A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Murder Most French

The following review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

By Cara Black
Soho, 312 pp. $24

Cara Black loves Paris when it sizzles.

Of course, as the readers of her seven previous novels about quirky-chic private eye Aimée Leduc already know, Black just plain loves Paris.

In her latest, “Murder in the Rue de Paradis,” it’s the sweltering August of 1995, the month in which every Parisian who can deserts the city, leaving it to the tourists and those who can’t flee. Aimée is one of those who can’t – she has work to do. And then her old boyfriend, investigative journalist Yves Robert, turns up. Against her better judgment she sleeps with him, and to her astonishment he proposes marriage.

But in the morning he’s gone. Permanently. His body is found in the rue de Paradis. His throat has been slit, with a distinctive curling flourish at one end of the incision.

The police are no help: They arrest a suspect who dies in custody, but Aimée is certain that when Yves left their bed it wasn’t for an assignation with the junkie street hustler the cops had arrested. Still, the police are happy to consider the case closed, given that the force has more than it can handle with a series of bombings linked to an Islamist terrorist group.

Aimée’s attempt to find out who killed Yves will get her involved with Kurdish nationalists, their Turkish opponents and a sinister Iranian hit-woman. Aimée gets shot at, dislocates her shoulder, nearly winds up with her own throat slit, and breaks a heel on her Manolo Blahniks.

Black, who lives in San Francisco when she isn’t seeking out the pith and marrow of Paris, creates strong characters: Aimée is sort of a cross between Juliette Binoche and Angelina Jolie playing Lara Croft; her assistant, the dapper four-foot-tall René Friant, tries (and invariably fails) to keep her out of trouble. And there’s a memorable villain in the assassin Nadira, whose efficiency and ingenuity are matched by her fanaticism.

Black also crafts a well-shaped plot. Readers who are knowledgeable about the conventions of murder mysteries may spot Yves’ killer early on, but Black introduces enough ingenious fake-outs and red herrings to keep us off-balance. And even if you guess who did it, the question is why – although there Black cheats a little, having withheld the evidence that might have enabled Aimée (and the reader) to figure things out sooner.

But where Black really shines is at creating atmosphere. Her pages are alive with particulars – the sights, sounds, smells, geography, topography and history of the quartier of Paris where the novel is set. She makes the multicultural neighborhoods of the tenth arrondissement three-dimensional, providing more than just a backdrop; they serve as a framework for action, of which there is plenty.

And even better, Black makes the setting thematically relevant. For example, while seeking to understand the conflicts between Turks and Kurds and Sunni and Shi‘a that may have had something to do with Yves’ murder, Aimée is taken blindfolded to the hiding place of an exiled Turkish novelist, the object of a fatwa. After he explains who the various parties to the conflict are, she is guided from his hiding place by an elderly Jewish man. Again blindfolded and swathed in a chador, she can perceive only “the pungent smell of sandalwood incense and what sounded like muffled Hindi coming from somewhere in the hallway.”

When they pause in the old man’s apartment so she can remove the blindfold and the chador, she sees a wall filled with old photographs: “Black-and-white snapshots from the forties. … Now she noticed the yellow stars on the men’s lapels and the women’s sweaters, the uniformed Wehrmacht soldier to the side.

“Her throat caught. ‘They worked in the quartier?’

“ ‘At Lévitan, next door. And at Bassano and Austerlitz, the other labor camps on the Left Bank.’

“ ‘Labor camps? I had no idea.’

“ ‘Few do. Under L’Opération Meuble, the Boches took skilled workers from internment camps: jewelers to repair clocks, artisans to restore furniture and musical instruments, women couturiers to bleach and press linens – you name it – all looted from Jewish déportés apartments.’ ”

Leaving his apartment, Aimée “kept to the shadows and turned right into rue du Château d’Eau. The streetlight illuminated a building plaque. Jean Cazard and Pierre Chatenet, both eighteen years old and members of the Red Cross, shot by Germans, August 14, 1944. Just days before the Liberation. There were fresh lilacs in a vase fastened to the plaque. She shivered and hastened her steps. The past clung to these cobblestones and buildings as if it were just yesterday.”

Other times, other ethnic and political conflicts leading to injustice and murder. Black deftly makes the history of the city resonate with the contemporary conflicts that swarm around her characters. And by doing so, she lifts her novel out of the narrower confines of the genre in which it resides. “Murder in the Rue de Paradis” is a page-turner, but some of its pages invite you to linger and reflect.