Barbara Corrado Pope is the author of two excellent historical mysteries featuring Magistrate Bernard Martin and set in late-nineteenth-century France. The first in the series, Cèzanne’s Quarry, finds the famous painter Paul Cézanne accused of murder. The early paintings of Cézanne offer crucial clues to solving the crime. Publishers Weekly wrote of this debut novel that “Francophiles and history buffs will find much to like.” Booklist also praised this first novel, noting: “Pope skillfully explores the subjugation and abuse of women in the nineteenth century; the injustices of the French legal system; the conflict between Darwinian philosophy and established religious belief; and Cézanne’s art, love life, and depressed personality.” Most importantly, according to Booklist, Pope also “weaves a fascinating murder mystery into these diverse thematic threads.”
The second in the series, The Blood of Lorraine, looks at anti-Semitism in France following the Dreyfus Affair, with the murder of two Jews in Nancy. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, dubbed this a “fascinating look at the rise of anti-Semitism in France,” while Booklist called it “an excellent examination of how prejudice seeps into every area of life.”
Pope knows her intellectual and historical terrain. She has a PhD in the Social and Intellectual History of Europe from Columbia University and has taught history and women’s studies in places as diverse as Hungary, Tuscany, the University of New Mexico, Harvard, and at the University of Oregon (full disclosure—my alma mater).
Barbara, it’s a great pleasure having you with us at Scene of the Crime. Let’s start with a description of your connection to France.
Like many aspiring writers I thought my first book would be autobiographical and set in my hometown, Cleveland. But when a friend suggested writing a mystery about geology, Provence and Cézanne, I realized there was another way to follow the famous dictum “write what you know.” I am a French historian and by the time I got my friend’s letter, I had taught American students in Provence twice and taken them on tours of the area. One of these tours even included a visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix. I did revisit Aix twice during the writing of Cèzanne’s Quarry, and walked through many of the scenes described in the book, including the Palais du Justice, the quarry and the cathedral.
In The Blood of Lorraine, theme (anti-Semitism and Jewish identity in late 19th-century France) preceded location. However, I could not really plot the novel until I had chosen the setting. There were at least three distinct Jewish communities in France during this time and the position, traditions, and attitudes of the Jewish characters would have been different in, say, Bordeaux (with its wealthy business-oriented Sephardic population), than in Nancy (where many Ashkenazis were just beginning to be upwardly mobile). I visited Nancy during the middle stages of my research and again during the writing of the book.
What things about Nancy made it unique and a good physical setting for your second novel?
When I began the research I did not know all the ways in which Nancy would enhance the tension and characters in my story. It was a center of Jewish life, the capital of a truncated province (half of which had been lost to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war); a garrison town at a time when a Jewish Army officer (Alfred Dreyfus) had just been accused of treason; and it yielded a local contemporary document (Nancy-Juif) which echoed the worse of the virulent new anti-Semitism that was widespread in France.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story?
I’d say that “location as character” was something that grew naturally out of the theme I had in mind and added to the story.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Are you conscious of referring to it as you write?
Location is an integral part of the story. Perhaps this is even truer in historical than in contemporary fiction. The streets, the buildings, and in Nancy, the cemetery all were “background”—in that I wanted to describe them truthfully—and also inspiration for new and unexpected story lines. My next novel, which I have just started, is set in Paris. I’ve been to Paris many times, but in order to “feel” the setting and use it in the story, I had to live in the specific neighborhood for three weeks and walk its streets over and over again until I felt in some sense that it was my own.
How do your protagonists, Bernard and Clarie Martin, interact with their surroundings? How does your setting affect them?
Let’s start with the large setting first: late 19th-century France. I had a strong sense of how Bernard Martin and
Clarie Falchetti Martin would think and talk. That’s one of the advantages of being trained as an historian. In that way, they are “natives” in general. However, in each of the three novels, they move to a new place. This makes it possible for both the characters and the novels to “discover” what is unique about that particular place. I did not set out to make this a conscious device of the three novels, but I think the sense of discovery works well in the stories.
Has there been any local reaction to your work?
Not that I know of! The first book sold in Germany, Poland, Spain, Hungary and Serbia, but not in France. However, a friend, a historian, who has lived in Paris much of his adult life, wrote me that he had never read another fictional account that so well captured the character of the French Israelite (which is the way that French middle-class Jews referred to themselves). This gave me confidence that I had done something right.
I can go a little crazy over questions like did they use a fountain pen or an inkpot. I try hard to find out. However, I goofed on the lamps. Yes, in Nancy in 1894, it was very possible that there would have been gas lamps in the apartment, but they would most likely have been attached to the ceiling or wall, not on a side table, where kerosene lamps would have been used. I got this correction from an American historian.
Do you have a favorite scene that focuses on place?
I like this scene because it was inspired by place, that is, by a 19th-century painting of beggars in Nancy and by my walk to and through the Préville cemetery where the thick six-foot wall between what was formerly the Christian and Jewish sides still remains. It represents one of the “turning points” in the novel as Bernard Martin discovers that suspicion and prejudice can seep even into his avowedly republican and secular soul. He has just left the “Christian” side where he was mourning a personal loss.
“By the time he recovered, even the beggars were gone, and in the waning light he
staggered, drained and numb, into the Israelite cemetery. He had no idea what he expected to find as he walked among the gravestones and monuments. Perhaps respite in a place that was not his own, not his family’s, where sadness and tragedy belonged to people he did not know.
“Without being aware of what he was doing, Martin began to read, or tried to read, the gravestones, until he realized that some of them were written in Hebrew script. On closer scrutiny he found that on the back of these same stones, the dead, their relationships and their accomplishments were described in French. For some reason this troubled him. . . . What did it mean to show two faces to the world, even in death? For the first time in his life, Martin found himself asking, to whom or to what did these Israelites owe their first allegiance?”
Who are your favorite authors and did they inspire a sense of place?
I am a big fan of European police procedurals: Simenon’s Maigret ordering the local white wine at the zinc bar; Mankell’s Wallander having his lonely pizza in a little restaurant in Ystad, trying to ignore the fog that is rolling in. The first mystery I ever read was Le Carrè’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The sense of place, cold-war Berlin, is palpable in this work. I was hooked. There are so many others that have transported me to another time or place.
What’s next for Martin?
On to Paris! Or better, the 9th and 10th arrondisements of Paris. Clarie will come into her own in this novel; Martin will become a lawyer at the Bourse du Travail (the Labor Exchange). I’m only three chapters into it.
Barbara, thanks again for taking the time to join us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Barbara Corrado Pope, visit her homepage.