Welcome to the website edition of the Mystery Ahead newsletter, with fresh #booknews, thrilling #excerpts, and #reviews of must-read mysteries.
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1. Secrets of a CIA Career
I’m pulling back the curtain on my 30-year CIA career. In a series of blog posts, find out how being an intelligence officer led to a second career as a mystery author.
New posts are published every Monday. Look for the #truestory hashtag.
A giant thanks to all who rated CLIFF DIVER, the first Detective Emilia Cruz mystery, on Amazon. It’s great to kick off a series with a rating of 4.5/5 with over 300 readers weighing in. Thank you very much!
Inspired by a writing contest sponsored by Moleskine, a black notebook immerses Detective Emilia Cruz in a strange case of names, dates, and cartels in Acapulco.
Acapulco Black Book, Part 1
Acapulco might be Mexico’s homicide capital and the tourism industry might be dying, but the police evidence locker gave the impression that the city was winning the fight.
Detective Emilia Cruz ignored the beep of the metal detector as she passed through and made her way to the counter spanning the width of the warehouse-like space. A thick shield of bulletproof glass stretched from the counter to the ceiling. The immediate impression was of denial of access; the glass was so thick that a diagonal glance distorted the view. The next impression was of limitless size. The uninitiated could be lost in the gray abyss beyond the glass, swallowed alive by the color of bureaucracy.
Sergeant Alvaro Cruz Ochoa, overlord of evidence and Emilia’s first cousin, looked up from his computer screen. His desk was the last barricade protecting the enormous iron cage that was the actual locker. A shopping mall’s worth of automatic weapons, technical gadgets, and miscellaneous items were stored there.
Emilia spoke into the speaker in the bulletproof glass. “Hola, primo. Got a minute?”
“Of course.” Alvaro hit a button on his side of the glass, a solenoid sounded, and a door by the counter popped open.
“I’m here unofficially.” Emilia gave her cousin a quick hug. She’d timed the visit perfectly; Alvaro’s minions had already gone home for the day.
“Of course.” Alvaro raised his eyebrows. “What do you need? Unofficially, of course.”
“Personal effects from yesterday’s arrest of Tito Sandino Hernandez.”
“I heard about that. Congratulations.” Alvaro motioned her into the chair by his desk and tapped on his keyboard. “Looking for anything in particular?”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” Emilia said and raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. “I know, I know. But I have a feeling I missed something.”
“Such as?” Alvaro leaned back in his chair, ready to gossip.
A tiny alarm bell rang in the back of Emilia’s mind. She stood and fanned herself with a hand as if her skinny black jeans and denim jacket were overly warm in the gloomy space. “Just point me in the right direction.”
Alvaro scribbled the row and bin number on a scrap of paper, unlocked the entrance to the locker, and led the way through the maze.
Tagged and inventoried and never solved, Acapulco’s violent crimes sat smugly on rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling steel shelves.
More than 90 percent of all crime in Acapulco went unsolved. Part of the problem was sheer volume. The city was a prize to be fought over by rival gangs and cartels.
The other part of the problem was the police department and its unspoken rules.
Keep your head down. Collect your pay. Collect your bribes.
After leading her to the correct shelf, Alvaro left Emilia to sift through the bin assigned to the effects of Tito Sandino Hernandez. Arrested for murder, the young sicario hitman was also the primary suspect in half a dozen other homicides.
Emilia knew if she could prove Tito committed the other murders, he’d stay in jail. Cases had to be ironclad these days. Judges were routinely bribed to free criminals on the basis of technical or procedural errors. Tito might beat one murder rap, but not six.
A fluorescent ceiling light buzzed faintly as Emilia examined the contents of the bin. A hoodie, a pair of cross trainers, a book by Walter Isaacson, a key ring, a Mont Blanc pen, and a black notebook with a hard cover.
Emilia leaned against the steel shelves and gingerly unfastened the loop of elastic that kept the notebook closed. A cubist logo adorned the inside front cover. The facing page provided a space for the owner’s name. It was blank.
The silky pages were cream with a faint black rule, heavy enough to keep the ink from the Mont Blanc fountain pen from bleeding through.
The first half of the notebook was filled with names, followed by a number and a date.
Filip Soares Villahermosa, 106, 10 December 2019
Luisa Diaz Moreno, 24, 11 June 2020
Julio Rosas Peña, 58, 16 January 2021.
Emilia slipped the notebook into her shoulder bag and added the key ring.
Alvaro raised his eyebrows as Emilia walked out of the locker. “Good hunting?” he asked.
“Not today,” Emilia lied, adding a rueful grin. She gave him a kiss, promised to have coffee with his family after Mass on Sunday, and walked out.
As head of the evidence locker, Alvaro had the power to add or subtract. Win favors or punish enemies. He kept the position by knowing everyone’s secrets and not flaunting the rewards that came his way.
Now and then, like today, Emilia availed herself of Alvaro’s position. That’s how things got done.
She loved her cousin.
But that didn’t mean she trusted him.
TRUE FICTION by Lee Goldberg
This outrageously campy thriller is pure escapism. Prepare to suspend disbelief, enjoy a zany premise, and get carried away.
Ian Ludlow, author of the he-man soldier of fortune Clint Straker thriller series, is a former TV writer from L.A. who is nothing like his heroic protagonist. But Ian is famous enough to be invited to a CIA-sponsored retreat with other action-adventure writers to dream up villainous scenarios so the Agency can prepare for the world’s emerging threats.
(Note: the CIA has lots of folks imaginative enough to write their own scenarios. See blog series above, thanks 🙂
Two years later, Ian is on a book tour in Seattle when the crazy scenario he developed for the CIA actually happens. Panicked, he reaches out to the other retreat writers, only to find out that they are all dead.
Suddenly, Ian’s recent rash of accidents don’t seem so random. When another attempt is made on his life, he goes on the run, dragging along a dog walker who works part-time for his publisher.
Ian doesn’t know the retreat wasn’t sponsored by the CIA but by a power-hungry corporation determined to use his scenario to take over US national security agencies. Ian is a loose end that needs to get tidied up.
Knowing that he’s being tracked, Ian needs help. Luckily the TV show he wrote starred the sort of help he needs. As the TV show comes into focus, it’s one of the funniest parts of the book.
Hollywood and the Vine. The tagline of the TV show is hysterical: Half man, half tree. All cop.
Sort of Starsky and Hutch meet The Ents.
Overall, the pace is slick, the writing is punchy, the situations are almost believable, and the campy fun never stops.
Although TRUE FICTION wraps neatly at the end, Ian’s saga continues. I can’t wait to grab the next book in this series.
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List of Carmen’s books