Book Review: Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black

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Book Review: Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black
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
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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.


  • Michael James
    2020-04-10 02:56:35
    Michael James
    Darnit! That is one of those ideas that one wishes one had thought of. It also sounds very filmic, non? (Scarlett Johansen ...); funny enough, right now would be a good time to film it with the city largely empty as it was during Hitler's tour). I am always on the lookout for a killer idea to turn into my book on Paris that displaces the likes of John Baxter, Cara Black, Alan Furst et al. from the best-seller slot! And good review. I think I am going to have to get the book. Of course it was doubtless the fear of snipers that kept his tour so brief. It would have leaked after a few hours and Paris is just perfect for a roof-top/mansardée sniper. That would have changed history though that early in the war not necessarily in a good way--a lot of very competent German generals were appalled at Hitler's war strategies and would have prosecuted a more winnable war. Plus, one wonders what awful retribution might have rained down on Paris. I have to mention the most famous female agent of that war, partly because I am a co-patriot of hers but also because of her larger than life escapades. Nancy Wake, SOE agent nicknamed 'the White Mouse' by the Gestapo, who died in 2011. She worked with, and often commanded, the maquis in the Auvergne and the south. Apparently she is the most decorated war hero in history because at least six nations honoured her. Here is an extract: "Vera Atkins, who worked in the SOE's French section, remembered her as "a real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well". Her training reports record that she was "a very good and fast shot" and had a good eye for fieldcraft. On several occasions, she "put the men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character". Two weeks after D-day, a major attack by some 10,000 Germans using armoured cars, tanks, artillery and aircraft was made on their positions, during which they got separated from the circuit's radio operator, Denis Rake. To try to re-establish contact with London, Wake walked more than 200km (125 miles) and biked another 100km in an effort to make contact with an operator from another SOE group. Later, working with two American officers when the Germans launched an attack on another maquis group, she took command of a section whose leader had been killed and with exceptional coolness directed the covering fire while the group withdrew with no further loss of life. Wake claimed to have dispatched a German sentry with the silent killing method she had learned during her training in Scotland, and once had even ordered a captured French spy, a woman, to be shot. "It didn't put me off my breakfast," she said. "After all, she had an easy death. She didn't suffer."