Dave and I love what Soho Crime has done for the international mystery scene: publishing series by authors who live or write from experience of international cultures. Meeting four of the Soho authors at once last week -- well, we couldn't pass it up, even though it called for a lot of driving.
Actually, we'd already met James Benn briefly at Kate's Mysteries (Cambridge, Mass.) last December. Trim, elegant, the exact opposite of the cartoon version of a librarian (his "day job"), Jim ensured that the panel of authors could relax and enjoy the questions, conversation, and capacity crowd. (I'll offer a longer piece on James Benn's novels later in the month; I've enjoyed them enormously.)
We'd seen photos of Garry Disher (Australia) and Henry Chang (New York's Chinatown) that matched pretty closely the authors as they strolled in. Reading all of Disher's Inspector Hal Challis investigations has been a huge treat; watching Henry Chang's career expand from his debut with CHINATOWN BEAT to last fall's YEAR OF THE DOG is a pleasure, and we shared the excitement as he told us he was about three-quarters done with the first draft of "book three."
So Cara Black, creator of Aimée Leduc in an award-winning series of Paris mysteries, was the author we were most curious to meet in person. How French would she look? What kind of accent would she have?
Coming in through the back door of Stellina's (a smashing Italian restaurant in Watertown, Mass.), Black instantly brought that sense of Paris into the room. If those weren't French jeans she was wearing, I'll eat my page -- and Dave instantly fastened his gaze on her French sailor's scarf in bold stripes of black and white. And yes, when she speaks, even though she lives in California, her voice has the lilt and gentle hesitations of someone to whom French is a second linguistic home.
"I think Paris chose me," Black reflected. "I grew up in a Francophile family where food and discussion over dinner was very important." In the 1970s when she first went to Paris, she got the sense of a collection of villages -- "not the Paris of the berets and the baguettes," she quipped, and not Hemingway's Moveable Feast (which of course she's read). But 20 neighborhoods that saw themselves as complete and particular. "I'm trying to find the flavor and the uniqueness of each part of Paris." And in each one, she's placing a mystery. So far, that's:
Murder in the Marais (1998)
Murder in Belleville (2000)
Murder in the Sentier (2002)
Murder in the Bastille (2003)
Murder in Clichy (2004)
Murder in Montmartre (2005)
Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis (2007)
Murder in the Rue de Paradis (2008)
Murder in the Latin Quarter (2009)
For each one, Black travels again to Paris (often bunking on a friend's couch) and re-immerses herself in the feel of the neighborhood, while working out the plot. She does much of her writing in Paris too, but also in California, where she carries the scenes with her -- images on the wall, maps, more. Getting up in the morning, she writes, and she commented that if she doesn't check her e-mail, she gets a lot done! She said, "Once I've got to page 100, I've got my place [Paris neighborhood], and then I timeline it and I finish it and then I rewrite."
One plus of listening to Black within the multiple-author event was the range of questions people asked, especially those who know this author well. Prompted by someone excitedly asking her to retell it, she revealed how her research led her to firing a gun with the Delta Force in Paris. Wow! Here's a link to that story in her own words.
Most of all, I enjoyed hearing Black talk about Aimée Leduc and how the series is shaped around this computer security pro turned accidental detective. "Aimée is flawed, vulnerable," Black explains. "It makes a better story that way." And, she finds, this sets Aimée into the great tradition of the "lone detective."
Of course, the effect can be a bit different on the other authors: After listening to how pleased Cara Black is that she has a framework of Paris locales that promises 20 Leduc detective novels (based on those 20 "villages" of the city), Henry Chang suddenly suggested, "I'll have to go to each of the fifty or sixty Chinatowns throughout the world!"
More on Henry Chang and his writing, later this week.