Please join me in welcoming Carmen Amato to the blog, today. Her 30-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency has inspired a growing body of crime fiction filled with intrigue and deception. She is a recipient of both the National Intelligence Award and the Career Intelligence Medal, and she is the author of the award-winning Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series which was awarded the Poison Cup for Outstanding Series from CrimeMasters of America in both 2019 and 2020, and has been optioned for television. In this series, she pits Acapulco’s first female police detective against Mexico’s drug cartels, government corruption, and social inequality.
MB: Carmen, thanks for being on the blog, today. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be a crime fiction writer?
CA: Writing crime fiction is my second career, something that I planned very meticulously, and I’m loving every minute of it. I was an intelligence officer for the Central Intelligence Agency for 30 years, unconsciously tucking away the situations and personalities I encountered. Now they form the backbone of the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, in which the first female police detective in Acapulco confronts Mexico’s drug cartels, official corruption and culture of machismo.
Originally from New York, my love of travel and adventure began when I spent a year in France, studying at the Sorbonne and the French university of political sciences known as Sciences Po. But my experiences in Mexico and Central America really ignited my crime fiction career. I wanted to illustrate what I saw there, everything from a rich history and culture to a stratified social system and rising drug violence. My writing skills let me do that.
MB: You are eight books into your Detective Emilia Cruz series. Please tell us about this character and how you discovered her.
CA: Detective Emilia Cruz was “born” one Christmas in Mexico, when an armed and addled junkie interrupted midnight Mass at my church on Christmas Eve. No one was hurt, but we were all shaken. It was a sober realization for me just how much damage US drug consumption is wreaking on Mexican society. Eroding civil authority is unable to compete with the huge amounts of money from the US that fuel the drug trade. Cartels and gangs are easily able to co-opt or intimidate police, judges, mayors, etc. That is why thousands of Mexicans go missing every year and even more Americans die from drug overdoses.
After writing the political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, in which a drug cartel tries to buy the Mexican presidency, I scribbled a short story about a female Mexican cop in Acapulco, the city that for me epitomizes the highs and lows of Mexican life today. I wanted to make the story authentic, to immerse the reader in the Mexico that I experienced.
One source of inspiration for the tale was the Mexican saying, “Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States.”
I brought the story to a critique group and the response from my fellow writers was favorable enough to expand it into the first Detective Emilia Cruz novel, CLIFF DIVER. The turning point came shortly before HAT DANCE, the second book was released, and Huffpost published prequel short story “The Beast” in its Fiction50 showcase curated by actress Rita Wilson. That really helped me find my readership.
MB: How do you keep your main character fresh, as the series lengthens?
CA: I use strong backstories, authentic details, and atmospherics from my intelligence career to keep the reader turning the pages. This means that every Detective Emilia Cruz novel is a real crime cocktail.
The first ingredient is the main mystery, which is often prompted by something in the news. It always hinges on something uniquely Mexican; these plots could not happen elsewhere.
The second ingredient is the enduing subplot of Emilia trying to find women who have gone missing in the Acapulco area. She keeps records of their disappearances, compiled into a binder she calls Las Perdidas (The Lost Ones.)
The third ingredient is Emilia’s personal life. In CLIFF DIVER, the first novel in the series, the reader is introduced to Emilia’s mother, who had a nervous breakdown when Emilia was a toddler and never recovered. The reason for that nervous breakdown is a multi-layered and tragic family secret that unwinds across several books. Just when you think the issue is over, there’s another surprise element.
Emilia’s personal life also involves Kurt Rucker, manager of the most luxurious hotel in Acapulco. Sparks fly between Emilia and Kurt, but she is very good at avoiding commitment. Nonetheless, Kurt won’t be shunted aside and their relationship waxes and wanes throughout the series.
Throw in Franco Silvio, Emilia’s perpetually grumpy partner, plus her corrupt cousin who runs the police department’s evidence locker and a squad room full of detectives who want to throw her out.
With so many diverse and evolving elements to work with, it’s easy to keep the series fresh.
Did I mention that I love complexity?
MB: You have also written short stories, involving your main character, Det. Cruz. How do you know when a story idea about her is big enough to sustain a book-length narrative, or will work better as a short story?
CA: I was thrilled to win Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion in 2019 for the short story “The Artist,” inspired by Mexico’s rallies to raise awareness of the crisis of missing persons. It is available in a bilingual English and Spanish volume entitled THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA.
One of my writing mantras is “Begin with the end in mind.” I struggle to find short story concepts that have a clean finish.
For a short story, I’m looking for plots that wrap with a clever twist. I have a big box of clippings and printouts, plus links that I post under the hashtag #research on the Detective Emilia Cruz Facebook page.
Novellas are a nice middle ground. The Kindle Single THE LISTMAKER OF ACAPULCO was inspired by a contest sponsored by Moleskine notebooks. I didn’t enter the contest, but the whole plot came together like magic. Readers were excited to get a new Detective Emilia Cruz tale, but I constantly get emails asking when the next full-length novel will come out.
Most readers want to know if Emilia and Kurt will get married. When they broke up at the end of PACIFIC REAPER, I got an avalanche of upset emails!
MB: What books or authors have influenced your writing?
CA: Throughout high school, I read Big Heavy Novels by Leon Uris, Ken Follett, and Herman Wouk. Sweeping reads with historic context, drama-building prose, and characters who evolve. In fact, Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA was my role model for THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.
I also love P.G. Wodehouse and Leonard Wibberly, humor writers whose books are funny, frothy, and wholly unrealistic, albeit with fantastic dialogue and quick-step tempo. At the same time, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series was my introduction to the mystery genre.
After being told that books with Mexican main characters would never get an agent/be published/sell, I found an unlikely hero in Leighton Gage’s Inspector Silva books set in Brazil. Gage proved that readers were ready to embrace authentic cultural details from other parts of the Western Hemisphere, which gave me the courage to go forward with the Detective Emilia Cruz series.
MB: What’s next from the pen of Carmen Amato?
CA: There is more Detective Emilia Cruz coming, but in 2022 I’m detouring to upstate New York in 1926 with the new Galliano Club thriller series. In part based on my grandfather’s stories of when he was a deputy sheriff of Oneida County during Prohibition, the series takes the reader to the fictional town of Lido, New York, based on my hometown of Rome, New York.
On the banks of the Mohawk River, Lido is a mill town with big immigrant populations from Italy and Poland that forge the copper and brass to build America’s trains, telephone lines, and electrical grid. When the whistle blows, the Italian workers head to the Galliano Club to play cards and buy bootleg beer from barman Luca Lombardo, who fled Italy after killing the man who murdered his parents.
Lido heats up when Chicago gangster Benny Rotolo swaggers into town, vowing to build a bootlegging empire big enough to challenge enemy Al Capone. Turning the Galliano Club into his private speakeasy is at the top of his list.
Titles of the 3-book series give you a taste of what’s ahead: MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB, BLACKMAIL AT THE GALLIANO CLUB, and REVENGE AT THE GALLIANO CLUB.
MB: Carmen, thanks, again, for visiting MurderBooks, today.
Every other Sunday, Carmen’s Mystery Ahead newsletter delivers mystery reviews, book news, and exclusive excerpts from her new Galliano Club thriller series. You can subscribe at: MYSTERY AHEAD NEWSLETTER.
Carmen Amato was interviewed by Roger Johns.