She Was WHAT!? An Interview with Carmen Amato (Narco Noir)

We’re excited to interview former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Agent Author Carmen Amato this month on the Mystery Review Crew to kick off our month of Crime Thrillers! Carmen Amato is one of the most organized and well-informed people I’ve ever met, and I love that Carmen Amato doesn’t shy away from talking about the realities of life. She includes many of the things she has personally seen in her books, including her most recent series (The Detective Emilia Cruz Police Series) where she talks about the drug war in Mexico, Official corruption, money laundering, and so much more!

A little bit more about Carmen’s Experiences: 

Ex-CIA intelligence officer Carmen Amato writes award-winning crime fiction loaded with danger and deception. Beginning with Cliff Diver, her Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series pits the first female police detective in Acapulco against Mexico’s cartels, corruption, and social inequality. Optioned for television, it’s a two-time winner of the Outstanding Series award from CrimeMasters of America. First in her new Prohibition-era thriller series, Murder at the Galliano Club won the 2023 Silver Falchion award for Best Historical. Carmen is a recipient of both the National Intelligence Award and the Career Intelligence Medal. After globe-trotting careers, she and her husband reside in Tennessee. Find out more at carmenamato.net.

You can also listen to our other Author interview with Carmen Amato by Author Shelley Blanton-Stroud.

Her book Narco Noir was released in 2020, with the next book released in 2024. So let’s take a dive into Narco Noir and some of the real life true crime moments behind this novel.

Interview with Carmen Amato

Acapulco’s vivid portrayal in your Detective Emilia Cruz series highlights issues of cartels, corruption, and social inequality. How do you approach incorporating these themes into the narrative, and what message or reflection on real-world problems do you hope readers take away?

I was a CIA intelligence officer for 30 years before embracing a second career as a mystery author. After an armed junkie came into my church in Mexico City, threatening us all, I decided to use fiction to show what was happening in Mexico. 

They way I portray the setting of Acapulco in the Detective Emilia Cruz series is rooted in my own experiences as well as the news coming out of Mexico on a daily basis. 

Acapulco is a beautiful, iconic resort city, but it is experiencing the impact of today’s illicit drug trade: missing persons, continuing street violence, fentanyl smuggling, etc, on an unprecedented scale. The city has the highest homicide rate in Mexico and one of the highest in the entire Western Hemisphere.

I hope readers come away with a better understanding of how drugs can destroy the very fabric of society on both sides of the border. It’s hard to be an honest cop when extreme amounts of money generated by the drug trade are everywhere.

The plot involves Emilia’s worst enemy entering her taxi, leading to a dramatic escalation. How do you use this dynamic to build suspense and reveal more about Emilia’s character, including her personal struggles and vulnerabilities?

The one comment I get all the time is how very human Emilia is and how committed readers are to her, with the MysterySequels blog declaring that “Emilia is a character who is close to my heart.”

I think this is because Emilia has flaws. Insecurities. Bad habits. Grudges. She’s dishonest when it serves her purpose. A woman in a man’s job in a male-dominated police department, she always expects a fight and is ready for it, too. Yet her frailties make her real. 

Narco Noir sees Emilia unexpectedly meet the man who hurt her badly in a previous book, which left readers wondering if she’d ever get her revenge. Well, she does, and in spectacular fashion that leaves her victorious but bruised and broken, too. 

No spoilers, but a flat tire and a swimming pool figure prominently.

Your background as a CIA intelligence officer with counterdrug experience adds authenticity to the series. How does your real-world expertise influence the storytelling, particularly in portraying crime, danger, and deception in the Detective Emilia Cruz novels? Is it something difficult for you to think about or process?

Sometimes I worry that the series is too authentic. What is the norm for me—reading obscure news from Mexico or Central America, peppering my writing with Spanish words, understanding cultural details—isn’t the norm for the average mystery lover. I work to strike a balance.

Most readers are basically good, too. The brutal crimes and layers of deception that are hallmarks of the drug trade in Mexico may seem like exaggerations. 

Trust me, they aren’t.

The difficult part for me isn’t in recalling experiences or reading about such disturbing things but in knowing that the US appetite for drugs and human trafficking is the root cause.

The Detective Emilia Cruz series has received accolades, including the Poison Cup Award for Outstanding Series. What do you believe sets the series apart in the realm of police procedural mysteries, and which elements do you think resonate strongly with fans of the genre?

What sets Detective Emilia Cruz apart runs counter to current mainstream publishing trends. 

Emilia doesn’t fit any of the popular tropes. She isn’t a Mexican trying to get to the US like in American Dirt or the love interest for an American man in a “romantic fling in Cancun” kind of romance. 

Not a trope, but an outlier. 

Detective Emilia Cruz books sit on the shelf with other mystery series that introduce a foreign culture to the English-speaking reader in an exciting, immersive way, like the Arkady Renko series set in Moscow by Martin Cruz Smith, the Inspector Brunetti series set in Venice by Donna Leon, and the Li Yan series set in Beijing by Peter May. 

These excellent series are my role models. They don’t water down authenticity or fit popular tropes. 

As for the elements of the series that resonate most strongly with readers? 

First is the character of Emilia herself. As a writer, there’s no higher compliment than when a reader wants to talk about the character rather than the plot! 

Second, there are no simple crimes in Detective Emilia Cruz’s Acapulco! If you like tantalizing, immersive books, these are for you. 

Learning More About How Author Carmen Amato Writes her stories:

Are you a planner or a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants)? How do you approach structuring your stories?

I’m a devoted planner who writes from an outline. I never start a book without knowing the ending.

The outline comes together on sticky notes first, with different colors for different plot threads. When its done, it goes on the wall above my desk. 

Outlines are a dynamic thing, however. I always update the outline 2 or 3 times as the book progresses and is revised/rewritten. 

Despite the outline, there’s always some hair-pulling along the way to a first draft. After that, I can take a breath and enjoy the wordsmithing process!

What sources of inspiration do you draw upon when crafting your stories? Are there particular real events that influence your writing?

I’ve experienced a train derailment, three earthquakes, and an encounter with a lionfish while scuba diving. I’ve never been so nervous as when I had to be a courier and accept a package from an agent in a foreign country. 

I’ve had my passport taken away by corrupt officials. I was stopped by an armed guard on a deserted highway at midnight right after a coup overthrew that country’s government. Good times.

Those exact experiences don’t appear in Narco Noir or other Detective Emilia Cruz books but I channel the emotions from them.

Experiences which prompt a strong emotional reaction are always the best ones to mine when crafting a story. Extreme fear, confusion, trepidation, anger, achievement, and uncertainty can all be transferred to your characters. 

Can you share a memorable interaction or dynamic between two of your characters that you particularly enjoyed writing?

The dynamic between Emilia and Lieutenant Franco Silvio is the most fun to write. A former heavyweight boxer and the most senior detective, Silvio was her enemy in Cliff Diver, the first book in the series. In Hat Dance, the second book, they are very reluctant partners. By Narco Noir, the most recent in the series, he’s her boss.

Emilia and Silvio are always sparring both verbally and surreptitiously by keeping information from each other. Dialogue is the most fun, with snappy jabs, insults, but also a few unguarded moments of genuine affection. 

Over the course of 8 books, they’ve saved each other’s lives, lied for each other, helped, hindered, argued, insulted, and thrown things. It’s a healthy partnership.

Can you share a funny or heartwarming anecdote related to your writing journey?

When I retired from the CIA we got a beagle mix pup named Dutch. He was a rescue and had been confined to a playpen for much of the first months of his life. When we brought him into the back yard he was so scared! (thankfully, not for long)

Dutch immediately became my “muse,” as my husband called him. When I sat at my desk, Dutch would lay down next to me. He’d stay there all day long, exuding moral support. 

I needed it, too. It was a big shift to go from CIA senior manager with a national security mission to being alone with a blank screen all day, convincing myself that I was a real mystery author.

Sadly, we lost Dutch to cancer last year. Now and then one of our big German Shepherds will keep me company, but it’s not the same.

If your latest book were to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you cast in the lead roles?

Detective Emilia Cruz has come close to the big screen several times and I still have hope. At one point, NBCUniversal acquired the series for Jennifer Lopez, but she ultimately pursued other projects.

When I wrote the first short story featuring Emilia Cruz in my mind’s eye, I saw Eva Mendes in the role. I loved her in Hitch with Will Smith. 

Others have suggested Michelle Rodriguez from the Fast and Furious franchise. 

I’d love to hear more ideas!

*Affiliate links are used in this article. The Mystery Review Crew is an Amazon Affiliate and as such earns from qualifying purchases. See our privacy policy and disclosures for more information.

About Narco Noir

Book EIGHT: Narco Noir, A Detective Emilia Cruz Novel

A bitter past drives Acapulco’s first female police detective into a Hollywood film starring lies and murder when she goes undercover to catch a killer.

As the camera rolls, Detective Emilia Cruz will face her toughest case yet.

After witnessing the execution-style murder of a taxi driver, Emilia replaces him behind the wheel. Undercover with a false identity, her target is a shadowy gang extorting protection money from the upscale taxi service.

Oddly enough, no one in Acapulco has heard of the gang. Yet the threat of another murder has all the drivers, including Emilia, scared to death.

But when Emilia’s worst enemy gets into her taxi, both her life and the murder case accelerate out of control.

Next stop, a movie set where a second undercover role awaits.

The script is a nightmare. The director’s cut is a double-cross. The leading man has looks that could kill.

Can Emilia act her way out of murder?

Could you?

Carmen Amato knows how to bring Acapulco to life . . . Emilia is definitely a character that is close to my heart.” – Mystery Sequels

PRAISE FOR THE AWARD-WINNING DETECTIVE EMILIA CRUZ SERIESCLIFF DIVER “Consistently exciting.” ― Kirkus Reviews

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, Bookbub, and Barnes and Noble.

Book ONE: Cliff Diver, a Detective Emilia Cruz Novel

In this explosive start to the award-winning mystery series set in Acapulco, Emilia Cruz beat the odds to become the city’s first woman police detective. Now she lives in a pressure cooker of danger and distrust.

Famous for beaches, resorts and nightlife, Acapulco is ground zero for the war on drugs. Drug cartels fight over smuggling routes into the United States for fentanyl and cocaine. Human trafficking is on the rise. Missing persons are never found. Homicide rates are exploding and every murder is an unsolved mystery.

Even worse, the police department is riddled with corruption.

No one is more corrupt than Emilia’s own lieutenant.

When he’s murdered, Emilia is assigned to lead the investigation and uncovers an ugly mess no one wants exposed. Both the mayor and the head of the police union pressure her to close the case. Their reasons have nothing to do with justice.

Meanwhile, another detective is her prime suspect.

Feeling like one of Acapulco’s famous cliff divers praying not to smash into the rocks below, Emilia must choose between truth and survival. Either way, she won’t be ready for the impact.

Neither will you.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, Bookbub and Barnes and Noble.

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6 Comments

  1. Interesting interview. I’ve read Carmen’s novel, ’43 Missing’ and really enjoyed it. It’s not a genre I normally read, and it opened me up to new ideas. I certainly hope Hollywood gets smart and puts Emilia on screen!

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