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In Paris, A Mystery Writer Whose Name Is 'Noir'

Writer Cara Black is consumed by two things: murder and Paris. Every one of the San Francisco writer's mystery novels takes place in the City of Light, each in one of the city's very different neighborhoods. Her latest, Murder in the Latin Quarter, came out this spring, and she has already gone back to Paris to scout out her next mystery.

Though she didn't publish her first crime novel until 1999, Black says the seed was planted back in the early 1980s, when a Parisian friend showed her another side of the city she thought she already knew.

The friend's story took place during World War II, under the Nazi occupation of Paris. The friend's mother, then just a girl, came home from school to her Jewish family's apartment and found it empty.

"She thought her parents were coming back," Black says. "And she ended up living in the apartment for a year. The concierge gave her coupons for food and coal. [She was] 14 years old, going to school, thinking maybe when she came back, maybe they would be there."

The girls' parents never did come back. They had been deported to Auschwitz. Black says that story stayed with her, and she knew she'd write about it someday.

"This was sort of my introduction to this whole other history of Paris," Black says. "That darker side, that other side — that side that people didn't talk about really fascinated me, and it really drew me."

Black's chance came when her son was old enough to go to school. She had taken time off when he was born. Instead of returning to her job as a preschool teacher, she began writing. Three-and-a-half years later, the story of that young Jewish girl became her first book, Murder in the Marais. Black says the crime novel turned out to be the perfect genre to allow her to explore the dark side of Paris.

She says she is drawn again and again to the 20 distinct neighborhoods, or arrondissements, of Paris. Each of her novels is set in a different arrondissement, and Black says she builds on the history and character of each quarter. Sometimes she just stumbles on the perfect crime setting, like for her third novel, Murder in Sentier, which is set in Paris' garment district.

"I basically got lost one day. I missed the bus, and I was walking and I realized that this was a very different area," she says of the Sentier. "There were all these hookers standing on the street. Then there were these men pushing these big barrels of clothing into the courtyards of these 17th-century hotels particuliers, into the basement where there were sweat shops. And I just loved this dichotomy of what was going on."

Black uses details like that to paint a word picture of the real Paris — the gritty city behind the facade that tourists see. She says her goal is to capture the living, vibrant city that meshes with its history and the ghosts of its past.

This was sort of my introduction to this whole other history of Paris... That darker side, that other side.

Walking with Black through Paris feels like a tour of an open air museum. Black, ever the curator, points out historical landmarks and references and throws in a few tales of her own.

In Murder in the Latin Quarter, the crime is set against the backdrop of the Sorbonne and the Grandes ecoles — the city's centuries-old bastions of learning. Black's murder victim turns out to be a Haitian professor, so she can weave in third-world geopolitics, spooky voodoo rituals and the brutal world of the human traffickers who prey on the Haitian immigrants of Paris.

The heroine of Black's books, Aimee Leduc, rides her motor scooter around Paris in Chanel skirts, runs her own computer security firm and has a penchant for bad boys.

Black says her readers seem to love the contrast between Leduc's chutzpah and her vulnerability — and that she doesn't fit any particular category. The author explains that she knew she couldn't write as a French woman, so she made her heroine somewhat of an outsider: Leduc was raised by her French policeman father after her American mother abandoned them when Aimee was 8 years old.

"She never led a traditional French life," Black says.

Black is as well-steeped in the crime world of Paris as she is in the city's history. She counts private detectives and precinct chiefs as friends. All her murder mysteries are built on real-life stories — nuggets, she calls them — collected from the Parisian contacts she has built up over 30 years of visiting the city.

Murder in the Latin Quarter is dedicated to one of those contacts: 87-year-old Monsieur Fernand, who owns a Latin Quarter cafe his parents opened in the 1920s. Beneath Fernand's cafe are some of the ancient tunnels and caverns of subterranean Paris, a setting for a few of the spookier scenes in Black's latest novel.

Like Monsieur Fernand, Black's books give readers a taste of the grittier side of the city and the real people who live there. And lucky for her fans, she has 10 more arrondissements to go.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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