Fiction author asks: Why do we fall in love?

Fiction author asks: Why do we fall in love?

True Story

I met my husband at a Memorial Day picnic. After burgers and hot dogs, our host hauled out Trivial Pursuit. Teams were assembled and a fierce no-holds-barred game ensued.

To my chagrin, his team won.

Nonetheless, when he called a few weeks later, we made a date for the 4th of July. He was well-traveled, well read, and had interesting things to say. We thought the same way about things that mattered.

Also, he had extremely attractive blue eyes.

We got married 10 months later.


Science of love

My own experience helps, but I’ve been researching love for the key relationship in my forthcoming GALLIANO CLUB series.

What makes people fall in love? Is it purely involuntary? Is there a chemical reaction in the brain?

Was I just a sucker for blue eyes and trivia?

Harvard researchers have done an unexpectedly large amount of thinking about the science behind love, which a 2014 article summed up as: “The sensation of being in an altered mental state, intrusive thoughts and images of the beloved, and changes in behavior aimed at getting a reciprocal response.”

Those Harvard types even broke down the chemistry behind the phases of love: “Love can be distilled into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Though there are overlaps and subtleties to each, each type is characterized by its own set of hormones. Testosterone and estrogen drive lust; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin create attraction; and oxytocin and vasopressin mediate attachment.”

A Yale researcher suggests physical warmth helps the cause of falling in love. Other behaviors that lead to love include positivity, making eye contact, and being a good listener.

Love, literally

Beyond the science, any good fictional romance has to show how an initial spark of attraction turns into something life-changing. I hate books with insta-romances that have no discernible basis. grrrrr

The reader needs to see WHY two people fall in love. The readers has to believe in their love story.

In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, Eduardo Cortez Castillo and Luz de Maria Alba Mora find a strength in each other that enables each to accomplish a nearly impossible goal. Neither could do it alone.

In AWAKENING MACBETH, Brodie Macbeth and Joe Birnam bond over mutual loss but recognize each other’s emotional vulnerabilities and help heal them. Yet, those vulnerabilities save their lives.

In the DETECTIVE EMILIA CRUZ series, Emilia Cruz sees Kurt Rucker as someone who can help her manage her situation as the only female police detective in Acapulco. She loves his strength and the fact that it comes without the machismo mindset of a Mexican man. Former military, he’s attracted to her independence and the danger that comes with her job.

Each of these relationships are powered by dialogue. A critical initial conversation between the two characters sets the tone.

Love at the Galliano Club

In MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB, the first book in the series set in 1926 in the fictional city of Lido, NY, our lovers have vastly different backgrounds, yet each is hungry for a sense of belonging.

Rudolph Valentino

Silent screen star Rudolph Valentino is the inspiration for Luca Lombardo. Ironically, Valentino died in 1926, the year in which the Galliano Club series is set.

Luca Lombardo is a relatively recent immigrant to the US from Italy. Still a young man, he’s a widower who feels he must atone for the death of his wife and child.

Dorothy Gulliver

Silent film starlet Dorothy Gulliver is my inspiration for Tess Kennedy. She was one of the few silent film actresses to make the transition to talkies.

Tess Kennedy is a modern woman with a college education (Vassar, Class of 1924) and a job in a bank, but coping with a disintegrating family situation.

How will their mutual attraction play out? Will murder, blackmail, and crooked cops get in the way?

Will anyone have extremely attractive blue eyes?

Read more about the GALLIANO CLUB series here.

>>> If you really want to know more about falling in love, the folks at Romantific have all the answers! Check out this post on how long it takes to fall in love!

Falling in Love

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


Book Review: GRAY GHOST MURDERS by Keith McCafferty

Book Review: GRAY GHOST MURDERS by Keith McCafferty

I know nothing about fly fishing and have never been to Montana. Nevertheless, the Sean Stranahan mystery series by Keith McCafferty has me hooked.

(Sorry, could not resist.)

The series has elements of both the Longmire and Mike Bowditch series, but with a gentle charm you don’t see too often in a mystery series. Add top-notch writing and evocative descriptions of the Montana wilderness and it’s an absolute winner.

THE GRAY GHOST MURDERS is the second in the Sean Stranahan series but they are all standalones. I picked this up, frankly, because of the cover. But author McCafferty, an editor at Field and Stream magazine, is an accomplished writer whose characters are so appealing, you can’t help but be drawn into their world of rural Montana and the outdoors, not to mention the art and science of fly fishing.

Rugged landscape and fisherman

This evokes the setting for the book, with the fly fisherman with his net. Photo by Matt Noble via Unsplash


Sean is an artist, fishing guide, and sometime sheriff’s deputy in Hyalite County, Montana. He’s also a former detective who worked for a law firm in Boston before he moved to Montana. Not rich, he bunks in his art studio and gets an unexpected windfall when a wealthy group of anglers asks him to find two valuable vintage fishing flies that were stolen from their summer camp.

And thus we learn of the world of rare fishing flies, which are auctioned like rare books.


Fishing lure

Fishing lure. Even if you know nothing about fishing, this book series will captivate. Photo by Mael Balland via Unsplash


At the same time, Sheriff Martha Ettinger asks Sean to help investigate the suspicious deaths of two men whose bodies are found on Sphinx Mountain. The secondary characters, including Martha and a cast of deputies are all so well drawn we’re sifting through clues on the mountaintop with them, bear repellent at the ready.

Throw in a cat-loving barista, a manipulative politician, and an old school cowboy, and the pages turn themselves.

The whodunit aspect of investigating the two dead men hinges on a number of clues, as well as a few red herrings. It’s an unusual premise, but it works well for this unusual but highly satisfying read. As the series continues, the relationships between Sean, Martha, and the secondary characters are as important as the crimes. New characters introduced along the way spring to life from Montana’s small towns, rivers, and history.


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


Book Review: Dublin Trilogy by Caimh McDonnell

Book Review: Dublin Trilogy by Caimh McDonnell

Author Vee James gifted me this book and a tip of the hat to him. THE MAN WITH ONE OF THOSE FACES is the first book in McDonnell’s Dublin Trilogy about the very funny, yet seriously intriguing misadventures of Paul Mulchrone, Brigit Conroy, and Garda detective Bernard “Bunny” McGarry.

The Man With One of those Faces


Don’t worry if you have never been to Dublin, because by the end of all of the books, you will be intimate with the city and its people, plus the law enforcement powers and politics of the Garda, the national police agency. The unique sport of hurling. Shopping on Grafton and Carroll. The restorative powers of Irish whiskey and Guinness beer.

hurley stick

Find out more about the Irish sport of hurley on wikipedia

I was in Dublin awhile back–long before travel became virtual–and McDonnell captures the city’s essence. It’s The Commitments, but with less music and better characters.

Get in the mood for my book review with a few scenes of this scrappy Irish city. I didn’t take them, although I wish I did!

Dublin photo by Andrea Leopardi,

Dublin photo by Andrea Leopardi,courtesy of Unsplash

Dublin photo by Lucas Swinden,

Dublin photo by Lucas Swinden courtesy of Unsplash

Guinness warehouse by Tavis Beck, courtesy Unsplash

Guinness warehouse by Tavis Beck, courtesy Unsplash


Ready? Step up to the bar and drink deeply of this terrific book series.


Paul had a rough start in life. He was orphaned at a young age, and his only stability was the hurling club presided over by Bunny McGarry, the larger-than-life cop with his own way of meting out justice. Now an adult, Paul is trapped by a will awarding him a subsistence stipend as long as he does charity work.

He regularly visits a nursing home to fulfill the requirements. One day a resident mistakes Paul for someone else and tries to kill him before dying of shock. When the dead man is found to be a gangster thought to be long dead, Paul and Brigit, a nurse, are targeted by the gangster’s old enemies. Bunny McGarry, who has a soft spot for Paul from hurling club days, steps in, along with a few local mobsters.

The plots of all the books in the DUBLIN TRILOGY series connect from one book to the next. The mix of white knights and black sheep throws gray shadows on many of the characters while relationships develop in smart and clever ways.


The real charm of this series lies with dialogue and descriptions, both of which evoke some real laugh-out-loud moments. There’s a line about anybody who could “cut two holes in a tea cozy thought he was John Dillinger” that still makes me laugh at odd moments.

THE DAY THAT NEVER COMES and LAST ORDERS are the next two books in the trilogy. ANGELS IN THE MOONLIGHT is a prequel that is nonetheless listed on Amazon as #3 in the 4-volume set. The numbering is just one of the quirks of this charming, funny, and breathlessly paced series.

Highly recommended.


PS: If you have never seen the film The Commitments, about the rise and fall of a club band in Dublin, you can watch it on Amazon’s Prime Video. 

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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 be an Armchair Traveler

How to be an Armchair Traveler

I keep waiting for coronavirus to call a time out but, uh, so far . . . no.

It’s turning me into an armchair traveler. You, too?

I have missed museums. Not that I’m a rabid art hound, but museums are a great reason to get up and go somewhere new to refuel my creative engine.

Thankfully, mystery series top up the tank, too. (Like the Detective Emilia Cruz series!)

For a great armchair traveler “getaway,” match a mystery series with an online museum tour with Google’s Arts and Culture project. You can take virtual tours of scores of museums around the world. The technology gives you an experience like Google Earth, with the ability to “walk” through an exhibit.

It’s pretty amazing. Here are some recommended books to read, along with a virtual museum tour to give the story shape in your imagination.

Related: Matching books and museums in Mexico City

São Paulo, Brazil

Series: Chief Inspector Mario Silva series by Leighton Gage

With a stubborn and brooding demeanor, Chief Inspector Mario Silva of Brazil’s federal police has been described by Booklist as “South America’s Kurt Wallander.” BLOOD OF THE WICKED sets up Silva as a good cop with a rag-tag but loyal band of underlings caught in Brazil’s pervasive corruption. Expect high quality writing and an insider’s view of a fascinating culture.

blood of the Wicked

Find on Amazon: >>> BLOOD OF THE WICKED

Museum: Explore the contemporary Museu de Arte de Sa͂o Paulo  >>>

Paris, France

Series: Aimée Leduc murder mysteries by Cara Black

Leduc is a private detective in Paris juggling single motherhood, disappearing lovers, and a shadowy organization called The Hand. Her late father was a Paris cop killed by the group, while her super-spy American mother pops in and out of Aimée’s life. MURDER IN THE MARAIS begins the series, which showcases French fashion and culture.

Murder in the Marais

Find on Amazon >>> MURDER IN THE MARAIS

Museum: Explore the Musée d’Orsay in Paris >>>

Moscow, Russia

Series: Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith

Arkady Renko is an ageless Moscow cop who has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a Mafia-riddled Russia. The series is dense and absorbing, with rich descriptions of Russia, the Russian character, and decrepit Lada cars. The first is the scene-setting but slow moving GORKY PARK, but second book, POLAR STAR, is a tour de force–all the action takes place on a rust bucket of a Soviet fishing vessel. WOLVES EAT DOGS, set in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, is hauntingly memorable. Skip the last two books.

Polar Star

Find on Amazon: >>> POLAR STAR

Museum: The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow >>>

More museum tours

Besides these, the Google Arts and Culture website has links to digital tours from scores more such as the British Museum, Mexico’s Anthropology Museum, and Greece’s Acropolis Museum. While armchair travel to a great museum isn’t exactly the same, think how much you’ll save by avoiding the museum shop . . .

WARNING: Highly addictive!

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


Armchair traveller

Announcing the Galliano Club new historical mystery series

Announcing the Galliano Club new historical mystery series

What??!! A new historical mystery series? But, but . . .

Read on.

One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather coming home from Revere Copper and Brass, yelling “Ann!”  When my grandmother replied, he inevitably came back with “Huh?” the first sign of the industrial deafness that would plague his later years.

My grandparents circa 1960

My grandparents making pasta, circa 1960

Related: Ann Amato Sestito: A Tribute

We lived next door to them in Rome, NY. It was a good place to grow up.

In 1825 the Erie Canal connected the Hudson River to the Great Lakes and spurred economic development across upstate New York. Rome became a bustling version of Jimmy Stewart’s Bedford Falls. In the early days of the 20th century, Italian immigrants like my great-grandparents flocked to the area after a stop at Ellis Island. People with names like Lombino, Sestito, Russo, and Ferlo settled in cities with names like Syracuse, Verona, Utica, and Rome.

Central New York voices have a lilt leftover from these immigrants that includes double and triple negatives. For example: “No, I didn’t give Tommy no five dollars.” My grandfather’s friends either worked “down ta mill” or “down ta muck.”

The mill meant the Revere Copper and Brass Rolling Mill, Spargo Wire, or one of the several other metal-based manufacturers along the Mohawk River. Muck referred to the small truck farms along Muck Road; so-called because their produce fit in the back of a truck, or so I was told.

Good recordkeeping

My grandfather retired as a foreman after 40 years at Revere, but before that he was deputy sheriff of Oneida County. He was also City Marshal for years, leaving behind a pile of ledgers filled with entries about court cases and debt collection penned in my grandmother’s neat hand. He generally was paid a percentage of the money that was owed. Entries show debts repaid in installments; no doubt my grandfather didn’t get his fee until the debt was paid in full.

Random ledger page

A random page from his ledgers as City Marshal, showing court cases and his fees

His ledgers are a snapshot in time featuring feuds, rivals, debts, businesses, lawyers, and judges. The Carissimo and Verro family feud resulted in 7 summons in the month of April 1958 alone, netting my grandfather $17.50.

No wonder he went out armed.

My grandfather’s stories

We always went to my grandparents’ house for coffee and doughnuts after Mass on Sunday. If we were lucky, somebody got my grandfather to talk about his deputy sheriff days, Prohibition, and the long arm of the Mafia. The Mafia wife with 22 children. Hiding out in a cemetery with his buddy Hank to catch thugs who’d buried illegal booze with a dead body. The double murder of feuding wedding guests.

He warned me about dating boys from Utica, too. Their fathers were all Mafia.

Announcing the Galliano Club new historical mystery series

All this is the run-up to my big announcement. I’m taking a short break from the Detective Emilia Cruz series (don’t worry, still much ahead for our intrepid Acapulco detective) to focus on a Prohibition-era trilogy inspired by my grandfather’s stories.

The Galliano Club mystery series has been in the back of my mind for some time. Last year I spent a day with Rome’s historian, sifting through old pictures like the ones below. Between those images and the visions conjured by my grandfather’s stories, a new cast of characters has taken shape in 1926 against a backdrop of brick storefronts, rattling Model T Fords, church steeples, and immigrant families.

Risk, power, & corruption in 1926

The Galliano Club is an Italian men’s social club in the fictional town of Lido, NY. Luca Lombardo is the bartender, supported by club owner Vito Bottini, former vaudeville dancer Ruth Cross, plus Mafia thugs, rum runners, a scheming mill accountant, and a crooked cop.

There will be true-to-life rivalries between the Italian, Polish, and Irish populations. The Mafia’s grip tightens as Prohibition-era moonshiners vie for business.

Incidentally, the real Galliano Club building still stands, a reminder of Rome’s heyday. It’s one of a handful of historic buildings that survived the sad wholesale razing of the downtown area to rebuild Fort Stanwix in the 1970’s. For 4 years, I took tap lessons from a dance instructor on the second floor.

I can’t wait to throw open the doors to readers!

Keep scrolling for a gallery of inspiration from the archives of the Rome Historical Society, with special thanks to Arthur L. Simmons III, the Executive Director.


Madonia fruit market

Madonia’s fruit market was owned by a friend of my grandfather.

Copper City sign over Mohawk River

For years, most of the copper used in the US came from the Revere mill in Rome, as proclaimed by the lit sign over the Mohawk River.

Rome NY 1927 motorcycle race

An early motorcycle race through downtown Rome, circa 1926

Rome NY 1927

Rome decked out to receive Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh in July 1927

Rome NY 1926

Multi-storey brick buildings lined downtown while streetcars clanged up and down.

Galliano Club mystery series announcement

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


Mini Masterclass: How to Write a Mystery Series

Mini Masterclass: How to Write a Mystery Series

Did you ever want to write a mystery series? Have an idea for a character but nothing else? Maybe you need a blueprint for finally getting that mystery series written.

True Story

When I worked for the CIA, diving into real-life mysteries, I loved reading mysteries like the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. So much so that I wanted to write my own.

When I wrote the first Detective Emilia Cruz story, drawing on my counterdrug experience, the plot came together easily. The rest was a hard slog.

Inventing a compelling main character was just the start. What about the secondary characters and the tensions they bring to the story? Plots ahd to be unique to the setting. What cultural elements helped do that?

Beyond all that, each book had to create anticipation for the next. I wanted readers to stay up all night navigating complicated plot lines, wondering if the main character had what it takes, and devouring every book in the series.

By the time I finished the 3rd book, DIABLO NIGHTS, I had unknowingly created a blueprint for the series. Each book wasn’t a one-off, but part of a richer whole.

Mystery masterclass logo

The formula

Eight books and some short stories later, I’ve distilled what it takes to create a page-turning mystery series into a 5-part formula that I call the Mystery Shark Method.


S = Setting

H = Hero/Heroine

A = Arc

R = Run time

K = Killjoy

I’ve put together an entire free Mystery Shark Method mini masterclass for you. Each SHARK element is explained, with examples. There’s also some writing exercises to help you create your own blueprint for a page-turning mystery series.

Find the mini masterclass here:

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


Mystery Shark Method masterclass

Dan Petrosini and the Detective Frank Luca series

Dan Petrosini and the Detective Frank Luca series

Dan Petrosini, mystery author and wine afficionado, was featured last month in the Mystery Ahead newsletter. His latest is THE SERENITY MURDER–just the name gives me the shivers. If you like police procedurals as much as I do, here’s a replay of our chat.

1  Carmen Amato: Dan, thanks so much for stopping by. Your police procedural series features Detective Frank Luca, (AM I THE KILLER, VANISHED, THE SERENITY MURDER) with action that travels between Florida and New Jersey. You describe them as “noir-heavy” detective stories. Tell us about the type of crime featured in the series.

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.

Dan Petrosini3  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.


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


Hard-core hard-boiled with mystery author Jim Nesbitt

Hard-core hard-boiled with mystery author Jim Nesbitt

A warm welcome to Jim Nesbitt, author of the hard-core hard-boiled Ed Earl Burch private investigator series. Ed Earl Burch is a not-quite washed up Texas cop turned PI with a notch collection on his bedpost and bad knees. Ed’s world is crude and rude and he punches through it with a pack of Lucky Strikes and a glass of Kentucky bourbon. A brisk pace, sliding points of view, shades of gray crooks, and dialogue spit out of the corners of everybody’s mouth make this series a real gem for hardboiled genre fiction fans.

mystery author jim NesbittJim books are collecting awards. THE SECOND LAST CHANCE was a finalist for the IPPY, Forewords INDIE and Killer Nashville Silver Falchion awards last year. It was also a Top Pick and finalist for Novel of The Year for Underground Book Reviews (UBR) and won a best hard-boiled mystery award from the Independent Crime Master Authors group. THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER is a UBR Top Pick this year and is in the running for Novel of the Year for 2018.

1.Carmen Amato: Jim thanks so much for stopping by. Your Ed Earl Burch mysteries caught my eye because of the great tagline: “Nobody’s hero. Nobody’s fool.” Tell us about Ed Earl’s backstory and what makes him tick.

Jim Nesbitt: I think Ed Earl is a bit of an Everyman with whom folks can readily identify. He’s been smacked around by life and carries the guilt of a dead partner he couldn’t keep from getting killed, a couple of ex-wives and the loss of his gold shield, largely because of his own actions. Getting booted from the force in Dallas denies him the source of pride and recognition for the one thing he does best in life, tracking down bad guys and making them pay.

Burch is deeply flawed. Besides being angst-ridden, he drinks too much, he’s fatally attracted to women who leave him an emotional train wreck, and he’s a terminal smartass who never knows when to shut up. He’s also a guy with a code he sometimes forgets until the chips are down. He’s not super-smart like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe and he sure isn’t super-cool like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. He’s got bad knees, a beard and balding pate, a belly and an empty bank account. He also comes across like he might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s Columbo without the caricature and people have a bad habit of underestimating him. He makes them pay for that — either with handcuffs or a bullet. Doesn’t matter to him — however they want to deal the play.

At his core, he’s smart, tough, profane and reckless and has been described as a classic American anti-hero. I’ll buy that.

2. CA: Where do you find inspiration for your often damaged and dangerous characters?

JN: My hillbilly cousins and all the journalists I helled around with for four decades. We’re a rude and intemperate lot. I also ran across a lot of colorful characters chasing politicians, crooks, cops, cowboys, loggers, miners and just plain folks while roving the country as a national correspondent out of Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

I’ve always had a good ear for dialogue and an eye for detail that lets me create a keen sense of place. The people I met along the way as a journalist gave me a helluva head start on creating the rogue’s gallery of characters you meet in my novels. So did those hillbilly cousins.

3. CA: How do you use setting to create and build suspense? Tell us about a favorite location that you used in a book.

JN:  I think it’s essential for a writer to create a keen sense of place and too many fail to do what you do so well in your Emilia Cruz series. I come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers who instilled in me the strong tie between family and the land we come from — both were steeped in the stories they told about my ancestors, my uncles and aunts, my cousins and my mom and dad when they were young and growing up in the North Carolina mountains. I tried to capture that as a journalist and it was natural that this would carry over to my novels.

I knew I was going to write very stark and violent tales of revenge and redemption. And none of the characters in my novels are nice people, not even Burch — they’re all fairly nasty and violent folk. I wasn’t born in Texas, but I lived there for a while and I spent a lot of time wandering the border between Texas and Mexico and flat fell in love with the harsh beauty of the desert mountains of the Big Bend Country that rise out of Mexico. The mountains there clash and collide in a way that makes it seems like the very bones of the earth are there for you to touch.

What better setting for the tales I was trying to tell? But I was gunning for more than just a backdrop — I think the interplay between people and the land where they live is endlessly fascinating. And I wanted to capture how a place shapes a people and how the land becomes a character unto itself in their story, inseparable from who they are. Texas — particularly the harsh and brooding beauty of West Texas — is more than a backdrop or framework for my novels. It’s a character that adds its own relentless element of foreboding and impending violence and is a big influence on the people in my novels and what they do.

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?

JN: The late, great and vastly underappreciated James Crumley whose novels Dancing Bear and The Last Good Kiss taught me it was okay to let it rip with frank descriptions of sex and violence instead of euphemisms that I think insult the reader. And it was okay to drop f-bombs and other profane and earthy phrases. Both of his main characters, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. ‘Sonny’ Sughrue, are deeply flawed PIs who drink and drug too much and chase the bad girls. Neither one toes the line or gives much of a damn about the law, but both have a code they might stray from but always return to in the end. His books also have raucously funny passages where the joke is often on the main character.

All that impressed me because those guys are vastly different from Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, two guys who might bend the rules, but kept to their code and used brains rather than brawn and a gun. And the joke was never on Sam or Phil. Crumley gave me license to NOT lace Ed Earl up in the strait jacket of the hard-boiled detective template.

So, what’s for dinner? Deep whiskeys before and after the main course, which will probably be thick ribeyes served with mashed potatoes swimming in butter. Or maybe something more primal — backstrap venison or elk steaks. Since we’re both good ole’ boys, I imagine we’ll sit at the kitchen table with the bottle between us, smoking cigarettes and talking about family, the places that stole our hearts and the women who left us flattened like three-day-old roadkill.

I’d ask him about that interplay between people and the land, the sense of family and place we carry even in a rootless and highly mobile society like the one we live in. Did he deliberately set out to make the sense of place so strong in his novels that it became a character unto itself or did that naturally spill out because he was raised on the same type of stories I heard from my family? My bet is, he’ll say something like: “Hell, bud, I just rared back and let it rip.”

5. CA: What is your best protip? Tell us about a writing habit, technique, or philosophy that keeps your writing sharp.

JN: Well, you and I both know there’s no silver bullet to writing — you just keep your butt in the chair, open a vein and bleed into your computer. Yeah, I poached a Hemingway line there and tarted it up — so, sue me, Papa. What I can tell you is something I learned a long time ago as a cub reporter — facts are your friends and the more facts you have, the firmer the foundation you can build for your writing and the surer and more authoritative and authentic your story will be.

It seems counter-intuitive since we’re writing fiction, but the firm foundation of facts frees up your writing and really allows it to fly. The horrible cliché told to young writers is to write what you know. What you know is only the starting point — and a poor one at that.

Do some research — if your books are set in the late 1980s and early 1990s like mine are, you better gather up all the facts you can about that time. Were laptops and cellphone in use back then? Who was president or governor? What were the political scandals of the day? Was that building you put in Chapter 12 even there back then? You’re not writing sepia-toned history, but you want to get these facts right to give your story authenticity. If your characters carry guns, you better get that right. You’re not going to use all these facts in your story, but they’ll be there underneath your writing.

If you get those details wrong, you run the risk of undermining your story because believe me, somebody will catch it or Google it and call you out. Or just drop your book, walk away and never think of you again. Best of all, if you have the time and the money, go walk the ground of where your story takes place. Most of the scenes in my two novels are set in places I went to as a journalist and that proved invaluable to creating a strong sense of place.

Thank you!

More about Jim Nesbitt:

Jim Nesbitt writes hard-boiled crime thrillers set in Texas and northern Mexico that featured a defrocked Dallas vice and homicide detective named Ed Earl Burch. Nesbitt is a former roving correspondent whose assignments included stories on both sides of the border and his novels — The Last Second Chance and The Right Wrong Number — are laced with the sights, sounds and people he encountered while wandering that rugged country. To learn more about Jim’s work, visit his website at

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


Gripping Audible Mystery Series Flies You to Acapulco

Gripping Audible Mystery Series Flies You to Acapulco

The first four books in the Detective Emilia Cruz series set in Acapulco are all available on Audible from Tantor Media!

The books are narrated by the fabulous Johanna Parker, who also voiced the Sookie Stackhouse series. Johanna has really nailed a singular “voice” for the Emilia Cruz series narration, with energy, heart and perfect Spanish pronunciations. I hope she earns a 2017 Audie Award!

Does she sound like Emilia? Sample CLIFF DIVER here.

Click here for Audible titles or search for “Carmen Amato” on the Audible app.

The audiobook cover art is by Matt Chase, creator of the print and ebook covers. What do you think?

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


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.

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


Author to Author with Brian Stoddart

Author to Author with Brian Stoddart

I’m thrilled to host mystery author Brian Stoddart, creator of the Superintendent Le Fanu historical series set in India in the 1920’s. Think Sherlock Holmes meets The Jewel in the Crown, with a bit of my favorite thriller, too.

Brian is a New Zealand-based but globally engaged writer whose historical crime fiction is based in Madras, India of the 1920s. He trained as an historian, and worked as an academic in Australia, Malaysia, Canada and the Caribbean before becoming a university executive and later an international consultant on World Bank, Asian Development Bank and European Union projects in Cambodia, Laos, Jordan, and Syria. Follow him at

1.Carmen Amato: Brian, thanks so much for stopping by. I love historical mysteries that teach me something and your Superintendent Le Fanu series set in 1920’s India reminds me of the BBC’s Jewel in the Crown, with a touch of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts thrown in for verve. Tell us how you came to write such a complex and fascinating series.

Brian Stoddart: My PhD research was on modern nationalist politics in South India, and even as an academic I thought that those times and events had great dramatic qualities. That backdrop immediately allowed me to develop characters and events that were based in the historical record and, as we all know, truth is often more fascinating than fiction.

Some of the characters in the Le Fanu novels really did exist, and around them I can orbit fictional characters who also draw off people who were working at that time. The detailed historical knowledge allows me, then, to weave these stories in detail.

That said, I have had also to revisit Madras (now Chennai) as a writer rather than historian, because the city is as much a character as the people. Knowing the city well has allowed me to make the blend and set a place that is different, exotic but knowable. I am delighted that readers have felt that they learned something from the stories as well as being entertained by them.

2. CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including your lead character Christian Le Fanu? Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?

BS: Those historical characters who lurk behind my fictional ones were all multi-dimensional and complex, often controversial, frequently combative and sometimes illogical. All those traits feed into Le Fanu and his colleagues as well as his opponents.

For example, I wrote a biography of an Anglo-Italian named Arthur Galletti who served in Madras and was the archetypal square peg in a round hole: anti-authority, hugely intelligent, socially awkward, pro-Indian and all the rest. Others were themselves writers who questioned the British regime. All of this feeds easily into creating characters who belong in the time. So that inspiration comes from the past and the historical record.

The other influence is from other writers and seeing how they create characters who live. Among my favourites are writers like Evelyn Waugh, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Parker Bilal, Fred Vargas – this is by no means exhaustive but will give you the idea. I also draw ideas and influence from television writers like Sally Wainwright, Anthony Horowitz, Neil Cross and others, because they create visuals that transfer well into print.

3. CA: Le Fanu has a personal relationship that was not allowed under British law in India at that time. How will this impact his decision-making as the series goes on?

BS: It was not so much “not allowed” to have a relationship between European and Anglo-Indian (mixed race) as severely damaging to a reputation and career, much the same if not even more so as a relationship between European and India. That is a trope for several novels, of course, perhaps beginning with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

I use Le Fanu’s complicated relationship with Ro McPhedren almost as a lodestone to that complex matter of race relations in India at the time, and that shows up in how some other European characters relate (or do not relate) to Indians both professionally and personally.

By definition, the relationship will continue to bear on Le Fanu’s life as a whole, and be something of an allegory for the broader relationship patterns as independence nears for India. At the same time, the relationship allows me to explore the nuances of all this community-based activity in British India: Anglo-Indians who dominated the railway services, the missionaries who brought another corrective, the European business classes who had different outlooks again, and a range of others. India was all about relationships, in many respects, and Ro McPhedren helps focus that.

4. CA: What makes India a good setting for a mystery? How do you use setting to create and build suspense?

BS: As I say, Madras for me is really another character that influences the interactions between the characters. There are those Europeans who hate the place because they hate being in India and refuse to understand the locals. Le Fanu’s boss and bête noir Arthur Jepson is like that. As a result of WWI, Le Fanu now understands India and Indians better and is at home exploring it. That is why the Udipi food stand is in there – Le Fanu is the only European in the small eatery (which itself is drawn from reality and was the beginning of what has become a major restaurant chain). Habi, Le Fanu’s sidekick, provides the strongly necessary Muslim element in the story because Madras has always had a big Muslim presence.

In many ways, India is such a natural setting for these kinds of stories because of multiple cultural strands (the north differs from the south), cross-faith issues, caste, education, and all the rest. The historical context itself provides so many opportunities which is why the Le Fanu plots and storylines move across all these things and others like them – Madras in the 20s was replete with visitors blundering into systems and situations of which they were ignorant. That makes for great stories.

5. 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?

BS: Oh wow! I will cheat and pick one dead, one alive. The latter first. Andrea Camilleri, the marvelous Sicilian creator of Commisario Montalbano. The books and the television series are captivating because they so “get” local nuance, story, history, relationships and networks. The menu would be all seafood drawing on the restaurant favourites and recipes that appear in the books. I am a huge fan – my wife and I have even been to Ragusa and that area of Sicily to immerse ourselves in the Montalbano story. The conversation would be about writing and storytelling based on local knowledge and insights, and how far fact can be stretched into fiction.

The writer from the past would be Robert Louis Stevenson who was one of the very first writers to impress me way back when, and who I talk about these days in my cruise lectures. When he went to Samoa he immersed himself in local politics and culture, and the stories from then reflect that. The food would be Polynesian, and the discussion would focus on the relationship between history and fiction. And the fact that he was a Scot is a bonus.

6. CA: How do you go about researching your books? How do you know when you have done enough to begin a project?

BS:  Really great question. The research for Le Fanu has, of course, been done over many years and is almost natural. I have a lot to draw on. Because of that, the idea of when is enough really does not arise. What I tend to research now are the details of places and historical figures.

I spend a lot of time on geography, for example, trying to get the streetscape right. That includes finding local tales and myths that might add to the plotline or the storyline. Those are things that historians sometimes overlook but are the things that writers rely on. When I am happy I have enough of that to pace the book, then I am happy to quit, until the next time.

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

BS: I am really driven by the idea of what I call “crime and place”. That is, in all locations and settings the best storylines and plots are driven by local history, folklore, events, characters and conditions. So the concept of place in crime fictions is something I am always trailing after and I always get a great buzz and a sense of encouragement when I find examples that push the boundaries in the genre.

For that reason I find great encouragement in work by people like Barbara Nadel (Istanbul), Donna Leon (Venice, although I think she is having trouble aging Brunetti), Michael Connolly (a really complex character in Bosch set in the ultimate tangle of LA), Paul Thomas (Auckland, with a Maori cop), John Enright (Samoa) and others like that. The inspiration, then, is from the interplay between location, background and character. Hopefully, something of that emerges in the Le Fanu series.

Thank you!

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


What Happened to the Jesse Stone Mystery Series?

What Happened to the Jesse Stone Mystery Series?

When mystery author Robert B. Parker passed away, I mourned the end of the Spenser and Jesse Stone mystery series, as well as his Westerns featuring the enigmatic Virgil Cole. Sunny Randall, not so much, as I never quite connected with the female PI and her annoying ex-husband issues.

Like many others, I was of two minds when it was announced that Parker’s novel franchises would continue but be written by other authors. Excitement that more books with favorite characters would be forthcoming, doubt that others could capture the style that made Parker’s books so successful.

Related: Book Review: Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

Ace Atkins took up the Spenser series and really delivered, even as he introduced a new character (Sixkill) who helped expand Spenser’s world. The dialogue still drives the narrative, the pace is still swift, Spenser’s code is still in tact, and Susan and Hawk are still at his side. For the most part, the transfer of authorship has been seamless.

The Jesse Stone series was always a distant second to Spenser in my reading affections and I didn’t keep up as the series grew under new authorship. Parker wrote 9 novels about the ex-minor league shortstop who washed out of the Los Angles Police Department because of his drinking and lands on his feet as the chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts. After Parker’s death, the franchise was handed off to Michael Brandman who wrote 3 novels, and then to Reed Farrell Coleman who has also written 3.

Has Jesse Stone’s road been as smooth as Spenser’s?

To decide for myself, I read two early Jesse Stone novels, TROUBLE IN PARADISE and STONE COLD, then the last two in the series, THE DEVIL WINS and DEBT TO PAY, both by Coleman.

Here’s my verdict:

The new books dive even more deeply into Jesse’s character. We spend more time inside Jesse’s head as he remains absorbed by his relationships with alcohol, his ex-wife Jenn, and his missed chance to be the world’s greatest shortstop. Jesse is flawed, and Coleman is making the most of it but still in Parker’s nuanced way. Jesse still talks to his picture of baseball great Ozzie Smith. Dix the therapist is back, too, both in Jesse’s thoughts and in scenes in which the two men discuss Jesse’s problems.

In early books Jesse has a number of female friends with benefits; in the later books he’s faithful to a new character named Diana, a former FBI agent now a security consultant in Boston. But there’s a precipice beckoning to Jesse in the form of the new Paradise medical examiner. Tamara is an attractive woman with her own drinking problem. I sense an undercurrent of doubt that Jesse can continue to resist this doubly fatal mix of woman and drink. If you are not tired of alcoholic main characters in mystery novels, then the tension is grand.

Related: Character Sketches, The Detective Emilia Cruz Mystery Series

For those who remember Spenser’s run-ins across several books with the Gray Man, Coleman has introduced a similarly continuing bad guy named Mr. Peepers. I’m not sure why Mr. Peepers has spent the last 20 years carrying out his twisted agenda of murder and torture, which would help the believability angle, but he’s a worthy opponent for Jesse.

Two things stand out as significant differences between early and later Jesse Stone novels. First, Coleman has departed from Parker’s staccato pace, except in some dialogue scenes where Jesse does the man-of-few-words act that has always been a character trademark. The pacing is slower and the paragraphs much longer. Indeed, in THE DEVIL WINS, the normally laconic Jesse delivers a 1.5 page paragraph explanation of how he caught the bad guy. Despite the chunky paragraphs, the prose is smooth, although a few awkwardly phrased sentences stand out. The villain’s voice is heard at pivotal moments, the same as when Parker was writing.

Second, there is the assumption that the reader knows the entire series’ backstory. For example, in THE DEVIL WINS, references were made to a person named Crow. This villain appeared in the early STONE COLD, but he and Jesse did not meet. But some 10 books later, it is obvious that both Jesse and Paradise cop Molly Crane have had a previous interaction with Crow. Alas, we don’t know the context or who Crow is. I’ll have to read more of the post-Parker books to find out.

Bottom line is that Jesse Stone is one of mystery fiction’s most complex, irritating, and heroic characters. Coleman has both captured and expanded this persona, while creating villain-based plots that manipulate Jesse’s flaws to good effect.

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


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