In Paris, A Mystery Writer Whose Name Is 'Noir' Cara Black's crime novels explore the gritty underbelly of the City of Light, neighborhood by neighborhood. She draws on a longtime network of contacts — including private detectives and police officers — for inspiration.
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In Paris, A Mystery Writer Whose Name Is 'Noir'

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

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

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The next author in our summer series, Crime in the City, is consumed by two things, murder and Paris. Cara Black lives in San Francisco, which seems an intriguing enough city, but every one of her murder mysteries takes place in Paris, 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. Eleanor Beardsley met Black at the scene of her Paris crimes and sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: With her tenth crime novel just hot off the press, Cara Black is already back in Paris scouting out her next mystery. I meet up with her in front of the fountain at Saint Michel in the crowded heart of the Latin Quarter where her latest novel is set. Though she didn't publish her first crime novel until 1999, Black says the seed was planted back in the early '80s when a Parisian friend showed her another side of the city she thought she already knew.

CARA BLACK: She took me to the Marais and she said, well this is where my mother lived during the German occupation. She was a hidden Jewish girl. And she wore yellow stars, she was 14 and came home from school in 1943 and the apartment was empty. She didn't know what happened. She thought her parents were coming back. And she ended up living in the apartment for a year. The concierge gave her coupons for food and coal. 14 years old, going to school, thinking maybe when she came back, maybe they would be there.

BEARDSLEY: 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.

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

BEARDSLEY: Black's chance came when her son was old enough to go back 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.

BLACK: Oh, well it's down here. We've got to go up and over.

BEARDSLEY: Sometimes she just stumbles on the perfect crime setting, like for her third novel, "Murder in Sentier," which is set in Paris' garment district.

BLACK: I basically got lost one day. I missed the bus, and I was walking and I realized that this was a very different kind of area. And then 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, like, 17th-century hotels particuliers, into the basement where there were sweat shops. And I just loved this dichotomy of what was going on in the Sentier.

BEARDSLEY: 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.

BLACK: And so we're going up Rue Saint-Jacques, it's an old Roman road. This is all Roman here in the galls. I mean we're in one of the oldest parts of Paris.

BEARDSLEY: 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.


BEARDSLEY: Inside a café, Black reads a passage from her book.

BLACK: The smell was stronger now, sweet lilac mingling with the chlorine metallic odor of blood. She peered behind the overturned desk and saw a slumped figure. A man lay against the wall behind the desk. His half opened eyes revealed dilated pupils. A deep red blossom stained the gristle that had been his ear. Tufts of skin had been peeled away from his temple.

BEARDSLEY: Black says her readers seem to love the contrast between Leduc's chutzpah and her vulnerability - and the fact that she doesn't fit any particular category.

BLACK: Well, she's half American, half French. Her mother was American who left her when she was eight-years-old. I knew I couldn't write as a French woman, but I think detectives and the mold of the lone wolf, they're neither fish nor fowl, which is what Aimee is neither fish nor fowl. She was raised by her father who had been a cop, un flic, and so she never led a traditional French life. She's always been an outsider.

BEARDSLEY: One of those contacts is 87-year-old Monsieur Fernand, who owns a Latin Quarter café his parents opened in the 1920s, and which doesn't seem to have changed much since then. Black has dedicated her latest novel to Monsieur Fernand and has come back to give him a copy.

BERNARD FERNAND: (Foreign language spoke)

BLACK: (Foreign language spoken)

FERNAND: (Foreign language spoken)

BLACK: (Foreign language spoken)

FERNAND: Very well.

BLACK: Who keeps the stories alive.

FERNAND: Ms. BLACK (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.


INSKEEP: Thursday our series takes us to Germany.

PHILIP KERR: It was pure Berlin. It was vulgar, it was noisy, it was dirty, it was full of rouges, and cheats, and thieves, full of policeman, many whom are rouges and thieves and cheats themselves.

INSKEEP: We will hear more from novelist Philip Kerr on Thursday. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.


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