Today Scene of the Crime welcomes veteran mystery writer Cara Black, author of the popular Aimée Leduc series, set in contemporary Paris. Black knows her setting and relishes taking the reader into the insider’s Paris, as noted by a reviewer for the New York Times who wrote, “If the cobblestones of the old Marais district of Paris could only talk, they might tell a tale as haunting as the one Cara Black spins.” Of Cara’s spirited protagonist, a Publishers Weekly contributor observed, “Aimée makes an engaging protagonist, vulnerable beneath her vintage chic clothing and sharp-witted exterior.”
Black began her series in 1998 with Murder in the Marais, and since that time has been working her ways steadily through the districts of Paris, setting each new novel in a different part of the city. However, the idea for the series had been percolating since 1984 when she was inspired by the Marais district before it was gentrified. A decade later the idea for the first novel came to her as she was walking around the city at night. Along with the story came the image of her tattooed, spike-haired female detective. Cara’s tenth Aimée Leduc novel, Murder in the Palais Royal, is out next month.
Cara, thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with Scene of the Crime and talk about Paris.
First, what’s your connection to Paris? How did you become interested in it?
I grew up in a Francophile family in California and attended a French Catholic school. My father was a Francophile and loved good food and wine. In the 50’s my uncle went to France and studied with artist George Braque, so talk at our dinner table was a lot about France. I lived in Europe when I was college age.
I write in San Francisco where I live, yet every day I feel the need to get back to Paris, to transport myself to a dark, wet cobbled street, to catch the last Metro at night squealing into the station with the burning rubber smell of brakes, to walk the tree lined banks of the Seine. I satisfy my need by looking at images and listening to music.
On my wall there’s a huge map of Paris, as well as black and white photos found at the flea market and architectural plans of the sewer system and tunnels under Paris. A soundtrack plays in my head: old and new songs that come to me when I imagine Aimée running down the winding streets at night, or recall the accordionists in the Metro playing for money. When I’m researching in Paris, I tape everyday sounds on my digital recorder: the whoosh of the milk steamer and conversations in a crowded café, the clip of heels on the pavement, water gushing over the cobblestones, a siren hee-hawing in the distance, the strain of a cello drifting from an open window—so distinctive and so French, the street music of Paris.
Did you consciously set out to Paris as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story?
Writing for me starts with a particular part of Paris that intrigues me, a story that happens there and only there and I feel driven tell it. This district of Paris is a character. The murder, while important and propels the plot, isn’t the focus, it’s how the murder impacts those surrounding the victim, the community and this little part of Paris. A way to explore moral ambiguities and the grey areas when murder isn’t black and white.
In Murder in the Marais, my first book, I just wanted to tell the story of my friend’s mother, a young Jewish girl who hid in the Marais during the German Occupation of Paris in WWII. My friend’s mother was 14 years old and came home from school one day to find her family gone. She stayed in the apartment, went to school, hoping they would return. A year later, in 1944 at Liberation, she searched for them at the train stations, at the Hotel Lutetia on the Left Bank where the Red Cross had a terminus center for returning deportees and she found they’d gone to Auschwitz. My friend told me this story one day in the Marais and it touched me. Years later when I returned to Paris in the mid 1990’s the story came back to me and I wanted to explore these issues of the past, lingering anti-Semitism and how war still touched every generation.
How did you come up with the character of Aimée Leduc?
I knew I couldn’t write as a French woman, I can’t even tie my scarf the right way, but I began spending more time there in the mid-1990’s. I interviewed three female detectives in Paris who ran their own detective agency and took qualities from each. It was important to me that Aimée be half-American, half-French be a young, contemporary woman like the Parisian women I know, have a strong fashion sense and be fierce in her pursuit of justice. The justice that eludes people sometimes in daily life. And that she know much more about computers than I do.
My novels aren’t set in the beret and baguette Paris, or the tourist areas, but off the beaten track, the backstreets and courtyards of quartiers not often seen. More like a sociological slice of life in the darker side of the city of light. Explored from the sewers to the Morgue to an elegant 17th century apartment on the Ile Saint Louis. It’s a trip to Paris without the airfare to an area you probably haven’t seen before.
How would you categorize your books, and who do you think your audience is?
I feel my books are more [than murder mysteries]. Of course, crime and murder are involved, but it’s about the story, the characters, the place, the historical setting in Paris that interplays with contemporary events impacting everyday Parisians. Many of my readers are Francophiles, people who spent a junior year abroad in France, worked as au pairs, spent their honeymoon there or visit every year. They like history, a foreign setting they’ve visited, with a different slant.
I’ve written ten books in the Aimée Leduc Investigation series …. So far, I’ve got nine more of the twenty arrondissements in Paris to go, as they say. But I’m also thinking of a stand-alone along the way.
Thanks so much for your time, Cara, and good luck with the new Leduc novel, Murder in the Palais Royal, published on March 1.
Visit Cara at her author Web site.