MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER
By Cara Black
Soho Crime, 317 pp., $24
She dives through windows, ripping her pencil skirt and shredding her fishnet stockings; she prowls subterranean Paris in her beaded Schiaparelli jacket and hospital scrubs; she's knocked unconscious and has her Vuitton handbag stolen; she races down cobblestone streets in her Louboutins. Yes, Cara Black fans, Aimée Leduc is back.
This is the ninth of Black's novels about the chic, indomitable Parisian detective, and it has all the elements Black's readers have come to cherish: an engaging protagonist with a likable sidekick (her diminutive partner, René Friant), cops who hinder more than they help, villains with murky motives, grisly crimes, and above all, the unique Parisian atmosphere. This time, the air Aimée breathes is that of the Rive Gauche, the heart of intellectual Paris.
The action of the novel takes place in September 1997, just after the death of Princess Diana, an event with which the Paris constabulary is obsessed – fortunately for Aimée, who uses their distraction to her own advantage. The setup is this: a beautiful young Haitian woman named Mireille shows up, claiming to be the half-sister Aimée didn't know she had. And then she disappears. René is convinced that Mireille is a fraud, out to claim half of Aimée's inheritance, but of course Aimée has to go in pursuit. And inevitably, she winds up discovering a corpse – that of a professor of comparative anatomy who is a famed authority on pigs. Figuring out the connection between the murdered and mutilated swine scholar and the elusive, alleged half-sister will take Aimée the rest of the book.
Black gives substance to her detective stories, as implausible as they may be, by underlying them with real-world references. In this book, the plot centers on a project to supply water to the poorest parts of the horribly impoverished nation of Haiti, a project that involves the World Bank and millions of dollars. But where she's most skillful is at evoking the sights, sounds and scents of the Paris that Black, who lives in San Francisco, clearly cherishes.
Black's dialogue is sometimes a little starchy, with needlessly interjected French words and phrases, oui and non and excusez-moi, as if to remind the reader what language the characters are speaking. And there are a few too many speeches that exist only to provide exposition, as when the murderer fills Aimée in on the back-story of the crime. But Black creates rich, plausible characters, giving them individuality and depth.
She is, for example, not afraid to halt the action so that Aimée can have a Proustian moment: “As she hurried in the dusk across rue Mouffetard, a familiar scent filled the air. Swollen, purple figs nestled in a bed of green leaves at the fruit stall. Fit to burst, like those in her grandmother's garden in the Auvergne. It took her back ... to the smell of her grandmother's tart aux figues, warm from the oven, her father's favorite, and how he always claimed the largest slice. The way his eyes crinkled in a grin.” Touches like that, which betray an intimate understanding of where her characters come from, are what lift Black's fiction above the routine of the genre she practices so well.