It's always a treat to welcome Cara Black and her stories of Paris back to the Velma Teague Library. She told us she's wanted to write about this area for a long time, so she was finally able to write Murder in the Palais Royal.
Cara described the area for us, saying the Palais Royal is a 19th century arcade. It's a two block long rectangle with 19th century buildings. The Ministry of Culture is there. There are shops, and shop owners live above them on the mezzanine level. That's Palais Royal. And, she describes it in her book, late at night.
If you haven't read Cara's books, her character, Aimée Leduc, is half French and half American. She has a penchant for haute couture and bad boys. Her business partner, René Friant, is a computer hacker and a dwarf. Her godfather is a Commissaire, Morbier.
The first book in the series, Murder in the Marais, was set in Nov. 1993. Ten books later, it's October 1997, only four years later. Cara said she finds this period interesting in France. The French are still preoccupied with the war and the occupation. And, Aimée is going to pay the piper for someone she sent to prison in the first book. There's a decayed, aristocratic feel to the Palais Royal. October 1997 is just about one month or six weeks after the death of Princess Di. It's still in the news.
Also in the news in 1997 was the trial of Maurice Papon, a senior official responsible for Jewish affairs in Bordeaux during World War II. Papon was a bureaucrat in the Vichy Government, who signed the death warrants for 1,560 French Jews, including 223 children. Papon was found guilty for crimes against humanity. This trial rocked France because Papon was a well-respected official who had won awards. It shook the image of France. DeGaulle had wanted to unite France after the war. The country had a hard time during the war. They were occupied, had little food. They were ashamed of their collaboration. Secrets were buried, and they built the myth of the Resistance.
Cara Black said she wanted to write about the area of the Palais Royal. She said she felt the "breath of the past" there. The owners live above shops. There are cafes and bookstores. Colette lived there. Robespierre and Danton met there for coffee. At one time, the area had a reputation as a place of ill repute because of the courtesans and gambling halls. Balzac wrote about it.
Cara has been lucky enough to go to Paris, and, while researching, made contacts with the police. She has a friend who was head of Brigade Criminal, the homicide unit in Paris. She meets him in a cafe, buys a bottle of wine, and keeps pouring, while he tells her stories. In 2007, he told her he was so tired of speaking English. He had been to London providing testimony. When she asked why, he said it had been ten years, and he had been in charge of the Princess Diana investigation. Cara asked, why didn't I know that? And, he said, you never asked me. But, he went to London for the ten year wrap-up.
Last year, Cara was in Paris, doing a book appearance at Shakespeare & Co. Her friend is now retired, so she invited him to come with her and speak. He spoke for about twenty minutes, telling the real truth about the investigation. They got the call, saying there had been a traffic accident in the tunnel. It was a famous person, so they needed to go. He spent more than ten years searching for the phantom Fiat that was supposed to have sped off with paparazzi. They went through the registrations of over 2,000 Fiats. They followed every lead, and all of the evidence. But, in the end, there was no proof that it was anything other than a traffic accident, and the driver was intoxicated.
The historic events of 2007 are the backdrop for Murder in the Latin Quarter, and Murder in the Palais Royal. Then, Cara has a friend who works in a bank in Paris. She says her job is boring, but she must make sure that the money is kosher than is deposited. If not, Tracfin is notified, and an investigation starts. It's the same as in the U.S. Here you can deposit, $9,999 in an account, but if you deposit $10,000, a red flag goes up. This became an important part of Murder in the Palais Royal.
One night, Cara and a friend were walking in the long, deserted arcade. It was winter, and there were worn, mosaic tile in the Palais Royal. As they walked, they heard the pad of feet. But, there was no one around. And, they kept walking, and heard it again, and then it sped up. It was scary, and they felt vulnerable. Suddenly a dog ran between them, with its leash flying behind. It was followed by a woman, with her fur coat open, and her pearls. She was running after the dog, and apologized. She had no purse, no handbag. Cara's friend said, did you notice her shoes? Underneath the soles, they were red. They were chic, expensive shoes. So, Cara began to wonder, who lives in the Palais Royal area? Shopkeepers, ministry functionaries. It's like a little village. There are still shops, including vintage haute couture shops. There's the place to buy little black dresses. There are also more trendy shops. There's a swinger's club in the book, and there is actually one in the arcade, but Black couldn't afford the cover charge. She said it was interesting to see the people who entered. Cara wanted to know the secrets of the people who lived there.
Murder in the Palais Royal happens quickly, in one week. The next book takes place in a shorter time span, three days. It's set in the 16th arrondissement. It's an upscale, upper-class, staid area. There are wealthy families with children. The buildings in this area include ones that are art nouveau. It's thought to be the richest part of Paris, with one of the richest streets in the world. The village of Passy has an old world feel to it. Balzac hid from his creditors here, and wrote. The Balzac Museum in here. This area was not part of Paris until the 18th century. Something happens to Aimée's godfather, Morbier, in this next book in the series.
In answer to a question, Black said she was fortunate enough to spend four hours with the crime scene unit in Paris. The Brigade Criminal and the Procurer, similar to our D.A., is specific to Paris. Outside of Paris, the gendarmes, the military police, handle homicides.
Cara studied French even in elementary school, and went to Paris first in the 70s. She goes back a lot, a couple times a year, and sleeps on a friend's couch.
She said she wrote her first book, Murder in the Marais, because she wanted to tell the story of a friend's mother. And, the series just grew. Cara originally had no plans to make it a series, but her editor kept asking her questions, and said, you are writing a series, aren't you?
When asked if she had any regrets as to how she created Aimée, she said no. She just never thought about wishing she had done something else. The books are fast-paced, and there are now rumors of a sibling Aimée did not know about. She said it took her three and a half years to write the first book. Aimée is just a person going along with her life, working, falling for bad boys, and ending up in the middle of a murder.
Cara Black's website is www.carablack.com, and she's one of the six crime writers blogging at Murder is Everywhere.
Murder in the Palais Royal. Soho Press, ©2010. ISBN 9781569476208 (hardcover), 291p.