The late Sue Grafton certainly paved the way with her Kinsey Millhone series, also referred to as the Alphabet mysteries, but there are few like Black alive today who has faithfully delivered one book in the same series more or less once a year since 1998. In fact, Black recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of Aimée Leduc’s introduction to readers.
An avowed “pantser,” who prefers to write by the seat of her pants than through outlines, Black is working through 20 arrondissements of Paris by way of the investigations of her private detective, Aimée Leduc. Her 18th, Murder on the Left Bank, has just come out in paperback, and her next mystery, Murder in Bel-Air, which will be out next month, followed by a new standalone set during World War II.
Last year, I attended a workshop on writing villains that she led at the Sisters of Crime Los Angeles meeting, in addition to a reading at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. We had a wonderful lunch at Fiore Café, and later I posed these questions to her.
NAOMI HIRAHARA: I was first introduced to you and your work at a regional mystery conference in Pasadena in 2003. You were discussing your third installment in the Aimée Leduc mystery series, and now it’s almost 16 years later and you’ve released your 18th! I know that it may be difficult for you to identify the reasons why you have been able to deliver and publish these installments so regularly, but can you give me one internal motivation and/or discipline and one external one involving the publishing world and readers?
CARA BLACK: That’s a good question. When I began writing Murder in the Marais, my first novel, I had no idea that my character Aimée Leduc would continue and that I would write a series featuring her set in Paris. Encouraged by my editor, I wrote the next story, based where I was staying in Belleville, at my friend’s. I began thinking a lot about what would have happened in the time since her last investigation in her personal and work life with her friends and colleagues. I just progressed her from there. But I still pinch myself that I get to keep doing this — who knew, I didn't, when I started writing that I'd get intimate with a fictional character and have a long-term relationship?
It’s been that way with each story, and I can feature the social issues in Paris and France at that time as well as her character growth. Writing Aimée became a way to investigate the darker side of the City of Light, explore things my friends talked about, get the police angle, and dovetail history. I guess internally it’s been a vehicle for me to exercise my curiosity about the elusive French I meet.
Externally, I feel lucky to have a publisher who promotes the series and readers who ask for more.
You have only two more arrondissements to write about. How did you go about selecting each arrondissement for each novel? Did you plan way ahead? And what happens after the 20th Aimée mystery?
As I said above, I had no master plan to write a series. I have just written and chosen arrondissements that appeal to me, whether it’s the landscape, its place in history and how Paris grew and became the city we know today, the stories organic to it. The arrondissement, which to me is a character, evokes a place, a time, and a crime that could only happen there. It’s organic. Not that crime can’t happen anywhere, but it’s the why here, why now that imbues vitality. I wish I could plan ahead but I’m not that organized. In Aimée’s character arc, there will be some resolution in the last story, but I’m clueless as to that and what I’ll do. But I visited Marseille recently and loved it and it could be another setting.
There’s been a lot of discussion of you beginning the series in 1993 and just moving the time incrementally (weeks or months) with each installment. What research tricks do you have in staying in the 1990s? With the advancement in digital technology, have you encountered easier ways of accessing the past? If so, please share.
My neighbor is a French programmer who worked in Paris in the ’90s, so he keeps me honest, such as reminding me that characters would use dial-up and other great details. I consult French police who worked in the ’90s; some are retired now, and they recount procedure and cases going on at the time. They even touch upon the rivalry between certain law enforcement branches. I guess we could liken it to the rivalry between the FBI and Special Forces French-style. Back then, only the French military had GPS access. My research is in historical archives, specifically consulting magazines like Paris Match and daily French newspapers on microfiche. This is invaluable. I can read the paper to know what was on sale, what strike was happening in Paris, the weather, the current world events, what movies were out, shows playing, foreign leaders visiting Paris. I also lived on and off in Paris in the ’90s, so I do remember.
Aimée now has a baby, her first as a single mother. What issues have you encountered in writing about a mother of an infant in terms of her crime-fighting investigations? As her daughter continues to develop, how will you balance Aimée’s mothering responsibilities with her work as a private investigator?
My editor encouraged me to shake Aimée’s life up a bit, to challenge myself as a writer. So Aimée’s life as both a mother and a professional investigator leads her into this new role of juggling, as so many parents find themselves doing. Aimée is now a single maman. When the story starts in September 1999, her baby Chloé is 10 months old. Aimée is running her detective agency, which focuses on computer crime, and constantly juggling her life, work, baby, and the man in her life. In other words, trying to do her best to earn the daily baguette and butter it. She’s lucky to have Babette, a nanny whom she shares with a family across the courtyard. Aimée needs to pick up her daughter from bébé swim, and life gets more complicated every minute. Murder in Bel-Air opens with Aimée about to give a PowerPoint presentation on computer security to a select, mostly male group of CEOs, the movers and shakers — when she gets that call all parents dread: her daughter’s been left at the playgroup and no one else is able to pick her up. Not only that, but Aimée’s American mother abandoned her daughter at the playgroup and has disappeared. So Aimée’s got to juggle her business, caring for her daughter and now worrying over her mother and if her mother really did leave the CIA.
Do you have some sort of character bible, timeline, and/or chronology to keep you clear on Aimée’s life moments as well as other central characters? What’s been the biggest continuity mistake you’ve made, and how have you fixed it?
I wish I had a character bible. Even a list of the shoes Aimée has worn. Which is funny because my publisher asked me for one. Stymied, I was on deadline and didn’t have time to go back through my books. So the handy-dandy folks at my publisher came up with one and made a bag and it looked like this.
The biggest continuity issue was that I’d put Aimée’s age in the first book, Murder in the Marais. This presented issues, especially with her biological clock. So on the 10th anniversary special issue my editor said I could change anything in that story. So I took out her age.
I know that you go to Paris frequently, at least once a year. Share three little-known locations that are great for authors, either for writing or observation opportunities. And also three favorite restaurants under the radar (please mention your favorite dishes, too).
Only three? Well, I’ll try.
Definitely start at the Place des Vosges in the Marais, the 17th-century arcaded square for the beauty, and go behind it to the courtyard of Hotel Sully (it’s not a hotel, but a hôtel particulier, which is what they call townhouse mansions). There’s an incredible bookshop nestled inside.
Stroll on the banks of the Seine at twilight opposite Île Saint-Louis.
Drink an apéro outside at Chez Prune, a cool place, on the Canal Saint Martin.
Museum-wise, the Musée de la Chasse, a hunting museum, in an old hôtel particulier in the Marais.
The Balzac museum in the 16th arrondissement, where Balzac wrote hiding from his creditors.
Most of all, be a flâneur, a walker with no particular destination, and see where the streets take you. It’s always a good idea, and you’ll discover Paris.
Foodwise, the jewel-like eclairs from L’éclair de Genie, roasted cauliflower at Miznon in the Marais, and the Lebanese wrap stand on Rue Rambuteau.
You are currently working on a new manuscript, a standalone historical. What can you tell us about it? After being in Aimée’s world, are you exhilarated or terrified to inhabit the minds of totally new characters? How did you make the transition? (Any burning of sage or other rituals?)
Hmm … burning sage is a good idea. I’m excited and a bit terrified. It’s about going back to the past, to another time, and immersing myself. On my wall, I’ve put up a 1940 Paris map — a special one that was issued to the occupying German soldiers with the Kommandantur, locations of the cinemas and canteens for German soldiers, and authorized bordellos. I’ve always collected old black-and-white photos circa the ’30s and ’40s at flea markets and street sales in Paris. Also, I copied files of alleged collaborators in the military archives at Bois de Vincennes. My great friend in Paris is 90 years old and joined the Resistance when he was 14. Whenever we can, we go out to eat and he loves to drive around Paris (yes, he still drives!) and show me spots where he hid, where the ladies of the night would give him bonbons, and where his father was arrested.
That sounds wonderful. I’m a sucker for stories set around World War II, and I can’t wait to see what you do independent of Aimée. I’m sure it will be an adjustment, but one that will not only service your standalone, but also inform your return to your series.
Naomi Hirahara is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Edgar Award–winning Mas Arai series and the forthcoming mystery novel Iced in Paradise.