In Paris, A Mystery Writer Whose Name Is 'Noir'

Cara Black i i

hide captionCara Black's mystery novels track detective Aimee Leduc through the back alleys of Paris, from the quaint Latin Quarter to the seedier Sentier.

Dennis Hearne
Cara Black

Cara Black's mystery novels track detective Aimee Leduc through the back alleys of Paris, from the quaint Latin Quarter to the seedier Sentier.

Dennis Hearne

Writer Cara Black is consumed by two things: murder and Paris. Every one of the San Francisco writer's mystery novels takes place in the City of Light, each in one of the city's very different neighborhoods. Her latest, Murder in the Latin Quarter, came out this spring, and she has already gone back to Paris to scout out her next mystery.

Though she didn't publish her first crime novel until 1999, Black says the seed was planted back in the early 1980s, when a Parisian friend showed her another side of the city she thought she already knew.

The friend's story took place during World War II, under the Nazi occupation of Paris. The friend's mother, then just a girl, came home from school to her Jewish family's apartment and found it empty.

"She thought her parents were coming back," Black says. "And she ended up living in the apartment for a year. The concierge gave her coupons for food and coal. [She was] 14 years old, going to school, thinking maybe when she came back, maybe they would be there."

The girls' parents never did come back. They had been deported to Auschwitz. Black says that story stayed with her, and she knew she'd write about it someday.

Murder in the Latin Quarter
Murder in the Latin Quarter

by Cara Black

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"This was sort of my introduction to this whole other history of Paris," Black says. "That darker side, that other side — that side that people didn't talk about really fascinated me, and it really drew me."

Black's chance came when her son was old enough to go to school. She had taken time off when he was born. Instead of returning to her job as a preschool teacher, she began writing. Three-and-a-half years later, the story of that young Jewish girl became her first book, Murder in the Marais. Black says the crime novel turned out to be the perfect genre to allow her to explore the dark side of Paris.

She says she is drawn again and again to the 20 distinct neighborhoods, or arrondissements, of Paris. Each of her novels is set in a different arrondissement, and Black says she builds on the history and character of each quarter. Sometimes she just stumbles on the perfect crime setting, like for her third novel, Murder in Sentier, which is set in Paris' garment district.

"I basically got lost one day. I missed the bus, and I was walking and I realized that this was a very different area," she says of the Sentier. "There were all these hookers standing on the street. Then there were these men pushing these big barrels of clothing into the courtyards of these 17th-century hotels particuliers, into the basement where there were sweat shops. And I just loved this dichotomy of what was going on."

Black uses details like that to paint a word picture of the real Paris — the gritty city behind the facade that tourists see. She says her goal is to capture the living, vibrant city that meshes with its history and the ghosts of its past.

Walking with Black through Paris feels like a tour of an open air museum. Black, ever the curator, points out historical landmarks and references and throws in a few tales of her own.

In Murder in the Latin Quarter, the crime is set against the backdrop of the Sorbonne and the Grandes ecoles — the city's centuries-old bastions of learning. Black's murder victim turns out to be a Haitian professor, so she can weave in third-world geopolitics, spooky voodoo rituals and the brutal world of the human traffickers who prey on the Haitian immigrants of Paris.

The heroine of Black's books, Aimee Leduc, rides her motor scooter around Paris in Chanel skirts, runs her own computer security firm and has a penchant for bad boys.

Black says her readers seem to love the contrast between Leduc's chutzpah and her vulnerability — and that she doesn't fit any particular category. The author explains that she knew she couldn't write as a French woman, so she made her heroine somewhat of an outsider: Leduc was raised by her French policeman father after her American mother abandoned them when Aimee was 8 years old.

"She never led a traditional French life," Black says.

Black is as well-steeped in the crime world of Paris as she is in the city's history. She counts private detectives and precinct chiefs as friends. All her murder mysteries are built on real-life stories — nuggets, she calls them — collected from the Parisian contacts she has built up over 30 years of visiting the city.

Murder in the Latin Quarter is dedicated to one of those contacts: 87-year-old Monsieur Fernand, who owns a Latin Quarter cafe his parents opened in the 1920s. Beneath Fernand's cafe are some of the ancient tunnels and caverns of subterranean Paris, a setting for a few of the spookier scenes in Black's latest novel.

Like Monsieur Fernand, Black's books give readers a taste of the grittier side of the city and the real people who live there. And lucky for her fans, she has 10 more arrondissements to go.

Excerpt: 'Murder In The Latin Quarter'

'Latin Quarter' Cover
Murder in the Latin Quarter
By Cara Black
Hardcover, 304 pages
Soho Crime
List Price: $24

Paris, September 1997, Monday Afternoon

Aimee Leduc's fingers paused on the keyboard of her laptop as she felt a sudden unease but it vanished as quickly as the mist that curled up under the Pont Neuf. At least, she thought, thanks to the cleaning lady, the chandelier gleamed, the aroma of beeswax polish hovered, and Leduc Detective's office shone. For once. It should impress her high-powered client, the Private Banque Morel's administrator, who was due in ten minutes.

Aimee checked for lint on her Dior jacket, a flea-market find. She heard a footstep and looked up expectantly.

A woman in her late thirties stood in the doorway to the office. She was a tall, light-complected mulatto, wearing a denim skirt and clutching oversize sunglasses in her hand. She stepped inside, her gaze taking in the nineteenth-century high ceilings and carved moldings as well as the array of computers.

"This place isn't what I expected," said the woman in lilting French. She had an accent Aimee didn't recognize.

"Maybe you're in the wrong place, Mademoiselle," Aimee said, irritated. "Our firm handles computer security only." She ran her chipped red fingernails over the Rolodex for the card of a female private detective in the Paris region.

"Non." The woman waved the card away. She's persistent, Aimee thought. And for a brief moment, as the breeze fluttered through the open window and a siren whined outside on rue du Louvre, Aimee sensed that she was being subjected to a curious scrutiny. It was as if this woman was measuring and found her, like the office, wanting.

Aimee glanced at her Tintin watch impatiently. "As I told you —" Aimee's cell phone beeped. "Excuse me," she said and dug in her bag, found it, and listened to the message. The client she expected was in a taxi minutes away.

"The owner of this establishment knew my mother," the woman said. Her accent was now more pronounced.

Even after all this time, former clients called expecting to find him, Aimee thought sadly. "You're referring to my father, Jean-Claude Leduc," she said. "But he passed away several years ago." She used a euphemism instead of graphically describing his death during a routine surveillance in the Place Vendome from an exploding bomb.

"Passed away?" The woman blinked. "And you're his daughter?"

Aimee nodded. "We've put the old case files in storage. Desolee."

"But you don't understand." The woman tilted her head to the side, gauging something, ignoring Aimee's words. Her fingers picked at the strap of her straw bag.

"Understand? Mademoiselle, I am waiting for a client who is due any moment." She checked her phone again. "Make an appointment, and then I'll see what I can do for you."

"That's him, non?" The woman pointed to the photo behind Aimee's desk. It was of her father caught in time: younger, his tie loose, grinning. The one Aimee kept to remind her of what he'd looked like alive, not the way she'd last seen him, charred limbs on the morgue's stainless-steel table all that remained after the explosion.

"My father —"

"Our father," the woman interrupted. "I'm your sister, Aimee."

The phone fell from Aimee's hand.

"But I don't have a sister."

"It took time to find this place, to make sure," the woman said. Her voice quavered, her confidence evaporating. "And to summon the courage to come here. I need to talk with you."

Aimee steadied herself. "There's some misunderstanding, Mademoiselle. You're"

"Mireille Leduc."

Stunned, Aimee looked for some resemblance in the almond-shaped eyes, the honey color of the woman's skin, the shape of her mouth: that full pout of the lips, those white teeth. Could her father have had another child?

"You have proof? I'm sorry, but you walk in here and claim you're my sister," Aimee said. "How do I know you're that what you claim is true?"

"You're shocked," said Mireille, her voice urgent. "Me too. I had no idea until three weeks ago. During the coup d'etat, I had to leave Haiti. I only found out"

"Haiti?" Aimee shook her head. "Papa never went to Haiti."

"Your father and my mother had a relationship in Paris, before you were born," the woman said. "I can show you photos."

Aimee felt the air being sucked out of her lungs. Glints of afternoon light refracted from the prisms of the chandelier into myriad dancing lights. It was as if she'd been hit by a shockwave; words froze in her throat.

The wire cage elevator whined up to the office landing and rumbled to a halt. Her client had arrived to tell her the verdict. Would Morel, a prestigous private bank, extend Leduc Detective's data security contract?

"I never knew my father," said Mireille. Her mouth pursed. "Was it a one night stand or a grand amour who knows?"

"That's not like Papa. He wouldn't have fathered a child and just—"

"Mademoiselle Leduc?" A smiling middle-aged woman in a navy pantsuit knocked on the frosted glass panel of the open door. "Am I disturbing you?"

"Of course not, Madame Delmas, please come in." Aimee forced a smile, stuck her trembling hand in her pocket, and gestured to a Louis Quinze chair with her other. "The data analysis report's ready."

Perspiration dampened Aimee's collar. "Why don't you start reading the report while I see my visitor out, Madame?"

Mireille paused next to Aimee on the scuffed wood of the landing, a vulnerable look on her face. "Maman went back to Haiti. I don't know if he knew she was pregnant."

A cough came from inside Aimee's office. One didn't keep a client like Madame Delmas waiting.

The woman calling herself Mireille Leduc gripped Aimee's hand hard. Hers was as hot as fire. A thin red string encircled her wrist. "Mesamey," she said.

"I don't understand," Aimee said, her voice low.

"Mesamey is the Kreyol word I don't how you say it in French. I've only been here a week. Would you say surprised?"

Aimee felt a frisson course through her. "But what do you want?" she asked.

"Please, I lost my papers. I didn't know who else to ask."

"Papers you mean you're illegal?"

Mireille nodded. "But I can prove we're sisters. I am in some trouble. I thought my father could help. This man who's been helping me gave me a file, and

Madame Delmas's chair scraped on the floor, a fax machine whirred, and the office phone rang.

"I'll wait for you in the corner cafe," Mireille said. "You'll meet me, Aimee?"

What else could she do? Aimee nodded. Her eyes followed Mireille down the dim spiral staircase until the last glimpse of her curly hair disappeared. She could still feel the heat of Mireille's hand on hers. Then she realized she didn't know her address or even how to reach her.

Excerpted from MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER by Cara Black. Copyright 2009 by Cara Black. Published by Soho Crime. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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