Jessica Teisch

San Francisco resident Cara Black, author of the acclaimed Aimée Leduc mystery series, shares with Bookmarks readers her inspiration behind the characters and politics that populate her Paris-set novels. Her debut novel, 1998’s Murder in the Marais, set in Paris in the early 1990s, investigates Nazi war crimes, wartime romance, and a nefarious neo-Nazi group. Since then, Cara has set each of her novels in a different arrondissement. In Murder in the Rue de Paradis, the eighth and most recent in the series (March 2008), Aimée’s investigation into a murder leads her to the crimes of a militant Turkish group.

BM: What inspired you to start writing the Aimée Leduc series?

CB: I grew up in Francophile family in California and attended a French Catholic school. My uncle went to France and studied with artist George Braque, so talk at our dinner table was a lot about France. In 1984, after living in Basel, I returned to Europe and visited my French friend Sarah. One beautiful day, she showed me the Marais, a district of narrow streets and 17th-century mansions. When we encountered a square, the Place de Voges, I felt like I was home. On Rue de Rosiers, she stopped, pointed to a window, and told me that her mother had lived there during the German occupation of Paris. Sarah’s mother, then 14, had come home from school one day in 1943 to find an empty apartment. All of the family’s bags—one packed for each member—were gone. She lived by herself for a year, with the help of the concierge, a Christian woman. After liberation in 1944, she met a woman who had seen her sister get off the train at Auschwitz. She knew then that her family had saved her by taking her backpack when they were picked up, so police would think they’d left no one behind. So here I was, at this apartment with so much history, and it touched my heart deeply. I never forgot Sarah’s story.

Ten years later, in 1993, my husband and I did a house exchange in Provence. We had one night in Paris before our flight home. We stayed in the Marais, near the Place de Voges, and it was moonlight, and that shiver hit me again. I thought about Sarah’s mother. If only the cobblestones could talk…

BM: How did you incorporate Sarah’s story into your first novel, Murder in the Marais?

CB: When I returned to California, I took at UC Berkeley extension course. I’d been reading P. D. James, and decided that the detective novel, combined with deeply layered sociological and psychological insight, would be a great framework. This was in the early 1990s, and there was no Google or Schindler’s List. I started doing research by writing letters to the French Ministry so I could look through Jewish files. I went to the Holocaust Center in San Francisco and looked through oral histories of survivors. I wrote letters to two survivors, and a few days later got a phone call from Denise Schwarzkopf of Daly City, inviting me to talk to her. As we talked at her kitchen table, she opened up her heart. While her story differed from Sarah’s mother’s story, she offered me incredible information and ideas based on her own experience in Paris, witnessing her family being taken by the Nazis.

BM: How do you come up with ideas for your next novel?

CB: Each part of Paris is a totally unique world, with its own flavor. Usually I read something in the newspaper or hear about an event in France, and that inspires my research. I always start with the exciting feeling that there’s a story out there to share. I never planned to write a series, but when Soho Press saw Murder in the Marais, they asked when I was going to write the sequel. Many books later…

BM: What event inspired your most recent novel, Murder in the Rue de Paradis?

CB: I didn’t know Paris’s 10th arrondissement very well, but I would walk through it to go to the library. I noticed a high density of Turkish and Kurds there, and, while we don’t hear much about the Kurds in the U.S., it seemed unusual that they’d be side by side. I had read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in my book group, seen the movie Syriana, where young Arab boys are recruited to carry out terrorism, and had also heard about the first Kurdish woman elected to Turkey’s Parliament in the late 1990s who gave her acceptance speech in Kurdish, only to be imprisoned. I became curious about all the talk about Turkey trying to join the EU, started asking people about it, stopped in the Paris Kurdish Cultural Centre, and attended an ethnic dance festival, where Kurdish dancers were on tour. My novel, set in the 1990s, foreshadows what happened later, and shows cells and disparate terrorists joining together.

BM: How much of your novels are factual?

CB: I try to get to know the district I’m writing about as well as I can, from discovering its history, cafes, shops, and local culture to making sure I get one-way streets right! In Murder in the Rue de Paradis, Aimée goes to visit a Turkish writer, who talks about a furniture building next door. That’s all real; the building on Boulevard Saint-Martin was one of the three work camps in Paris where Jews sorted or fixed other people’s furniture during the war.

BM: Who are your greatest literary influences?

CB: Léo Malet, the French crime novelist, wrote the Nestor Burma series, which took place in Paris’s different arrondissements in the 1950s and 1960s and featured the hardboiled ex-anarchist and prize fighter. I read the novels and thought, this is so cool! Those novels were my inspiration—and my introduction to the different parts of Paris. I also read lots of P. D. James, John le Carré, and Philip Kerr.

BM: This being Bookmarks, we have to ask what you read in your spare time.

CB: I’m on a Scandinavian author kick right now. I read the UK edition of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Swedish investigative journalist Steig Larsson. I’ve read a few books by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason, including the police procedural Jar City. Henning Mankel is dark, but I like his mysteries. Then there’s my book group, where we read old, new, and classics. We recently read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in honor of her Nobel Prize.

Photo: Cara Black