My debut novel, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, was published 8 years ago this month. A political thriller set against the backdrop of Mexico’s presidential elections, with a complicating Cinderella-style love story and corruption at the highest levels of government, the novel incorporated some of my own experiences in Mexico.
Longlisted for the 2020 Millennium Book Award, it is even more relevant today than it was in 2013.
THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY launched my writing career, despite the publishing insiders who rejected the novel for having too many Mexican characters. I still think it is the best thing I’ve ever written.
“A rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” – Literary Fiction Review
“An intensely exciting political thriller that fires on all cylinders, The Hidden Light Of Mexico City is one of those rare novels that promises much and over-delivers.” – BookViral
Acapulco Black Book is an unpublished Detective Emilia Cruz short story.
Frowning with curiosity, Emilia followed the coroner to the stitched-up body on the table. There was nothing remarkable about the dead man. His waxy face was composed, his eyes closed. He wasn’t tall or well-built or good looking. An ordinary fisherman, student, taxi driver.
Or cartel killer.
“How old was he?” Emilia asked. For a moment she wondered if anyone missed him, was worried that he hadn’t come home.
“According to his previous arrest record, he was 26 years old,” Prade said briskly. The coroner turned both of the dead man’s hands to show the palms and spread the fingers apart. “Nine fingers identify him as the late Julio Lira Valdez, reportedly dead in a car fire two months ago.”
“Nine fingers?” Emilia repeated. She could plainly see ten.
Prade reached up and adjusted the light fixture above the table, concentrating the gleam on the man’s right hand. “The print from his right index finger belongs to a man named Tito Sandino Hernandez. There’s no record of his death anywhere.”
Emilia didn’t need further prompting to see what Prade meant. Tidy stitches ringed the pad of the right index fingertip.
“Someone else’s print was sewn onto his finger,” she said. “Madre de Dios.”
“Whoever sewed it on was a gifted surgeon,” Prade said. “No infection and minimal scarring.”
“When was this done?”
“Perhaps six or seven weeks ago. From the healing, I’d estimate no more than that.”
“Madre de Dios,” Emilia swore again. “Around the same time as the car fire?”
“What do you think?” It was a rhetorical question.
Prade didn’t answer.
The body on the table, wearing someone else’s fingertip, supposedly died in a car fire two months ago. Presumably with all of his original body parts.
If the grafted fingertip had lifted and beckoned, Emilia would not have been surprised. A secret was hidden behind that carefully attached piece of skin. But as the concrete block walls of the sterile examination room closed in and her lungs screamed for fresh air, she didn’t care.
Emilia hated the morgue, but never so much as today.
“Quite a surprise, I tell you.” Prade gently set the dead man’s hand back on the table.
“You’re sure about the fingertip belonging to Tito Sandino Hernandez?” Emilia asked.
Prade came to the worktable and found a clipboard. “That’s what the database told us.”
Emilia pulled off mask and gloves made some notes, thanked Prade, and reeled out of the building. Leaning against the side of the Suburban, she called the hospital. The patient Tito Sandino Hernandez was still in critical condition. Yes, he had all ten fingertips. None were scarred or surgically altered.
Emilia cut the connection, her thoughts whirling. The man in the hospital had been identified as Tito Sandino Hernandez from the contents of his wallet. Identity card. Store credit card. The vehicle registration documents found in the truck.
But who was he?
ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny
A Gamache mystery that doesn’t take place in Three Pines? What is the world coming to??
Armand Gamache is once again head of Homicide for the Sureté de Quebec. He is on vacation in Paris to visit his grown children and await the birth of his newest grandchild. His billionaire godfather Stephen is there, too, making for a happy family reunion. That is, until Stephen is critically injured by a hit-and-run driver.
Witness to the accident, Gamache and his wife know this was no random accident but attempted murder.
Aided by his son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, until recently Gamache’s second-in-command and now working for a Paris-based multinational engineering firm, Gamache is determined to find out who wanted to kill his godfather. Together, they will uncover a string of mysteries, including a dead body in Stephen’s lux pied-a-terre and questionable links to the French Resistance during World War II, plus funny business at the engineering firm.
The action ranges across Paris, giving us an armchair tour through rainy arrondisements. We are swept across the city, from the legendary Georges V hotel to the wounded Notre Dame cathedral to the Luxembourg Gardens and dozens of points in between. Secrets and the unexplained nip at our heels.
The style is often staccato, with short, sharp sentences to heighten emotional impact.
She grabbed him to her again, and they held on to each other.
Weeping for Stephen.
A little of that goes a long way for me and I wish it was used more sparingly, but this technique keeps the drama high.
The plot of ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE, the 16th Gamache mystery, is solid. The climax was wholly believable and connected all the dots, especially when it comes to character development.
I loved the way the ending became a happy turning point for the Gamache narrative. My guess is that subsequent books will enjoy the original atmosphere and framework which underpin the success of the series.
Mexico has had a difficult time lately, with high Covid rates, a slow vaccine rollout, and ever rising rates of violent crime. However, there has been recent progress against one of the country’s most notorious unsolved crimes: the September 2014 mass disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero. (FYI, Acapulco, the setting for my Detective Emilia Cruz series, is the largest city in that state.)
Last month, Mexico’s Attorney General said three members of the Guerreros Unidos gang confessed to burning the students’ bodies. Authorities recovered evidence, including bones and teeth, in a remote river area. Remains were sent to the University of Innsbruck, Austria, for identification.
This shocking crime and the need for accountability inspired 43 MISSING, the sixth Detective Emilia Cruz mystery. It was certainly the hardest book I’ve ever written.
Acapulco Black Book is a Detective Emilia Cruz story. It is a “work-in-progress” exclusive to the Mystery Ahead newsletter.
Emilia took her coffee back to her desk to check her inbox before the morning meeting. She’d just clicked to open an email from Doctoro Antonio Prade, the coroner, when Silvio’s office door opened.
A man dressed in back stepped out, still talking over his shoulder to Silvio. Emilia nearly choked on a mouthful of hot brew when she recognized Victor Obregon Sosa, the head of the police union for the state of Guerrero. He was also the brother of Silvio’s late wife and had stymied Silvio’s career for years in an effort to break up his sister’s marriage. Isabel’s death had led to an uneasy true between the two men, but animosity always simmered just below the surface.
As Silvio’s partner before his promotion to lieutenant, Emilia had been on the receiving end of Obregon’s ruthless attention herself.
Handsome, powerful, and vindictive, Obregon used the police union as a weapon. He was a hawk, always circling above looking for prey. Every interaction with him was laced with tension and distrust. There was always a hidden agenda in his back pocket.
He made little distinction between his professional and personal appetites. Although never directly stated, Obregon made it clear that there was an offer on the table if Emilia cared to accept. Any time, any place.
It was ridiculous. Emilia was committed to Kurt. Yet the way Obregon brazenly raked his eyes over her could reduce Emilia to a handful of iron filings drawn to a magnet. The more she fought against it, the more sexual tension Obregon exuded. It was in every half-smile, lingering glance, and seemingly innocent question; an ember waiting to be fanned into a fire that would destroy her, body and soul.
Emilia slouched down, trying to hide behind the computer monitor. Hopefully, Obregon would walk through the squadroom and out the door without speaking to her. But it was not to be.
“Detective Cruz.” Obregon strode over to her desk, the line of his perfectly tailored black suit jacket wrinkling as he reached inside to pull out a pair of sunglasses. “Just who I needed to see.”
“Good morning.” Heart sinking, Emilia shut down her email program.
“I was just mentioning to Lieutenant Silvio that the union will be representing you to the inquiry panel.”
“Excuse me?” Emilia stood up, but kept her desk between them.
“The department is convening a board of inquiry into your actions in Colonia Alta Progreso earlier this week,” Obregon said.
“A board of inquiry?” Emilia tried not to show how surprised she was. The only thing notable about a shooting in Acapulco was that a cop had actually stopped one. That was hardly a reason to convene a board of inquiry.
Obregon tapped the sunglasses against a thumbnail and gave her the hungry look of a hawk spotting a mouse. “Without waiting for backup, a female officer discharged her weapon, resulting in the death of one civilian and critical wounding of another. Rather unusual circumstances.”
“The department can certainly hold an inquiry,” Emilia said. “But I stand by my report of the incident. They were attacking a residence. When I identified myself, they attacked me. I shot both in self-defense.”
“Yes, I’ve read your report. It left out how you knew where and when these two particular sicarios would mount an assault.”
For a second, the squadroom floor shifted under Emilia’s feet. Her police career, not to mention her life, could be in real jeopardy if the board decided that a rival gang had bribed Emilia to take down the sicarios.
“I was simply at the right place at the right time,” Emilia said. Even to her ears, the words sounded lame.
“You’ll need to expand your report. What route you took and why. Traffic and such.” Obregon’s eyes lingered on Emilia’s cotton blouse before lazily meeting her stare. “While you’re doing that, remember who’s going to represent you to the board. I’m sure you want your best interests to be at the top of their agenda. Wouldn’t want your career hanging by a thread, now would we?”
TRANSIENT DESIRES by Donna Leon
Commissario Guido Brunetti is back in the 30th book in Donna Leon’s legendary series set in Venice. Far from being formulaic, TRANSIENT DESIRES pits our familiar cast of characters against a seemingly unrelated series of tragic events.
Two American girls are left on the canal dock of the city hospital. One has severe injuries that suggest she was badly beaten. The hospital’s security camera allows the police to quickly identify the two men who dropped off the girls. Marcello Vio is a rising young attorney. His friend Filiberto Duso is a boatman for his uncle’s commercial transport company on the island of Guidecca, the huge island across the lagoon from the famous Piazza San Marco.
Guidecca is a world unto itself, and out of Brunetti’s jurisdiction.
The young men admit that they cruise around on Saturday nights, in a boat surreptitiously borrowed from Duso’s uncle, to pick up girls for some wine and swimming. Innocent fun, until the night in question when Duso hits an underwater pylon in the dark, injuring all on board. Knowing Duso would be in deep trouble for damaging the boat, the men bring the girls to the hospital’s dock. Before leaving, they ring the emergency button, not knowing that it is broken.
Two questions frame the initial investigation. Why did the men leave the girls so hastily and did they commit a crime by doing so?
Yet the real story lies elsewhere. Using his long list of both friends and police contacts, Brunetti ferrets out key complications. The size of the motors on the boats. Guidecca’s insularity. Tortured relationships.
In one of the best action scenes in the entire Brunetti series, the uncle’s human trafficking activities are pinpointed and interdicted. Brunetti has laid the groundwork but must rely on the Guardia Costiera to prowl the lagoon. The scene is exceptionally well done and lives up to the high bar Leon sets in every one of the books in this absorbing and authentic series. Bravo!
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2 Ark Builders Wanted
My corner of the world has been pummeled of late. Tornadoes, pandemic, a mad Christmas bomber, and now torrential rains. My local bookstore, Harper’s Books, got flooded.
Along with other volunteers, I helped pack surviving inventory (why are books on cat health SO HEAVY??) so the store can be refurbished, which means it will be closed for some time. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s not getting knocked down that matters, it’s the getting back up.
If you are not aware of Bookshop.org, (https://bookshop.org/) it allows you to shop online from independent bookstores and find unique offerings not on Amazon. Between a GoFundMe and online gift certificates through Bookshop, my local independent bookstore will survive, but yours might not without a little help from friends.
Inspired by a writing contest sponsored by Moleskine, a black notebook immerses Detective Emilia Cruz in a strange case of names, dates, and cartels in Acapulco.
Acapulco Black Book, Part 3
Emilia was behind the wheel of her Suburban. The afternoon sun beat down on the roof of the vehicle. She wore the big dark sunglasses that always made her feel like a masked superhero. Sunshine reflected off the glossy covers of a couple of magazines sliding around the passenger seat.
Driving through the colorful Colonia Alta Progreso residential neighborhood meant traversing the hills on the west side of the bay. Houses with a sea view preened over their lowly neighbors.
Neither too close to the tourist areas nor too far, Colonia Alta Progreso clung to a slowly fading dignity. Violent crime was encroaching, like everywhere else, but the narrow streets were clean. No graffiti marred the walls enclosing each property. No litter lined the gutters. Each household probably paid a street sweeper a few pesos each week to collect trash and scrub stucco.
Up ahead, a truck swerved as if to avoid a pothole. With the sixth sense of a cop who’d beat the odds more than once, Emilia knew something bad was going to happen a split second before it did.
The truck jumped the curb and screeched to a stop. The passenger side tires left skid marks on the sidewalk. Two men with long guns leaped out and ran to an ornate wrought iron gate bisecting a cherry-colored stucco wall. The upper floor of a house in the same bright shade peeked over the top. The men didn’t jump the wall or bust down the gate but fired through the iron filigree at the house.
Sicarios. Cartel killers.
Even as she yelled into her radio for backup, Emilia threw herself out of the Suburban. Crouching behind her open door for protection, she trained her automatic on the shooters. “Stop! Police!”
One of the sicarios turned toward the Suburban, his weapon carelessly sweeping rounds that chipped cement off the sidewalk, chewed a mangy bush, and thudded into the passenger side of the SUV. The vehicle rocked. Her glossy magazines slithered onto the floor. Heart pounding, Emilia squeezed off four rounds. All hit the man in the center of his chest.
He pitched backwards and slumped against the wall by the still-closed iron gate. A young man’s soft mouth hung slack below glassy and sightless eyes.
The other shooter let out a cry. He grabbed his fallen comrade’s arm and headed for the truck.
“Stop right there,” Emilia shouted, her ears still ringing with the echo of gunfire. “Police!”
Even as the sicario kept his hold on the dead man, the ferocious rattle of his weapon shook the air. The windshield of the Suburban exploded like an atomic bomb, spewing a mushroom cloud of glass and chrome. Emilia flinched away and stumbled into the middle of the street, far from the protection of the big vehicle.
She saw the whole scene as though hovering above. The shooter vibrated with the constant recoil of his automatic weapon. His long hair danced against a high forehead.
Leaden fire raked Emilia’s body. She swayed and flopped, as helpless as a corn husk doll in a threshing machine.
The street became a slaughterhouse. Her skin was a sieve that leaked blood. Her screams went unheard in the bright afternoon sunshine.
“Em, Em. Wake up.” A quiet voice broke through the nightmare.
THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman
What happens when the residents of a bucolic senior living community in England get together to investigate a murder? For starters, one murder becomes . . . many.
I’d read so many positive reviews of this book that I was primed to love it. And I did.
A local developer wants to add on to the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, home to Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron. They are the nucleus of the Thursday Murder Club, which gets together to review cold case files. The files belong to Penny, a retired police officer who has suffered a stroke and is incapacitated. The club is kept afloat by Elizabeth, Penny’s best friend and a wily former intelligence officer with contacts everywhere.
When the property developer dies under mysterious circumstances, throwing his plans to destroy the adjacent cemetery into disarray, the club decides to solve his murder. Elizabeth is the prime mover and uses the skills of each of the members to brilliant effect. Along the way, they’ll solve several other crimes that drift across the book like errant red herrings.
The novelty of the book is not only the subject matter, but the format. Joyce’s first-person diary entries are interspersed with scenes written from other points of view. All the voices carefully pull each other along through the complex case as each goes on their own small “hero’s journey.”
The more we get to know them, the more we love shrewd and mysterious Elizabeth, Joyce the man-chaser, Ibrahim the methodical retired therapist and Ron, the still-famous union activist and his son, a prize fighter making the circuit of talent competitions for the formerly famous. Add to the mix the two police officers who end up helping the club, as well as each other.
These well-drawn characters are so relatable that by the end of the book you’re ready for a drive to Coopers Chase. Luckily, I hear there is going to be a sequel.
Welcome to the website edition of the Mystery Ahead newsletter, with fresh #booknews, thrilling #excerpts, and #reviews of must-read mysteries. Need to subscribe? CLICK HERE.
1. Inside my CIA career
For those wanting the inside scoop, my new blog series has it all. Check out new posts about the intelligence use of video, wordsmithing for national security decisionmakers, and more: https://carmenamato.net/shop-talk/
2. GALLIANO CLUB update
The prequel, MEET ME AT THE GALLIANO CLUB, is coming along nicely. Watch this space for the release date!
Acapulco Black Book: A Detective Emilia Cruz Story
The sun was setting by the time Emilia headed for the spit of coastline called Puerto Marques on the southeast corner of Acapulco Bay. On her right, glimmers of pink and tangerine rippled across the Pacific. On her left, the mountain that sheltered the bay rose straight up just beyond the safety rail. She turned off the Carretera Escénica and rode the brake down the steep privada road to the cliffside paradise that was the Palacio Réal hotel complex.
The opulent drama of the hotel’s lobby was a million miles away from the gray intimidation of the evidence locker. Wrapped in thousands of tiny lights, royal palms soared to the vaulted ceiling from blue and white talavera pots as big as barrels. Past the white grand piano and jazz quartet, the lobby merged into the multi-level Pasodoble Bar, where rock stars, business tycoons, and world leaders came to sip mojitos and margaritas.
Emilia took the elevator to the penthouse.
It was always a jolt to think she lived in such a place. Emilia never planned to fall in love with a yellow-haired gringo, much less the general manager of Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel, but she had. Everyone was more or less used to the idea now, including Emilia.
“Hello,” she called and closed the front door behind her. “Kurt?”
Emilia followed his voice to their bedroom. She stopped in the doorway to admire the view of a physique tempered by an addiction to endurance sports and years in his country’s military before making a success of the hospitality industry. Kurt Rucker gave her a kiss before pulling on his after-hours uniform of board shorts and tee shirt.
“Long day?” he asked.
“Yes,” Emilia admitted. She plunked herself on the bed, suddenly overcome with fatigue. Yesterday’s drama had finally caught up to her. “Plus, I have homework.”
“I’ve already ordered dinner.”
“You read my mind,” Emilia said gratefully.
A shower and food revived her. After the meal, Emilia took the black notebook to the balcony outside their bedroom. Far below, enormous ceramic lanterns created a flickering barrier between the ocean and the edge of the Pasodoble Bar’s lower terrace. Reflectors on the hotel’s floating dock threw bobbing pinpoints of light against the inky horizon.
Her second study of the notebook confirmed her first impression. All of the entries were the same. A name, a number, and a date.
The list was in chronological order. The first entry was in early 2019.
“Where did you get a Moleskine?” Kurt came outside with two snifters of brandy.
Emilia looked up. “A what?”
“Moleskine.” Kurt sat and put the glasses on a table between the chaise lounges. “It’s a brand of notebook. I’m always looking for that kind with the hard cover.”
“What does this list of names say to you?” Emilia passed him the notebook.
Kurt leafed through it. Emilia closed her eyes, the better to collect her jumbled thoughts. Snatches of laughter and guitar music drifted up from the Pasodoble Bar, along with the hypnotizing rhythm of waves lapping against the shore.
“Ages and birthdays,” Kurt said at length.
“Can’t be,” Emilia said. “Some are more than 200.”
“Golf scores? Bowling team?”
“Not the type.”
“Is he a pedophile or a con artist?” Kurt asked. “List of victims?”
Emilia opened her eyes. “Thirty lines to a page. That’s a lot of names.”
“This guy wouldn’t have time to do anything else.” Kurt flipped a few more pages. “That leaves payoffs.”
“I know,” Emilia said quietly. “Add a zero to the number after the name and it’s a list of dirty cops.”
Kurt gave the notebook back. “Who knows you have this, Em?”
“Nobody.” Emilia closed her eyes again, willing the restless ocean to slow her pounding heart.
If the notebook was a list of dirty cops, how long did she have before they came for her?
V2 by Robert Harris
V2 is an excellent World War II drama, especially if you love technical details. Think The Hunt for Red October meets Foyle’s War and V2 will earn a place on your bookshelf.
This thriller runs on parallel lines, telling the intersecting stories of Kay Caton-Walsh, an intelligence officer in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and Dr. Rudi Graf, a civilian engineer with Hitler’s rocket troops launching V2 rockets at London from the Dutch coast.
An intriguing style continually adds snippets of backstory into the current timeline. You are quickly drawn into each character’s perilous situation while the unfolding backstories make them relatable.
Meeting her married lover in London on a weekend pass from her job as an overhead imagery analyst, Kay is caught in a V2 attack. A senior officer, he survives but their affair is found out. In part to escape the scandal, Kay volunteers for a risky new assignment.
In an attempt to take out the V2’s mobile launch sites, her team in newly liberated Belgium will calculate the trajectory of an incoming V2 to determine its point of origin. If they are fast enough, bombers circling the English Channel can target the launch site before the Germans dismantle it. Using slide rules for the complex mathematical calculations, the team has only a 6 minute window once a rocket is fired.
Meanwhile, on the Dutch coast, Graf is caught between panicked SS officers, the limitations of the hastily built V2s, and the need to keep the launch operations hidden in the woods until the last possible moment. Faulty components cause horrific accidents and Graf knows the ambitious launch schedule is impossible to meet. He is disillusioned with the brutality of his SS minders and increasingly desperate to escape the horrors of war. Yet he is loyal to long-time friend and rocket pioneer Werner von Braun.
The pages practically flipped themselves. The technical details of the V2 rocket were fascinating, so much so that you’re at every launch. But they were never overdone or too academic or dry.
V2 is an excellent World War II tale told from two different but equally absorbing perspectives, bolstered by excellent research and historical details. The ending brings the main characters full circle, at which point you can let out your breath.
A giant thanks to all who rated CLIFF DIVER, the first Detective Emilia Cruz mystery, on Amazon. It’s great to kick off a series with a rating of 4.5/5 with over 300 readers weighing in. Thank you very much!
Inspired by a writing contest sponsored by Moleskine, a black notebook immerses Detective Emilia Cruz in a strange case of names, dates, and cartels in Acapulco.
Acapulco Black Book, Part 1
Acapulco might be Mexico’s homicide capital and the tourism industry might be dying, but the police evidence locker gave the impression that the city was winning the fight.
Detective Emilia Cruz ignored the beep of the metal detector as she passed through and made her way to the counter spanning the width of the warehouse-like space. A thick shield of bulletproof glass stretched from the counter to the ceiling. The immediate impression was of denial of access; the glass was so thick that a diagonal glance distorted the view. The next impression was of limitless size. The uninitiated could be lost in the gray abyss beyond the glass, swallowed alive by the color of bureaucracy.
Sergeant Alvaro Cruz Ochoa, overlord of evidence and Emilia’s first cousin, looked up from his computer screen. His desk was the last barricade protecting the enormous iron cage that was the actual locker. A shopping mall’s worth of automatic weapons, technical gadgets, and miscellaneous items were stored there.
Emilia spoke into the speaker in the bulletproof glass. “Hola, primo. Got a minute?”
“Of course.” Alvaro hit a button on his side of the glass, a solenoid sounded, and a door by the counter popped open.
“I’m here unofficially.” Emilia gave her cousin a quick hug. She’d timed the visit perfectly; Alvaro’s minions had already gone home for the day.
“Of course.” Alvaro raised his eyebrows. “What do you need? Unofficially, of course.”
“Personal effects from yesterday’s arrest of Tito Sandino Hernandez.”
“I heard about that. Congratulations.” Alvaro motioned her into the chair by his desk and tapped on his keyboard. “Looking for anything in particular?”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” Emilia said and raised her hands in a gesture of surrender. “I know, I know. But I have a feeling I missed something.”
“Such as?” Alvaro leaned back in his chair, ready to gossip.
A tiny alarm bell rang in the back of Emilia’s mind. She stood and fanned herself with a hand as if her skinny black jeans and denim jacket were overly warm in the gloomy space. “Just point me in the right direction.”
Alvaro scribbled the row and bin number on a scrap of paper, unlocked the entrance to the locker, and led the way through the maze.
Tagged and inventoried and never solved, Acapulco’s violent crimes sat smugly on rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling steel shelves.
More than 90 percent of all crime in Acapulco went unsolved. Part of the problem was sheer volume. The city was a prize to be fought over by rival gangs and cartels.
The other part of the problem was the police department and its unspoken rules.
Keep your head down. Collect your pay. Collect your bribes.
After leading her to the correct shelf, Alvaro left Emilia to sift through the bin assigned to the effects of Tito Sandino Hernandez. Arrested for murder, the young sicario hitman was also the primary suspect in half a dozen other homicides.
Emilia knew if she could prove Tito committed the other murders, he’d stay in jail. Cases had to be ironclad these days. Judges were routinely bribed to free criminals on the basis of technical or procedural errors. Tito might beat one murder rap, but not six.
A fluorescent ceiling light buzzed faintly as Emilia examined the contents of the bin. A hoodie, a pair of cross trainers, a book by Walter Isaacson, a key ring, a Mont Blanc pen, and a black notebook with a hard cover.
Emilia leaned against the steel shelves and gingerly unfastened the loop of elastic that kept the notebook closed. A cubist logo adorned the inside front cover. The facing page provided a space for the owner’s name. It was blank.
The silky pages were cream with a faint black rule, heavy enough to keep the ink from the Mont Blanc fountain pen from bleeding through.
The first half of the notebook was filled with names, followed by a number and a date.
Filip Soares Villahermosa, 106, 10 December 2019
Luisa Diaz Moreno, 24, 11 June 2020
Julio Rosas Peña, 58, 16 January 2021.
Emilia slipped the notebook into her shoulder bag and added the key ring.
Alvaro raised his eyebrows as Emilia walked out of the locker. “Good hunting?” he asked.
“Not today,” Emilia lied, adding a rueful grin. She gave him a kiss, promised to have coffee with his family after Mass on Sunday, and walked out.
As head of the evidence locker, Alvaro had the power to add or subtract. Win favors or punish enemies. He kept the position by knowing everyone’s secrets and not flaunting the rewards that came his way.
Now and then, like today, Emilia availed herself of Alvaro’s position. That’s how things got done.
She loved her cousin.
But that didn’t mean she trusted him.
TRUE FICTION by Lee Goldberg
This outrageously campy thriller is pure escapism. Prepare to suspend disbelief, enjoy a zany premise, and get carried away.
Ian Ludlow, author of the he-man soldier of fortune Clint Straker thriller series, is a former TV writer from L.A. who is nothing like his heroic protagonist. But Ian is famous enough to be invited to a CIA-sponsored retreat with other action-adventure writers to dream up villainous scenarios so the Agency can prepare for the world’s emerging threats.
(Note: the CIA has lots of folks imaginative enough to write their own scenarios. See blog series above, thanks 🙂
Two years later, Ian is on a book tour in Seattle when the crazy scenario he developed for the CIA actually happens. Panicked, he reaches out to the other retreat writers, only to find out that they are all dead.
Suddenly, Ian’s recent rash of accidents don’t seem so random. When another attempt is made on his life, he goes on the run, dragging along a dog walker who works part-time for his publisher.
Ian doesn’t know the retreat wasn’t sponsored by the CIA but by a power-hungry corporation determined to use his scenario to take over US national security agencies. Ian is a loose end that needs to get tidied up.
Knowing that he’s being tracked, Ian needs help. Luckily the TV show he wrote starred the sort of help he needs. As the TV show comes into focus, it’s one of the funniest parts of the book.
Hollywood and the Vine. The tagline of the TV show is hysterical: Half man, half tree. All cop.
Sort of Starsky and Hutch meet The Ents.
Overall, the pace is slick, the writing is punchy, the situations are almost believable, and the campy fun never stops.
Although TRUE FICTION wraps neatly at the end, Ian’s saga continues. I can’t wait to grab the next book in this series.
I live in a fairly friendly town. So when there was a shoutout for women who work from home to meet for coffee, I went. About 20 gals showed up, none of whom I knew. As we were introducing ourselves, one of them said. “I’ve read your books. I had no idea you lived here.”
Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather, as the saying goes. Some time ago, she discovered the Detective Emilia Cruz books through a BookBub deal for a free book. Read the free book and bought two more.
It was a vote of much-needed confidence.
Far and near
I worried when we moved to the US heartland that I was far from my sources of inspiration. Would I lose touch with Mexico and the culture that so inspired me to write the Detective Emilia Cruz series and thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY? I had been immersed in the colors, food, the language, the religious traditions that formed the calendar of life in Mexico City. I’m far from Acapulco, palm trees, and cliff divers.
Facebook keeps me in touch with friends in Mexico but there are surprising sources of inspiration here at home.
This vine called bittersweet wraps around trees here. A strangling parasite or a plant that sustains and supports the tree? It seems to me to be the essential question as I write the relationship between Emilia Cruz and her mother, the ever child-like Sophia.
My small Catholic church has a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a niche to the left of the main altar. When I saw that, my Mexico memories felt tangible again. Not as far away as they were a moment ago.
Validation via work boot
We don’t hear Spanish spoken here very often, but my husband fell into conversation with two native speakers while buying work boots. The men were surprised to hear a tall gringo speak fluent Spanish.
Both were from the Mexican state of Guerrero. Near Acapulco, one added, assuming my husband wouldn’t know where that was.
My husband said that he was very familiar with Mexico. In fact, his wife wrote books about a female police detective in Acapulco.
He got some hard stares. “There are no female police detectives in Acapulco,” the other man said.
Fellow mystery author and former cop Lisa Preston stopped by to talk about her new series and share a great protip.
1. Carmen Amato: Lisa, thanks so much for stopping by. We met at the Killer Nashville mystery writer’s conference and discovered that we have a few things in common, like our love of smart dogs!
You are a retired police officer, as well as an equine expert. Why did you add mystery author to the resume?
Lisa Preston: The mystery form is so engaging, a great combination of both character-driven and plot-driven story; I’ve enjoyed reading it and I wanted to write it. When I did my book clubby, psychological thriller and suspense novels, readers wrote emailed asking what was next for those characters, and my agent said it was time for a series. I had this interesting idea of having a horseshoer as an amateur sleuth, and he sold it on a multi-book deal.
2. CA: Your upcoming release (November) is DEAD BLOW. Your main character is a female with a very unique occupation. What can you tell us about her and the book?
LP: Seeds for the mystery in DEAD BLOW were planted in the series debut, THE CLINCHER, which came out a year ago. The main character is Rainy Dale, a young woman with a lot of room for growth. She traces her childhood horse to the fictional small town of Cowdry, Oregon, then stays to try earning a living as a newly minted horseshoer.
She made a breakthrough in THE CLINCHER. In DEAD BLOW, she needs to keep learning to love herself and others, while she solves one of the town’s old mysteries.
3. CA: How do you use setting to create and build suspense? Tell us about a favorite location that you used in a book.
LP: I live at the edge of a million-plus acre backcountry wilderness that offers endless trails, unreliable cell service, plus encounters with bears, cougars, and the occasional deranged person. The majority of the country lives in much higher population density, but is interested in visiting these vast western locales, and enjoys imagining the unique difficulties the setting presents.
Rainy Dale is similarly situated down in Oregon. Both THE CLINCHER and DEAD BLOW offer a setting as distinct and challenging as my own stomping grounds of steep scrawny trails and magnificent panoramas.
4. 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?
LP: This week, I’ll say let’s spend the evening with Samuel Clemens. I’ve just gotten Twain’s unabridged works and was surprised to see he’d done a takedown of Fennimore Cooper. Then reading the details, I had to agree that a firearms scene is which the writer has the hero shooting a nail head located one hundred yards away is cringe-inducing. As a retired cop, poor law enforcement action or emergency medical procedure (I was a paramedic before I was a cop) makes me stop reading. Join us, Carmen, and we’ll eat a meaty stew and drink beer, while talking about everything.
5. CA: What is your best protip? Tell us about a writing habit, technique, or philosophy that keeps your writing sharp.
LP: I think many new writers do not revise enough. They think they have a finished, but it’s what you or I would call a draft.
When I teach revision, two things I have students do are deconstruct the written manuscript to make sure each scene is doing its job. I also tell folks to have their computers read the entire manuscript out loud. It’s amazing what you hear in the computer’s flat reading that you do not see.
Thank you, Lisa. That is great advice! Technology is (occasionally) our friend.
More about Lisa:
Lisa Preston started her fiction career with the bestselling psychological thriller ORCHIDS AND STONE, followed by the acclaimed psychological suspense THE MEASURE OF THE MOON. She now writes the Rainy Dale horseshoer series. Find all her books on Amazon.
RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7, will be released on 6 June. It is undoubtedly the most complex mystery I’ve ever written.
Emilia’s whole future is on the line.
Mystery writing: the big start
Every Emilia Cruz novel has multiple plot lines. My sticky note outlines are color-coded by subplot and spread across the wall above my desk. It grows as the book evolves, like a weed watered with Miracle Gro.
But before I can build that ever-evolving outline, I have to answer 3 essential questions:
What personal aspect of Emilia’s life will be impacted?
What uniquely Mexican cultural element will drive the crime?
Where does Emilia end up emotionally?
Here’s how the 3 essential question exercise worked for RUSSIAN MOJITO:
1. What personal aspect of Emilia’s life will be impacted?
After the dramatic events in PACIFIC REAPER and 43 MISSING which basically destroyed Emilia’s personal relationships, in RUSSIAN MOJITO she needs to either rebuild or move on.
Emilia must decide what sort of relationship she wants with her mother, whom Emilia believes lied to her for years about the brother Emilia never knew. Emilia must also deal with the feeling that her life would have been much better if she’d been the child her mother gave away, instead of the brother who ruined all the advantages he was given.
And yes, Emilia must either salvage her affair with Kurt Rucker, the gringo manager of Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel, or finally let him go.
2. What uniquely Mexican cultural element will drive the crime?
PIPELINE NO DIGGING: Warning sign at Pemex’s refinery in Salamanca, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
For some time, I’ve been tracking the phenomenon of fuel thieves in Mexico, called huachicoleros.
For most of us, living in tidy places were gas stations have credit card pumps and convenience marts, it is hard to imagine people driving through the night to the middle of nowhere to dig up a hidden gas pipeline, drill into the steel, insert a spigot, and fill cans with stolen gas to sell on the black market.
Think about the danger! Sparks from the tools used to drill through the steel. The dizzying fumes of gasoline drenching you as it gushes out of the tap. Wrangling heavy vats of gas and selling it by the gallon in some village square. The ever-present fear of fire and arrest.
It’s astounding that people are actually stealing gas out of underground pipelines but in Mexico, the problem has become big enough to close gas stations and have its own saint. Read Borderland Beat’s article about El Nino Huachicolero here. Read the Washington Post article on gas stations closing due to fuel theft here.
The danger is very real. For example, in January more than 80 people died when huachicoleros created a literal fountain of gas from a breached pipeline. Dozens of people rushed to fill containers. When the pipeline exploded, all those people were caught in a deadly fireball. Check out this stunning video from Euro News
3. Where does Emilia end up emotionally?
Again, after the cliffhanger endings of the previous two books, I wanted Emilia to get her life back on track.
RUSSIAN MOJITO has a satisfying wrap, akin to HAT DANCE and DIABLO NIGHTS, yet also teases us with the next book in the series, NARCO NOIR.
Hey, what about the Russian angle?
What, there are Russians in this book? LOL Only kidding.
Without giving away any spoilers, the Russians in RUSSIAN MOJITO insidiously find their way into every aspect of Emilia’s challenges. From her relationship with her mother, to what happens with Kurt, to multiple murders, to the huachicolero trade . . . well, you get the idea.
The Killer Nashville International Writer’s Conference was the first of its kind I’ve ever attended. I didn’t know quite what to expect but tried to put my best foot forward:
Served on 3 panels (Writing Spies and Espionage, Settings, Witness Reliability),
Was a conference sponsor, which put my name on the back of the awards dinner program and a copy of “The Beast” short story in every conference tote, and
Wore my lucky red dress on the first day.
At the 4-day event I connected with terrific authors I only knew from Facebook and email, including Mike Faricy (the Dev Haskell series), Jim Nesbitt (the Ed Earl Burch series), Kathryn Lane (the Nikki Garcia series), and Mike Pettit (the Jack Marsh series, the Max Simms series, etc.). I made new friends too, including Dale T. Phillips (the Zack Taylor series), Ross Carley (the Wolf Ruger series), and Margaret Mizushima (the Timber Creek K-9 mysteries).
Me and globetrotter Mike Faricy, author of the inimitable Dev Haskell series. Check out the lucky red dress.
The presentations given by experts on DNA, toxicology, and drug smuggling were outstanding. I now have a long list of terms to Google, like “volatiles” and “fracture match.” Guest speakers Jeffrey Deaver, Otto Penzler, J.A. Konrath, and Anne Perry all impressed with their experience and insights.
Major takeaways from Killer Nashville:
1. Consistent, high quality production is the name of the game. The best known authors in the mystery genre have 30 or more books to their name . . . and a fierce work ethic.
2. Even the best need to be resilient and take the long view. Jeffrey Deaver gave a great talk at Killer Nashville in which the word “escape” figured large. Stories struggling to escape the imagination. Writers struggling to escape the ordinary. Or in Deaver’s case, he wrote to escape being a nerd. Deaver read us entries from journals in which he recorded his epic fails on the way to publishing success. From no one showing up for book signings to technical glitches that destroyed pages, he showed that no author is immune. His bottom line? Be resilient in the face of disasters and persistent when it comes to writing what you love.
3. The divide between traditional publishing and independent publishing was the ghost at the banquet. For many attendees, traditional publishing still represents “validation.” The opportunity to sit down with an agent was the main reason they were there. Yet all four of the agents on the dedicated panel agreed that it takes 3-5 years for an author to get signed and published. The tortoise-like speed of that route would seem to be a serious handicap on the road to a big backlist. See 1, above.
4. Every traditionally published author has a loss-of-control horror story. Publishers putting the wrong title on a printed book. Publishing contracts that buy book rights for the life of the author plus 70 years. Publishers that pay 6% royalty. Publishers running a marketing campaign that targets the wrong audience. Publishers closing down their mystery imprint in the middle of a contracted-for series, leaving the author unable to publish elsewhere. And so on.
5. Discoverability is the golden ticket. Best selling indie author Christopher Greyson spends $100k annually on Amazon advertising. J.A. Konrath has written dozens of short stories to build discoverabiity in addition to his horror thrillers and the Jack Daniels series. Ironically, when legendary mystery editor and publisher Otto Penzler was asked how to get included in one of his popular anthologies, he answered, “Get famous.”
6. An author’s “platform,” or online presence and ability to influence others, is today’s must-have accessory. For those yearning to go the traditional route, it is one of the first things an agent looks at. A platform (read good website) is critical for an indie author to build an email list (with a newsletter like Mystery Ahead!)
Should this be the new Mystery Ahead newsletter header? Wearing a red raincoat in this photo. Not to be confused with red dress.
7. Anne Perry gets it. The bestselling author of 85 books gave the keynote on the last day of the conference. According to Anne, the role of a writer is to show lives we will not live. This really resonated with me, especially in terms of writing about Mexico’s disappearances in 43 MISSING. Incidentally, her publishing contract stipulates 3 books per year, 2 of which are around 100,000 pages, and the other is a novella. See 1, above.
8. Literary reviews are only useful to an author for one reason—the promotional quote. According to Deaver, there are very few credible literary reviewers any more. Reviewers rarely put your work into context. They generally don’t compare it to works within a genre or even the author’s own body of work. So take reviews with a grain of salt and ignore the sour ones.
9. Physical book tours are not worth the time. According to Deaver, hardly anybody shows up and you are better off using the time to write another book. That being said, Greyson has ordered (and paid for) 8000 copies of his independently published bestseller to send to bookstores and I’ll bet some signings go along. Secondary lesson: What you are willing to do re discoverabiity directly relates to how “discovered” you are . . .
10. When a friend reads your work . . . From Linda Sands, author of the Cargo series: Men friends will look for themselves in the worst aspects of male characters, but women friends look for themselves in the best aspects of female characters.
I’m heading to the Killer Nashville mystery writer’s conference, where 43 MISSING, the 6th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, is a finalist for the Silver Falchion award for Best Procedural. The award has multiple categories and many of the finalists are very well known authors so I’m amazed to be in such august company.
I’m armed with new business cards, too! This is the first time I’ve gone to a writer’s conference in my (so-far) 6-year-old writing career and I’m probably a bit too excited. No matter the outcome, I’m amazed and honored to have had both books recognized this way.
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Dan Petrosini: It’s great to be here. Luca, a homicide detective, pursues killers. Usually, he investigates one puzzling murder per story. However, Book 4, which is to be released in a couple of weeks, revolves around a serial killing.
2 CA: Luca has had a troubled life. How does that impact the plotlines of your books?
Dan Petrosini: Like all of us, Luca has personal issues; sickness, divorce, self-doubt, etc. At times they impact how he approaches a case and other times it’s a sub-plot. I’m a fan of realistic fiction. There are no super heroes or special powers in the real world and Luca lives in the real world.
3 CA: How did your writing style develop and what books and/or authors inspire you?
Dan Petrosini: When I began writing novels my writing at times was too dense. I have worked hard at creating quick paced stories with realistic dialogue and the feedback is positive. I’ve accomplished that.
4 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?
Dan Petrosini: Whoa, just one? This is tough. Can’t we have a dinner party? My pick would surprise most people – Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His portrayals and recounting of harsh Soviet means to silence dissent resonated with me. Not one for goulash, we’d chat over fish and pasta washed it down with a river of wine.
5 CA: What is your best protip? Tell us about a writing habit, technique, or philosophy that keeps your writing sharp.
Dan Petrosini: I believe the most important component to writing successfully, is to do it regularly. I write each and every day. My word count has grown and it has become easier. Not easy, but easier.
I realize many cannot find the time each day, which is fine. Find a time, one hour a week, one day a week, etc and stick to it. You will be surprised at how being disciplined will improve your craft and the words will pile up.
(Additionally, read like a mad man!)
More about Dan: Born in NYC, Dan Petrosini lives in SW Florida. Married with two adult daughters and a needy Maltese, Dan has written eight novels. Passionate about motivating others to pursue their dreams and creative sides, he plays saxophone in several bands and drinks too much wine.
After years as professional nomads, we finally bought the Dream House. The move to a new state was a 60-day exercise in logistics and determination during which we sold Old House, bought Dream House, packed up, and drove caravan-style for 2 days.
The television and printer, as well as much of my pottery from Mexico and Nicaragua, were casualties of the moving company. Otherwise we survived the ordeal intact to find that Dream House came equipped with a koi pond.
Nothing against koi, but I never wanted any. The pond is a magnet for the dog and takes time and attention to maintain. Koi food costs $30 a bag.
My husband calls them “the freeloaders.”
BUT watching flickering flame-colored fish soothes nerves frazzled by the Great Task of Settling In. Now after 3 weeks, 90% of the boxes are unpacked and I know how to get to the grocery store.
We decided to repurpose rooms. The family room off the kitchen has become the Banquet Hall. The dining room will be my new office. This means getting rid of the chandelier and the chair rail, not to mention the mud brown paint, to which the previous owners were much addicted. Brown is not a creative color, IMHO.
While I want to devote 100% to Emilia and company, there are many demands on my time and getting this house together is a major one. Establishing a routine will help maximize my writing time, as will simple repeatable processes (for updating social media accounts, running Amazon ads, etc). This means gathering up all my old notes from webinars and articles about productivity and implementing advice that works for my schedule and situation.
It’s a game of increments, as a clever gentleman recently advised me. Small gains on multiple fronts are achieved by organization and perseverance and eventually add up to Big Things.
Now, now, now
Being Type A, naturally I want everything done yesterday. Wish me luck!
But as another wise person said, it’s all about the journey.