Armchair travelers and mystery series fans alike wanting to lose yourselves in a moody City of Lights atmosphere need look no farther than my favorite noir novels set in Paris: Cara Black’s stylish and fast-paced Leduc Detective series. Her gripping stories and rich detail always make me feel like I’m walking the streets and alleyways in Paris, hearing the sounds, smelling the aromas, and appreciating the sights.
The protagonist: Aimée Leduc
Her protagonist is private detective Aimée Leduc, charmingly contradictory and unapologetically punk. She lives at a posh address in an apartment inherited from her grandfather, but she can’t afford the upkeep. She’s always hustling for work, yet is often driven to strike off on her own personal missions. Her agency specializes in computer fraud, but Aimée gets into fights and physical trouble more often than she’s hacking. She goes undercover with neo-Nazis in one book and is a runway model in another. Her wardrobe is to die for, all stylish couture pieces, but they are always vintage flea market and thrift shop vintage finds. She often has chipped nails.
Aimée is honest, fierce, and intensely loyal, so it’s easy to root for her. Her personal life is complicated and messy, and she grows and evolves in the course of the series. She is haunted by memories of and mystery surrounding her parents. Her mother abandoned the family when she was a girl. Why did she leave? Is she dead? And Aimée’s father was a police officer killed in the line of duty. How did it happen? Was he set up by fellow officers? Although each book is a stand-alone mystery, I recommend reading the novels in order, beginning with Murder in the Marais, to best enjoy witnessing how Aimée’s life evolves and the puzzles of her parents unravel.
Like a gallery of Diane Arbus photos, the recurring and secondary characters in Black’s novels are often outsiders. And like Arbus, Black respects each one’s identity, portraying them with respect. Her best friend and business partner, René Friant, is a dwarf. A friend and client in Murder in the Sentier describes himself as “the only albino Jew in Paris.” Aimée’s Paris represents a real, living, breathing city filled with working immigrants and refugees: Polish cleaning ladies, Senegalese garment workers, and Kurdish security guards, among others. It’s a rich portrayal of Paris as it is today, a vibrant mix of ethnicities coexisting, peacefully or not.
Each of the eighteen (and counting) novels takes plane in a neighborhood within a different Paris arrondissment. It’s a great structure; in the course of the series she escorts her readers around the whole city. And so you can visualize the action better, Black begins each book begins with a hand-drawn map detailing the area in which the story occurs. If you are so inclined, you can follow in Aimee’s footsteps on one of your trips to Paris!
In keeping with the noir theme of the books, Black emphasizes the city’s grittier details. Her gift for description enhances the reader’s sensory experience of visiting Aimée’s world. Characters make a point of noticing the smell of old garbage and chipped paint before walking into an apartment, a pool of oil and dim light in a garage, and how a building made of concrete and white blocks could “use a good steam cleaning.” In Murder in the Sentier, she writes:
Along the broad part of rue de Turbigo that sliced the edge of the Sentier, he passed the Kookai boutique. Salesgirls smoked outside on the steps and the tatouage sign on rut Tiquetonne blinked orange-pink in the dusk. A dope haven.
Architecture and history
Other details shed light on the history and architecture of Paris, descriptions that are as immersive and instructive as any guidebook. For example, take this paragraph from Murder in the Palais Royal:
Aimée took the short cut through Passage des Deux Pavillons, which was now open. The passage, covered by a glass roof in an iron framework, contained two levels connected by a dilapidated staircase. Once gas-lit, it had changed little since the Duc d’Orléans’s architect had designed it. The nineteenth-venture working ladies, nicknamed hirondelles after the swallows that had once lived there, had spied on prospective clients, then swooped down to bring the men to their love nests in the small rooms above.
Now she noted a rare-book shop with a closed sign in the window, a pipe shop, and a store selling only ribbons, all a bit dated.
Or this passage from Murder in the rue de Paradis:
She stood by the Canal as it shimmered in the heat. Napolean’s “gift to the people of Paris” was completed after his death on Saint Helena. And like his code of law, the little tyrant’s gift kept on giving. Even now.
Real-life inspiration for Aimée Leduc
Real-life detective Martine Beret of the Duluc Detective Agency on Rue du Louvre in Paris inspired the character of Aimée Leduc. I have read the series but didn’t know this until my trip to Paris last year. Walking up the rue du Rivoli from Angelina’s toward the Louvre, I was startled to see this Duluc Detective sign. What?! I realized there had to be a connection. There is, and it is well known. On the blog Messynessychic, Black tells the story about how they met:
“I missed the bus one day on rue du Louvre and looked up and saw the Duluc Detective sign”, Cara Black explains. “Since my story was set in the Marais and I needed to find out what private detectives did – the nuts and bolts of the business – I entered that blue door, climbed the stairs, introduced myself and asked Martine, the owner, if she had time to answer questions.
She did, and the rest is history. Martine Beret shares some of her fascinating story in that article; you really should click here to read the rest of it. (Unrelated fun fact: the movie Midnight in Paris features this sign!)
As an added bonus, if you are planning a trip to the City of Lights, Cara Black shares some of Aimée’s real-life shopping haunts, restaurants, and other places of interest on her website. It’s an invaluable checklist to stick in your bag when you’re heading to Paris, whether it’s your first or next trip, from a talented and prolific writer who knows the city well.