Some authors look for visual cues to help create setting and characters. Most call it research.

I call it antiques hunting.


To build the Galliano Club series, I have my grandfather’s account books from when he was City Marshall, as well as a wealth of family stories.

But when I saw this photo hanging on a pegboard in an antiques mall, I knew it was the face of my protagonist. Gianluca “Luca” Lombardo is bartender and jack-of-all-trades at the fictional Galliano Club in fictional Lido, NY.

Vintage portrait

The man in the sepia photograph is 19 or 20 years old, younger than Luca, who is 27 at the start of the first Galliano Club thriller, MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB. He is wearing a suit that is far too big. The jacket is puddled around his waist and the trouser legs spread like a tablecloth.

He’s posed on a leather chair that fairly gleams. His gaze is direct and clear, which is what caught my eye.

The oval frame is beautiful burled wood and in near pristine condition. The glass over the photograph is domed, an expensive feature rarely seen any more. (which accounts for the glare in the photo here.)

Someone in the 1920’s invested heavily in this portrait of a handsome man.


It seemed crazy to buy a photograph of someone I didn’t know. But to make a long story short, I lugged Luca home and hung him on my office wall. To further immerse myself in 1926, I also brought home a giant red cigar box, which at least is a useful organizing item.

The youthfulness of the man in the photograph led to a great backstory element that has already made its way into the first book in the series:

Luca came to the United States as a 19-year-old immigrant from Italy in 1919. Like many others who came from Italy at the time, he lived in a New York City tenement on Elizabeth Street. With little English and no professional skills, he took any job he could find, including bare knuckled prizefighting.

In between bouts, a photographer offered Luca $20 to have his picture taken to display in the studio window. The photographer was hoping a handsome face would entice female customers. Luca agreed and wore clothes provided by the photographer for the picture-taking event.

With the money in his pocket, Luca never gave the portrait another thought.

See more about the forthcoming GALLIANO CLUB series here.


This is a different process than I followed with the Detective Emilia Cruz series. My mind’s eye saw Emilia very clearly but there was no actual face to go with that image until around Book 5, PACIFIC REAPER, when I stumbled upon this image of a Latina boxer.

the face

She’s the spitting image of Emilia. Don’t you agree?


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the face


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


Author Carmen Amato

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