to introduce you to the opioid crisis

She was our waitress at a national burger restaurant. My daughter and I were exploring our new neighborhood in Tennessee and had stopped there for lunch.

Marnie was a slender brunette in her early twenties in jeans and a tee shirt and plenty of restaurant-provided flair. She bounced over to our booth, tray in hand, and without preamble began telling us how busy she’d been that morning and hoped we didn’t mind the rain and the sweet potato fries were her favorite and did we want some sweet tea and was there anything else she could get for us.

As she spoke, she lowered herself until her elbows were on our table, putting her head on the same level as my shoulder, so that she had to look up at us. With her butt in the air, she hooked one foot around the other ankle, bent her knees, and jiggled up and down as she finally took our order.

I thought at first that she was nervous, then that she had to pee.

Marnie brought our meal in fits and starts, forgot the sweet potato fries, but refilled our tea, once again adopting her curious jiggling bent-over pose.

When she smiled, I saw that her teeth had eroded into small brown stalagmites.

The distinctive rot of a habitual user.

More like Marnie

In contrast to other places I’ve lived, the drug crisis is very much in evidence here. Every day, I see people with the same tell-tale look: twitchy, vaguely confused, thin to the point of skeletal.

There’s both a sadness and an unpredictability about them that is unsettling.

According to the World Economic Forum, “A sharp increase in prescribed opioid-based painkillers and the rise of illegal fentanyl – which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin – has unleashed the worst public health crisis in American history . . . In 2017, there were over 11 million “opioid misusers” in the United States. To put that number in perspective, that’s equivalent to the entire population of Ohio.”

Closer to home, the governor’s office of Tennessee has this to say: “Each day in Tennessee, at least three people die from an opioid-related overdose, which is more than the number of daily traffic fatalities.” The electronic billboard over Route 40 told me yesterday that 832 had died so far in traffic accidents in the state.

The state’s opioid website gave these statistics for 2017:

  • Overdose deaths: 1772
  • Nonfatal overdose outpatient visits: 15,001
  • Painkiller prescriptions: 6,879,698

The population of the state is 6.17 million.

Do the math. More painkiller prescriptions than people.

Elections and the opioid crisis

The Tennessee matchup between Marsha Blackburn and Phil Bredesen is one of the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races. Marsha is a popular member of Congress. Phil is a popular former governor.

Control of the Senate is at stake, with all that implies. But as the saying goes, all politics are local. And for Tennessee, that means the opioid crisis.

We’ve been treated to a barrage of radio and television ads blaming both candidates for the opioid crisis.

If Phil is to be believed, Marsha singlehandedly prevented the DEA from cracking down on opioid exports into the US and is a paid creature of Big Pharma.

If Marsha is to be believed, Phil is heavily invested in Big Pharma and as governor did nothing to prevent opioids from ruining Tennessee lives.

State Senator Ferrell Haile, a Blackburn supporter, nonetheless hit the nail on the head when he recently wrote in The Tennessean: “Finger pointing and name calling will not solve the opioid epidemic, and every minute spent politicizing it is a minute wasted.”


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

Warriors, souls, and the making of AWAKENING MACBETH

Warriors, souls, and the making of AWAKENING MACBETH

My great-uncle Nicky was the second-to-the-youngest of my grandfather’s five brothers. He was missing most of his right index finger.

During WWII, while my grandfather turned out copper ship hulls as a foreman at the Revere Copper and Brass rolling mill, Nicky and four other brothers were GIs. I think Nicky was the only one to see combat.

“Uncle Nicky was at Anzio,” my mother confided. “And the South Pacific.”

As a child, I had no real idea what she was talking about, although Anzio was a cool and somehow romantic word. I used to say it to myself as I waited to fall asleep. Anzio, Anzio. I pictured Uncle Nicky as a fierce soldier dressed like my cousin’s GI Joe action figure, with a gun that blew up, taking his trigger finger with it.

It was only much later that I found Anzio on a map and learned about the bloody and pivotal battle that took place there in the first six months of 1944. Uncle Nicky saw hell in Italy, then was sent to help mop up the Japanese. As if this wasn’t enough for a young man to handle, Nicky’s young wife died shortly after the war.

Despite his experiences, when I knew him, Uncle Nicky was a lively, wiry, and good-natured man who occasionally visited my grandparents. It was many years later that I learned that he hadn’t been wounded in the war but lost his finger as a youth in a kitchen accident.

Uncle Nicky may have encouraged my love of history and geography but many veterans have impacted my life. My father was an Air Force meteorologist at a Strategic Air Command base when my parents met. A good friend parachuted into the first Iraq War and served as an awesome role model teaching my son how to be an altar server. A close friend’s husband served in Afghanistan. He survived multiple IED attacks only to face an indifferent and inefficient VA system.

The courage and strength of our vets have moved me, especially when I see wounded warriors rebuild their lives and go beyond what most of us could do. If like me, you are a fan of Dancing With The Stars, you saw double amputee Noah Galloway compete a few seasons ago. His resilience and determination resonated with millions.

I paid tribute to our veterans in the character of Joe Birnam in the thriller AWAKENING MACBETH. In the story, Joe is a Marine Corps vet who lost a leg in Iraq. When we meet him, he has retired from the military and rebuilt his life. Not to give the plot of AWAKENING MACBETH away, but a centuries old game is being played every night as we sleep in which the devil steals souls that wander in search of answers.

Awakening Macbeth

Get it on Amazon. Free for Kindle Unlimited readers.

In history professor Brodie Macbeth’s nightmares, Joe’s soul is the prize.

Why this particular soul? The would-be thief—call him evil or a demon or what you will—provides the answer.

“After all, the soul of a warrior is the biggest prize in the game. Warriors’ souls get insulated by pride and patriotism and discipline. Dedication to duty.

“They’re hard to come by.”


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

Season of change, complete with koi pond

Season of change, complete with koi pond

It’s the season of change.

After years as professional nomads, we finally bought the Dream House. The move to a new state was a 60-day exercise in logistics and determination during which we sold Old House, bought Dream House, packed up, and drove caravan-style for 2 days.

The television and printer, as well as much of my pottery from Mexico and Nicaragua, were casualties of the moving company. Otherwise we survived the ordeal intact to find that Dream House came equipped with a koi pond.

koi pond

Nothing against koi, but I never wanted any. The  pond is a magnet for the dog and takes time and attention to maintain. Koi food costs $30 a bag.

My husband calls them “the freeloaders.”

BUT watching flickering flame-colored fish soothes nerves frazzled by the Great Task of Settling In. Now after 3 weeks, 90% of the boxes are unpacked and I know how to get to the grocery store.

As a result, the draft of RUSSIAN MOJITO: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7 beckons. Big changes in my life will translate into big changes for the first female police detective in Acapulco, too.

But first . . .

Step 1

Find a dedicated writing space.

We decided to repurpose rooms. The family room off the kitchen has become the Banquet Hall. The dining room will be my new office. This means getting rid of the chandelier and the chair rail, not to mention the mud brown paint, to which the previous owners were much addicted. Brown is not a creative color, IMHO.

Step 2

Get organized.

While I want to devote 100% to Emilia and company, there are many demands on my time and getting this house together is a major one. Establishing a routine will help maximize my writing time, as will simple repeatable processes (for updating social media accounts, running Amazon ads, etc). This means gathering up all my old notes from webinars and articles about productivity and implementing advice that works for my schedule and situation.

It’s a game of increments, as a clever gentleman recently advised me. Small gains on multiple fronts are achieved by organization and perseverance and eventually add up to Big Things.

Now, now, now

Being Type A, naturally I want everything done yesterday. Wish me luck!

But as another wise person said, it’s all about the journey.

Time to feed the fish.


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

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. 

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. 

5 Excellent Phrases to Sound Busy and Important

5 Excellent Phrases to Sound Busy and Important

Some time ago, I took a break from mysteries and read BRIDGET JONES: MAD ABOUT THE BOY by Helen Fielding. It was time for some mind candy and Bridget Jones–books or movies–always delivers.

The book was written in the same diary/inner dialogue familiar from the first two Bridget books, but with a bit more emotional heft. Bridget is now a widow with two small kids, trying to get her life back together and date again.

Fielding reuses some of her best lines from the first movie (she was one of the screenwriters) to reestablish Bridget’s voice and the tone of the characters’ interactions. For example, Daniel Cleaver’s first set of dialogue in the book is virtually lifted from the silver screen and Bridget is again wonderfully airy about looking “busy and important.” In fact, the phrase “busy and important” is repeated several times and is clearly a Bridget/Helen favorite. And it should be, because it helps to set and maintain the character’s voice throughout the book.

Phrases like that occasionally stay with me long after I’ve finished reading or heard someone utter the words. A clever phrase can evoke an image, establish a character in a way that resonates, or lets me form a mental picture.

Although I’m very busy and important today, here are 5 favorite phrases that sing:

Attractively damaged man

This phrase was included in a magazine article about 30 things you should do before you are 30, including coin a phrase. Regrettably, I have lost the magazine and the author’s name but it was a very funny article and the phrase seemed to perfectly describe far too many men I met in my 20’s.

Structural tension

This is a phrase I’ve heard bandied about in relation to government agencies that don’t perform well and businesses that go under. It seems to be a neat way to blame poor decisions on a wiring diagram.

And I meant it to sting

The books of British humorist P.G. Wodehouse are a treasure trove of wonderful expressions and this is a delicious riposte that works even when you’ve said something inane and the target has left the room. Attributed to Wodehouse’s iconic character Bertie Wooster.

A face like late Picasso

Can there be a better description of what someone looks like? This is from one of the Harry Hole mystery novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo on the occasion of Harry looking at himself in the mirror after one of his drinking/drugging binges.

And trouble ensued

There’s a musical folly called Spaghetti Western Swing on Brad Paisley’s Mud on the Tires album that combines dialogue and music into a story about cowboys and bad guys in the Old West. The voice actors are famed musicians from the Grand Ole Opry. The whole thing is pretty funny—there’s laughter in the background so you know they were having a good time taping this—and at one point before the guitar swings into high gear someone says this phrase, creating the perfect imagery.

Well, time to be off doing something busy and important.

And trouble ensued.


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. 

Desert Island Folllies

Desert Island Folllies

There used to be a British radio show called Desert Island Disks. Guest DJs shared the 3 albums they’d want to listen to if shipwrecked on a deserted island. If you’re familiar with the classic BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley, you’ll recall the episode in which the village sets up a public service radio station for a week. Frank Pickle confuses Disks with Desks and renders the village comatose with boredom by talking about his 3 favorite desks for an entire evening of radio programing.

(You can watch the entire episode on YouTube!)

But back to the topic at hand. My first semester of college was marked by a Desert Island Disks phenomenon. My new roommate Brenda moved into our dorm room with 3 albums and a new stereo. Until Thanksgiving, when she replenished her supply, we listened exclusively to Alan Parsons Project’s Eye in the Sky, Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever, and REO Speedwagon’s You can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tune a Fish, featuring timeless tunes like Time for Me to Fly and Roll With the Changes.

In contrast to Brenda’s love for rock, my musical tastes up to that time revolved around starring roles in high school musicals, my mother’s collection of Glenn Miller and 101 Strings, The Nutcracker Suite, piano lessons, and jazz trumpeter Chuck Mangione who was also from upstate New York.

In short, Ted and Alan, not to mention the flowing locks of the Speedwagon boys, were total revelations to me and I have many happy memories of that music. Brenda and I listened to one album every night with the lights out in anticipation of sleep, discussing the boys we’d encountered that day, especially a tall drink of water named Lefty Wilcox.

Related post: The Right Fork

But none of those 3 albums would make it onto my list of music to have on a deserted island. I’d need something to sing along to like Broadway musical soundtracks. Oklahoma, George M!, and A Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Forum. Maybe I’d finally learn all the words to Comedy Tonight, as I went about creating my own version of Gilligan’s Island.

Perhaps I’d find enough driftwood to build a desk.

P.S. An interviewer once asked me what music I listen to while writing. The answer is NONE. There’s already so many voices in my head I don’t need competition.

On that note (pun intended) the 6th Detective Emilia Cruz, 43 MISSING is in process! Subscribers to Mystery Ahead will find out the release date before anyone else so get on the first-to-know list now!


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

Living With a Thief

Living With a Thief

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” — Teddy Roosevelt

I mentioned to someone recently that my goal for the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series is to eventually be as well known as the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny.

And got a not-so-subtle eye roll in response.

Thief in the night

Before I knew it, the comparison and the self-doubt train was rolling. I mentally cataloged all the reasons why Emilia Cruz was never going to rub bookshelf shoulders with Armand Gamache.

Related: The free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library

Yep, I sat there like I’d been hit by a sock full of wet sand and turned on the stupid comparison machine. My joy was gone, stolen by an involuntary expression of someone who’d never read any of my books.

Stopping the locomotive

But why shouldn’t that be a worthy goal?

After all, the books enjoy the same mystery loving audience. Readers who imagine themselves at Olivier’s Bistro sipping hot choolate will also enjoy a starry night in the Pasodoble Bar with a mojito.

Related: Why Acapulco is an unforgettable setting

Usually, I’m excited that I’m on the right track with the Detective Emilia Cruz series. I love the Gamache books and see that series, as well as the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo and the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith, as my role models.

Role models are great.

But comparison is a waste of time.

The case of Agnes and Martha

James Clear recently wrote about a famous case of self doubt. Agnes de Mille, the dancer and choreographer, told mentor Martha Graham: “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.” Martha’s response was: “It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.”

Mr. Clear’s article has a really valuable message: “It is not your place to compare it to others . . . Instead, your responsibility is to create. Your job is to share what you have to offer from where you are right now.”

Where the joy is

For me, the joy has always been in the creative process. I love making up intricate plots peppered with my own experiences. I love wordsmithing and tracking down that elusive perfect word in the thesaurus. I love the process of dialogue, acting out both parts to the dog as Emilia and Silvio have another knock-down-drag-out argument. Dutch has no idea what’s going on, but it’s attention so all good.

Teddy was right. Comparison is the thief of joy.

The thief is always lurking around the corner, waiting to be invited in by a random eye roll or thoughtless remark.

But if the joy is in the creative process, the thief has nothing to steal.


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

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