Book Review: Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black
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Cara Black is the best-selling author of 19 much beloved novels in the Aimée LeDuc mystery series. Her legions of fans will be happy to know that there are still at least two more books to come in that series; but in the meantime, Black has written a different kind of story that she’s been waiting to tell for a long time.
Three Hours in Paris is a fascinating fictional imagining of what might have been behind the (true) story of why, when Adolf Hitler came to Paris on June 23, 1940 to celebrate his victory two weeks into the Nazi occupation of the city, he left again abruptly, after only three hours there.
“Why did he leave so quickly?” Black asked herself. “What could have caused him to flee?” From this “imaginative exercise” she says, she found the opportunity to tell a story set in occupied Paris, and into that story weave together the rich collection of World War II lore she’d been gathering over the years in her frequent trips to Paris.
She also took the opportunity to highlight the role of women in that war by deciding to make the protagonist a sharp-shooting American woman who is sent by British intelligence to assassinate Hitler. “There is a historical template for female assassins in World War II,” she explains. “The Russian army had a regiment of highly successful female snipers. The star female assassin, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, was credited with 309 kills, the highest of a woman, and in the top five of all snipers… I was intrigued by the What if: what if an American woman had been a sniper in World War II? Why not?”
Anyone who has read Black’s previous novels will know that she is not only a prolific, but a very diligent writer—and that she doesn’t shy away from the hard work of research. A less diligent writer, after all, might not have taken on the task of setting her series of novels in each of the 20 arrondissements of Paris, since every new setting requires an abundant amount of additional research—especially for a writer like Black, who takes great pains to be sure that the details of setting in her books are not only interesting, but both geographically and sensually accurate. And while she is perhaps more well known for the dizzying twists and turns of her nail-biting plots, each of her novels has also explored some aspect of the history of Paris and shed light on the rich diversity of the city’s cultural and ethnic life.
In that regard, this novel is even more ambitious than the previous 19, since the settings in this story range from a ranch in Oregon, to an island off the coast of Scotland, to London, to various spots in Paris and in the French countryside.
It is both a stunning and brilliant work of imagination, and a tour de force of rigorous research.
Black is particularly good at rendering the sights, sounds, and smells of a place:
Sacré-Coeur’s dome faded to pale pearl in the light of dawn outside the fourth-story window. Kate’s ears attuned to the night birds, the creaking settling of the old building, distant water gushing in the gutters. It was her second day waiting in the deserted apartment, the Lee-Enfield rifle beside her… As apricot dawn blushed over the rooftop chimneys, she checked the bullets, calibrated and adjusted the telescopic mount, as she had every few hours. The spreading sunrise to her left outlined the few clouds like a bronze pencil, and lit her target area. No breeze; the air lay still, weighted with heat. Perfect conditions.
But this is a spy thriller, and so, although as in all of her novels there are passages that are quite simply and poetically beautiful, the story is on the whole fraught with tension and suspense.
The plot is quite complicated, and readers will not be able to guess “what happened” until the very last pages of the book. We know, of course, that the assassination attempt was not a success. But what happens after that? Will Kate be able to get herself safely out of Paris again? Or will she be apprehended by the brilliant German detective who is hot on her trail, and determined to capture her?
I am not going to attempt to summarize the plot, and I am certainly not going to spoil it. I will simply say that this is an extremely engaging story; that there is an emotional depth to the large cast of characters that is often quite moving; and that with this novel Black has taken an ambitious, and a risky step forward in her career as a writer–and a very successful one. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.
And oh, what a story it is!
Purchase Cara’s book on Amazon here.