Book Review: By Its Cover by Donna Leon

BY ITS COVER is Donna Leon’s 23rd Commisario Brunetti mystery novel and it follows the series’ tradition of immersing the reader in today’s Venice. The mystery revolves around a crime rooted in Italy’s ancient classics yet the country’s modern problems of corruption and over-bureaucracy are key to the plot.

The director of a privately-funded library full of rare and antique classic volumes discovers that books have been pillaged–drawings have been sliced out, rare illuminations taken. When Brunetti investigates, it appears that some books are missing from the library’s inventory. The culprit appears to be an American professor who has been doing research there for several weeks. Alas, he has disappeared, his bona fides are revealed to be false, and the criminal appears to have gotten away with his crime.

Related post: Book Review: THE GOLDEN EGG by Donna Leon

Yet there are other leads for Brunetti to follow. The library owes much of its livelihood to an important patroness, affording Brunetti the opportunity to have a deep conversation about the value of books. The conversation doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward, but serves as a platform for an issue that Leon obviously feels deeply about.

BY ITS COVER refers to apparently real episodes of book looting and subsequent closure of libraries in Italy.  Literary and national treasures are being lost in this way, and through Brunetti’s conversations, we understand what a huge loss to humanity this is.

While BY ITS COVER isn’t the most gripping Brunetti mystery, it may be the one with the most important message. As Brunetti slowly gropes toward a resolution to the library thefts, the familiar cast of the series’ characters  both help and hinder. Vice Questore Patta plays his usual oversight role and his self-serving attitudes and political concerns remain as deliciously crass as always. Brunetti’s wife Paola and Patta’s secretary Elettra both assist in their own ways, while the faithful Inspector Vianello is still the able sounding board as Brunetti pieces together the elements of the case.

Related post: Book Review: THE BAT by Jo Nesbo

Many of the more recent Brunetti mysteries refer to Italy’s political corruption and this one sustains the trend.  Leon’s characters are uncomfortable speaking on the telephone, sure their conversations are being overheard. Nearly everyone has caustic remarks to be said about the inefficiency of government and the dishonesty of politicians. If you’ve read anything about the Berlusconi years, it isn’t surprising. The books only ring with greater authenticity for it.

From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

From Book to Beach: Favorite Hotels in Mexico

Planning a trip to Mexico? Wondering where to stay?

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

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

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

Related: 3 Essential Tips for Safe Travel in Mexico

Hacienda Los Laureles, Oaxaca

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

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

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

Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel and Towers, Mexico City

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

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

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

Camino Réal, Acapulco

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

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

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

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

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


A Counterfeit Money Mystery

A Counterfeit Money Mystery

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

Money and Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

   “These are brand new bills,” he said.

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

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

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


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

Old US bill

US $100 bill, issued 1996 – 2013

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

new bill

New US $100 bill, issued Oct 2013

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

It worked in the story

But not the way you’d expect.

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

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

In other news

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

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

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

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

All the best, Carmen

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


Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

I love writing mysteries and I love reading them, too. The ones that send me to new places around the world are some of my favorites and The Dublin Murder Squad has quickly become a fascination. IN THE WOODS is the first in the series.

French, who is from Dublin and has a background in theater, writes as if she is narrating a play as the character of her main protagonist. In this case it is Adam Ryan, who now goes by Rob and is a detective on the fictional but fabled Dublin police Murder Squad. The reason for the name change is complicated: when Adam was a youngster, he and his two best friends went into the woods near their village outside Dublin. Two of the kids never were seen again, while Adam/Rob was found in shock, covered in blood, shirt torn, no memory of the trauma he’d survived. The case became a national outcry and investigation. To hide it, his family moved, he went to boarding school and college and changed his first name.

But the past catches up in an odd way; a girl is killed in the woods, in the same historic village. Ryan and his partner Cassie investigate without letting on that this is Ryan’s Waterloo.

The entire book is narrated by Ryan; his nightmares of the past, his piecing together of evidence, his relationship with Cassie, his drinking to dull his pain. The voice is deep inside his head, it’s relentless and addictive. The case is similar: relentless yet intangible; too many stray threads, people who are afraid yet manipulative. And then there are those who have been manipulated and they aren’t pretty. The story bogged a bit close to the end, but only for a few pages of complications. Otherwise it was engrossing and well paced. The slang is very Irish, good thing I already knew what a git was.

The undercurrent running throughout the book is what happened to Ryan and his friends when they were children. Why were the two other children never found? So there are really two crimes here, one in the past and one in the present. No spoilers, here, however, just a strong recommendation to read IN THE WOODS if you like your mysteries tall, dark, and Irish.

Friday Fiesta: Of Water, Web Design, and Writing

The Friday Fiesta is stuff worth celebrating from the past week. This week it’s water and web design. Plus a bonus courtesy of


In March, the Writing for Water Team was comprised of Jerry Last, Norm Hamilton, and Sharon Lee Johnson, plus, yours truly. What a great team! Norm really got the word out on Twitter, Sharon cornered Facebook, and Jerry found a new audience with dog lovers who have really embraced his latest mystery THE DEADLY DOG SHOW as well as his commitment to Jerry is rocking on into April, as is Sharon, and he’s setting some pretty high goals.

If you haven’t already, check out Norm Hamilton’s novel of a dystopian Canada created by fracking, Sharon’s addictive zombie tales, and THE DEADLY DOG SHOW—murder goes to the dogs!

I’ll be doing the full Writing for Water Monthly Report next week but it’s looking like March brought another 5 people clean water for life.

If you are an author, please consider joining us with either a fixed pledge or a portion of sales. There is more information on joining the Writing for Water team here.

Oh, and here’s a great video from When you see stories like this, you know your money is well spent.

Emilia dives in, too

I’m submitting a story to be included in OF WORDS AND WATER, an annual anthology of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. The purpose of the anthology is to raise awareness of the work done by the international charity WaterAid. It won’t be out until the end of 2014, but I’m excited to be part of the effort.

The story for the anthology is an Emilia Cruz story, but it is unlike anything I’ve done before. Subscribers to my monthly updates will get a free copy of it before the anthology goes to press. Working title: BROKEN MAIN.

Web Design

I spent three precious writing days reworking and updating this website. Over the 2.5 years I’ve had the site, it has experienced about 3 major upgrades. This week, I’ve come to some conclusions:

  1. has hands down the best and fastest customer service forum, plus tons of easy to follow instructions for their themes. No, I am not an affiliate, just a happy customer. I only wish they had more themes to choose from.
  2. Sliders take too long to load. I loved the look, but am just going with a large image on the home page for now. Until the next redesign.
  3. The site is like my living room. I’m inviting you in and want you to enjoy the time you spend here. Sure, I hope you sign up for my mailing list and get a free copy of THE BEAST, but I’m not going to put up acid green or sparkly orange forms. Mystery lovers pick apart clues all the time; they can find a tasteful form.

 The Next Great Thing

Together with fellow authors John Scherber, Christopher Irvin, Guillermo Paxton, and Jane Rosenthal, I am part of The Mexico Mystery Writers Cartel. We are all authors who write mysteries set in Mexico. From crime fiction to romantic suspense, we cover the genre and make Mexico the ultimate mystery destination.

Our new blog will have posts from all authors and should be live next month. Get ready for mystery with a touch of salsa fresca!

Writing the Ultimate Mystery Setting

I was hosted on last week and wrote about how authors can set a mood by describing a mystery setting in a mere 3 sentences. The post used examples to take the reader to Havana, Venice, Riga, Cairo, and of course, Mexico City. Read the post here.

Free Story

If you haven’t gotten a copy yet, THE BEAST, the first story in the MADE IN ACAPULCO collection is available as a free download. If you haven’t met Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz yet, you should. As Jane Rosenthal claims, “Emilia says all the things you wish you could–she calls BS on everything.”

That’s it for this week! Have a great weekend, hopefully with a margarita and a mystery.

All the best, Carmen

From Panama to Mexico and back again

From Panama to Mexico and back again

Every thriller needs the big climax, right? But suspense needs to be built with action scenes that intrigue us.

The mystery setting

Remember how in THE KEY TO REBECCA, there’s the big climax in the desert as the spy, Wolff, tries to get the radio he’s left with the Bedouins so he can transmit the stolen plans for D-Day? Author Ken Follett had already shown us the desert–we already knew its dangers and difficulties–in his careful build-up to the finale.

In the same manner, political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY takes us to the ocean at night. On the edge of a city called Panama, there’s a marina full of boats promising an instant getaway. Rain falls from an ashen sky and water swirls around the dock. It’s a build-up to the cartel jefe and the storm and the yacht and . . .

Er, well, sorry.

No spoiler today, just an explanation how a yacht came to feature in a thriller largely set in land-locked Mexico City.

Carmen at Panama City marina

Not the best picture I’ve ever taken but that’s me looking out over the marina by the Amador Causeway

Stormy skies over Panama

Panama is a skinny country bisected by the famous Canal and flanked by two oceans. Panama City is on the Pacific side of the country, with a marina where the rich and famous park their yachts. When I saw the marina for the first time, I knew it could be the ultimate mystery setting for some very nefarious business.

A black yacht, radar domes atop ocean-going vessels, locked piers–they were all found under a stormy sky at the end of a long strip of tarmac jutting into the ocean like an accusing finger.

Inspiration and illustration

Here are the pictures I took of Panama City’s marina, and the scene in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY they inspired:

Marina in Panama

You can see Panama City’s skyscrapers in the distance

The ocean rippled gray under the night sky. In the far distance they saw the lights of ships lined up to pass through the Panama Canal. The soft rain made Eddo feel soggy but no cooler.

Panama City’s Amador Causeway ended in a parking lot that led to a pedestrian plaza lit by streetlamps and surrounded by water on three sides. A cluster of popular restaurants served people from the cruise ships docked nearby. Further from the parking lot, with the water lapping up to the railings, was a Duty Free store and a restaurant called Alfredo’s Café. Across the wide open space was a private marina full of glittering white yachts with signs to keep out those who didn’t belong. The marina was full.

Alfredo's cafe, Panam City

Alfredo’s Cafe occupies the left side of this building. The colored windows are a duty-free store for cruise ship passengers.

People could be seen through the windows of Alfredo’s Café. The sound of muted speech and laughter drifted along on the moist air from the covered outdoor seating areas of the restaurants beyond the parking lot. Eddo and Tomás strolled along the water’s edge, the only people outside in the soft night rain. Eddo resisted an urge to look at his watch.

“Ana and I decided to . . . uh . . . do the family thing when I get back,” Tomás said. His face was still puffy from yesterday’s punch.

Yachts against stormy sky

The dock next to the yachts bounces as the water laps at the boats

“About time,” Eddo said, forcing a smile.

A thin man in black, no bigger than a shadow, crossed the plaza from the distant parking lot. He stopped several yards from them, vaguely Asian in the uneven light. “Cortez?” His voice was a gravelly whisper.

“Yes,” Eddo said.

“Follow me.”

The thin man walked past them and they followed him to the marina gate. He unlocked it and gestured for them to step down onto the floating pier. Eddo heard Tomás say “Fuck” as the pier heaved under their weight.

They continued walking down the pier, the boats on either side moving gently in the swell caused by their passing. At the end of the pier the thin man indicated a boat. He said something to someone on board and a light flashed on.

Yacht with black hull

This yacht’s black hull made it the most striking boat in Panama City’s marina. I wondered who the owner might be . . .

The boat was one of the smallest in the marina. Eddo grabbed the ladder at the stern and clambered up. Another man dressed all in black met him at the top and pulled him into a dark cabin. Tomás got similar treatment.

From inside the cabin, the boat’s running lights glinted through the windows, making small, angular patterns on the walls. Engines revved and the boat began sliding out of the slip, throwing Eddo and Tomás against the built-in benches that lined the cabin. No one spoke as they were righted and roughly patted down. The lights of the Amador Causeway receded as the boat picked up speed, churning the gray ocean into dirty foam. They passed a few yachts anchored beyond the marina and kept going, apparently headed for open water.

Panama City marina in sunshine

A rare sunny day visit to the marina gave me this view of boats, taken while standing in front of the duty free store next to Alfredo’s

Eddo’s cell phone was pulled out of his pocket and handed to a guard who left the cabin. Through the window they watched him dump it over the side. Tomás swallowed a protest as his phone went overboard, too. The man in black found the CD.

“Señor Cortez can keep his CD.”

If you have read the book, please remember to leave a review on Amazon. It’s the best way to let other readers know the quality of a book and help an author at the same time.

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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: The Bat by Jo Nesbo

Book Review: The Bat by Jo Nesbo

I have read all of the Harry Hole police procedural mysteries by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, but read them out of order. Which probably was a good thing . . .

THE BAT is the first in the series, but was only recently made available in English and for Kindle. I was thrilled to read it, as the subsequent books in the series refer to Harry’s investigation of a serial killer in Australia. But as I gobbled it up, literarily speaking, one thought kept surfacing: this is a strange way to start a detective series.

The book introduces Harry Hole as an Oslo detective sent to Sydney, Australia to assist in the investigation of the murder of a Norwegian woman who was a moderately successful Norwegian TV star. His guide throughout the investigation is an Australian detective named Kensington who is of Aboriginal descent. Kensington’s boss isn’t thrilled to have Harry there and wants to shut him out even as Kensington keeps introducing Harry to strange folks in the outback as well as in bars in Sydney’s red light district called King’s Cross.

Now, I’ve been to both Oslo and Sydney (including a night of clubbing in King’s Cross) and the two cities have a lot in common. They are both vibrant and modern with an athletic vibe and a well-educated populace.  Lots of tall white people in rock band tees. Just like Harry.

But Nesbo makes the differences really speak to the reader by using the murder investigation to reveal the lifestyle, history, and integration difficulties of Australia’s Aboriginal population. We discover pain and passion through Harry’s eyes in a way that neither the Norwegian detective nor the reader expect to do so.

The serial killer does bad stuff, the ending is full of suspense, a romance goes awry, and the roots of Harry’s self-destructive behavior—more of a central issues in later books—are revealed. But overall, I can’t shake the feeling that this was an odd way to start a mystery series, because at no time do we see Harry as particularly Norwegian or in his natural element. We don’t meet his colleagues or understand the context for any continuing series. I recognized places in Australia, and loved the great descriptions, easy dialogue, and twisty plotting. But I’m not sure I’d be compelled to read more in a series set in Norway if I only had this story to go on.

Bottom line? Read THE BAT by Jo Nesbo, but not as your introduction to the Harry Hole series.

When the News Writes Mystery Novels for You

When the News Writes Mystery Novels for You

I can look at the problem in one of two ways: either the news gives me great ideas for my mystery novels or all the good stuff has already been written as fact, not fiction.

As the author of a mystery series set in Acapulco, I often run across plot ideas in the news coming out of Mexico and Central America. In fact I wrote about the news stories that inspired MADE IN ACAPULCO: The Emilia Cruz Stories in this blog post.

About every six weeks or so I find something noteworthy for the tickler file. But recently, the news has been full of stories just calling out to become Emilia Cruz mystery novels. Like the plight of missing women, which is a sub-theme of the series, these stories are rooted in serious issues affecting the lives of those caught in the crossfire of Mexico’s drug wars.

Using them in a mystery novel might be controversial but would also help to bring awareness to the toll that drug violence is having on the beauty and culture of Mexico.

The Vigilante Crisis

Violence exploded in Michoacán earlier this month as Mexican federal troops tried to disarm local vigilante groups claiming they were protecting their towns from the Knights Templar drug cartel. After days of violence, the government decided to negotiate with the vigilantes and step up its own efforts to corral the infamous Knights. On 27 January, according to, the well-organized vigilantes “signed a legalization agreement with federal and regional authorities” that “stipulates that the self-defense forces will be incorporated into Rural Defense Bodies and will work to assist municipal security forces.”

While this might seem to be a tidy ending to the violence, issues remain. Are the vigilantes linked to a cartel that is a rival of the Knights? Just how powerful are the vigilante groups—could they become the sort of paramilitary forces seen in years past in Colombia?

Could Emilia Cruz be pressed into negotiations with a fictional vigilante group in Guerrero?

Exorcise the Drug Cartels?

From the New York Daily News, comes this headline: “Exorcism rituals on the rise as way to battle evil of Mexican cartels.” With deaths from drug violence as many as 80,000 since 2006, Catholic priests in Mexico are performing exorcisms in order to rid cartel killers of the devil. The article recounts the experiences of priests who have performed the rites, saying “Exorcisms are particularly popular in outlying villages, where priests often celebrate weekly Mass to drive demons from tormented souls.”

Mexico is a strongly Catholic country and the Church is an element of the Emilia Cruz series. There is her friend Padre Ricardo—named in tribute to my murdered pastor in Mexico City Father Richard Junius– and the current WIP DIABLO NIGHTS dives into the history of the Cristero War in 1920’s Mexico.

The notion of exorcisms give me the creeps, frankly, but could undoubtedly be a riveting plot element.

Demolishing Santa Muerte Shrines

On, Dr. Andrew Chesnutt and David Metcalfe wrote an article about how Leticia Salazar Vazquez, the mayor of Matamoros, ordered military action to demolish Santa Muerte shrines. Was it because the Catholic Church has condemned Santa Muerte worship or that the mayor belongs to the pro-Catholic conservative National Action Party, or was it to make a point against the cartels? Or maybe Salazar Vazquez opposed the shrines because she is of the Evangelical Protestant faith, one of the fastest growing political action groups in Mexico. Whatever the reason, the shrines have already been rebuilt.

The fourth Emilia Cruz novel does have a Santa Muerte theme, but maybe it’s time to create a bigger backstory for Carlota Montoya Perez, the fictional mayor of Acapulco?

And What About an all-Female Police Unit?

I’d seen similar stories about female police units, mostly in places like India where there are gender issues related to male policemen dealing with female victims and suspects. This article from the Latin American Herald Tribune  reported that “the state of Morelos has unveiled an all-female police investigative unit created to probe crimes against women. Morelos Gov. Graco Ramirez swore in and presented the 26 members of the unit, which is made up of women trained to investigate and solve crimes on the basis of forensic evidence . . .”

Yes, there is already an Emilia Cruz WIP plotline in which she is tapped to head up an all-female police unit. But it’s not just a unit to investigate crimes against women . . . 

Now over to readers. What would you like to see Emilia Cruz handle next?

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


The Lovely Glow of Too Many Irons in the Fire

The Lovely Glow of Too Many Irons in the Fire

I’ve got too many irons in the fire.

I’d like to say that this is a rare event. But juggling multiple projects can be fun, which must be why I tend to overbook my creative energies.

Here’s what is going on:

Bookstore of the Future project

Yesterday I reached out to 55 book bloggers for the second Bookstore of the Future project, asking them the key questions: What will the bookstore of the future look like? How can bookstores innovate in order to stay relevant and solvent in the era of ebooks and ecommerce?

I had an immediate response from author and blogger extraordinaire C. M. Mayo who posted a link to my blog on her Madam Mayo blog. See it here.

Author responses keep trickling in but the crown goes to thriller author Dale Brown (Whaaaat? You haven’t read FLIGHT OF THE OLD DOG? Read it. Immediately.) who was the first to respond, in part, with this comment: “Carmen: Interesting project! I haven’t been in a bookstore to buy a book since I discovered Amazon Books in 1996.” Look for his full response when “What is the Future of the Bookstore? 25 Influential Authors Weigh In” is published in early January.

Finally, I had an interesting exchange with author Jeff Faria who is teaming with Symposia Bookstore in Hoboken, New Jersey on a “bookstore/playspace.” Look for more on this in the third article featuring bookstore owner views.


I didn’t complete a 50k word manuscript in November, thanks to the flu. What I did end up with, however, is the guts of the next Emilia Cruz mystery novel. Familiar elements are there: dirty cops, drug cartels, Emilia’s uncertainty about her relationship with a gringo and grudging partnership with Silvio. But DIABLO NIGHTS also digs into Mexico’s religious history as well as Acapulco’s tourism industry. There’s also the anything-for-a-peso mindset I encountered from time to time in Mexico. This could be the most provocative Emilia Cruz novel yet.

I exchanged ideas for the book’s religious research with author and university professor Andrew Chesnut, whose articles on The Huffington Post are always absorbing. I recommend subscribing to his Huffpost feed.

“The Angler”

This Emilia Cruz short story will draw elements from the real events surrounding the murder of Fr. Richard Junius, who was my pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mexico City, which I wrote about last year.

To my knowledge, Fr. Richard’s  murderer has never been found. Expect a different ending in “The Prayer;” justice via fiction.

In 2014 I plan to partner with to raise funds for basic sanitation. I will donate a dollar for every Kindle book I sell on Amazon in 2014. To maximize the effort, I’m considering asking fellow authors to donate a portion of their earnings for a selected month. For their month, I’ll promote them on my blog and on the fundraiser page. They’d get added exposure as well as make a meaningful contribution for a great cause. 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.


In Memorium: The Unsung Influence of Mystery Author Leighton Gage

Fellow international mystery author Leighton Gage, creator of the Inspector Silva mystery series set in Brazil, passed away last week at his home in Florida. I never met him but he influenced me as both a writer and a reader.

Late last year, as I prepared to publish the first Emilia Cruz novel set in Mexico, the words of dismissal I’d received about trying to publish books for a U.S. audience in which all of the characters are Mexican still stung.  So it was a comfort to discover a Goodreads group about mysteries set in various locales around the world and read a post about Leighton Gage’s Brazil-based Inspector Silva books.

It was the first mystery series I’d heard of set in Central or South America. Emilia Cruz had footsteps in which to follow!

The Inspector Silva books are relentlessly authentic. I’ve been to São Paolo, where the fictional Silva lives, and can truly say that Gage nailed the environment. Disconcertedly so, in many ways. The books don’t shrink away from the brutality of life in the favelas, the choking traffic, endemic corruption, or express kidnappings and other criminal cruelty.

book coverInspector Silva is the product of his environment, as are his subordinates. The plots are driven by circumstances that can be uniquely Brazilian, such as the land rights issue that drove the action in his first book, Blood of the Wicked. Read my review here.

I was pursuing the same path, taking readers into the heart of a culture, with characters who live and breathe the reality of that place, and deal with circumstances that are shaped by that environment. Along with Jo Nesbo in Norway (the Harry Hole series), Ian Rankin in Scotland (the DI Rebus series), and Donna Leon in Venice, Italy (the Guido Brunetti series), Leighton Gage became my role model as an international mystery series author who excels at authenticity.

So it was a huge personal milestone when Leighton Gage followed me on Twitter! We connected as well on Facebook and Goodreads. We never dialogued on any of those platforms but it was enough for me to be recognized by someone who not only enjoyed success in our field but had repudiated the bad advice I’d been given about trying to publish books with all Latino characters. I’m sorry I never got to tell him that. I can only offer a belated thank you to Leighton Gage for both his books and audacity. 

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


Illustrating the Release of HAT DANCE with Drama and Dialogue

Illustrating the Release of HAT DANCE with Drama and Dialogue

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

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

The plot

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

old concrete wall and chandelier

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

Read Chapter 1 here

The cast

Many characters that readers met in CLIFF DIVER are back:

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

sleep_quotePlus some new faces:

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

Check out the Emilia Cruz dreamcast here.

The setting

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

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


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


Book Review: Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage

Book Review: Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage

BLOOD OF THE WICKED is the first book in the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series by Leighton Gage. I’d never heard of the series before stumbling upon a reference to it in a Goodreads group. I was trying to see if I was the only one writing a mystery series set in the Americas and a fellow mystery lover had listed it in a thread. In addition to discovering the Mario Silva series, I also discovered that besides myself, Leighton Gage, and Jerry Last, there aren’t many writing mysteries set in the Americas for the English-speaking audience.

Related post: In Memorium: The Unsung Influence of Mystery Author Leighton Gage

Goodreads didn’t steer me wrong. Silva is an enigmatic protagonist with a disturbing but understandable backstory. I liked the way Gage wove in the backstory but didn’t try and force-fit it into the plot. The story starts as a whodunit murder mystery that Silva and his federal police team has to solve but they quickly find out that there are underlying problems in the smallish town where the murder occurred. Local civil authority is totally corrupt, however, and resent the intrusion by Silva and his small team of federales.

The prize in this book is the absolute authenticity. From the descriptions of the locations to the issues that create much of the drama to the characters who are so truly Brazilian, you’ll be surprised at the end that the book wasn’t in Portuguese.  Gage’s style comes right at you, nothing flowery or extraneous. Good plotting, pacing and characters. But there is violence and gore and the disregard for human life that hemisphere-watchers read about in the newspapers or see on Blog del Narco. I would have liked more of Silva’s personal life; he’s not as well-rounded as he might have been. But overall this is a book written with grit, talent and an insider’s view of Brazil. If you like mysteries, this is a series to investigate.

Carmen Amato at Spring Hill

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