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Cara Black Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 2 crop horz(French) Cara Black is the national bestselling author of 13 books in the Private Investigator Aimée Léduc series, which is set in Paris. Cara has received numerous accolades for her novels, including multiple nominations for the prestigious Anthony and Macavity Awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contributions to international culture—and invitation to be the Guest of Honor at such noteworthy conferences as the Paris Polar Crime Festival and Left Coast Crime. With more than 400,000 books in print, the Aimée Léduc series has been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, and Hebrew.

Cara is included in the Great Women Mystery Writers 2nd Edition, by Elizabeth Lindsay. Her first novel, Murder in the Marais, was nominated for an Anthony Award for best first novel. The third novel in the series, Murder in the Sentier, was nominated for an Anthony Award as Best Novel. Cara has also recently written Murder Below Montparnasse, which will be published in March 2013 by Soho Press.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Cara has lived in the California Bay Area since she was five years old. Before turning to writing fulltime, she tried her hand at a number of jobs: a barista in the Basel train station café in Switzerland, teaching English in Japan, studying Buddhism in Dharamshala in Northern India, and working as a bar girl in Bangkok (only pouring drinks!). She studied Chinese history at Sophia University in Tokyo, where she met her husband, Jun: a bookseller, potter, and amateur chef. Then, she obtained her teaching credential at San Francisco State College and went on to work as a preschool director and then as an agent of the federally funded Head Start program, which sent her into San Francisco’s Chinatown to help families—often sweatshop workers—secure early care and early education for their children. Each of these jobs was amazing and educational in a different way and has helped Cara add fingerprints of her various experiences into the Aimée Léduc books. (Cara Black: Facebook / TwitterWebsite / “A Killer Trip to Paris” Sweepstakes www.parisisformurder.com)

Murder Below Montparnasse

“A tantalizing clue to the whereabouts of Paris PI Aimée Léduc’s mysterious mother puts a personal spin on Black’s intricate 13th mystery set in contemporary Paris (after 2012’s Murder at the Lantern Rouge). Yuri Volodya, an elderly Russian who wants to hire Aimée to protect a valuable painting, possibly a Modigliani, tells Aimée he knew her mother, Sydney, whom she hasn’t seen since Sydney abandoned her at age eight. When the painting is stolen and Yuri is later tortured and killed, the police investigate. Meanwhile, a bizarre accident sidelines Aimée’s part-time hacker helper, “cash-poor aristocrat” Saj de Rosnay. Léduc must also cope amid threats of violence without trusted computer expert René Friant, lured to America by a Silicon Valley firm in a lengthy, well-developed subplot. Allusions to Modigliani, Picasso, Cocteau, Man Ray, and Duchamp help evoke 1920s Paris, though the complicated relationships among the principals will be more meaningful to series fans than to newcomers.” – Publishers Weekly

INTERVIEW

Murder Below Montparnasse

AWP: You are the author of Murder Below Montparnasse, the latest in your Aimée Léduc series. What inspired you to write this book?

CB: Credit goes to my friend who lives in the 14th arrondissement, the less well heeled and bohemian district below Montparnasse that was once home to Modigliani and Hemingway, among others. For years she urged me to write about her ‘hood. She invited me to discover the pockets of small tree-lined lanes of ateliers and old workshops. But I needed a spark to pull me. One day I came across an article about Lenin who’d lived near my friend Jim Haynes—a good friend to many. Jim gives wonderful dinners every Sunday night and it’s expat’s galore with good food—a tradition. He had me over one day to his atelier and said yes you must write about our area and meet Fauvette who lives upstairs. Fauvette was born in her father’s atelier. Fauvette is a spritely imp of a woman in her late 80s, who stands about four feet high and radiates energy. Her white hair is piled on her head in a chignon that falls down all the time since she never stops moving.

Jim and Fauvette live in ateliers built for artists down a private allé lane lined by lime trees. Fauvette’s father, an artist, moved in when he came back from the trenches in WWI. At that time, Fauvette told me, artisans filled the quartier—printers, ironmongers, glass makers, you name it. Paris was full of small manufacturing and light industry and artists. I partly dedicated the book to Fauvette.

I was staying on rue Delambre around the corner from La Rotonde. That weekend there were open studios for artists in the 14th arrondissement (below Montparnasse). A friend and I entered the old ateliers of Soutine, where Modigliani worked and now where new artists painted and sculpted. When I read that Modigliani frequented rue Delambre and Kiki of Montparnasse had lived a few doors down…a ‘what if’ came to my mind and then the story.

AWP: Your quest to entrench yourself in a different part of the city of Paris, learning its history—from le Marais and Place de la Bastille, Île Saint-Louis, and Palais Royal to the Latin Quarter—such different neighborhoods of Paris—why did you decide to write about Montparnasse?

CB: Eleven of Aimée’s investigations take place on the Right Bank. Only one book had occurred on the Left Bank in the Latin Quarter. My editor and I agreed it was time for Aimée to cross the river again.

AWP: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about these different neighborhoods?

CB: How much of a village feeling still remains in Paris if you dig deep enough. Scratch below the surface. That each quartier has a distinct character, whether from the age-old furniture making tradition in the Bastille and allés of the 12th arrondissement or the old hide tanning ateliers and workshops in the 10th arrondissement near the Canal Saint-Martin. From medieval times, the artisans formed communities in and around the districts of their trades, i.e., the river Bièvre and fabric dying and tapestry of Savonnerie. Finding traces of those today is what I’m always searching for to show the uniqueness.

AWP: Tell us about the research for Murder Below Montparnasse. What were the challenges, and how did you uncover stories that left their fingerprints in your murder mystery of Montparnasse?

CB: I was lucky to be introduced to the Art Cops in Paris who work out of La Défense. Through their connections I met and spoke with art collectors and Interpol. The Interpol agents based in Lyon were wonderful. The story I’d thought I was writing changed as the real stories about art crime and how stolen art networks actually functioned in Europe were related by the real investigators. It’s not the romantic Thomas Crown Affair or debonair art thieves like Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. Murder Below Montparnasse is set in 1998 on the cusp of Google. 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 got the streets, the shops, and the details right. Newspapers from that time gave 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.

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. My computer security detective Aimée and her partner René, who’s a dwarf and computer hacker extraordinaire, are cutting edge in technology. But, no system or laboratory is immune from the human element.

AWP: I imagine you never pass up an opportunity to see something new, a scoop on real Paris crime. Where wouldn’t you go? What wouldn’t you do?

CB: I’ve climbed in the sewers out chasing rats, crawled in old German Luftwaffe bunkers under the Jardin du Luxembourg, hung out at 36 Quai des Orfèvres with homicide from the Brigade Criminelle, gone to shooting ranges with the flics, visited behind closed doors in the Ministry of Culture in the Palais Royal and eaten at their ‘canteen’. But I wouldn’t climb on a pitched tiled Parisian rooftop with heels. Ever.

AWP: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Montparnasse?

CB: That in the past, and traces exist today, of a Russian influence from the once large émigré population. Below Montparnasse was poor (the poor) political exiles and aristocrats fleeing Tsarist Russia; White Russian counts drove taxis and Lenin nursed one drink all night at La Rotonde.

AWP: What is it about crimes of Paris?

CB: Edgar Allan Poe, to my mind, ignited the American readers imagination with his The Murders in the Rue Morgue. On the French side there is quite a literary tradition ie Eugène François Vidocq, Eugène Sue, Georges Simenon and Léo Malet—who’s my favorite. The City of Light lends itself to the darker side with intrigue, cobbled alleys, hidden courtyards, winding narrow streets, and crime is always more chic in Paris.

WRITING

AWP: Some women and men are predisposed, each in their own way, toward Paris: through fantasy, family or a cultural context. They have already held a piece of their narrative, even before travelling. How did your interest in Paris unfold?

CB: Paris intrigues me. I think Gertrude Stein said ‘…That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.’ I grew up near San Francisco with a Francophile father who loved good food and wine. He sent me to a French Catholic school with nuns who taught us archaic French and gave us summer subscriptions to ELLE magazine. Even now people show surprise at my arcane knowledge of Florence Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve’s sister who died young and the first affair between Mireille Darc and Alain Delon. Growing up I heard my uncle’s stories about the time he spent studying art in the 1950’s with Georges Braque.

But it wasn’t until much later when I visited the Marais with my friend who told me about her mother, a hidden Jewish child during the War that I knew I wanted to explore that time, that era in a grey history. The Dark times, as people referred to them. When I started to write 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 Vendôme, her trouble with an attraction to bad boys…To me the vehicle is the crime genre and the most interesting part are the characters. I never intended to write a series of mysteries, but when I developed my detective Aimée Léduc who’s half-American and half-French, I wanted her to explore more of Paris; the social issues, what it’s like to be a modern contemporary Parisienne, wear heels, and like bad boys. It was also a great way to ‘go to Paris’ every day after I took my son to school—no passport required—I just had to “be back” in time for carpool.

AWP: When did you first encounter French literature? Who were your favorite writers?

CB: In high school. I read The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and the writings of Jean Genet and Romain Gary. Romain Gary’s Promise at DawnLa Promesse de l’Aube opened my eyes to writing and this crazy thought that maybe I could try it one day. When I met him in Paris, years ago, he graciously took me out to his local cafe on rue du Bac for an espresso and my first cigar.

AWP: You are a bestselling American mystery writer and included in the Great Women Mystery Writers 2nd Edition, by Elizabeth Lindsay. Your first book, Murder in the Marais, was released in 1998. What is the most significant change you have witnessed in mystery writing since you began writing in this genre?

CB: Probably that more women are writing and getting reviewed and taken seriously. I’ve heard that P.D. James used her initials when she first started writing because she doubted they’d publish a woman.

AWP: Who are considered the most important of the earlier women writers in this genre?

CB: P.D. James was to my mind a groundbreaker for her book An Unsuitable Job For A Woman with a strong, vulnerable female detective. Sue Grafton for her Kinsey Millhone Mysteries popularizing the modern female PI series, a PI who deals with the world on her terms. Of course before that was Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, British women who trail blazed the ‘Golden Age of Mystery’ a more cozy mystery.

AWP: With more than 400,000 books in print, the Aimée Léduc series has been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, and Hebrew. How has this experience changed your world?

CB: I’m honored. It’s amazing to think that people in other countries can read about Aimée and ‘go to Paris’ in my books from an armchair wherever they live. A young Japanese woman came up to me once and said she ‘identified with Aimée and her fashion sense.’ Another young woman said when she went to Paris she rented a scooter and followed Aimée’s route.

AWP: What do you think today’s mystery writers with works set in familiar locations, such as Paris or others, bring to the travelers’ experience?

CB: Paris is layered with history, as you well know, 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 and 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 Allan Poe, an American, for his The Murder in the Rue Morgue set in Paris. There’s something elusive in Paris, a past that I feel can be grabbed if I scratch the surface enough and feel how it resonates today. They bring a slice of life that travelers might not see from outside or have the chance to experience behind the closed courtyard doors. When I travel, I always read a novel set in that country either historical or contemporary to get a sense of this location: to learn the history of what I’m seeing and who lives/lived here.

AWP: Your career has taken you from being a barista in the Basel train station café in Switzerland, teaching English in Japan, studying Buddhism in Northern India, serving drinks as a bar girl in Bangkok, to the early education of children in San Francisco’s Chinatown. What inspired you toward a life and career so dependent on words and the ability to communicate? What influenced this vision?

CB: There was a story I burned to tell. Sometimes, I think Paris chose me. The inspiration for my first book came from many places but the seed was planted in Paris, in the Marais. My first introduction to the Marais was in 1984 when my friend, a Parisian, invited me to explore a part of the city that not many knew of at that time. We descended from the green open-backed bus down the narrow cobblestone streets and past the 16th century hotel particulars, still as yet un-gentrified. Cobblers, Yiddish bookshops, and Jewish restaurants with Middle Eastern food lined the rue des Rosiers. And I knew this quartier was special, unique, and in a very odd way felt like “home.” I saw former aristocrats’ mansions with plaques commemorating victims of the Gestapo executions shot at that spot. And then my friend gestured toward an old stone building and told me the story of her mother’s life. All afternoon, as we walked in the Marais, she recounted the story of her mother, a young Jewish schoolgirl, who hid from the Germans. And how her sisters, brother and parents were taken by the French police under German orders and how they never returned.

Her mother’s story haunted me, as did the Marais with its layers of history. If only those stones could talk! Ten years later, I re-visited France, staying in the south on a lavender farm with my husband Jun, and young son, Shusei. We spent our last few days in Paris, around the corner from Place des Vosges, the magnificent square once home to medieval jousting tournaments built by Henri IV. At night I walked around and my friends mother’s story came back to me, as vivid as if she stood next to me on those narrow cobbled streets.

Arriving back in San Francisco, I suffered jet lag and couldn’t sleep. So in the middle of the night, I sat down at the computer and Hartmuth’s story poured out, then Sarah’s. I was in a writing group at the time, and this group process helped me clarify my ideas and thoughts to help weave the characters and their lives in a thread that spans fifty years. Three and a half years later, Murder in the Marais, emerged.

I visited Paris many times after that, researching and documenting history and daily life from that time. I went to the Jewish Documentation center. It was important to find ration cards, see the uniforms school children wore and many other details so intrinsic to that era. And the most important, to feel those cobbles under my feet again, smell the espresso and scent of Gauloises. I met and interviewed three of the four female French private detectives who had their own firms at the time. One remains a good friend and through her introductions, I’ve met private investigators and the former police chief of Paris, now retired. But disturbing to me were the riots and demonstrations in Paris protesting immigration, so reminiscent of the feeling of the Vichy laws against Jews during the war. It felt as if history repeated itself. I tried to understand modern day France’s reactions to new waves of immigrants, the legacy of their colonial empire.

I never planned it but when my son entered preschool my husband said why don’t you take a writing class, put down that story about your friend’s mother—a hidden Jewish girl during the Occupation in Paris that had haunted me ever since I heard it years before. So that’s how I entered my ‘life of crime’. I come from a family of readers and books were and are very important in our life. My uncle and grandfather were also great storytellers, so more than often at dinner there was a tale to be heard. Or when we went camping and under the stars they told stories over the fire. Writers are storytellers except the medium is paper.

AWP: You came from the world of being with people. You have great insights into human nature and how the body communicates; a theme that runs through your private investigator Aimée Léduc series. What is the most surprising thing you learned about the French?

CB: Maybe not so surprising but it’s struck me time and again, how the family and extended relatives are so important and integral to everyday life. How traditions are respected, carried on and have a place of importance. And how well-mannered Parisian dogs are—unlike mine.

AWP: Could you talk about your process as a writer?

CB: My process continually evolves. But I start with a quartier of Paris that I know little about or which intrigues me. I want to learn about the people who live there, their backgrounds and occupations, the feel and rhythm of the streets, daily life, and history of the buildings and history that formed the quartier. Paris was—and I’d argue still is—a collection of villages that each have a specific flavor and ambiance.

AWP: What elements inform your style?

CB: I think it’s important to give an immediacy to characters, to bring the reader onto the street, to the bistro table, into the Ministry office and experience the sights, sounds, smells, texture and taste of Paris along with the character.

Fashion Statement: A little black dress will take you anywhere.

AWP: The Aimée Léduc series has had a great impact on readers worldwide. What do you think it is about your murder mystery books that make readers connect in such a powerful way?

CB: Perhaps, readers entertain a dream to live in Paris and imagine living Aimée’s life. I know I’d like to live in her 17th century apartment on Île Saint-Louis. Or they spent a junior year abroad, went on their honeymoon, worked as an au pair and want to experience life in Paris again on the lesser travelled streets. A vicarious trip to the darker side of the City of Light from the safety of your home? For me the murder and crime, while integral to the structure of the mystery genre, isn’t as important as the characters in the story. How a murder affects not only the victims family, friends, neighbors and co-workers but the fabric of that family’s world. Tears it apart. Changes it in a way that will never be the same. Perhaps we all can relate to tragic events that have happened in our lives. But it’s also about the crime investigation and how it affects Aimée who steps in to give a voice to the voiceless, stands up for a person who has no one to stand up for them.

AWP: Are there things that you feel haven’t been said about Paris or crime that you are trying to explore in your work now?

CB: Yes, it’s like that in every book. But I don’t always know what it is until I start writing. Or until I know the theme that will center the story and investigation. Each of my books stems from a true story I’ve heard, read about in the newspaper, or an incident that I find in the archive. I want to explore different and off the beaten track Paris. Where tourists don’t usually go. Discover a quartier, the history, the social issues and immigrant cultures and how history impacts them today.

AWP: Tell me about your travel habits in Paris when you are working on a book. What is the best part about research and writing in Paris? The worst?

CB: I love research, that’s the best part of my job because I have to do it in Paris. I sleep on friends’ couches, cat sit on Canal Saint-Martin and eavesdrop in the Metro, on buses, in the cafe or Monoprix. I’m shameless and love catching the rhythm in Parisian dialogue. I go to the archives, to shooting ranges with the flics, go in the sewers and try to absorb every sensation. In Paris I take notes, record conversations and street sounds, take photos, make maps and diagrams of where my characters live, work and shop and talk to everyone I can. The worst? Losing my Navigo Metro pass!

ART OF LIVING

AWP: Describe your own “Paris.”

CB: I think of days spent in the archives then picking up my friend’s daughter from the nearby Montmartre crêche and her other daughter from the école maternelle and treating them both to pain au chocolat, then we go to the park. The evening is topped off by an adult dinner in the quartier accompanied by Veuve Clicquot.

AWP: Name the single book, movie, work of art or music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you.

CB: Eugene Atget’s (numerous) black and white photo books of Paris.

AWP: What is the latest book you read?

CB: Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend, by Michael Dregni.

Would I recommend it? Yes, this describes Django Reinhardt’s musical evolution at the same time of Le Jazz Hot and it’s influence on Paris. Why? If I can’t live in Pigalle in the 30s and hear Django play gypsy guitar this is the next best thing.

AWP: If you were at a dinner party, what question would you be asked?

CB: Who let you in here? Or where did you get those pearls?

AWP: Your passion for life is extraordinary. What’s next?

CB: A research trip to Paris for Aimée’s next investigation.

FILM RECOMMENDATIONS BY CARA BLACK

The 400 Blows, a 1959 French drama film by François Truffaut

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (French title: Les Vacances de M. Hulot), a comedy film starring and directed by Jacques Tati

Touchez pas au grisbi (French for Don’t touch the loot), a 1954 French crime film directed by Jacques Becker

Read My Lips (French title: Sur mes lèvres), a 2001 French film by Jacques Audiard

SELECTED BOOKS BY CARA BLACK

Murder in the MaraisSoho Crime, 1998   
Murder in Belleville. Soho Crime, 2000
Murder in Sentier. Soho Crime, 2002
Murder in the Bastille. Soho Crime, 2003
Murder in Clichy. Soho Crime, 2004
Murder in Montmartre. Soho Crime, 2005
Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis. Soho Crime, 2007
Murder in the Rue de Paradis. Soho Crime, 2008
Murder in the Latin Quarter. Soho Crime, 2009
Murder in the Palais Royal. Soho Crime, 2010
Murder in Passy. Soho Crime, 2011
Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. Soho Crime, 2012
Murder below Montparnasse. Soho Crime, 2013

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French Impressions: John Baxter’s “The Perfect Meal” and Finding the Foregone Flavors of France. In this delightful culinary travel memoir, John Baxter follows up his bestselling The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by taking readers on the hunt for some of the most delicious and bizarre endangered foods of France. 

French Impressions: Alice Kaplan – the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. Author and professor of French at Yale University, Ms. Kaplan discusses her new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the process of transformation. By entering into the lives of three important American women who studied in France, we learn how their year in France changed them and how they changed the world because of it. (French)

French Impressions: Anne Fontaine’s white shirts and the color of happiness. Anne Fontaine, a Franco-Brazilian fashion designer, entrepreneur, businesswoman and philanthropist, known as the “queen of the white shirt,” brought new faces and unforeseen levels of diversity to the fashion industry. Thanks to her, the white shirt is now definitely a staple on women’s wardrobes as a key piece. Anne shares her rise in the industry and 2011 launch of The Anne Fontaine Foundation, which is committed to the reforestation of the Brazilian rain forest. (French)

86 Classic French films to watch again and again. French woman Bénédicte Mahé believes that to better understand French pop culture and French people you may meet, you need to have some notion of cinematographic culture. She shares with us important French films (mainly from the 1990s and 2000s) that will help you accomplish just that. (French)

Ballet Flats in Paris: And God made Repetto, by Barbara Redmond who shares what she got from a pair of flats purchased in a ballet store in Paris; a feline, natural style from the toes up, a simple pair of shoes that transformed her whole look. Including the vimeos “Pas de Deux Coda,” by Opening Ceremony and “Repetto,” by Repetto, Paris.

A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre

We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

Text copyright ©2013 Cara Black. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
barbara@awomansparis.com

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