Rome native retired from CIA, now writes detective stories

Chip Twellman Haley
Rome Through Our Past Writer
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Posted 5/5/19

A Rome native, who had an exciting life as a Central Intelligence Agency officer for 30 years, is now an author who crafts fictional stories that are often ripped from today’s non-fictional …

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Rome native retired from CIA, now writes detective stories

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A Rome native, who had an exciting life as a Central Intelligence Agency officer for 30 years, is now an author who crafts fictional stories that are often ripped from today’s non-fictional headlines.

Carmen Amato, 59, grew up on Laurel Street, attended Denti Elementary and Strough Junior High School and graduated from Rome Catholic High in 1978. She is the daughter of Jean Booton, of Walnut Street, and the late Edwin Booton. Her mother worked as an insurance agent, and was a long-time volunteer at the Ava Dorfman Center.

Her father was an Air Force meteorologist at Griffiss. She has one son and one daughter, both of whom now live out of state. Her three siblings all live in upstate New York. Amato lives in Tennessee with her husband, Larry Robinson, who is also a retired CIA employee. The couple married in 1989 in St. Paul’s church in Rome.

After graduation from Rome Catholic High, Amato received a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history and political science, from LeMoyne, with a minor in theater. She received a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Virginia. “I spent my college junior year in Paris, getting my first taste of international travel,” she reported. “I took classes at the Sorbonne, Institut Catholique, and Sciences Po (The Paris Institute of Political Studies). 

“I joined the CIA after meeting a university recruiter,” she explained. “I held positions of increasing responsibility in the areas of intelligence analysis, open source intelligence, international negotiations, and strategic communications. I was a member of the 2015 Agency Modernization Task Force, the General Secretary of the 22-nation International Open Source Working Group, and supervised employees throughout the Western Hemisphere. I retired in 2016 as head of one of the US national intelligence tradecraft schools.”

Amato has written more than a half dozen books, along with several short stories and other work. Her books include: “Cliff Diver,” “Hat Dance,” “Diablo Nights,” “King Peso,” “Pacific Reaper,” “The Hidden Light of Mexico City,” and “43 Missing.” Most of her books have the fictional Detective Emilia Cruz as the main character. The fictional Cruz is the first — and only — female detective on the Acapulco police force, confronting Mexico’s drug cartels, missing persons, money laundering, drug violence, crooks and legendary government corruption.

Amato is one of seven people who was inducted into the Rome Arts Hall of Fame on Sunday, April 28. Others this year were: Megan Anderegg, Rome school district art teacher coordinator; John Clifford, Sentinel newspaper photographer; Alice Dennis, puppeteer and performance artist; Bernie Hurlbut, illustrator and singer; Kimberly Nethaway, musician; and Gail Tucker, theater volunteer.  

In a telephone interview, Amato said she really does not know how many books she has sold, in part because they are sold in several places, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million. The books are available as ebooks and audiobooks, as well as in print.

She said there is a Facebook group that keeps track of the 60 top-selling Kindle books among Mexican writers, including some top-notch authors. “As long as one of my books makes it onto the weekly list of those heavy hitters, I know sales are healthy,” she said, adding, “The only one that gives me a monthly tally is the Amazon Kindle. For example, last month, I sold 358 books -- so that was just that one platform.”

Amato said her grandmother was among those who inspired her. “Ann Amato Sestito … was one of the major influences in my life,” she said. “I like to write about strong women. And most of my friends are strong women. I think that is due to spending time with my grandmother. She had a great sense of style and was a great hostess, but more importantly, she was resilient and knew how to adapt to changing circumstances. I think my love of action and adventure stories came from hours spent watching ‘Magnum P.I.’ and ‘Riptide’ with her!” 

Amato also credited an elementary teacher, Frank Taverna, for inspiring her to write. “He knew how to keep his students’ attention, with ‘Delicious Fractions’ taught with pizza, and his original stories about ‘Professor Pasta and the Pepper Bomb,’” she recalled.

Her books often draw on newspaper headlines from Mexico, she said.

“I really don’t need to make up serial killers,” she laughed. “Just reading the news coming out of Mexico is probably 75 percent of what forms my plot lines.” One issue in particular helped her determine what kind of stories she wanted to tell. “I already knew I wanted to write about the unequal social situation, the incredibly rich and poor, the disparity …”

Then, her parish priest in Mexico was murdered, but authorities later reported the crime as a suicide -- probably because drug dealers were responsible for the killing and may have paid off officials to look the other way. “That episode got my thoughts aligned,” about how to write about Mexico. “It’s a beautiful country, rich in culture, but drug violence is destroying” it, she said. She blames the current immigration issues on “corruption” in Central America, “which is fueled by the huge drug consumption in the U.S.”

Why did she take up writing, after a long CIA career? “I’ve always enjoyed writing, and 30 years in the CIA certainly sharpened those skills. When your analysis is reaching the top levels of your government, it must be clear, concise, and worth reading.

“Fiction demands the same discipline, but gives you much more scope. The first fiction I wrote was for my son, who loved stories about flying. There wasn’t much for his age, so I decided to write some. By the time I had written the first two books in the never-published Kip Dillion Aviation Adventure series, my son had graduated to Dale Brown.

“The next fiction I tackled became my first novel, ‘The Hidden Light of Mexico City.’ I wanted to say something about the rigid social class system in Mexico and knew fiction would be an effective way to portray what I saw and experienced there. 

“The Detective Emilia Cruz series has taken my writing to the next level. Through the eyes of the first female police detective in Acapulco — which by the way enjoys the honor of being Mexico’s homicide capital — the series confronts cartels, corruption and Mexico’s culture of machismo.” 

Emilia Cruz has been well received by mystery readers. The series recently won the Poison Cup award from CrimeMasters of America. Amato’s latest book, “43 Missing,” is based on Mexico’s most notorious crime, and was a finalist for the 2018 Silver Falchion Award.

Amato said she could not divulge what other countries she has lived and worked in, besides Mexico, under CIA rules. But she did say, “My agency career has literally taken me around the world, more than once. She said she also cannot give specifics about the work she did, which may have influenced the outcomes of international issues. But she believes her work did contribute, “in a positive way.”

Despite her experience now as an author of fiction, she has no plans to write a non-fiction story about her life with the CIA. “It’s so cliché: retired officer writes CIA memoir,” she observed.

What is her next project?

“I’m currently working on ‘Russian Mojito,’ Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7. I’m also writing a series of essays about why readers are flocking to the narco noir thriller genre, with fellow author Jeanine Kitchel. The first essay was published in February by the website Criminal Element.” 

Has she ever considered writing a book based in Rome? “Yes, I have given thought to a Prohibition-era mystery series,” she said. “No firm plans yet, but it is a possibility.”

This column was written for the Rome Historical Society by Chip Twellman Haley, retired Daily Sentinel news editor. Comments, old photos, suggestions for future columns or guest columns may be emailed to: chiphaley@yahoo.com. Copies of the book “Rome Through Our History,” a collection of some of Haley’s columns, may be purchased at the Rome Historical Society.

The Rome Historical Society, 200 Church St., is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Go online at www.romehistoricalsociety.org, visit their Facebook page, or call 336-5870 for more information.

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