Her national bestselling series featuring a half-French/half-American female detective has seen Black visiting Paris’ sewers and morgue, talking to private eyes and river police, and constantly contemplating juicy new crimes for her “Aimée Leduc investigations.”
Since her first novel, 1999’s Murder in the Marais, Black has published a new book nearly every year, setting each one in a different Paris arrondissement.
On the occasion of the eleventh book, Murder in Passy, coming out next week
(March 1), Black took time to answer some questions about her popular series.
Lucky for her fans, she still has nine arrondissements to go!
Paris is one of the most romanticized cities in the world; the beautiful City of Light. In your novels, however, it is the darker side of Paris that plays a starring role. Can you talk about why you chose Paris as the setting for your crime series? (And why the city keeps inspiring murder!)
Paris is layered with history, as you well know living there, yet it’s not a museum, but a living vibrant city with a traditional society still in place and a recent past of World War II, the Algerian conflict, colonialism in Indochina and all with a very French flavor. The intrigues since the time of the Kings and Royalty, the Revolution haven’t changed that much to present-day scandals which are more contemporary and relevant than we think. Love, money, revenge are eternal and what better place than in Paris?
You know the first murder mystery credit goes to Edgar Allen Poe – an American – for his Murder on the Rue Morgue set in Paris. There’s something elusive in Paris, a past that I feel can just about be grabbed if I scratch the surface enough and feel how it resonates today.
Your female detective is half-French, half-American. How has giving Aimée this sort of outsider/insider perspective influenced how you’re able to tell the stories?
Definitely, as you know I’m not French and can’t even tie my scarf the right way. But as an outsider/insider Aimée exemplifies that character known as the ‘lone detective’ in crime fiction – think Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, even Miss Marple – that busybody trumping the police in crime in an English village – but as a private detective one has an expertise, investigates yet is apart and views things from the outside that others miss.
Paris itself is like a living, breathing character in your books. I know you make regular trips to the city to dig deep for hidden, intriguing gems that will allow you to create such rich ambiance. Can you talk about the role research plays in writing your novels? You call your Aimée Leduc series “investigations”; it’s almost as if you tackle your research this way, too.
Research is the BEST part of my job. It means I must go to Paris as I tell my husband I’m lucky because I use frequent flyer miles, my friend lets me sleep on her Montmartre apartment couch in return for a little babysitting (she’s Parisienne has two children and a demanding job and I’ve known her forever). This way I can research in the archives, in the cafés, interview police and private detectives and scout out real locations, from the sewers to the morgue. I keep notes, take photos, trace routes on maps where characters would really go, record conversations and noises in the cobbled streets and soak up as much atmosphere I can.
My books are set in the mid 90’s before Google came into being in 1998. Aimée still uses dial up, people pay in Francs but they had cell phones. I collected Paris phone books from that time (a whole suitcase full) so I get the streets, the shops and the details right. Newspapers from that time give me what’s on sale, world events and traffic jams in Paris. I’ve spoken with the river police on the Seine about ‘floaters’ – those bodies recovered in the Seine – and procedures. My computer security detective Aimée and her partner René, who’s a dwarf and computer hacker extraordinaire, are cutting edge in technology.
To me a gripping story is about the characters, how crime impacts them; the victim’s world and forensics and technology are tools. Every computer hacker I’ve had the chance to talk with has said that technology is only as good as the user – social engineering (chatting someone up, flirting, outwitting them) can get you a password, or beyond a computer’s firewall much faster than anything else. No system or laboratory is immune from the human element.
How did you go from never having written a novel before to publishing a new one nearly every year? Do the parameters of crime fiction in some way help with discipline? I find more and more that constraints can actually fuel creativity.
When I wrote my first book, Murder in the Marais, I had no idea it would get published much less that I’d write a series. There was no master plan, the editor just asked me where Aimée’s next investigation would take place in Paris – what district would she go to next. Dumbfounded I said ‘what?’ ‘You are planning a series, aren’t you?’ she asked. ‘Of course,’ I lied. But I ran to the computer and grabbed my maps. It all just happened and I’m so grateful.
Crime fiction does provide a framework, a structure to tell a story and provides discipline, you’re right. Aimée’s character arc grows, I hope, with each book. She’s on a journey in her investigation and there’s a personal journey too – her missing mother, her father’s mysterious death in the bomb explosion in Place Vendome, her trouble with this attraction to bad boys…To me the vehicle is the crime genre and the most interesting part are the characters.
It seems you must be something of a sleuth to devise such intricate plots and gain access to otherwise private details. How have you been able to befriend everyone from police officers to private investigators – and get them to spill their secrets?
Over the years I’ve built up contacts: PI’s, a Ministry official, lawyers, café owners, branches in the Police who will talk to me…usually over a bottle of wine in the bistro. Amazing how the wine loosens their tongues!
Often I’ll run an idea, a plot line by them and ask ‘could this happen, what would you do, what’s procedure’s involved, in this case why was it handled this way, etc.’ A retired Brigade Criminelle inspector who was in charge of the Princess Diana investigation spent hours with me. I was so touched and finally asked him ‘why are you spending all this time with me?’ ‘I want you to get it right,’ he said.
You appear most drawn to – as am I! – the less touristy areas of Paris, and particularly on the Right Bank. As you’re on a roll with writing one novel per arrondissement, however, you will soon be tackling the Left Bank (though you have already written Murder in the Latin Quarter). Are you looking forward to trying to find the seedier side of some of the tonier Paris neighborhoods? How do you come up with the crimes you set in each neighborhood?
I love to go window shopping ‘with’ Aimée, hang out at the flea markets and think what vintage couture she’d find, what case she’d be working on, what bad boy she might be attracted to. It’s an evolving process to find out where she’ll be in her life. To me she’s a contemporary young Parisienne who has office rent to pay, a business to run, a dog to walk on the quai lining the Seine and trouble with men. Yet, writing a series is a challenge, one I’m lucky to have, and I strive to keep it fresh for myself and the reader. To show a different slice of Paris, one off the beaten track unexplored by tourists.
I find crime by lots of different sources: incidents in the newspaper, a story from a Brigade Criminelle inspector I interviewed, a curious story a friend tells me, the owner of the café I frequent who confided once about his brother-in-law’s brush with the law etc. Every book comes from a kernel of truth, a real event.
Is there anything in your background that tipped you off that you could think like a private eye? Or does Aimée simply allow you to be the superwoman you always wanted to be?
Well, I have difficulty running in heels over cobblestones, am deathly afraid of heights and so I let Aimée do all the difficult work
What is 1) the most challenging and 2) the most rewarding part of the writing process for you?
I’m an eavesdropper, bad habit, but invaluable in my line of work. I think writers do that all the time.
A line of dialogue or a mannerism for me can put a character onto the page. The challenge is to keep the character speaking more dialogue, being memorable and intrinsic to the plot and storyline. That’s true for me in every book. Especially in crime fiction and mysteries, as you probably know, everything happens for a reason, every detail could be a clue, a red herring, a false lead or a key to a sub plot and a suspect.
The most rewarding? Finishing a draft!
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Write the story you are passionate to tell.
You can find out more about Cara Black by visiting her website.
Murder in Passy comes out next week on March 1.
“Aimée goes to the chic 16th arrondissement when murder strikes close to her godfather Morbier. He’s a suspect and to vindicate him her investigation leads to police corruption, radial Basques and a kidnapped Spanish princess.”
Take a stroll with Cara in Paris as she points out different sites that play a role in her crime series: