Monday, January 17, 2011

A Tour of Paris with Cara Black

My guest today is Cara Black, author of the best-selling and award-nominated Aimée Leduc Investigation mystery series, set in Paris. Her novels delve deep in the city’s history, social conflicts and cultural diversity, while also delivering a thrilling, satisfying mystery. Cara lives in San Francisco with her husband, a bookseller, and their teenage son. She is a San Francisco Library Laureate and a member of the Paris Sociéte Historique in the Marais. Her next Aimée Leduc novel, Murder in Passy, will be released in March. To learn more about Cara and her books, check out her website at On Tuesdays, she can be found blogging about France at Murder Is Everywhere.

Cara, the city of Paris is as much a character in your books as the people who populate it. Why did you pick Paris as a setting? Or did it pick you?

Sometimes I think Paris picked me. I was passionate to tell this story that became my first book, Murder in the Marais, it was as if it had to be done, to be written. Or maybe it’s the other way round, too. I wanted to read about present day Paris. A contemporary view that portrayed a city that I saw—seductive, full of contradictions, history—and I couldn’t find books like this. At least translated into English.

You set each of your books in a different Parisian neighborhood, and each story feels uniquely suited to that part of Paris. How did you research these settings?

These neighborhoods were villages that over centuries became incorporated into the ever expanding Paris. I’m always looking for that ambiance, what makes that district unique. So I read historical accounts, biographies, go to the archives, consult old phone books, join historical associations of that district. Get friendly with a local cafe owner, the kiosk vender, the kid who’s tagging buildings. Find out the weather of that time, the traditions, holidays everything that would be happening then. I consult newspapers of the day, to get the flavor, what was on sale that day, or happening in the news, the traffic. I tape-record conversations in the cafés, on buses, on the streets to get the sounds. I’ve visited the Morgue, gone into the sewers, the abandoned Metro stations, the underground quarries in the Latin Quarter.

Your stories all have a social or political theme that is connected to the Paris neighborhoods where they are set. What comes first for you: the theme or the setting?

The setting! I will have to “live” there for a year or more while writing the book, so I need to be drawn to this particular part of Paris, be curious about this quartier, feel a compulsion to understand it, get the ambiance. Also I need to discover how a crime would occur there and why. I want to explore the side of Paris that people don’t visit on the usual tourist route, the “real” Paris that I see, changing evolving and dealing with France’s colonial legacy, the past.

You’ve said that you made your protagonist, Aimée Leduc, half American because you yourself are not French. Yet she feels very French. How did you get into Aimée’s head and way of thinking?

Thank you. I might see a shop window and think Aimée would wear that, or she’d drive that scooter. She’s a lot like some of my French friends who are witty, warm, smart, and attractive and still have trouble with men...imagining that it gives us all hope. But to me Aimée is a contemporary young Parisienne like so many I see or know who have to pay bills, walk their dog and deal with life and men. Sometimes I just open her purse and find what could be inside, or put her in a café interrogating someone and she comes alive.

You’ve created a compelling side-kick in Aimée’s partner, René Friant. Why did you make him a dwarf?

Dwarves occupied a strange place in European history, in carnivals and at the royal court. But I wanted to show that René, a man with what people deemed disabilities, had amazing capabilities. Instead of just looking from the outside, seeing him as a “little man”, he has these incredible computer talents. And a black belt. I hope it makes for a character rich with possibilities.

Do you have a favorite experience or encounter with someone who helped you in researching one of your books?

There are so many. For me it’s about going to Paris, absorbing the feeling, the place, and hearing the stories. There’s a friend who lives in the 16th arrondissement and for years has nudged me to write about her “hood” - but it didn't seem  my kind of place, or Aimée's. Too chic, too ancien regime, etc. But my friend took me for walks and showed me Guimard’s buildings, the Marmottan Museum, and tried to open my eyes. We actually one day stood in front of a gorgeous place and saw on the plaque that Berthe Morisot, the painter, had lived there. We walked inside, since the door was open, and looked around the courtyard until the concierge, who must have been very bored, spoke with us then invited us in to Berthe’s old studio. Amazing, threadbare and very ancien regime, old wealthy French but full of light. But it was the trip to the Passy reservoir that I talked my way into which became a scene in the book. The woman from Eau de Paris took me under the tunnels in the reservoir that the French Gestapo used for torture. Chilling. My friend's aunt insisted that Passy was a village, I just had to find it and she proceeded to show it to me. Through her eyes, I discovered Passy.

Leduc Investigations specializes in computer crimes. Why did you pick that specialty?

Computer security was a brand new field when I started writing, very cutting edge and, if you can believe it, only 3 firms in the U.S. in 1994 actually worked in this field. No Google until 1998, if you can remember. So I thought how cool is that if Aimée would be a computer forensics detective and be totally bleeding edge in technology. Not a field I, or many of us understood at the time. She’d have access through her computer skills to find out information in a different way and use that as a tool. Lots of hackers I’ve met and interviewed gave me ideas but they’ve always said “social engineering” is still the foremost and most effective. You can spend time to hack into a site, but like Aimée you could flirt and get someone’s password, bypassing a tech step and make it more real.

How do you research the law enforcement side of your books? Do you have contacts with the Paris police?

Yes, and I ply my police contacts with dinner and wine. I run a lot of ideas by them, ask if it could be plausible at that time and really appreciate their input. One inspector actually said, I spend time with you because I want you to get it right. My books aren’t police procedurals, Aimée’s a licensed PI who’s gone into computer security, but since police are involved I want the details right. And the French system is so different. In November I toured 36 quai des Orfèvres, the Police Prefecture, went up on the roof and to the room where they dry the scene of the crime clothes. The best part was going out and drinking with the homicide captain and going to a police shooting at the range - not in that order :). I’ve consulted French attorneys about adoption for my book Murder on Ile Saint Louis, and know several female licensed PI’s who help me with the nuts and bolts of running a detective agency.

Your next book, Murder in Passy, will be released in March. What can you tell us about Aimée’s next adventure?

This gets personal for Aimée and takes her to the chic 16th arrondissement where the maids wear pearls. When Xavierre d’Eslay, a haut bourgeois of Basque origin is murdered outside her home in the exclusive village-like quartier of Passy, circumstantial evidence makes Aimée’s godfather a suspect. Was it a crime of passion, connected to Basque terrorists or linking to a kidnapped Spanish princess?

Paris has twenty arrondissements, or districts. What will you do once you’ve finished setting a book in each of them? Retire? Or will you start another series?

Heidi, I’m thinking of a historical thriller. But I’ve got eight more arrondissements to go in Paris.

Cara, thank you so much for giving us such a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Aimée’s world!


  1. Thank you for such an interesting interview, Cara. It sounds very much like and Paris were supposed to find each other. I can imagine it would be very hard to run out of ideas for your books set in Paris--what a wonderful world of possibilities. Do you find your lists of future settings for your books grows quickly?

  2. Absolutely fascinating, Cara! I'm so impressed with the amount of research you put into your books. Your trip under the reservoir tunnels alone gives me chills! Murder in the Passy sounds rich with history and ambiance. I can't wait to dig in--right after I finish Murder in the Latin Quarter (the next book in my TBR pile.) Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

  3. Cara, I’ve been learning more about Paris, France and French culture from your books than from my actual trips to France. The first one I read was Murder on Montmartre; I’ve read it because we met and talked at the San Francisco Writers Conference. I always enjoy your settings, and while I remember you explaining about how you do your research, in this interview I’ve learned even more. And I’m happy to know that when there’s no more arrondissements left, there still will be more books :)

  4. Cara, thanks again for this wonderful interview. I can see how much you suffer for your art, wining and dining police officers, hanging out in cafes... :) The amount of research you do is impressive and it certainly pays off in your books. After reading them I always feel as though I've not only visited Paris, but actually lived there. I'm happy that the city has so many districts, so there will still be many more novels to come.

  5. Thanks for inviting me Heidi! Yes, Alli the list grows and so do the notebooks with future ideas, as you must keep, right? Surpriya, the tunnels under the Passy reservoir held an eerie feeling and quite sobering to think what happened down there during the war. Lina hope you make it to SFWriters again, will look for you there. Merci ladies and bon writing! Cara