Surely, the author of nine mysteries set in nine different neighborhoods of Paris must reside in Paris. No, Cara Black lives in San Francisco—but she does have an affinity for cafes. We meet at Bernie's, on 24th Street (where Black's last novel, Murder in the Rue de Paradis, is prominently displayed near the cash register), to talk about the next installment in her increasingly popular series featuring Aimée Leduc: Murder in the Latin Quarter (Soho Crime).
The illusion that the writer must be a Parisienne herself results from Black's deep love affair with the City of Lights and an equally fervent curiosity. She researches extensively, which in Paris means interviewing people in the neighborhoods she's writing about. “I see my books as a form of social history,” she says. “They reflect the people I meet and the connections they represent.
“Whenever I go to Paris, I'm looking for a new quartier to write about, a specific part of Paris. What's unique about it? What crimes happen here? What could happen here?” And for Black, that's when the wheels begin to turn and the story begins to develop.
“I wanted to write about the Latin Quarter, but it was hard to find something nontouristy about it. A friend told me about an incredible place, a shop where nothing seemed to have changed since the 19th century, with skeletons of animals and shelves labeled in old Latin. I found it and talked with a man there who had been brought up in Haiti and was an expert on pigs. And I went 'This is it, this is the place.' ”
From that chance encounter, Black, 57, created Murder in the Latin Quarter, a multifaceted story that includes a brutal murder, an exploration of Haitian culture and history, a possible half-sister for Aimée, a glimpse into the subculture of the cataphiles (Parisians who explore the city's catacombs) and several political themes involving the World Bank, capitalistic irresponsibility and global trade.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” Black says, “but never wanted to do the hard work to become one.” Hitchhiking around Europe after high school, she “decided to look up” one of her idols, the celebrated French novelist Romain Gary, when she got to Paris. “I'd written him a fan letter,” she recalls. “And he wrote back, which I regarded as a personal invitation!” Black went to Gary's apartment building and introduced herself. “Clearly, Gary was unsure about what to do with this young woman at his door,” she says. “But he ended up taking me to his local cafe. We talked about books and writing, and I remember thinking, 'This is the writing life.' ”
Despite the epiphany, it would be some time—a couple of decades and a return visit to Paris in the mid-1990s—before Black got serious about starting her own “writing life”: “The city was changing,” she says, “and old stories were coming to the surface. A friend of mine told me about a hidden Jewish girl in the Marais during the Occupation. I think the past is always informing the present, and I felt I had to write about it.”
And write she did. Her first novel, Murder in the Marais—brought out in 1999 by Soho and still in print—introduced Black's main character, Aimée Leduc, a funky-chic half-French, half-American Parisienne, who keeps finding herself in the role of private detective.
But Black's true character is the city of Paris itself. Black seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the quartiers of Paris, not just the geography of, say, the Marais or the Ile Saint-Louis, but also their culture and history. The result is a remarkably powerful sense of place that resonates throughout her books.
Soho Press is betting heavily on the new book, with a first printing of 35,000 copies. “Numbers have increased for each subsequent title in the Aimée Leduc series,” says Sarah Reidy, Soho's publicity director. Reidy is planning a major tour for Black on the East Coast and West Coast, including a number of conventions and festivals.
In the meantime, Black has already handed in the manuscript for her next Aimée Leduc novel, though she is tight-lipped about which arrondissement the book is set in. And while she has other ideas for books, she says that she has no plans to stop writing about Leduc and Paris. “I'm really lucky to be able to write about Paris,” she says. “It's kind of a dream. I have 11 more arrondissements to go!”
|Timothy Peters is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif.|