Jessica Teisch

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, 1999’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 Latin Quarter, the ninth and most recent in the series (coming out in March 2009), Aimée’s investigation into the murder of a Haitian scientist leads her into corrupt Haitian politics—and to a possible long-lost sister.

BM: When we spoke with you last year, Murder in the Rue de Paradis, which explored the crimes of a militant Turkish group, had just come out. How did you get from there to the Left Bank and Haitian politics?

CB: My editor had been suggesting that Aimée go the Left Bank, a part of Paris I didn’t know so well at the time. I really liked the Latin Quarter (except for the touristy area), but, when I visited in 2007, I found it hard to get a handle on the place. Then, one of my last days there, I had coffee with a documentary filmmaker, who told me about a great place out of Jules Verne—a laboratory near Jardin des Plantes. I was totally intrigued, so with two friends, in the rain and dusk, walked up and down the streets. We came upon a crumbling wall, walked around, peered through the windows, and saw specimen cabinets and bones hanging from the tall ceilings. We didn’t have an appointment, but talked our way into the lab. We were greeted by an older man, an expert on imported and domestic pigs in Haiti, who talked about Haiti and took us on an informal tour. This was my inspiration for some of the novel’s plot.

BM: Why did you choose to focus on Haitian politics?

CB: I thought it would be interesting to explore another aspect of France—Caribbean, Polynesian, or black, for example. Americans can relate to Haiti (it’s close), so that’s where I found my hook. There is some shared culture between France and Haiti; Napoleon buried their leader Toussaint L’Ouverture in the Panthéon, for example, and Duvalier ("Baby Doc") went into exile there. So I started exploring Haitian groups in Paris—many Haitians had come over in the 1950s and 1960s for educational opportunities, until the door shut. I talked to many different people in France, California, and Miami to understand the Haitian diaspora to France. Unfortunately, I found it somewhat difficult to get Haitains to talk about what happened; many were guarded. Some, however, wanted to tell me their stories so that I, in turn, could tell their stories. In Miami, I even went to a voodoo shop to understand Haitians’ concept of religion and beliefs. St. George and Ogun, for example, are two sides of the same coin. Much of this very interesting worldview made it into my book.

BM: Who else did you talk to in order to tell your story?

CB: Many of the stories of the people I met don’t make it into the book, but they collectively form a larger picture of the life and history of the neighborhood. The scientist whom we met at the laboratory was very quirky. I also met a man in his 80s in a café; his parents had purchased the café, which had been an old charcoal shop, and he remembered when General Leclerc’s tank came rolling down his street at Liberation. So I heard stories about the Resistance and Liberation. None of that, unfortunately, made it into the book, but the café owner introduced me to high-ranking people. Because the novel is set in 1997, I wanted to use the Princess Diana investigation, which was such a huge deal, for background. I had met a retired brigade commissioner in charge of the investigation—he had just returned from London to give testimony again in 2007—and he shed light on some of the investigation.

BM: How does history inform the story you want to tell?

CB: For me, history is the most important thing; it forms the spine of the story. Parisians have their own history in the Latin Quarter, and that history is part of my story. I then weave characters into that tale. I picked interesting places Aimée would have to go—buildings, shops, and streets that would make that arrondissement come alive—to tell this history. For example, I wanted to use a cloistered nuns convent near the hospital—what a perfect place to use for hiding!—so I wrote Aimée into the location. I also set a scene at the mosque. The crypts and catacombs are another fascinating place. I’ve been down there many times, and they have a lot of history. Most recently, I went with a man to the Trocadero metro stop, walked a little ways, and, with the help of a crowbar, climbed into the sewer in broad daylight! This route was sealed up by the police, but there is an old tavern and bar in there, carved into the limestone quarry, that was run by cataphiles [urban explorers who illegally explore the Paris catacombs]. For these cataphiles, the underground tunnels—all illicit—are an underground sanctuary. It’s a strange heritage.

BM: In Murder in the Latin Quarter, Aimée finds a possible half sister. Can you tell us more about her family?

CB: Aimée’s mother is still a big mystery—I don’t know yet what happened to her either. For many reasons maybe she can’t appear. As far as a possible sibling—overall, illicit affairs and their effects on children produce real emotions, from surprise to fear. They also tap deep into the veins of family secrets. Why, for example, was Aimée so desperate to believe she had a half-sister? I was trying to convince Aimée as much as I was trying to convince myself!

BM: Can you reveal a little about your next book?

CB: It’s titled Murder in the Palais Royal and is set in the 1st Arrondissement. Aimée is, once again, with another bad boy. Some of the events in this novel hearken back to what happened in Murder in the Marais—there’s a loose tie-in. Of course, I look at the history of the Palais Royal. The only thing more I’ll say is that Aimée does manage to get into the Louvre after hours!

Photo: Cara Black