Cara Black’s Murder in Belleville
Soho Press,2000

If I’d had any doubts about whether Cara Black’s mystery series would be a good choice with which to celebrate Paris in July, the blurbs on the second Aimée Leduc mystery would have cinched the deal.

Val McDermid writes: “If you’ve always wanted to visit Paris, skip the air fare and read Cara Black’s Murder in Belleville instead. It’s so authentic you can practically smell the fresh baguettes and coffee.”

“Cara Black and Aimée Leduc are to Paris what Sara Paretsky and V.I. Warshawski are to Chicago…. She makes Paris come alive as no one else has since Georges Simenon,” says Stuart M. Kaminsky.

And if the suspicious reader in me had distrusted the blurbs, the first sentence would have offered immediate reassurance: “Aimée Luduc’s cell phone rang, startling her, as she drove under the leafy poplars tenting the road to Paris.”

You can see it, can’t you? Yup, it feels like Paris.

But if the cynical reader in me remained distrustful, fearing that the Paris-setting in the opening passages was simply window-dressing (what is the parallel in bookish terms, paragraph-dressing?), a device designed to draw in Paris-starved readers that faded into the background so quickly that within a chapter or two the book might have been set in any large city around the world?

Well, then, I’d simply need to keep reading.

It’s not simply a matter of blurbs, or a carefully chosen opening paragraph, and it’s not a publisher’s trick that extends no further than a map of Paris at the front of the novel; Cara Black’s Murder in Belleville is Paris-soaked.

Although Belleville is not necessarily what everyone immediately thinks of when they think of Paris.

“The aroma of cumin from the corner Lebanese restaurant perfumed the rain-freshened air. Aimée had forgotten the bustle and energy in Belleville. African dialects reached her ears. She walked by abandoned, graffiti-covered turn-of-the-century shop-fronts. Taxi klaxons honked, and old men bargained in Arabic at fruit stands. Senegalese women clad in bright-patterned clothing and headdresses shared the Metro stairs with black-on-black Parisian sophisticates.

A neighborhood of caractere, she thought, but its working-class origins had suffered the onslaught of the trendy. Chunks of the grime-blackened eighteenth-century buildings in Edith Piaf’s former neighborhood had either been torn down or renovated.”

The details of the setting are very specific; it’s easy to imagine that, if you knew the city well yourself, you could visualize the intersections clearly from her descriptions. “Aimée scanned the intersection…Métro entrances on the other corners. Ahead a Crédit Lyonnais bank stood opposite Crédit Agricole, with a gutted café still advertising horseracing and a FNAC Télecom store facing that.”

But, for all the detail, for all the evocative descriptions, it’s not all roses in Aimée’s Paris. “Ahead, leafy quayside trees rustled, and the Seine lapped below Pont Marie. She narrowly missed stepping on dog droppings, which reminded her of Miles Davis, her bichon fries – time for his dinner.”

No matter, I’ll watch where I’m walking and enjoy the scenery all the same.

If I wasn’t reading this mystery with Paris in July in mind, I might have let some of these details slip into the background. As one of the other blurbs mentions, this novel straddles the line between thriller and mystery; things really do intensify somewhere around page 75 and the pace rarely lets up. I never forgot that I was in Paris, but I certainly wasn’t checking the map at the front of Cara Black‘s book either: I was too busy turning the pages!