Author to Author with Susan Spann

Author to Author with Susan Spann

I’m thrilled to host Susan Spann, author of the Hiro Hattori mystery series. Even if you don’t like sushi, you’ll be riveted by this series featuring a ninja warrior in medieval Japan.

1  Carmen Amato: Susan, thanks so much for stopping by. I found your mystery series books via Twitter and was immediately struck by their uniqueness. Two terrific key characters: master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo investigate crime in 1560’s Japan. Tell us how you came to write the Hiro Hattori series.

Susan Spann: Thank you so much for inviting me, and I’m delighted that you enjoyed the books! I fell in love with Japanese history and culture after reading James Clavell’s Shogun back in the 1980s—enough to major in Asian Studies at Tufts University during my college years—but the idea for the Hiro Hattori novels didn’t come to me until many years later. While getting ready for work one morning in 2012, I had the random thought: “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them,” and knew immediately that I had to tell that story.

2  CA: Hiro Hattori is a “master ninja” but certainly not a caricature. What was your inspiration and how did you craft him as a multi-dimensional character?

SS: Real ninjas—shinobi in Japanese—were masters of espionage as well as highly trained assassins. I’ve always felt the Hollywood portrayals (though entertaining) didn’t do them justice, and I wanted to make sure my ninja detective was closer to the real thing. I wanted Hiro to feel real—in his weaknesses as well as his strengths—and I did a lot of research to ensure I was portraying ninjas accurately while still creating a page-turning mystery adventure.

3  CA: Hiro Hattori’s sidekick is a Portuguese Jesuit priest. You have really departed from the norm here. Tell us how you came to match up these two unique characters.

SS: When creating the Hiro Hattori series, I needed a “cultural translator” to make the intriguing facets of Japanese culture and history more accessible to readers, most of whom wouldn’t know much about ninjas or samurai Japan. Since Jesuits came to Japan in the 16th century, which also happens to be the height of real ninja activity in Japan, pairing my ninja with a Jesuit priest seemed like a perfect solution.

Originally, I intended Father Mateo to serve as a “Watson” – more of a sidekick than a real partner in crime (solving). As it worked out, the characters felt differently, and I have to admit I’m glad. I love the dimension Hiro and Father Mateo’s relationship gives to the books.

Susan Spann

4  CA: You weave together historical myth and true history. Please share a surprising detail about your research process.

SS: People are often surprised to learn that I’m allergic to fish—which means I’ve had to find alternative ways of researching and describing many of the popular foods that appear in the novels, including Hiro’s favorite dish: udon (noodles) topped with onions and grilled fish. Fortunately, the allergy doesn’t stop me from enjoying my research trips to Japan—people are also often surprised to learn that a lot of Japanese cuisine does not involve fish at all!

5  CA: Medieval Japan has been the setting for some great movies aka The Last Samurai but what makes it a good setting for a mystery series? How do you use setting to create and build suspense?

SS:  Medieval Japan—what people sometimes think of as the “samurai era”—was a time of many contrasts. Samurai warriors often studied painting, literature, and flower arranging as well as martial activities like archery and swordsmanship. The juxtaposition of beauty and danger, as well as the intricate social rules and severe penalties for disobedience or dishonor, make it a fascinating place in which to set a mystery novel, because the characters often have far more to worry about than *just* who wanted the victim dead.

6  CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

SS: The list of authors I’d like to meet and talk with is so long…if I could choose only one, I think I’d like to meet Agatha Christie, and talk with her about plotting, twists, and where she got her fantastic ideas for her classic traditional mysteries. As far as the menu, I’d love to introduce her to shojin ryori—traditional Buddhist temple cuisine. It’s one of my favorite styles of cooking, and I’d love to hear her thoughts on that as well!

7  CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

SS: One of my all-time favorite novels is Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK. I loved the film, but I read the book first (and several times since), and it remains a go-to when I need a familiar adventure. His worldbuilding, pacing, and dialogue are fantastic, and he manages to weave real-world wisdom into a page-turning thriller, with lines like “In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.”

I hope that my novels never banish thought, and I aspire to someday write as well as he did.

Thank you so much for inviting me!

An attorney as well as a mystery author, Susan was the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year and is a former president of the Northern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Association. She is represented by Sandra Bond of Bond Literary Agency.

Find Susan online at her website (, on Facebook ( and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she loves to share photos and stories from Japan.


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Susan Spann


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


Susan Spann

It’s time to bring back The High Chaparral

It’s time to bring back The High Chaparral

I have a suggestion or two how to fix Hollywood’s Latino diversity problem.

Well, maybe not fix. But at least make a good start.

The problem in perspective

In a recent commentary for CNN, Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, noted that Latinos are 18% of the US population, but 23% of the movie-going public. At the same time Latinos are the most under-cast demographic. Latinos in leading roles decreased precipitously over the last decade.

Last year, NPR reported on the findings of a study done by the University of Southern California which concluded there is an “epidemic of invisibility” and “an inclusion crisis.” According to the study, “across TV and film, the underrepresentation of non-white characters falls mostly on Hispanics. Among more than 10,000 characters whose race could be identified, proportions of white, black and Asian characters came close to U.S. population figures. But Hispanics were just 5.8 percent of characters.”

Whatever happened to “follow the money?”

I’m scratching my head over the economic angle. If such a large segment of the population is interested in cinematic entertainment and has proven itself willing to spend money on this entertainment, why doesn’t the entertainment better reflect that audience?

In an essay posted on, award-winning actress Gina Rodriguez wrote “I am told time and time again ‘Latinos don’t watch Latino Movies. Latinos don’t support each other’ and sadly that is true . . . The industry sees money, the excuse can’t be racism . . . Let’s start making noise with where it matters most, where we put our dollars. Go support these films, watch these shows.”

To follow the money, then, we should have more projects that appeal to multiple audience segments while featuring Latinos in realistic and relatable roles.

If done right, such projects would be ripe for distribtion across the Western Hemisphere in both English and Spanish, creating powerful economic entertainment brands and paving the way for greater Latino actor opportunities.

Moment of honesty

Yes, I’m thinking of the potential of a Emilia Cruz television series or movie. Tough Latina protagonist, Acapulco in all its grime and glory under a hot sun. Danger, betrayal, corruption. Tentative attempts to have a personal life with an American lover.

All the elements of a commercial blockbuster for audiences across the Western Hemisphere, able to make a real dent in Hollywood’s Latino diversity problem with realistic characters whose issues resonate across ethnic lines.

Next best thing

If a Detective Emilia Cruz series never happens, I offer an equally compelling solution.

Remake The High Chaparral.

I grew up in the Golden Age of Westerns. Gunsmoke. The Rifleman. Laredo. All great shows but for my family, the standouts were The Big Valley and The High Chaparral.

My older sisters and I played play-acted on Saturday mornings as we did chores, with both shows as the setting. My sisters swooned over Lee Majors as Heath in The Big Valley, the saga of the rich Barkley family, and never really recovered when he later became the Six Million Dollar Man. Both wanted to link up with him in our play-acting, although now and then one of them threw a sop to actor Peter Breck, cast as middle brother Nick Barkley, and claimed him. No one ever wanted to marry Jarrod Barkley, the bookish oldest brother on the show. He wore suits and worked in an office. Nick and Heath wore six-shooters and were always outside fixing fences.

As much as we all loved The Big Valley and Barkley matriarch Barbara Stanwyck, the show that most captured our attention was The High Chaparral. Although none of us could articulate it at the time, the show stood out for its well-crafted backstory and layered relationships between family members.

Before its time

In The High Chaparral (1967-71) widowed rancher John Cannon moves to Arizona after the Civil War to make a new start for himself and his teenaged son, Blue. John’s brother Buck, a professional wanderer, comes along for the ride.

John buys ranch land from a wily Mexican, Don Sebastian Montoya, who throws in his daughter to clinch the deal. Victoria is beautiful, headstrong, and getting long in the tooth. John and Victoria reluctantly marry and she moves out to the Cannon ranch. Along with Victoria, John realizes he’s also got her brother on his hands. Manolito is charming and handsome but flighty. Everybody now has to figure out how to live together amid frontier drama and a lot of cows.

The High Chaparral had all the right stuff:

  1. A rocky marriage that becomes a true romance,
  2. Awkward stepmother-stepson relationship, with Blue trying to come to grips with his father’s iron will and find his own path,
  3. Respectful multicultural elements, with authentic Latino characters instead of caricatures or stereotypes.
  4. Sibling rivalry: John Cannon owns the ranch, Buck owns his horse and saddle. Manolito doesn’t want to be tied down; Victoria wants him to grow up.
  5. The bromance between Buck and Manolito provided comic relief with peppery dialogue and plots that got them off the ranch and into trouble. Neither man was completely trustworthy.

Both my sisters were in love with Henry Darrow, who played Manolito.  Cameron Mitchell as Buck Cannon, however, sat out Saturday mornings in the corner with Jarrod Barkley.

High Chaparral group photo

Photo courtesy L-R Leif Erickson (John Cannon), Mark Slade (Blue Cannon), Linda Cristal (Victoria Cannon), Henry Darrow (Manolito Montoya), Cameron Mitchell (Buck Cannon)

Updating The High Chaparral

The High Chaparral broke ground but I’d update it a bit for today’s audience. Still a multi-cultural, multi-generational show, but with a few tweaks:

  • Close the age range between Victoria and John. Give her more of a backstory and reason of her own to marry John. Possibly make her a widow with a young child.
  • Both John and Buck are veterans of the Civil War. Emphasize this to reflect today’s veterans’ experience and what we know about PTSD.
  • Emphasize the dramatic landscape with overhead shots to emphasize the difficulty of scraping out a life in the old West and the tension it brings to interpersonal relationships.

Something for everybody

A new version of The High Chaparral would have something for everybody:

The Latino audience = true-to-life characters, no stereotypes or caricatures

Romantics = the evolution of John and Victoria’s love story

Bromantics = the Buck and Manolito show

Millenials = Blue as millennial character navigating stern father, plus “mentors” Buck and Manolito

Blue Bloods viewers = Multi-age cast, family values, overdue return of the Western

Blended family advocates = Sibling rivalries, Victoria as stepmother, John as stepfather, plus troublesome brothers and scheming father-in-law

Solving problems, one show at a time

There you have it. A Detective Emilia Cruz show and a remake of The High Chaparral. Two suggestions for solving Hollywood’s Latino diversity problem.

I’m now off to tackle world peace.

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Hollywood's Latino Diversity Problem


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


Hollywood's Latino Diversity Problem

The Right Fork

The Right Fork

A number of years ago, when my children were young and we were living in Mexico, my family was invited to the residence of a NATO ambassador and his family for a New Year’s Eve dinner.  Our children were all the same age and the wife and I were close friends, both of us dealing with the challenges of setting up house in a new country, helping our children adjust, and learning a new language.

I’d been told that dinner would be casual but it was in the formal dining room with a table that could easily seat 30. Placesettings were as elaborate as if this was a diplomatic affair, with enough sterling silver on the table to make a small battleship and rows of wineglasses above each fine china plate. The meal was served in courses, starting with an array of caviar and smoked fish on a tray passed around by the butler.

My son, then eight, was seated next to me and watched the butler’s progression with alarm. “What fork do I use?” he whispered urgently.

There were four forks at each place: salad fork, dinner fork, fish fork, dessert fork. I silently thanked the fact I’d been brought up near the Oneida Silver factory store where Oneida silverplate was the mandatory gift for every occasion. “Start at the outside and work your way in,” I replied out of the side of my mouth.

The next course came. “Which fork this time?” my son asked.

“The next one over,” I told him.

“There’s a fork on top,” he said worriedly. “Dessert,” I hissed.

“What if dessert is flan?” His whispering was beginning to sound like a bad off-Broadway ad lib as our host’s mouth twitched with suppressed laughter.

“Use the spoon.”

“Which one?”

And so the long night wore on.

When we got home, I realized that my children needed to learn a few more skills in order to be prepared to go anywhere and participate in the world in any way they chose. I wanted them to be able to learn from and ultimately be enriched by the culture around them no matter where they went.

In an increasingly mobile world, we can travel anywhere, talk to anyone anywhere around the world, all at the push of a button. Citizens of the world. But what does that mean?

Here’s what I came up with:

  1.  Manners:  A World Citizen is aware of the local cultural norms and social etiquette wherever they go. They know what is polite and what is regarded as rude. They actively try not to offend.
  2. Desire for Information: A World Citizen has an open mind and is ready to put in the effort to learn about other cultures, the history that has shaped them, and why that culture is what it is.
  3. Connected:  A World Citizen uses technology to seek out information and connect with others.
  4. Tolerance: A World Citizen accepts that others will have a different belief system, or none at all, and does not judge (at least not in public.)
  5. Environmental Awareness:  A World Citizen realizes that we aren’t getting any more real estate on this planet and doesn’t trash up their part of it or anyone else’s. They respect efforts to renew and reuse and understand the need for basics like water and sanitation.

I’ll be sharing more here on what it means to be a World Citizen and asking you for your own ideas and experiences. Connecting across cultures isn’t a new concept but reading the news on any given day suggests we haven’t gotten very good at it.  So let’s start a new dialogue and see where it goes.

Maybe if we know what to do with all the forks, we won’t need so many knives.

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right fork


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


right fork

The Day of the Dead Disordered Dictionary

The Day of the Dead Disordered Dictionary

Catrinas photo by Tomas Castelazo

Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions will figure prominently in SUN GOD, the third Emilia Cruz mystery novel. The holiday focuses on gatherings to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars commemorating those who have passed away. If the souls return, they will hear the prayers of the living and perhaps offer comfort.

So in no particular order, here’s a guide to celebrating death—and life.


These skeleton figurines symbolize the departed and the Day of the Dead but have become part of the mainstream Mexican art world as well. Muertos wear different clothes to represent specific people and occupations. Markets across Mexico sell them, dressed as virtually anything you can think of, from mermaids to aliens and everything in between.

La Catrina

The Catrina, popularized by artist and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), is a muerto of a high society woman and one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.

Altar photo by Steve Bridger


This is the offering left to attract the souls of the dead, notably in the form of altars. There are guidelines as to how the items should be set out and what is to be used such as toys for children, bottles of alcohol, food, candy, etc. They can range from a simple home tabletop to hugely elaborate displays in schools, churches, and shopping malls.


Literally, “skull.” Sweets, notably chocolate, in the shape of skulls are sold everywhere for Day of the Dead festivities. In October, the city of Toluca hosts a sugar market that dominates the main plaza with vendors selling every size and shape of candy calavera imaginable. There is actually a website devoted to sugar skulls, with an amazing photo gallery.

Los angelitos

Children who have died and are remembered in a special way with altars decorated with toys and candy. I knew a woman in Mexico City who set out an elaborate altar for a child she’d lost several years previously as a way of coming to terms with the child’s death. She told me that as she placed the last item on the altar she felt the child’s spirit and knew that she shouldn’t mourn any more.

Pan de muerto

Sweet bread made with eggs, usually baked into a round or oval shape and decorated with white sugar icing to symbolize bones. I use the same recipe for basic sweet rolls.

Marigolds photo by Juan Scott

Flor de muerto

Marigolds are most often used to decorate altars, graves, etc. Sometimes masses of marigolds are shaped into skulls for parades and other events. The flower is thought to summon the spirits of the dead.

La Llorona

A legend throughout Latin America of a woman who lost her children. Grief turned her into a banshee and her screaming can be heard at night. The story is a little different in each place but in Mexico is a star-crossed drama of spurned love tangled up with the Spanish conquest.

The Power of Daddy

The Power of Daddy

Once upon a time, when we lived in Panama, I was walking the dog and passed a construction site where the workers were engaged in a furious argument. The Spanish flew too fast for me to catch every word but anger came through in every red-faced yell and hostile gesture. The whole block rang with the shouts between a worker on the would-be second floor of the roofless structure and another on the ground below.

As we passed I wondered if bad karma was being transferred from the workers’ anger to the house. Would it silently bleed over into the lives of the people who would one day live in that place?

It made me think of an opposite scene I’d witnessed in Greece, when a family gathered at a construction site in our Athens neighborhood to have their new home blessed. The Greek Orthodox priest, resplendent in his embroidered robes and gray beard, solemnly intoned a blessing while swinging a huge golden incense brazier over the cement foundation. The extended family, all in their Sunday best, stood proudly together in the mud of the construction site, responding to the prayers. They would have a good life in that house, I thought at the time, living in a place infused with God’s blessing.

I grew up in such a house, a long duplex that my grandfather built. My family lived in one side and my maternal grandparents in the other. As a very small girl, I recall being frightened by a school presentation about fire and asked my mother what would we do if the house burned down. Nothing bad could ever happen to the house, my mother informed me, because when he poured the foundation my grandfather had dropped religious medals into the cement. Mary and Joseph were part of the house and would always protect it.

Years later, my husband and I were raising small children. There were no blessings or religious medals factored into the construction of suburban builder homes to keep us safe. We were on our own.

My toddler daughter was scared, she told me one night as I tucked her into bed. There could be monsters in her room that came out when the lights were off. Maybe in the closet.

“Daddy doesn’t allow monsters in the house,” I replied.

And such was the Power of Daddy that the issue was never raised again.

To this day, it remains the smartest thing I ever said as a mother.

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



How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Love to find that perfect travel memory? Love authentic handcrafts? Head for Mexico City’s markets.

Markets inspired much of the atmostphere I wrote into THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, the romantic thriller and modern Cinderella story. The sights, sounds, and temptations of Mexico City’s markets helped drive the novel’s authenticity.

Mexico City's markets

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Find more than souvenirs

Mexico City’s markets are where you can fall in love with the country’s culture, people-watch both buyers and sellers, and find some of the best street food, too. Just watch your purse/backpack/wallet. Like every big city, Mexico City has its share of clever pickpockets, even in the best markets.

Related: The Lost Chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Each market has its own flavor and specialty items and everyone I know has their favorites. These are mine.

Bazaar Sabado

Bazaar Sabado art

Samples of handicrafts available at Bazaar Sabado. Courtesy

A straight shot down the big Periferico highway from the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec area, San Angel is the most colonial of all the Mexico City neighborhoods, with old Spanish architecture and a charm that makes you want to stay and explore. The market—Saturdays only–is located on the edge of the Plaza San Jacinto and spills outside the building, making it an interesting but fairly well contained exploration. This is the place for very high quality (prices reflect that, too) glassware, metalcrafts, mosaics, artwork, etc. There are several restaurants nearby with great food, too. The market’s website gives more information.

The main building is organized like a US antiques mall, with vendors in stalls surrounding the building’s courtyard. My favorite purchases there have been beautiful laquerware and cedar carvings of a village, including different churches. Alas, the dog ate the carvings (no kidding) and when I went back the vendor wasn’t there. The rule here, as with all Mexican markets: if you see it and like it, buy it NOW. You probably won’t see it again. These are pieces of art, not mass market products.

I’m also kicking myself for never having bought any of the glass mosaic pieces—candle hurricane lamps, bowls, etc– that are a feature of this market, so if you go, let me know.

Jardin del Arte

Jardin del Arte Mexico City

Photo by Agustin Valero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

“They waded into the sea of paintings that was Jardin del Arte.”

This quote from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY says it all. This Sunday market is devoted to paintings of all sizes and shapes and is one of my favorite weekend places. It is held in a park at the northeast end of Rio Lerma (on Saturdays there are ballroom dancing events where older couples come out and dance to big band sounds.) Artists whose paintings are sold for thousands in galleries come with the lesser pieces which you can buy for a fraction of their worth.

Then there are the unknown artists with one or two unique items, the artists who make a living selling the predictable Mexican village scene of a house, a girl, and a donkey, and the rest who make this a feast for the art lover.

On the fringes of the park there are vendors who sell art supplies—every size and shape of canvas and type of paint and pastel. I knew one American woman who bought several paintings every weekend for a year and opened a gallery in the US with them. No doubt she jump-started many a Mexican artist’s career.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Mercado de Jamaica

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter,

This is where people buy their voodoo stuff, I was told. Be careful if you go.

And yes, I saw the voodoo candles and statues of Santa Muerto, the saint of death idolized by drug cartels. Bottles of herbs and pamphlets with incantations. I bought a candle with special coins guaranteed to enhance the wealth of my family . . . still waiting to see the results.

Bu this sprawling market is also where the best Halloween/Day of the Dead costumes are sold, as well as flowers, food, pets, fabrics, household pots and pans, and just about anything else you can expect a Mexico City householder to use. Here’s a wonderful description of the market by Mexico City-based artist Jim Johnston.

Don’t miss out! Get your free copy of the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Free download here.


The market at Balderas

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter,

This downtown city market is a warren of vendor stalls with a big selection of handicrafts and household goods. It is big but the quality is a notch below Bazaar Sabado and the pickpockets are more in evidence. Expect more aggressive vendors, too.

My best purchase there was a ¾ size guitar for $40 that was well-crafted with a nice solid sound, perfect for a son learning a new instrument. We still have it, many years later.

I also got a Bruce the shark piñata for my daughter’s Nemo-themed birthday party that was nearly impossible to break (Daddy had to cut it open with a penknife before the kids could get the candy inside!)

This is a great place for embroidered tablecloths and talavera, the heavy painted pottery from Puebla. Many vendors will take custom orders and deliver the finished tableware to your house. If you aren’t ready to buy, ask for the vendor’s card (tarjeta) so you’ll know how to find them when you are.


Otomi embroidered cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon, Zinnia Folk Arts,

This upscale market on the Reforma side of the Zona Rosa is the best place for jewelry and the beautiful embroidered cloth by the Otomi Indians. It is near the Plaza des Angeles, a wonderful (and pricey) antiques mall with Spanish Colonial china, furniture, and artwork. (I have a soft spot in my heart for this place because I once left my car unlocked all day in front of it and the car was wholly untouched when I returned. A small urban miracle.)

The Insurgentes market can be a tight crawl; the vendors are squeezed together and the aisles between the rows of stalls are narrow. Most sell sterling silver jewelry and weigh an item before giving you a price. Stall owners can usually be found with a cloth polishing their silver inventory and will want to show you more items than what is on display. Lots of good copies of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and TOUS jewelry but the Mexican-designed necklaces, rings, and bracelets can be breath-taking, especially those with semi-precious stones.

The Otomi cloth is unique, embroidered with big animals, many of which are imaginary. The thread is often one color, making a big statement that looks very modern, although some are multicolored. Vendors at the market generally sell pieces big enough to be a bedspread—for $300 and up—as well as pillow covers, table runners, and place mat-sized pieces. Ask to see more than what is displayed; almost all fabric vendors will have more folded up and stacked somewhere. So You Think You Can Dance TV host Cat Deeley had a pile of Otomi pillows on her patio in InStyle magazine. If you can’t get to the market, find these beautiful textiles at Zinnia Folk Art, which always has a wonderful selection.


Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

The market in Coyoacan, near the bright blue Frida Khalo museum, is worth a stop if you are in the area. Coyoacan was among the first of the Mexico City’s neighborhoods to rbe named as one of Mexico’s Barrios Magicos (Magic Neighborhoods) due to its  tree-lined cobblestone streets, colonial-era homes, and rich cultural history. It’s got great local produce, as well as as a carnival of street food, including chapulines (fried grasshoppers.)

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Mexico City's markets


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


Mexico City's markets

The Girl on the Other Side of the Earth

The Girl on the Other Side of the Earth

When my daughter was little I wanted to give her a sense of her place in the world. We got a globe and calculated the exact opposite spot if one drew a straight line through the center of the earth from where we were.  We hit China.

We started to tell each other stories about a Chinese girl who lived across the earth from us.  She would be my daughter’s exact age, of course, and we wondered what she’d be doing. What clothes would she wear? What season was it for her? What food would she like to eat? If it was bedtime for my daughter was it morning for the girl in China?

Each time our family moved, we imagined a new girl on the other side of the earth from wherever we found ourselves. The globe has some pen marks on it now and we weren’t terribly geographically precise, but we still talk about where is the girl on the other side of the earth from us and what she is doing that is the same or different. Which was the whole point of the exercise, I think.

Right now, she’s a girl in Indonesia.

Where is that girl across the earth from you?

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other side


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


other side

Wicked Culture

A stroll through an outdoor book fair lining Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma boulevard a few months ago gave me the inspiration for the third novel in the Emilia Cruz mystery series. Most of the vendor stalls offered beautiful art books but what caught my eye was a cheaply printed pamphlet adorned with a drawing of a muerte skeleton figure wearing a long robe and holding a set of scales and a globe.

The dark side is alive and well . . .

Mexico’s Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte has become a cult figure in Mexico and is increasingly hailed as the patron saint of drug gangs, cartels, and violence. The saint is always a muerte, or skeleton figure, in a long robe with a hood. Sometimes Santa Muerte has a halo or a crown and carries either scales or a long scythe akin to the Grim Reaper. There are also images that meld Santa Muerte with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Murders associated with the cult of Santa Muerte made headlines last month when three people were killed in a ritual dedicated to the saint in northern Mexico.

The little pamphlet that I found was a collection of prayers to the Saint of Death, including a prayer to bring in money, a curse against jealous people and a prayer to dominate a husband, an invocation for a man not to look at any other woman, and a prayer to make a man forget another woman. In the next book,  Emilia will read the wrong prayer, of course . .

Papua New Guinea’s Sanguma

A spiritualism known as sanguma in this remote Pacific nation is widespread and most homicides in the country are thought to be related to it. 85% of the population lives in rural communities where belief in black magic is especially strong and passed down through generations through storytelling. Illnesses, sudden death by natural causes and other unexpected developments are often thought to be the result of sanguma. As a result, to erase the black magic, villagers often kill someone accused of being a sorcerer. Check out this report from ISP for more.

Haiti’s voodoo

Voodoo was acclaimed as a real religion in Haiti and revolves around in a distant and unknowable creator god, Bondyè. According to Wikipedia, Bondyè doesn’t intercede in human affairs but has a set of lesser dieties called Iwa who direct specific aspects of life.  Adherents to voodoo “cultivate personal relationships” with the lwa through offerings, personal altars and devotional objects, and elaborate ceremonies of music and dance, which are the means for possession by an Iwa. Supposedly being possessed by a diety is something to be desired.

Hmm. Creepy stuff. Time to go to church and light a candle.

Rude in Any Culture

Back when I started this blog, I talked about what it means to be a World Citizen, someone who can go anywhere because they understand and embrace the culture in which they find themselves. I identified a few things that go into the making of a World Citizen and Manners was one of them.

Related: The Right Fork

Manners differ considerably from place to place. Often rudeness is one culture is the norm in another. Differing views of standing in a line, for example. But some things are universal.

If you’re a World Citizen, you shouldn’t find yourself doing any of the following:  6 things that are Rude in Any Culture.

  •  Defacing national monuments or historic sites, including taking “souvenirs” which could prove to be significant artifacts, like, oh, the Elgin Marbles.
  •  Performing acts of personal hygiene in public, including urinating, picking one’s nose, clipping fingernails with the teeth, etc. One can never explain such actions in a way that is flattering.
  •  Talking in a theater, unless the movie is Ricky Horror Picture Show.
  •  Putting feet up on a table or other furniture unless invited. It implies disdain for others’ possessions.
  •  Smoking in areas where signs are posted that say–in any language–“No Smoking.”
  •  Overreliance on the word “fuck,” which is now a virtually global swear word, except possibly in France which is rude enough to stick to the time-honored merde.
rude in any culture

The Kitchen UN

The Kitchen UN

Oslo in June is a wonderful place. Clouds scud across a cobalt sky and the harbor is thronged with boats, tourists, and the smell of lilacs. After months of Arctic winter grey, the city is stretching itself awake in the midnight sun. You stay up long after sunset at 11pm, wrapped in a blanket at a harborside cafe.

And there in a shop window, was the perfect souvenir–a row of blue and white spice jars with names of spices in Norwegian, looking like an Italian-worded set that my grandmother had. I imagined them in a row on my counter at home, their blue letters proclaiming my adventurousness. Every time I’d look at them I’d remember both Oslo in June and my grandmother’s kitchen.


But mostly I’d be looking at pottery shards in a soft-sided suitcase.

So I passed them up and I’m still kicking myself. Those little jars captured what Norway meant: the bluest sky in the world, the freshness of energy of a reborn place, an unexpected reminder of my grandmother.  And my kitchen really needed that final touch; something to go with the salad tongs from Kenya, coffee mugs from England, corkscrew from Australia, the framed menu from my Paris student days, the olive cutting board from Greece, and a truly antique Delft tile I couldn’t afford, another from the tram stop at Binnenwatersloot where for once I wasn’t lost, a tiny ceramic square from Rome inscribed with the blessing Pace e Bene.

A fourth tile hangs on the wall. Hardly a prized antique, it’s a mass-produced tile with a color picture of a woman and child walking next to a walled village with “Rothenburg ob der Tauber” written on the bottom. I got it in an antiques shop in Virginia, in a box labelled “odd cups.”

It took me back to the medieval village of Rothenburg, to a 1981 trip my mother and I took to West Germany and Austria. We embraced the beverages, the food, the architecture, the people, and the fine bed-and-breakfast establishments recommended by the publishers of Let’s Go Europe. We climbed an Alp. rode a cable car, listened to Mozart in Salzburg, sang in the biergartens, and mourned at Dachau. And bought not one sourvenir.

So years later, I found myself paying the outrageous price of $12 for a chipped tile and exulting over such a bargain. Of couse I called my mother and she laughed as we remembered the beer, the wursts, and the rest of the trip. I smile every time I see that tile, knowing what a bond it represents.

The kitchen is the heart of the home. Maybe that’s why so much of my kitchen tools are souvenirs from my travels.

Bene e Pace

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



Land of the Unexpected

Land of the Unexpected

Once upon a time, I took a trip with a similarly adventurous-minded girlfriend to Papua New Guinea, which bills itself as “The Land of the Unexpected.”  I doubt it has changed much since then; it is a wild, mountainous place where the wheel was never invented. Civilization burst upon it as World War II rocked the South Pacific. Geographically, it is part of the Solomon Islands chain (think Guadalcanal) and WWII left the deep waters around it a graveyard for American and Japanese ships and planes.

In the capital of Port Moresby, we tasted crocodile in the hotel restaurant, did a little shopping for tortoise shell bracelets and a breastplate-sized kina shell to be worn as a necklace, and bought beer glasses at the South Pacific Lager brewery (I actually prefered the Fiji Bitters beer I’d had in that country, but that’s another story.) We also learned about the wartime Coastwatchers, the group of valiant locals that watched Japanese ships and planes and reported back to the Allies.

From Port Moresby we headed to the Highlands in a puddle jumper plane and found ourselves in Goroka, a settlement carved out of the wilderness that occasionally shivers from volcanic aftershocks. It’s home to the now sadly commercialized Goroka mudmen tribe and some of the strongest, most flavorful coffee in the world. While we were there the town observed a depressing cycle:  about 10pm every night drunken customers spilled out of the pool halls and bars and proceeded to rampage through the streets destroying whatever got in their way. Each morning everyone put the town back together again.

In the motel, where either the door or the window locked but never both in all the rooms the manager offered, we blocked the door with the dresser and stayed up nights watching a grainy cable station from Australia and listening to the commotion outside.  We told each other that the 1 in 4 rape statistic for the country might be the result of the passivity of the women we’d seen; we on the other hand were prepared to fight and fight hard. Luckily, it never came to that.

land of the unexpected

Despite the nightly rampages, we got out and about and presently found ourselves with a translator at a local market.  There were wonderful wooden carvings for sale, fanciful animals and platters and bowls and puzzles. There were baskets coiled into shapes both practical and fantastic.

We were charmed.

An array of wooden crocodiles and seahorses caught my eye. Pointing to the largest croc, I asked how much it was. The translator queried the woodworker, a grizzled older man chewing betel nut which had painted the inside of his mouth bright red. He wore shorts and a dark shirt with the sleeves cut off and his dusty bare feet were  the size and shape of a large dinner plate.  He replied to the translator who then turned to me. “He wants to know if you’ll pay the first, second or third price.”


“You pay the first price, the highest, if you’re a Big Man,” the translator explained. A Big Man was someone of Importance in the tribe, a person who paid a price commensurate with the respect that was to be accorded them. The lesser second price was paid by those who either weren’t quite a Big Man in terms of respect or didn’t have a Big Man’s means. The third price, the lowest amount of money, was paid by those who were of no account. Basically, it was a system of paying in accordance with how important you were rather than how valuable the item was.

I paid the second price–certainly wasn’t the tribe’s Big Man, yet didn’t want to be in the “no account” category.

The crocodile I bought that day is still around, as is a tall seahorse and the kina shell I never turned into a necklace.  And every time I see another news story about Wall Street I think about the unexpected lesson I learned that day about the cost of being a Big Man.

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land of the unexpected


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


land of the unexpected

A Walk in Her Shoes

A Walk in Her Shoes

I recently was on a plane heading from Central America to the United States. I had the aisle seat. Next to me, in the middle seat, was a middle-aged woman who was obviously new to airline travel.  The flight attendant rapped out directions how to buckle the seatbelt and stow carryons and continued to the next row. The woman looked panicked and I helped her get situated. We introduced ourselves. She was Maria from Colombia, this was only the second flight she’d never been on, and she only spoke Spanish.

A smooth takeoff turned into one of the bumpiest flights I’d ever been on. Maria and I held onto our complimentary dinners and said reassuring things to each other. We noted that each wore a small cross.

As we approached the US, the flight attendant handed out immigration forms. Maria stared at it blankly. I asked if she had the address of where she was going in the United States. She took out a well-worn address book, pressed it into my hand and asked me to fill out her form.

Maria was starting a whole new life in Tennessee with her niece’s family. She asked me if the winters there were cold; she wasn’t sure she could live in a cold place.

When her form was completed I explained as best as I could the immigration process and how she’d need to collect her suitcase before going through customs and finding her connecting flight to Tennessee. She kept nodding but I’d never had to describe such a process in Spanish and couldn’t seem to find the right words. But once in Houston I went into the line for US Citizens and pointed her toward the line for Visitors. Last seen, she was waiting patiently for her turn to show her passport to the uniformed official.

I wondered if I’d see her at the baggage carousel but the place was awash with people. The giant tote board showed nearly 40 arriving international flights. I’d just found the correct carousel for my flight when another woman, also about Maria’s age, addressed me in German.

I don’t speak German, just a few tourist bits from my travels like bier and weiner. But it was clear she didn’t understand how to get her luggage. The airport didn’t seem to have enough signs and few were in other languages besides English. And this was in the international arrivals area. I steered her back to the tote board and started reading off the city names. When I said Hamburg she nodded vigorously.

Baggage from the Hamburg flight was slated for carousel two. I held up two fingers and pointed the way. She saw the giant number hanging over the carousel and said “Thank you” in English. We laughed when I replied “Danke.” She gave me a hug and then went to get her bags.

I met up with her again in the Customs line. Through a series of gestures and a mix of languages I learned that her name was Marta and she was going to visit her daughter in Minnesota who was a teacher. When we parted at her gate I wished I knew how to say “good luck” in German.

As I waited for my own connecting flight, I mulled over my newfound role as a traveller’s aid society. A day in Maria and Marta’s shoes had been hard, full of incomprehensible directions and unfamiliar environments. I wondered how they would look back on their first experience of the big unruly culture of the US. They’d kept smiling and trying and hoping, because there was nothing else to be done, but underneath there had been fear of the unknown.

Every experience with a new culture is like that and putting on their shoes for a day was a good reminder. The world is smaller now than ever, and more connected, but it still takes courage to explore it.

Besos, Carmen

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walk in her shoes


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


walk in her shoes

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