Ellie Smart is a professional cliff diver, but not an adrenaline junkie. Riiiight. A native of...
What is Detective Emilia Cruz’s origin story? How was the mystery series invented?
Well, it started with poinsettias.
Many, many poinsettias.
The following is from the Author’s Note in the new edition of CLIFF DIVER, the first book in the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series.
Where it started
The little church in Mexico City was decorated for Christmas with 100 red poinsettias. Every pew was filled, many with sleepy but excited children, for a special Christmas Eve midnight Mass.
Father Richard was leading us in the Prayer of the Faithful when an armed man staggered up the center aisle, his limbs jerking as he alternately murmured and shouted incomprehensible words. We all shrank back as he made his way towards the altar, an unexpected and volatile presence.
As the congregation looked on in growing panic, the man accosted Father Richard. The priest didn’t move or stop the prayer, just dug through his robes for a pocket. He pulled out a few pesos and pressed them into the man’s hand.
By that time several of the male congregants had come onto the altar as well and they gently disarmed and propelled the drug-addled man through the church to the rear door.
Christmas Mass continued. The addict remained nameless to the shaken congregation. But he stayed with all of us, evidence that Mexico’s own problems were growing as more and more drugs transited the country en route to the insatiable United States.
We were an American family in Mexico City, embracing a new culture, exploring a vibrant city, and meeting people who were to impact our lives for years to come. But we always knew that the bubble was fragile and as if to prove it, Mexico’s news grew worse in the new year: shootouts in major cities, multiple drug seizures, rising numbers of dead and missing, the murders of mayors, governors and journalists.
Father Richard was murdered three years later. His killer was never found.
I carried my memories of Mexico with me when we left. I poured them into a new novel, bringing a fast-paced contemporary style to a Cinderella story set against the backdrop of political corruption and cartel violence. The result was the 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. The reviews made me sure that contemporary fiction could ignite popular interest in what was happening in Mexico better than the news could.
Detective Emilia Cruz, the first female police detective in Acapulco, followed soon after.
She lives in a beautiful pressure cooker
Once one of the most glamorous tourist destinations in the world, Acapulco has fallen on hard times, thanks to the drug trade. With one of the highest homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, Acapulco is a prize being fought over by rival drug cartels.
Tourism continues to be the city’s lifeblood but Acapulco has two faces; one of luxury and one of poverty. Both claw at Emilia and force her to survive between them.
Related: Emilia Cruz’s Acapulco
The series is as authentic as the Mexico I experienced and the drug war I fought as a US intelligence officer.
Emilia and I are in it for the long haul. We’ll see if a mystery series can raise awareness of what’s going on in Mexico, with plot elements straight out of the headlines, an authentic dive into one of the most beautiful settings on earth, and a little salsa fresca from my own years living in Mexico and Central America.
An origin story with hope and purpose
When Felix Contreras, the host of NPR’s ALT.Latino show, asked me about the Emilia Cruz character, I told him that she represented hope. Despite Mexico’s drug cartels and high murder rates, good people there are fighting for their country.
Part of the proceeds from sales of the Detective Emilia Cruz series support children’s cancer research, global water inequality, and US military veterans and first responders.
The drug addict unknowingly gave a gift that Christmas. The Emilia Cruz series will pay it forward.