Coming Soon! PACIFIC REAPER: A Detective Emilia Cruz #Mystery

Coming Soon! PACIFIC REAPER: A Detective Emilia Cruz #Mystery

PACIFIC REAPER, the 5th book in the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series will be released for Kindle on 28 March, with the paperback version coming the following week. Detective Emilia Cruz discovers an altar to Santa Muerte at a crime scene and the case will impact her as no other.

Related: Get the Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library

Emilia meets Santa Muerte

A gang war is terrorizing Acapulco.

Murder victims are sacrificed to Santa Muerte, Mexico’s forbidden saint of death.

Will you investigate? Or be cursed?

Detective Emilia Cruz confronts her worst fears in PACIFIC REAPER, the 5th book in the sensational police procedural series set in today’s Acapulco. Emilia and her partner Franco Silvio respond to murder in the remote Coyuca Lagoon reserve and find an elaborate altar to Santa Muerte next to the body of a known gang member. Even hardened cops are frightened by the bloody scene’s warning to the enemies of Santa Muerte.

Rivals retaliate by hanging a murder victim on a billboard. Gang warfare erupts like wildfire, burning a line across Acapulco bay.

Focusing on the Santa Muerte angle, Emilia’s investigation is soon a maze of unholy clues. At the same time, everyone close to her has a brush with death. Bad luck? Or is the Skeleton Saint’s curse coming true?

Undercover as a Santa Muerte worshipper, Emilia’s life will be stripped of everything she holds dear.

Her family.

Her lover.

Her job.


Related: Why Acapulco is an Unforgettable Setting for a Mystery Series

Unholy inspiration

PACIFIC REAPER was inspired by the growing cult of Santa Muerte in Mexico, documented in the seminal book DEVOTED TO DEATH by R. Andrew Chesnut. Dr. Chesnut writes that “Santa Muerte is first and foremost an unofficial saint who heals, protects, and delivers devotees to their destinations in the afterlife . . . Whether as a plaster statue or on a votive candle, gold medallion or a prayer card, she is most often depicted as a female Grim Reaper, weilding the same sythe and wearing a shroud similar to her male counterpart.”

Related: Book Review: DEVOTED TO DEATH

The cult of Santa Muerte in Mexico is growing rapidly and has been associated with both cartel violence and law enforcement. Dr. Chesnut notes that “Her appeal to all sides in the drug war testifies to . . . the force of her attraction to those whose line of work gives them an acute sense of their own mortality.” The dark side of Santa Muerte includes ritual killings, altars, tattoos and practices bordering on witchcraft.

The saint has many names: Skeleton Saint, The WhiteSister, The Bony Lady, etc. All of them give me the shivers.

You can check out Dr. Chesnut’s informative website about Santa Muerte: and read his well-researched posts on The Huffington Post:

Get ready for REAPER

A few months ago, NPR’s Felix Contreras asked me how many Emilia Cruz books I would write. Five seems like a huge milestone but I have enough ideas and research for 100! That being said, if you haven’t read the first four, get going before REAPER sneaks up on you!

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Cover reveal

Once again, cover artist Matt Chase has nailed it! The cover of PACIFIC REAPER is my new favorite. What do you think?

Pacific Reaper


Book Review: THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen

Book Review: THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen

THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen This excellent thriller, with a cast of characters to root for and deft plotting, is one in a recent string of bestsellers built on the trope of retired spies called back into action because of an operation in the distant past that went...

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FYI: uses Amazon Affiliate links.

Why Acapulco is an Unforgettable Setting for a Mystery Series

Why Acapulco is an Unforgettable Setting for a Mystery Series

Spenser has all of Boston to roam through, solving mysteries with Hawk at his side and meeting Susan later for dinner at Locke-Ober. Wallander has Sweden’s fog and gloom to wander, his melancholy matching the mist.  Arkady Renko contends with Moscow; taking us through the city’s shift from unsmiling Communist monolith to mafia-run knife-in-the-back dark streets. Guido Brunetti walks Venice’s rivas, his trusty ispettore in tow, a gourmet Italian meal awaiting him at home.

Detective Emilia Cruz has iconic Acapulco as her playground and the series makes use of its highs and lows. The city has grown increasingly violent in recent years as drug cartels battle over lucrative drug shipping routes into the US. But the city’s beauty and culture remain intact; the famous cliff divers still stun tourists, the dolphins still splash in the water park. But most of all, the sunsets, beaches, and blue ocean are among the best in the world. Not to mention the wonderful seafood.

With all that to work with, it is no surprise that the mystery series has been optioned for film. Acapulco makes a stunning backdrop for a mystery series. There is heat in Acapulco to be sure, but there’s also the warmth of Mexico.

Here is how the some of the most iconic settings feature in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

800px-FlowerStallJamaicaMarketDFMexico’s markets

Markets in Mexico are some of my favorite places. They brim with colors, smells, and textures that can’t help but awaken your creativity:

There was more than one entrance into the market and she’d ended up by the food section. Vendors showcased their offerings by stringing up scrawny red carcasses that could be cats or jackrabbits or odd cuts of beef between the uprights of the booths. A bloody board invariably waited for the vendor to chop off as much meat as the customer could afford. The rest of the carcass would be put back on display and some unlucky late shopper would be left with just the head or feet.

Emilia stifled a retch as she plowed through, often having to turn sideways to pass through the narrow aisles full of dawdling shoppers and aggressive vendors. The meat section gave way to the fruit and vegetable stalls where the attar of rotting fruit was as cloying as the butcher smells.

She kept going, turning into a section devoted to containers: woven palm baskets, plastic tubs and buckets, melamine bowls and cups. In the aisle, two old ladies argued over plastic tumblers decorated with cat cartoons and Emilia had to practically shout “Permiso!” before they let her get by. The baby section was next, booths full of disposable diapers in clear plastic-wrapped bundles of 10 or 20 stacked next to cans of baby formula, cloth bibs, and boxes filled with assorted jars of baby food.

Dogs and cats in cages dominated the next aisle, along with bags of dry pet food. Emilia passed flowers and a shoe repair stand, a few men selling picture frames, and then she was in an aisle with candles on both sides, pillars of wax decorated with pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, San Juan Diego, and San Miguel el Arcángel. There were plain wax candles besides the religious ones, candles that smelled like apples or melon, candles that had strings and plastic coins wrapped around them to bring luck and wealth.

A turn down the next aisle and Emilia was in junk heaven. The booths were larger, each a second-hand store. Many had garish signs advertising their wares. A pig advertised Everything For The Home, while a pirate pointed to Hidden Treasures. The best sign incorporated a half-naked hula girl whose grass shirt spelled out Chatarra. Junk.


Acapulco skylineBeaches

For most of us, Mexico conjurs up a great all-includive resort, with endless margeritas, scuba excursions, and a romance that we might not otherwise have had:

He kicked off his shoes and waited for Emilia to do the same. Together they stepped off the lower terrace and onto the hard-packed sand. They walked across the beach to the water’s edge and Kurt turned right to keep them parallel to the softly lapping surf. The sun was nearly below the horizon, just the rim of a fiery orange ball visible as it sank into the dark ocean, the kaleidoscope reduced to flickering stripes woven through the water.

They kept walking, holding hands, leaving the hotel further and further behind. Emilia let her sandals dangle from her free hand, trying not to think about Belize or the future or how the sunset reminded her of smoke and fire. 

The hotel’s lights and music receded; the sand became more coarse and the ocean more angry and violent. The waves surged onto the beach and sucked at the sand, reaching higher each time, thirsty for something hidden underneath and angry when dragged away before the treasure was found.

Kurt slowed his steps, then stopped. Emilia looked behind them. In the distance, the hotel glittered down the whole length of the cliff. She could see the curve of the bay and the hotel’s private marina. Lights hung in the sky, and she knew it was the even more distant Costa Esmeralda apartment building. The dark night had swallowed up cement and stone, and only the lights were left to compete with the stars.


Acapulco cliff diverPacific cliffs

Mexico’s Pacific coast is Acapulco’s dramatic backdrop. The city’s 50’s Hollywood glamour has faded but the cliffs and the bay still make for the most fantastic views anywhere: 

It was at least a dozen miles to Punta Diamante, the picturesque spit of land where the rich and famous played. Along the way, la Costera became the coastal highway called the Carretera Escénica, winding high up the side of the mountain that guarded the most scenic bay in the world. It was a ribbon of tarmac carved from the face of the cliff, lanes without guardrails or a safety net. Far below, on Rucker’s side, the bay twinkled and shimmered under the night sky. A few cars passed heading toward Acapulco but for the most part they were alone on the road with nothing to spoil the dramatic scene of mountain curves and glittering ocean . . .

The headlights in her mirror zoomed in. As the Suburban passed the deserted privada gate a salvo of gunfire tore the night and something hit the back end with a dull thud. The heavy vehicle shuddered and slewed to the right.

Emilia broke out into a cold sweat as she fought the wheel, trying to keep the vehicle on the high mountain road. The tires on the right side lost traction along the cliff edge. Time stopped for a day and a year before the lethargic vehicle responded and rumbled toward the center of the road and then the rear window exploded, spraying shattered glass inward. Emilia and Rucker both instinctively ducked as shards rained down. Somehow Emilia kept the accelerator pressed to the floor.

The Suburban lurched around a slight bend. The glare in her rearview was refracted for a moment and Emilia clearly saw the vehicle behind them. It was a small pickup, with at least four men braced in the bed. They all carried long guns.

“They’ll take us out here,” Rucker said. “There’s nowhere to hide and we can’t outrun them.”

“I know.”

“Brake and turn it.”

“Madre de Dios.” Before she gave herself time to think, Emilia hit the parking brake and swung the wheel to the left.

The small truck shot by as the Suburban screamed into the oncoming lane, tires chewing the tarmac, engine protesting. The mountainside loomed out of the inky darkness so fast Emilia felt the vehicle start to claw its way upwards. But momentum and gravity won out and the vehicle continued to spin.

The landscape was lost in a dizzying blur. Like a hand racing too fast around a clock face, they were pointed toward Acapulco in the right lane, then at the center of the road, then at the other lane, then straight at the cliff edge. Far below, white lines of waves rolled gently toward the sand, hypnotic and teasing.


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


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March for the Missing in Acapulco

March for the Missing in Acapulco

The road has disappeared under a wave of sorrow and anger. In a case of weather mimicking emotions, it is raining and thousands are unintentionally decorated with multicolored umbrellas. The raingear doesn’t hide the posters with faces of the missing. Rather, the umbrellas become a symbol of the lengths to which people will go to get answers.

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Protest marchers in Acapulco, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Protest marchers in Acapulco, Oct 2014

Rally for answers

I wish the scene was one out of the Emilia Cruz mystery series. Indeed, in MADE IN ACAPULCO, a rally takes place in the exact same place to raise awareness of the plight of those missing in Mexico’s drug war and Emilia must confront her own failure as a cop to stem the tide.

But the rally I’m talking about here is real and took place last week in Acapulco. Thousands turned out for a peaceful protest in the rain that shut down Acapulco’s main boulevard, the Costura Miguel Aleman, in an effort to get answers as to the fate of 43 teaching college students who were taken away by local police in the nearby town of Iguala.

Photo courtesy AP/Eduardo Verdugo: Protest marchers show faces of the missing, Acapulco, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy AP/Eduardo Verdugo: Protest marchers show faces of the missing, Acapulco, Oct 2014

On 26 September 2014, sparked by a protest over supposed bias against teachers from rural areas, the now-missing students clashed with police and masked men. Reuters reports that “Authorities say many of the missing students were abducted by police.”

Authorities have been using sniffer dogs, patrols on horseback and have been sifting lakes in the state of Guerrero, where Iguala and Acapulco are located, to determine the wherabouts of the students. According to the online edition of The Guardian newspaper, 19 mass graves have been found and 28 bodies so far exhumed. None of the bodies so far found have been matched to any of the missing students.

Photo courtesy Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Acapulco protest rally, Oct 2014

Photo courtesy Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez: Acapulco protest rally, Oct 2014

An arrest

According to ABC News, “Mexican officials announced the arrest of Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, the purported leader of the Guerreros Unidos drug gang suspected of acting with local police in taking away the students. He was detained Thursday on a highway leaving Mexico City, federal prosecutor Tomas Zeron said.

“Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said he hoped the arrest will bring new leads in the case.

“The government is combing the hills of southern Guerrero state with horseback patrols and has divers looking in lakes and reservoirs behind dams, but has not found the youths missing since a confrontation with police Sept. 26 in the city of Iguala. Officers are suspected of turning the students over to the gang.

“Authorities have arrested 36 police officers along with 17 alleged members of the gang. Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, are being sought for their presumed involvement in the disappearances, Murillo Karam said.”

Related post: Author Dilemma: When the News Writes Mystery for You

Endless road?

The end of this story is still ahead of us, but the circumstances that sparked it–police corruption, drug cartel influence, the endless money to be made from the drug and violence business–have no end in sight. The Emilia Cruz mystery series is fiction, but also a way of making folks aware of what is going on in Mexico.

Related post: Be Angry and Pray Hard

As the first and only female police detective in Acapulco, Emilia Cruz walks a fine line between the corrupt and the dead of her department. Her personal crusade to find out what happened to women who have gone missing in Acapulco is less fiction, however, than it is fact.

2016 Update

The 43 missing students have never been found, although the remains of 1 has been identified. I have decided to use this case as inspiration for a Detective Emilia Cruz novel. The working title is 43 MISSING.

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


missing in Acapulco

An Excellent Liar

An Excellent Liar

Big lies, white, lies, pretty little lies–Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz is an expert at all of them. But in the Emilia Cruz police procedural mystery series, she hardly ever lies to the people she cares about.

Hardly ever.

Meet the main character blog tour

Emilia’s lying habits are just the tip of a literary iceberg.  I’ve been tagged to describe my main character in a blog tour. Fellow mystery writer Billy Ray Chitwood tagged me in his tour post talking about his Bailey Crane series. I recently reviewed his 6th and last novel in the series A COMMON EVIL, which you can read here.

THE RULES ARE SIMPLE: I must answer seven (7) questions about the main character in one of my novels (I choose DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery.) Then, I nominate five (5) authors to answer the same seven (7) questions about the main character in one of their novels. Mention the person who nominated you (Thank you, Billy Ray Chitwood!)

1. Tell us a little about this main character. Is he fictional or a historic person?

Detective Emilia Cruz is an excellent liar, a fast thinker, a determined investigator, and a mean kickboxer. An Acapulco native forced to grow up too fast, she’s been a cop for nearly 12 years and a detective for two; a strong woman in a squadroom that didn’t want her and is still trying to break her. But Emilia isn’t afraid to defend herself and get what she’s rightfully earned. She’s a Latina who knows that many women in Mexico don’t get the chances she’s had. The proof is in a log she tracks of women who have gone missing–Las Perdidas, the Lost Ones.

But she doesn’t know how to handle gringo Kurt Rucker, the manager of a luxury hotel in Acapulco. A former U.S. Marine, he has the confidence and leadership qualities she admires. A triathlete, he’s calm under pressure and knows what he wants. But does Emilia?

2. When and where is the story set?

There’s the Acapulco that tourists know: luxury hi-rises, candlelit nights on the beach, the sweep of the most beautiful bay in the world, the majesty of the clear blue Pacific. There’s also the Acapulco that is a prize to be fought over by drug cartels–the city that is home to hookers and thieves, the streets where life is cheap and poverty is as pervasive as the wind off the ocean. Both of these versions of Acapulco claw at each other and force Emilia to survive between them.

3. What should we know about her? 

In DIABLO NIGHTS, Emilia is still trying to sort out her life. She lives with Kurt Rucker on the weekends at the most luxurious hotel in Acapulco. But during the week she’s with her mother in a small concrete box of a house far from the bay and tourists. Her partner, senior detective franco Silvio, is a perpetual pain in the you-know-where. To further complicate matters, Emilia is assigned to train a college boy whose family money has bought him his fantasy job.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

Emilia is challenged by Mexico’s drug cartels. Their influence and violnce is pervasive and crippling, extending into the ranks of Acapulco’s police force, union officials, and civil authorities. Anonymity is a cop’s best friend and Emilia does her best to stay off their radar screen.

5. What is her personal goal?

Emilia want to find out what happened to local Acapulco women who have gone missing amid Mexico’s drug violence. She keeps a notebook of missing women, whom she calls Las Perdidas–the Lost Ones. Her hunt for missing teen Lil Jimenez Lata is a continuing subplot throughout the Emilia Cruz novels. Will she ever find Lila?

6. What are the titles of your novels, and where can we read more about them?

The Emilia Cruz series includes:
Cliff Diver (Detective Emilia Cruz Book 1)
Hat Dance (Detective Emilia Cruz Book 2)
Diablo Nights (Detective Emilia Cruz Book 3)
Made in Acapulco: The Emilia Cruz Stories

You can check out all of my books on Amazon (both paperback and ebook formats) or here on this site.

7. When can we expect your next book to be published?

Two more Emilia Cruz novels are in the works for 2015: the first, SHATTERED SIESTA, will be released in late spring.


I’d love to hear more about the main characters created by these fellow thriller and mystery writers:

  • John Scherber, author of the Paul Zacher series
  • Jerry Last, author of the Roger and Suzanne mysteries
  • Sandra Nikolai, author of the Megan Scott/Michael Elliott mystery series
  • Norm Hamilton, author of FROM THINE OWN WELL
  • Brian Benson, author of TWIN KILLING

In other news

The latest edition of Writer’s Digest magazine features an article quoting Frances Caballo. Frances was one of the first people I “met” on Twitter and she interviewed me about my use of social media. She is a social media expert and coach for authors. Check out her website

I was honored to have all the Emilia Cruz novels reviewed on in the past few weeks. The reviews on this website are thoughtful and honest and I love that the books were read in order. In fact the entire website is organized so well that it is a pleasure to page through to find great mystery series. Here are the reviews of the Emilia Cruz books:

Besides the review on, DIABLO NIGHTS has received some wonderful reviews on Amazon, scoring it a rating of 4.9 out of 5 on Amazon. Vine Voice reviewer James Ellsworth wrote: “It is one of the two or three best books in this genre I have read this summer. And as a Vine Voice, I get asked to read quite a few of them. Put this series on the top of your list for airplane and hotel reading or for that ‘reading’ weekend of escapism.


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


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Reshaping the Acapulco Skyline

Reshaping the Acapulco Skyline

Acapulco has alot to offer: beautiful beaches, water sports, cliff divers, iconic skyscrapers, swimming with the dolphins. Get off the beaten path and you can add gun violence, murder, cops, and drug seizures. All that’s missing is a skycraper that looks like a corkscrew.

Ahem. Let me clarify.

In DIABLO NIGHTS, the third Emilia Cruz novel, Acapulco itself is as mch of a character as Emilia, her partner Franco Silvio, or her lover, Kurt Rucker. The action moves from Kurt’s hotel on Punta Diamante on the city’s far eastern edge, to the cruise ship docks near the old fort of Fuerte San Diego on the west side of the bay. Connecting those two sides of the horse-shaped bay is the wide boulevard named Costera Miguel Aleman. La Costera borders the ocean and is the major artery pumping cars, locals, and tourists around the waterfront.

DIABLO NIGHTS Reshaping the Acapulco skyline

The F&F Tower, downtown Panama City, Panama

All of the picture postcard shots of Acapulco’s downtown area show this road and the tall white skyscrapers that soar along it. In DIABLO NIGHTS, there is one more skyscraper, the fictional Torre Metropolitano. It’s a work in progress and the construction is pivotal.

  “The site of the half-built Torre Metropolitano loomed ahead as the road curved into the eastern side of the bay. When finished, the tower would be another one of Acapulco’s iconic skyscrapers rising from azure ocean, defiant and modern against a backdrop of iron mountains. Its innovative spiral design had been hotly debated in the news last year. Some said it would become Acapulco’s most famous landmark, others argued that the design was inherently unstable. But a consortium of investors had pushed it through.

The building would be 25 stories when done and about half had been erected. Steel and glass cladding rose into the sky, topped by a mammoth yellow crane. The whole structure was partially hidden by temporary construction barriers of corrugated steel. A picture of the Building’s final state was repeated on the barriers, as if miniature Torre Metropolitanos were strolling down the street, interrupted by the royal palms along the avenue.” — DIABLO NIGHTS

Related post: Blame it on Panama

The Torre Metropolitano is modeled after the F&F Tower in Panama City, one of the coolest–and scariest–buildings I’ve ever seen. Why this particular building? Well, you’ll have to read DIABLO NIGHTS to find out!

The Kindle version is out now, with paperback release in August. Happy reading, but if you are afraid of heights, well, don’t say you weren’t warned.

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


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DIABLO NIGHTS Cover Reveal and Kindle Release

DIABLO NIGHTS Cover Reveal and Kindle Release

The third installment of the Emilia Cruz mystery series, featuring the first and only female police detective in Acapulco, is out on Kindle!  The paperback version will be available in August.

And finally–the Cover Reveal! The final cover, shown here, is a slight variation of the winning cover which was one of four offered in a reader poll three weeks ago.

DIABLO NIGHTS is more of a psychological thriller than the previous two Emilia Cruz mysteries, CLIFF DIVER and HAT DANCE. Emilia’s is pulling threads and following leads and reacting to the news she gets at every turn. The emotional toll on her is high, but it leads to a new understanding of the resources available to her.

Here’s the Amazon description.

A religious relic lures Emilia Cruz, Acapulco’s first and only female police detective, into a labyrinth of drug cartel smuggling and revenge killings in DIABLO NIGHTS, the third novel in the explosive Emilia Cruz Mexico mystery series.

The relic, from Mexico’s Cristero War, also surfaces a long-hidden personal secret that Emilia cannot share with the man in her life, hotel manager Kurt Rucker.

The relic’s authenticity is in doubt, however, as Emilia and her partner, senior detective Franco Silvio, find a murder victim aboard a cruise ship. The victim’s pockets are lined with Ora Ciega, a rare heroin strain from Colombia that promises more drug war violence for Acapulco’s already bloody streets.

The Ora Ciega trail leads Emilia to a second body; that of Yolanda Lata, the mother of a girl for whom Emilia has been searching; as well as to a dead Customs official who had valuable information about the cruise ship murder. When stalkers shadow Emilia, the only conclusion is that she’s getting close to the Ora Ciega smugglers. Meanwhile, she’s assigned to train a rookie detective with friends in high places.

The destinies of Ora Ciega, the religious relic, the rookie, and the missing girl merge into a fateful trip into the hills above Mexico’s Costa Chica coast south of Acapulco. In a lonely place where vigilante groups have replaced civil authority and the crash of surf competes with gunshots, Emilia will face the biggest challenge of her police detective career. But it’s nothing compared to the shocking climax waiting for her back in Acapulco.


I’ve gotten so many emails asking when the next Emilia Cruz novel was coming out adn can finally say “Here it is!” Thank you to all the readers who have enjoyed the series so far. I appreciate all the mail and the generous Amazon reviews, too!

2016 Update

Like the rest of the Detective Emilia Cruz series, DIABLO NIGHTS got a redo this year with a new cover and new description, which you can see here. The 4th novel in the series, KING PESO, was released in August and the television and film rights were sold. Emilia could be coming to a screen near you!

Again, thank you for reading and staying connected!

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


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If You Went Missing, Who Would Know?

If You Went Missing, Who Would Know?

Donde estan? The question amid all the shoes in the picture is Where are they? This is the cry of those who search for and mourn the missing who are the casualties of Mexico’s drug war.

But calculating just how many are missing is a bureaucratic–and political–war of its own. The Emilia Cruz mystery series captures it in fiction. But it’s a fact.

missing in Mexico shoes of the lost

The numbers game

Many reports claim that as many as 80,000 people have gone missing over the last 10 years in Mexico, victims of drug cartel violence and corrupt officials. In 2012, CNN reported, in an article subtitled “Bodies for Billions” that just since 2007, 48,000 people had died dead and another 5,000 were missing, even while admitting that it was hard to be firm on the numbers as mass graves kept being found.

BBC reported in October 2012 that “According to figures released earlier this year by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, 16,000 bodies remain unidentified and a total of 24,000 people are missing.”

If you were missing: Posters of the missing. Picture courtesy of CBS news.

Posters of the missing. Picture courtesy of CBS news.

In early 2013, CBS news reported that shortly after President Pena Nieto moved into Los Pinos, a new list was created with data from local prosecutors across Mexico, including information about people reported missing for any reason during the previous administration. The new list proclaimed that slightly over 26,000 people were missing. The controversial list didn’t include information collected after November 2012.

Most recently, AP and ABC News reported that “Mexico has recalculated the number of people who have gone missing since the start of the country’s drug war in 2006, saying a total of 8,000 are unaccounted for.” Wow, what a big change. If the government spokesperson is to be believed, 14,700 of the missing from the previous administration have been found alive and about 750 have been confirmed dead. The big discrepancy between this year and last is that “people who had filed missing persons reports didn’t update them when their relative re-appeared.”

If you went missing: Pictures of missing outside a mortuary in Acapulco. Picture courtesy of BBC.

Pictures of missing outside a mortuary in Acapulco. Picture courtesy of BBC.

Las Perdidas

In the Emilia Cruz series, the issue of those missing in Mexico is kept alive in Emilia’s binder of women who have gone missing in the Acapulco area. It’s a small way of shedding light on the issue.

In the mystery series, Emilia’s log of the missing is a binder of information on the missing women she calls Las Perdidas. (The Lost Ones) There are more than 40 names in the binder and one name represents all of them: Lila Jimenez Lata. Lila is a teen who ran away from home. Her trail will alternate between hot and cold throughout the series as Emilia hunts for her.

If you went missing: Pictures of the missing on the side of a bus. Picture courtesy of Reuters.

Pictures of the missing on the side of a bus. Picture courtesy of Reuters.

Who else is looking

Last year I wrote about a new agency created to look for the missing  by Mexico’s Attorney General.  The weight of the issue called for some action–in 40 percent of the disappearance cases tracked by Amnesty International, Mexican law enforcement officials failed to open a criminal inquiry, according to Amnesty International. 

But the private sector is bringing the most attention to the plight of the missing. Rallies, posters, press attention, websites–these are the tools available to grieving families. Will websites such as help? With enough attention and participation, anything is possible.

If you went missing: tortilla wrapper

Tortilla wrapper featuring image of missing persons. Picture courtesy of BBC News

In other news

2019 Update: The first picture in this blog post inspired the story “The Artist” which has been released as the dual language English and Spanish volume THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA, edited by Karen Leclair-Ayestas and available on Amazon.. 

if you went missing

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


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From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

Planning a trip to Mexico? Wondering where to stay?

Readers often ask if the Palacio Réal, the hotel in Acapulco that Kurt Rucker manages in the Emilia Cruz mystery novels, is real. The answer is well, sort of.sunglasses isolated on white

The luxurious Palacio Réal  is a composite of my three favorite hotels in Mexico.  Yes, I have stayed at all three and combined the best of each into the hotel in the books. This way, I get to re-enjoy my visits to each place with authentic descriptions each time the action in the books shifts to the hotel.

If you are planning a trip to Mexico, these hotels are worth checking out!

Related: 3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

Hacienda Los Laureles, Oaxaca

We stayed in this hotel several years ago when it was newly opened. It is an old Spanish hacienda two miles outside of Oaxaca proper, in a neighborhood called San Felipe del Aqua, that has been renovated with a sense of architectural history so none of the charm has been lost. The owners did everything they could to ensure we had a wonderful stay and fussed over our children with free desserts and appetizers. My daughter still recalls being called “la princesa” for a week.

After hard touristing at Monte Elban and other Oaxaca sites of wonder we’d spend late afternoons on the patio having bittersweet hot cocoa and soaking up the ambiance. We came loaded with restaurant recommendations for places in town but often ended up dining at the hotel. The food was amazing and the service warm and genuine.

Since that stay, the hotel has consolidated its reputation as the only 5-star AAA lodging in the Oaxaca area. It is a small gem off the beaten path.

Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel and Towers, Mexico City

This hotel has so much to commend it. The first thing is a central location near the El Angel monument, the Colonia Cuauhtémoc business district, the US embassy, and the western edge of the Zona Rosa. The second is the shops on the ground floor including a good restaurant with reasonably priced food, a newsstand and souvenir shop, a clothing boutique, the first Starbucks in Mexico City, and a jewelry shop where I got a box covered in silver milagros charms. You can walk to a Sanborns department store for books and magazines. The hotel is a good base to explore the Zone Rosa district, including the Insurgentes market, across the wide Paseo de la Reforma (cross at the crosswalks only!!)

The third thing to commend this hotel is that the rooms are large, clean and everything you’d expect for an upscale hotel in a big city. The executive floors are worth the small extra amount, given that they come with butler service, a fantastic breakfast buffet in the executive lounge (you can watch the news in either English or Spanish depending where you sit) and an evening cocktail hour in the same place. You can get a reliable taxi out front. A much-vaunted St. Regis opened up a few blocks away but the Sheraton, in my view, is a much better location and value.

Related post: How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Camino Réal, Acapulco

If the fictional Palacio Réal reminds readers of any specific hotel, it is probably the Camino Réal. This luxe hotel is located on the eastern side of Acapulco bay, in an area called Puerto Marqués, not too far from the better-known Las Brisas resort. We stayed there twice, enjoying the secluded location, huge rooms, and terrific food. The hotel is a multi-level marvel built against the cliffside that its website describes as an architectural “cascade.” The way it is built allows for pools on multiple levels, excellent views, and a lot of quiet corners so it is easy to spend a lot of time there without running into many other guests.

Eating there is half the fun. Room service was wheeled in on a large round table draped with a floor-length tablecloth while the flagship restaurant cantilevered over the water made dinner a special occasion.

The out-of-the-way location keeps you out of the thick of the tourist activity in Acapulco, but the hotel has its own tour office and we were able to set up tours right there. Downtown Acapulco can feel similar to any busy beachfront town—albeit with better views—so staying at this hotel lets you have the experience that Acapulco was meant to be—a majestic sweep of ocean and the amenities to enjoy it.

Thinking of taking a break and heading someplace warm? My friend Dana at is extremely convincing with 8 Reasons Why Travelling is Good for You.  

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


favorite hotels in Mexico

A Counterfeit Money Mystery

A Counterfeit Money Mystery

Have you seen the new US 100 dollar bill? Compared it to the old bill of the same denomination?

Money and Mystery

The changes in the $100 bill drive the plot of “The Cliff,” a short story from MADE IN ACAPULCO: The Emilia Cruz Stories. “The Cliff” later became the beginning of the full length Emilia Cruz novel, CLIFF DIVER.

In the story, Emilia meets Kurt Rucker and together they discover that a vehicle seized by the Acapulco police for a traffic infraction is loaded to the hubcaps with counterfeit money.

    Three hours later they were staring at six million green Estados Unidos dollars piled on the floor in her uncle Raul’s auto repair shop. The rear body panels of the Suburban were off, exposing the ingenious system welded into the car frame to accommodate brick-sized packages. Even the four-wheel drive mechanism had been cannibalized to create more hidden hauling capacity.

   “Money in, cocaine out,” Emilia said. “The Hudsons are mules.”

   Rucker fingered one of the dollar bills, his forehead furrowed with thought. The hotel manager had worked side-by-side with Tío Raul as if he repaired cars in a greasy garage every day. His beautifully starched shirt had been cast aside, revealing a white singlet undershirt and muscular arms. Both the white undershirt and khaki pants were now as dirty and oil-spotted as Tío Raul’s coveralls.

   “These are brand new bills,” he said.

   “So?” Emilia got him a glass of water from the big jug of Electropura purified water. Tío Raul had gone to the one-bedroom apartment over the shop to tell Tía Lourdes to make them all some breakfast.

   “A couple of years ago they changed the design of American money.” Rucker spread several bills on the tool bench. “Made the image bigger. Added a tint. New watermarks.” He took a swallow of water. “But these are the old design.”

   Emilia ran her finger over the crisp paper. “You think it’s counterfeit?”


But I have a confession to make: I wrote the story before I ever held both an old and new $100 bill in my very own hands. This week, however, I was finally able to compare them side-by-side. I actually scanned two bills in order to create a featured image for this post, only to get a SERIOUS warning from Photoshop about altering scanned images of currency. Yikes. Hence the “Specimen” images from, the website set up to tell the public about the changes to US currency.

Old US bill

US $100 bill, issued 1996 – 2013

The new bill, which entered circulation October 2013, “incorporates new security features to deter counterfeiters and help businesses and consumers tell whether a note is genuine,” according to the website. According to a press release, “The redesigned $100 note includes two new security features: a blue 3-D security ribbon with images of bells and 100s, and a color-changing bell in an inkwell” to help Washington “stay ahead of counterfeiting threats.”

new bill

New US $100 bill, issued Oct 2013

The US Secret Service has a great page on detecting counterfeit money, which you can read here. You can also read more about the changes in the US $100 bill in this 2010 USAToday article.

It worked in the story

But not the way you’d expect.

Of course not, because the story is set in Emilia Cruz’s Acapulco. It’s the Acapulco that tourists know; the sweep of the most beautiful bay in the world, the majesty of the clear blue Pacific, candlelit nights on the beach, and luxury hi-rises. But it is also the Acapulco that is a prize to be fought over by drug cartels–the city that is home to hookers and thieves, the streets where life is cheap and poverty is as pervasive as the wind off the ocean. Both of these versions of Acapulco claw at each other and force Emilia to survive between them. No investigation will be easy, no crime will be simple.

But there is one thing Emilia can always count on when she is investigating: money is involved.

In other news

Last week I reported that the Writing for Water team has now provided 10 people with clean water for life so far in 2014 with donations to based on book sales. Our goal is 25 for the year.

All this is made possible by readers like you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

If you are an author who would like to join us, we want to hear from you! Read more here and please contact me via email:

Also, on Thursday, subscribers to my monthly updates will get the the entire first chapter of the next Emilia Cruz mystery, DIABLO NIGHTS, delivered straight to their inbox. Get on the list and don’t miss it!

All the best, Carmen

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


counterfeit money

Illustrating the Release of HAT DANCE with Drama and Dialogue

Illustrating the Release of HAT DANCE with Drama and Dialogue

Great mystery novels need drama and dialogue. HAT DANCE, the latest Emilia Cruz novel, delivers both but sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes it helps to have images as well.

Here is a bit about the book, which is being released for Kindle today and in paperback later this week, with images that give a taste of what this mystery series is all about.

The plot

Emilia barely escapes an arson attack that appears to be an effort to assassinate Acapulco’s popular mayor. Assigned to investigate, Emilia cannot shake off her own fears of the fire and her narrow escape from it. But even as she tries to focus on the arson investigation, Emilia is bound by a promise to look into the disappearance of a girl from Emilia’s own neighborhood. That simple promise will lead to some nasty family secrets and a jailed hooker who knows more than she is saying.

old concrete wall and chandelier

As the arson investigation veers off-course and Emilia lands on the wrong side of a dirty Vice cop, she’ll start making deals for access and information. But everybody knows that an honest cop can’t afford to deal with the devil . . .

Read Chapter 1 here

The cast

Many characters that readers met in CLIFF DIVER are back:

  • Emilia Cruz Encinos: the first and only female detective on the Acapulco police force
  • Carlota Montoya Perez: Acapulco’s ambitious and scheming mayor
  • Victor Obregon: The head of the police union for the state of Guerrero is both powerful and dangerous
  • Kurt Rucker: A norteamericano hotel manager who wants more than Emilia can give
  • Franco Silvio: The senior detective doesn’t want women in the squadroom, making him Emilia’s most dangerous enemy
  • Chief Salazar: Acapulco’s chief of police walks a fine line between political stooge and serious cop

sleep_quotePlus some new faces:

  • Mercedes Sandoval: A dance teacher will become a much-needed new friend
  • Lt. Nelson Rufino: The new chief of detectives has secrets he’s not willing to share

Check out the Emilia Cruz dreamcast here.

The setting

As always, the city of Acapulco inspires drama and dialogue all by itself. There is the Acapulco that tourists know–the sweep of the most beautiful bay in the world, luxury hotels and condos, fabulous restaurants and night life. But there is also the Acapulco that is a prize to be fought over by drug cartels, a place where life is cheap and poverty is as pervasive as the salt spray coming off the ocean.

The two faces of Acapulco will claw at Emilia and force her to live between them. No crime is ever simple, no investigation is ever easy.


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


Comparing Crime Rates: Acapulco vs Points North

Comparing Crime Rates: Acapulco vs Points North

In mid-February, prompted by a spate of news reports on crime for 2012–including a list of the top 10 most violent cities in the world, discussions of violence in Chicago and Detroit, and school closings in Acapulco due to security problems–I posted this picture and the following question on my Facebook fan page:

Acapulco nightAcapulco, setting for my EMILIA CRUZ mystery series, has been named the 2nd most DANGEROUS city in the world! Have you been to Acapulco? Do you agree?

The Facebook Response

At present I have 1898 Facebook fans, spread across 7 countries. More than half are in Mexico. 291 fans “liked” the post. Responses included:

  • “Beautiful paradise turned into hell.. where teachers are being extorted . . taxi drivers are decapitated, where many women have been raped, but only when happened [sic] to foreigners the authorities reacted as if the lives of poor, common Guerrero women were worthless.”
  • “Acapulco is violent and dangerous yes, indeed!”
  • “I think people over [exaggerate] things ‘cause look what happened to those kids in school. It’s always dangerous people make it that way in Mexico everywhere not just Acapulco.” (translation)
  • “I love the photo. Just . . . Perhaps . . . this is now the motherland of Mexicans. And you have to love her as such. First, individuals must be better in order to first form a society.” (translation)
  • “The whole world has violence not only Acapulco.”

Related post: Chain of Fools

Comparing Crime

The “it’s not just Acapulco” comments made me wonder. Were Acapulco’s homicide numbers really so much worse than Chicago or Detroit? Moving further north, what about Canada? What does high crime there look like? I had more questions than ever after that simple Facebook post.

Here is what I found when I compared the homicide rates in key cities in North America:

                           Winnipeg       Chicago         Detroit          Acapulco

Population:           700,000           2,851,265         700,000          880,000

2012 homicides              39                 500                 411                 1170

Percentage        1 in 17,948           1 in 5,702        1 in 1,703         1 in 752

I was looking for context and what I got was a shocker. Unless math has changed since I went to school, Acapulco is far and away the winner of this gruesome challenge. Winnipeg has the worst homicide rate of all Canadian cities but is incredibly low in comparison.

Are Local Gangs the Key?

What will it take to make a dangerous city less violent? Gangs fuel the homicide rates in Chicago and Detroit, according to many news reports, and it is well known that Acapulco’s gangs feed drug cartel violence. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced a new $9 billion crime prevention strategy to combat the rise of gangs in 57 poor neighborhoods and hotspots including Acapulco. Will it work? While homicide rates never tell the whole story, let’s hope next year the numbers are smaller.

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


crime rates

The Best and Other Interview Questions to Ask a Mystery Writer

There are certain interview questions to ask someone who has just published a novel in a mystery series. And other questions that are sort of odd. Here are the ones I’ve been asked lately.

1. Why did you write it?

Cover of Cliff DiverI wrote Cliff Diver: An Emilia Cruz Novel because current events in Mexico don’t make it to the top news stories for big media outlets in the US, despite the fact that over 60,000 people have died there in the past 5 years amid the ongoing violence. US news stories are more concerned with domestic politics, the Middle East, and Lindsay Lohan. And, of course, the Kardashians. If news stories on Mexico do make it to prime time, they are viewed in the context of the US national debate on immigration. The real story—the toll that the drug wars is taking on the people and culture of Mexico—stops at the border.

Oh wait—there was the story about a Mexican snack food company’s trucks being targeted by cartels. That made it to the US news. Danger to snack food manufacturing is important.

Interview questionsBut seriously. Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books gave US readers an authentic glimpse inside Russia, creating interest and an awareness that hadn’t been there before. I’m hoping that a contemporary mystery series can do the same for Mexico. The reviews for my 2012 political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City–a story from the heart that took on both Mexico’s rigid social system and the corruption that flows from huge drug profits–made me sure that contemporary fiction can ignite popular interest in what is happening in Mexico better than the news.



2. Who should read it?

When I first started writing, I thought my target readers were the women I’d met in Mexico City; smart, educated women who had jumped into the expatriate lifestyle with both feet, ready to learn new things and assessing and adjusting as they did so. But I’ve been happily surprised by the number of men who read The Hidden Light of Mexico City and liked it.

That’s a long way to say that my readers are those who like

  1. Clever, intricate plots
  2. Real characters who experience change and cope with it
  3. Creativity that stems from current events, history, real places
  4. Books that make other cultures accessible to the reader

3. What is it about?

Cliff Diver launches the Emilia Cruz mystery series, introducing an intriguing cast of characters, and putting the reader squarely into the complicated and conflicted world of an honest cop in Mexico. Emilia Cruz is Acapulco’s first and only female police detective so not only do the books have the usual elements of a mystery series—crime, investigations, evidence, clues, etc—but she also has to navigate her way through Mexico’s culture of machismo.

In Cliff Diver Emilia is forced to lead the murder investigation into the death of her shady lieutenant by a union boss with questionable motives. She faces resentment from the other detectives as well as a blood-spattered crime scene, no witnesses, and the shadow of counterfeit ransom money. Missing police files, the lieutenant’s involvement with a past kidnapping, and a possible link to a gang working for a drug cartel further combine to make this a messy case with too many loose ends.

Expecting to become a target herself because of her own brush with the lieutenant’s counterfeit scheme, Emilia must move quickly to find the killer. But as she pieces together the lieutenant’s last hours, she becomes a pawn in an ugly game of corruption, money, and power being played by Acapulco’s mayor (love this character, think a haughty Salma Hayek at her scornful best) and the union boss. Luxury hotel manager Kurt Rucker has some advice for Emilia but the heat between them quickly becomes a complicating factor. He’ll be back in other Emilia Cruz books.

4. I love mystery series. Tell me more.

Cartels and corruption aside, lots of the tension in the Emilia Cruz series stems from relationships between people. Acapulco’s ambitious mayor and the police union boss who complicate the investigation in Cliff Diver will make return appearances. Emilia’s mother, and the strays she takes in, will keep Emilia’s personal life off balance, as will American hotel manager Kurt Rucker. To keep things fresh, Emilia will have a different lieutenant in each novel.

5. I love Mexican food. What do people eat in the Emilia Cruz books?

Er, well. Acapulco is on Mexico’s Pacific coast so seafood is popular. In one scene in Cliff Diver, Emilia and her partner Rico eat at a seafood lunch bar:

Both had plates of rice, salsa, and pescado empapelado; marinated fish wrapped in foil and grilled by the sweaty proprietor. Emilia pulled apart the foil packet, taking care to keep her fingertips away from the billow of lemony steam. The whole fish lay nestled inside the packet, fragrant with citrus and tomato, the fish’s mouth open wide as if in surprise.

In another chapter Emilia eats ceviche—pickled fish–and avocado from a glass jar at a street stand. Her mother makes tamales and Emilia cooks arroz rojo.

6. What are your favorite lines from the book?

 A minute later Rucker was standing by her desk, sweat beaded on his forehead. The starched collar of his shirt was damp.

   “There’s a head,” he said breathlessly. “Someone’s head in a bucket on the hood of my car.”


     Silvio fired his gun into the ceiling and everyone went silent. A large overhead fluorescent light made a sizzling noise and went out.

     “No doubt Lieutenant Cruz has something to say to us,” Silvio said mockingly.


     “You’re a good cop, Cruz,” Salazar said. “The kind that die young.”

     He stood and turned his back on her to look at something on the other side of his desk.

     A paper shredder ground out a symphony as she left.

7. Do you really know anything about Mexico or Acapulco?

  • Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto was inaugurated on 1 December 2012 amid charges of  major voting day irregularities, claims of vote buying, and media bias. You can find him on Twitter @EPN.
  • At La Quebrada, Acapulco’s famous cliff divers plunge 136 feet (41.5 meters) into the Pacific and land in water only 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) deep.
  • Mexican government documents estimate that 25,000 people are missing as a result of drug war violence over the past few years.
  • I used to live in Mexico City and blog about my experiences now and then.

8. Tell us some fun factoids about writing a mystery series

  • I read 4 newspapers every day, plus regularly surf 3-5 websites that give me information about Mexico.
  • I use painter’s tape to post notes above my desk. Looks messy. But nothing falls off.
  • Sometimes I take a break and write about my dog.
  • All mystery series writers drink copious amounts of coffee. I am no exception.

9.  Where can I read an excerpt of Cliff Diver?

Here you go. Enjoy!

Cover of Cliff DiverBuy CLIFF DIVER on today! 

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


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