Murder in Belleville, Cara Black, Soho Crime, $13.00.
There's been a growing interest recently for books with international settings. We've even devoted an entire fixture to these books, which sell like crazy. Cara Black was one of the first authors to ride this trend, and her books have sold increasingly well with each new title. She now has eight Aimee LeDuc books, and by all rights I should be reviewing the most recent, but since I'm a true mystery geek at heart, I had to start reading a bit closer to the beginning of the series. Our book club will be reading the first novel, Murder in the Marais, in March, so I picked up the second, Murder in Belleville. I keep flipping to Cara's website to read her bio and see if she doesn't really live in Paris, instead of San Francisco, so Parisian a feel does this book have. It's a bit like Elizabeth George being from California. The Parisian setting here seems absolutely authentic, and that's a very large part of it's charm.
Aimee LeDuc is certainly one of the cooler heroines in recent mystery fiction - I think she might feel very congenial with Sujata Massey's equally cool character, Rei Shimura. She scoots around Paris on the Metro, dresses in leather and mini skirts with red converse hightops for a running start, and has a dog named Miles Davis. She even has a midget computer genius, Rene, for a partner. That said, Cara Black writes like a man. By that I mean that the usual "micro" view of the world embraced by many women writers is eschewed here for the more masculine "macro" view of things. This book is anchored to politics and has a wide view point - the characters are important, but equally important are the situations and settings. Most of the action centers on Algerian immigrants in Paris, and as my knowledge of the French / Algerian situation is pretty much limited to the film "The Battle of Algiers", in some respects I was playing catch up as I read this book. In other respects I wasn't, as the human side of tragedy is unfortunately all too universal.
Belleville is apparently a bad part of Paris, where lots of illegal African immigrants live (the situation has become even more explosive recently, but this novel is set in 1994). Aimee is summoned there as she's on her way to pitch a nice safe job to a big French phone company, and instead ends up witnessing a car bombing where a woman is blown up in front of her eyes. Because Aimee's own father, a policeman (or flic) was also killed in an explosion, Aimee locks onto this case, despite the incredible number of barriers thrown up in her direction. The woman who had called her for help, Anais, is sister to Aimee's friend Martine; but even though the book opens with a James Bond worthy moped chase through the Metro that saves Anais' life, Anais and her husband, a French Cabinet minister, remain curiously unavailable and unhelpful as Aimee feels her way through a maze of an investigation with help from a few old friends. Tied to the case are a church full of illegal immigrants (sans-papiers) on a hunger strike, hoping to avoid deportation (where they will certainly be killed); the complicated past of the dead woman, who turns out to have a dual identity and a little too fat of a bank account; and a horrible look back at past atrocities in Algiers, which tie the whole case into the present.
Black is excellent at using effective action set pieces to move her narrative forward - the opening moped chase is terrific, as is a hostage situation at the end of the novel. More atmospheric and just as sinister is a trip to the circus towards the middle of the book; but the twists and turns in this novel should have you both at the edge of your seat and paying close attention. When you're finished reading it, you'll feel not just as if you've visited Paris, but as though you've learned a little bit about it too. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for an espresso.
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