Cara Black is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of 16 books in the Aimée Leduc mystery series, all set in Paris. This very popular series (more than 400,000 books in print!) has delighted readers around the world, and in multiple languages– her books so far having been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew. Cara has been nominated for numerous awards, and honored with the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture. She recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about her latest book, “Murder on the Quai,” which takes place in the 8th arrondissement as well as in a village in the Sologne, via e-mail.
Janet Hulstrand: How often do you come to Paris, and how long do you stay when you do? And what do you love most about it? Do you have a favorite arrondissement, or a favorite place in Paris? And what is your favorite thing to do when you’re here?
Cara Black: Usually I get to Paris twice a year – I’m so lucky to be able to stay with friends, often it’s sleeping on a couch or in a bunk bed courtesy of my friend’s five-year-old daughter. When I’m researching, it depends on who I can meet, the archives, and what appointments I can set up to interview people. So I stay a few weeks or a month at a time. I have a puppy so I can’t be away too long. I love having time to wander, feel the rhythm of the streets, the ambiance of the quartier, turning a corner and discovering a hidden part of Paris. Love sitting in a café on the terrasse and people watching. Every arrondissement of Paris that I write about, and so far it’s 16 of them, becomes a special place to me. When I can dig deep every arrondissement reveals their village character, so it’s hard to pick just one. I’m a member of the 10th arrondissement Historical Society: I made friends there years ago, and the 10th arrondissement remains special to me, especially along the Canal Saint Martin before it became bobo. My favorite thing to do is to meet my friend for an apéro, walk along the quai, and go to an open evening at the Petit Palais for an exhibition.
JH: Before talking about your latest book, for the benefit of those who may be new to your work we should probably introduce your heroine, Aimée Leduc. How would you describe Aimée to someone who has never “met” her, in a sentence or two?
CB: Aimée Leduc is half-American, half-French, born in Paris, who is taller and thinner than I am, and likes bad boys and vintage couture. She runs Leduc Detective, which she inherited from her father, and lives on the Ile Saint-Louis because that’s where I’d like to live.
JH: “Murder on the Quai” is the sixteenth in the Aimée Leduc series, and each one is set in a different arrondissement, right? As you imagine your stories and choose your settings, which comes first, location, or story? And specifically, how did you come up with the fascinating story told in “Murder on the Quai,” which actually takes place both in the 8th arrondissement, and in a little village in the Sologne?
CB: The setting is primary, a certain area of Paris. That said, it goes hand in hand with a story that’s organic to that place. To that time in history, and how Aimée gets involved investigating the characters who inhabit this place in Paris. Murder on the Quai came from stories I heard from one policeman who walked the beat in the 8th arrondissement, and another who worked vice off the Champs Elysées, primarily in the clubs where le jet set— at the time– hung out. My friend, who worked in a private bank on Boulevard Haussman, had stories, too. Without saying too much about the story in this book, Nazi gold was transported via train across Europe to Portugal to pay for war materials the Wehrmacht needed. I’d been to Berlin, a city with a long past, when the Wall was up, and wanted to explore the heady, exciting time when it came down and the face of Europe changed as Communism eroded.
JH: The amount of research involved in writing your books is astonishing to me. I don’t know how you do it. In this book, for example, you had to research the process of melting gold, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a great many facts about Occupied France during World War II, among other things. Not to mention the challenge in each book of getting the geography straight, as Aimée goes charging into one dangerous situation after another, in all these different parts of Paris. How do you manage it all? And do you ever wish you had decided to keep your stories confined to just one or two arrondissements? And to one single period of time?
CB: I love researching. That’s the best part of my “job,” because it means I need to go to Paris. Seriously, I could spend all my time researching, talking to people, consulting the archives and never get any writing done. There comes a point where I stop, consult my notes and put my mind in another mode and remember I’m writing fiction, based on real places and events. So then I start writing the story. I walk about and think about things – think about the situation in the book, think about the arc in the story, think about what the key turning points are going to be in the story. It’s quite vague, it’s hard to describe it. There’s a kind of alchemy that goes on when suddenly you’re messing about with bits of the story and something clicks into place and it’s the next step. You just know when you’ve got the next narrative strategy taking place in your head. Later, I go back and place/fact check. Especially lucky for me with this book is that my neighbor is a jeweler and he offered a valuable critique on melting gold in rustic conditions: but again, my stories are fictionalized accounts of what could have happened, based on real events. I’m writing a mystery novel and putting Aimée in dangerous places where she uses her wits and persistence investigating: yet she also has a personal life, there’s a narrative arc there too. My stories, I hope, are about characters who face challenges, people we root for, that also touch on social issues. It’s also important to me, to bring alive a part of Paris with its own ambiance as a character.
JH: One of my favorite moments in “Murder on the Quai” is when we are getting introduced to René, Aimée’s business partner and faithful friend, who makes an allusion to Agatha Christie. This made me wonder, who are your favorite mystery writers, and which ones have been important to you as literary mentors? Also, what do you like to read when you’re not reading (or writing) mysteries?
CB: Léo Malet, who wrote the Nestor Burma detective series set in 1950’s and 60’s Paris, was and still is a great influence. His detective is off the cuff, sardonic, and a great believer in bistros. Malet had his detective investigating in different arrondissements, so I shamelessly stole his idea and made the Aimée Leduc series contemporary. She’s a PI whose investigations take place in the 1990’s – in this story 1989 – which gives me a chance to explore that time. My father was a great reader of the Georges Simenon Maigret series and I read those too. Again, both atmospheric and evocative, but of another era. I also like to read biographies. The latest was of Madame de Maintenon, and Madame de Sevigné’s letters to her daughter in Provence, which provide incredible windows into daily life as it was lived in the 17th century.
JH: Without going into the details of the basis for key events in “Murder on the Quai” that take place in Occupied France during WWII, can I just ask how you came up with the idea for the plot? Were there actual historical events that inspired you to create the story you did?
CB: The other part of the story for Murder on the Quai comes from the village, a real place in the Sologne, and a true story of my friend’s father, Jacques, who grew up there during the war. As a young boy, Jacques had gone fishing with some men from the village on the river, which was the demarcation line until November 1942, dividing the part of the country that was occupied by the Germans, and Vichy (“Free”) France. They discovered a body. It was a man from the village who’d been shot on the riverbank. Jacques had never forgotten that. He took me there and described how it affected him. He said, being young, it was all a big secret and no one in the village talked about it. I wondered if the Germans had shot this man, or maybe the Resistance, because he’d been a collaborator. Jacques said he didn’t know but he would hear his parents whispering late at night. Later, I was with Jacques at the weekly village market, where everyone goes and shops and hangs in the cafe with their dogs and their children. We were loading up our fruit and vegetables in the car when Jacques nudged me. “That man was there,” he said. “That’s the man who shot the man on the riverbank.” Surprised, I asked him to tell me more and he just said “Later.” Over the years, he evidently had heard the real story and this assassin still lived in the village and was a wealthy man. Jacques promised to fill me in on the full story later, in Paris. But sadly, he passed away, and that never happened. But as a writer, that fascinated me, and my mind was filled with “what ifs” and wondering about what might be the weight of secrets in a village on those who lived there, and had kept those secrets even fifty years after the war.
JH: What do you love most about writing? And what is the hardest part?
CB: Writing, as you know so well, is a solitary pursuit. I love most that I can get transported to Paris in my sweats, at my kitchen table, without long lines at the airport. That I can put myself on a boulevard with Aimée at twilight and feel the soft air blowing from the quai. The hardest part is keeping my derrière in the chair and meeting a deadline.
JH: And of course, I have to ask: what’s next for Aimée? And which arrondissement will your readers have the pleasure to come to know (or remember) as they read about her next set of hair-raising adventures?
CB: Thanks for asking! Yes, she’ll get into trouble on the Left Bank this time. René Friant, her partner, gets involved too. It’s called Murder in Saint Germain, and it will come out in June 2017.