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.”

mystery setting

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mystery setting


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


mystery setting

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

A year ago I was Lost.

No-cell-phone-service Lost. The-road-is-a-gravel-track-through-cane-fields Lost.

Set Sail One Day

Five girlfriends had set out from Panama City to go to El Valle, about two hours away. We’d go to the Sunday crafts market there and have lunch at a boutique hotel afterwards.

A quick stop for cheese empanadas and gas and we were on the road. The miles sped by as we talked and laughed and it was well over an hour before we started to look for the turnoff to El Valle. There wasn’t a sign, but the intersection was the one with the pink shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

More talk. More laughter. More miles. Eventually we turned on the GPS and it signaled a turn. Not the road with the shrine, but it was the right direction.

At Road’s End

About half a mile down the new road, tarmac gave way to gravel. With deep ruts. Then worse ruts. We passed a small village and asked if that was the right road to El Valle. Yes, we were assured. One person said El Valle was just 10 minutes. Another said 30 minutes. The GPS seemed to split the difference.

always turn right

Bad ruts turned into a dry stream bed weaving through Panama’s low mountains. The doughty SUV slid downhill, the tires unable to grip the loose stones. We jolted in the car like peanuts in a tin can. A dashboard light turned on—overheated transmission. We stopped on a rocky plateau and scouted ahead only to find that the gravel track narrowed ahead. The five of us were quite alone in the hot rustling jungle.

The SUV cooled and we started off again, now having discovered that we were all Catholic and that two of us carried rosaries. The jungle gave way to cane fields. Hard green stalks as high as the car roof rattled against the windows.

Two Hours Later . . .

After two hours off-road we broke through the cane field and clambered onto tarmac again. We were on the eastern edge of El Valle. Never were five women more ready to buy souvenirs.

I learned a few things that day.

About being lost. And knowing when to turn at the shrine.

  1. Don’t be so distracted by peripherals—entertainment, Twitter, mooning over the wrong guy—that you forget to look for the shrine that points the way to where you really want to go.
  2. If you’re lost, keep going. Take a break to rethink the situation, take care of problems, or give yourself a pep talk, but don’t confuse “taking a break” with “breaking down.” Cheerlead as you go—you’re handling the uncertainty well, you’re learning about yourself and wherever this “lost” place is—even if it is inside you.
  3. The shrine doesn’t have to be the pink altar on the side of the road. A shrine can be any pointer that helps you travel where you want to go. A shrine can be the project you handled well—you can use it as inspiration for managing a bigger one. A shrine can be a passing grade in a tough subject—you know you can master the next class, too. A shrine can be a hard decision, a recovery from an illness, the day you stood up for yourself, the time when you were scared but did it anyway.
  4. Maybe today’s the day you build a shrine. The day you make a decision and carry it out. The day that you see new possibilities. Believe an inspirational quote and translate it into action. Once you build the shrine, it’s yours forever, ready to inspire if you get lost.

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always turn right


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


always turn right

5 Ways to Save What Matters

5 Ways to Save What Matters

historic preservation

A recent walk through Panama’s Casco Viejo–with its alternately sad and hopeful mix of gutted buildings, slumdog shacks, churches, and newly restored upscale shops and hotels–reminded me of the importance of cultural preservation.  While this historic district goes through a transformation that will ultimately preserve the best of it, other cultural legacies have disappeared and those are sad stories, as if cultural practices and language and architecture are endangered species.

So, based on a wholly uninformed point of view, here are some ideas for preserving what matters:


The world is full of examples, notably of buildings, that get converted to another use in order to preserve them. When I was in college, we converted a local firehouse into a theater and the highlight of the season was the lead actor sliding down the firepole to make a grand entrance in Scappino. I was the stage manager for the production and still have scars on my right hand from the scene in which the pole was transformed into a flagpole with a series of distress flags hooked to a rope. As I worked the mechanism on the top floor above the stage, the hooks snagged my hand when the actor yanked too hard on the rope.

Example: The Hardware Store in Charlottesville, VA is a former Depression-era hardware store transformed into a restaurant. The original fittings have been preserved and the ambiance is right out of the 1930’s. The concept was so successful that the restaurant anchors the modernized downtown area of the city. Oh, and my main characters eat there in a thriller I’ve been working on set in Charlottesville.


historic preservationUse the item we want to preserve as a logo or symbol to prompt interest and identification. While this may sound like a test for graphic designers, it is a good way to place the reminder of the thing to be preserved in alot of places, including social media pages, brochures, etc.

Example: Canning Across America is a clever website dedicated to preserving (sorry, just was too perfect) the art of home canning. The site uses a logo of a canning jar that manages to be edgy and hip even as the site showcases homey pictures of gorgeous jams and veggies and such.


Pedestrians Only

Many spaces we want to preserve have narrow streets. Stop putting cars through the area and convert to pedestrian use only to prevent damage to buildings and facilitate tourism so people can stop and linger. Put parking and access to public transportation nearby.  This is what I hope is eventually done to Panama’s Casco Viejo, where both streets and sidewalks are narrow. Pedestrians frequently end up walking in the sreet, endangering life and limb. Buildings are so close that drivers can’t see around them as they approach intersections. Driving through can really be a game of chicken.

Example: Most old European cities were smart enough not to stuff historic plazas full of cars. There are many beautiful open spaces that invite folks to walk through and find treasures in restaurants and shops. Brussels’s Grand Place main square is a great example. In Italy, a pedestrian square is an isola pedonale and Piazza Navona is my favorite (there’s a Furla store there, so not hard to see why I like it.)

Hall of Fame

Create a showcase of the best examples of culture in certain categories. There’s the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Nascar Hall of Fame, the National Air and Space Museum, etc. Obviously, this is a versatile concept.

Example: The Library of Congress has a National Recording Registry that functions as a sound-based hall of fame. As recently reported by Huffington Post, they inducted  “25 sounds that shaped the American cultural landscape.” How cool is that?!

Make it personal

Often, people don’t respond to a concept unless it becomes personal to them. Preservationists have to find a way to tie preservation to something that is personal to the audience in order to build interest and support and even participation.

Example: The endlessly creative website is devoted to preserving Singapore’s cultural heritage. A campaign in January to raise awareness was a call for people to submit wedding photos taken at Singapore’s 64 national monuments.  People who sent in wedding photos would qualify to win diamond jewelry from a local store.

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


historic preservation

The Art of Casco Viejo

The Art of Casco Viejo

Panama’s old city, known as Casco Viejo, is located on a small peninsula that juts into the Pacific. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a warren of narrow streets and old buildings that were once the elegant homes of Spanish conquistadors. Over the years, the area was wracked by the sea and poverty and much of it became a slum. More recently, Casco Viejo has undergone a renaissance. A few shops and restaurants and boutique hotels have opened and most of the historic buildings are being renovated.

Corrugated iron barriers surround renovation sites and become the canvas for ugly grafitti. Except for the corner that turned construction barriers into an art installation. Here is some wonderful street art from a very unexpected place  All photos copyright Carmen Amato, April 2012.

Casco Viejo

Construction artwork signed by E. Sanchez Perez

Casco Viejo

Dooorways painted on construction barriers signed by B. Santana

Casco Viejo

Painting on construction barrier entitled Edificios del Casco

Casco Viejo

Painted trash cans near construction site in Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

Giant fish painted on construction barrier hides plumbing materials

Casco Viejo

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