Our guest this week is Cara Black the author of the best-selling and award-nominated Aimée Leduc Investigation mystery series, set in Paris. Last year, she chatted with me about her novel, Murder in Passy, and today we discuss her latest release, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. To learn more about Cara and her books, check out her website at http://carablack.com/. On Tuesdays, she can be found blogging about France at http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com/.
We are also running a contest this week. Leave a comment on this post between now and Thursday, April 5, for a chance to win a copy of Cara’s 2011 novel, Murder in Passy. The contest will end at midnight EST, and we'll announce the winner on the blog on Friday.
Cara, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge is Aimée’s twelfth adventure, set in one of Paris’s four Chinatowns. What can you tell us about this neighborhood? What made you pick it as the setting for this story?
Paris has four Chinatowns, and this one, set in the Marais, has a lot of interesting history. It has buildings dating back to the 14th-century, and even the Resistance had a presence there during World War II. Chinese immigrants came in the early 20th century, replacing the aristocrats when they moved out of the quartier. Some of China’s revolutionaries were attracted by France’s principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité. They included Lin Biao, Mao’s right-hand man, and Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao. Another radical in Paris was the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, who worked in a socialist/communist restaurant.
I knew a man who worked for the Renseignements Genereaux, a domestic intelligence agency that runs wire taps and conducts surveillance on suspects. His job was to collect intelligence in Chinatown, and one day, over coffee, he said, “No one ever dies in Chinatown.”
Where did that come from, I wondered. So I pressed him. “What do you mean?”
He said, “You’re a writer. You figure it out.” So I started thinking, If no one died there, then what?
What is the significance of the Lanterne Rouge in the novel’s title?
Lanterne Rouge means red lantern, and these lanterns hang in the doorways of Chinatown. The murder occurs under a red lantern. That’s all the reference means. I learned that the last person to finish the Tour de France carries a red lantern, although that has nothing to do with the story. Red lanterns are also a symbol of Chinese New Year, which is the time of year when the novel takes place.
We’ve talked in the past about the hands-on research you like to do – plying police officers with wine and coffee or crawling through Parisian sewers – all in the interest of authenticity. What did it take for you to absorb the gritty realism of Chinatown’s underworld? Did you visit any of the sweatshops that appear in the story?
I’ve visited sweatshops in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but not the ones in Paris. But I have a friend who lives near the building where the sweatshop in the book is located, over a night club that is no longer there. A real sweatshop existed there and we could look down into the rooms from my friend’s window and see the machines inside. There is a German bunker nearby, which Aimee explores in the book, and I was able to visit that and see all the artifacts left over from the war.
Several characters in the novel are graduates of an an engineering school called the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. They call themselves the Gadz’ Arts and practice a special form of hazing. Is this school and the rituals its students practice real?
I met a graduate of this school, a grande ecole, mentioned in the story. He lives in Silicon Valley now and is an entrepreneur. He told me about the hazing rituals that the graduates of the grandes ecoles do. I toned the rituals down a lot in the book because they were too brutal, fictionalized certain things. But the school and the rituals are real. The students learn a special language – they take it all very seriously. It’s a cool thing for them. The Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers is the third top ranking engineering school in France.
One of the settings in the novel is an old tower that once belonged to the Knights Templar. Is there a story behind the way you found it?
Whenever I’m in Paris, I do a lot of walking around. Just exploring the city and seeing what I’ll find. I found the tower this way. It had walls several feet thick. You can see them from the adjacent buildings, which have walls remaining from the tower. I went inside and offered the people there macaroons, which they welcomed very much. They didn’t know much about the history, but they let me see the place.
I’m always delighted to see more of Aimée’s sidekick, René Friant, who is small of stature and big of heart. He plays a central role in this novel. Can you tell us a bit about that?
René has long had feelings for Aimée, but his love is unrequited. She sees him as her best friend, not romantically. He’s resigned, and moves on by falling in love with Meizi, a Chinese girl. Aimée is concerned about him. She’s worried and, for a change, feels responsible for him. So when Meizi disappears and is suspected in the murder, Aimée just wants to find her and sort everything out.
Aimée has many fine qualities, but commitment to a long-term relationship is not one of them. Yet her current squeeze, the homicide detective Melac, has been around for several books now and shows no sign of giving up on her. Is her luck in love changing?
I can’t tell you. I really don’t know. A relationship is always a hard thing for me to write in a book. And Aimée has broken her rule by falling for a cop. A cop boyfriend in a mystery is a problem because the cop can’t just tell the sleuth what she needs to know. Melac has to keep things from Aimée, which is a strain on their relationship.
I enjoy the glimpses of Parisian life that you give us through your books as Aimée zips around Paris on her Vespa or pops into a café to meet an informant. Do you wander around Paris with a little notebook jotting down everything you see? Or do these images just stick in your mind?
I write everything down. I carry notebooks around and record street sounds, conversations on busses. I stick a digital recorder in a carrying bag and ride around. Then, when I’m home, the sounds help me get back to the moment, so I can make it all real to the reader.
Cara, thanks for chatting with me today.