Murder in the Sentier

by Cara Black

Published by Soho Press

304 pages, 2002

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French Whine

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


It takes nerve to set a mystery in Paris. Such a grand and inherently noir setting can't help but elevate expectations -- especially for crime fiction connoisseurs who've savored romans policiers like Georges Simenon's classic Inspector Maigret series and Nicholas Freeling's edgy thrillers of the 1960s and 70s.

Cara Black's third Aimée Leduc novel, Murder in the Sentier, complements its Parisian backdrop with a fast-moving and ambitious plot, a tale of private investigation that spills into thriller territory. As Aimée tries to unravel the years-old mysteries surrounding her mother's disappearance and her father's death, Black gives readers tantalizing glimpses of opulent private apartments and high-tech artists' lofts in contemporary Paris. Black knows her Paris -- if only she'd made her protagonist half as interesting or appealing! Unfortunately, outside of some of the quaint nutcases who clutter up the American cozy subgenre, Mlle. Leduc may well be one of least engaging and least credible private investigators in contemporary crime fiction.

The opening chapter of Murder in the Sentier finds Aimée in her L'Ile Saint Louis apartment overlooking the Seine, accommodations (inherited from her grandfather) that come complete with Louis XV furniture. Despite this pricey setting, Leduc's "rent loomed," in the grand tradition of private investigators. Yet when the phone at Leduc Detective rings with the promise of new business, she answers it "irritably."

Over the next few pages, Leduc emerges as a recognizable type -- a type usually found in the role of amateur rather than professional P.I. She's a victim with an attitude. Throughout this book her rare references to her supposedly longstanding career as an investigator are occasional whines about how hard it is to get her corporate clients -- drummed up by her long-suffering partner, a goateed dwarf and cybersleuth named René Friant -- to pay their bills.

Murder in the Sentier, set in 1994, centers on Leduc's attempt to find out more about the chain of events, begun more than 20 years earlier, that destroyed her family. Her mother, Sydney Leduc, abandoned the family when Aimée was 8, apparently to join the radical and violent Haader-Rofmein collective. Several years later, Jean-Claude Leduc, a Paris cop turned private eye, was killed in a mysterious bomb blast.

Although she'd followed in her father's footsteps as a P.I., Aimée had avoided searching for her mother for many years. As this book opens, an unpleasant German woman, Jutta Hald, calls and invites herself to Aimée's apartment, claiming to have information about the family. She wants money -- and perhaps something more -- in return. Hald bears a distinctive handmade children's book written and illustrated by Sydney Leduc for Aimée -- an item she says she obtained when both women were serving prison terms for terrorism, Leduc under the identity of "B. de Chambly." But Hald says Aimée's mother was released 17 years ago, in 1977. The rather creepy Hald seems to be surveying the detective's apartment, makes a prolonged visit to the bathroom and hints that Aimée may have something of value to her. "Didn't your mother ever send you presents, little boxes or keys ... maybe drawings?" she suggests, none too subtly.

Leduc reacts to Hald's appearance like someone who has never dealt with anything more threatening than a paper cut. In the few minutes between Hald's phone call and her actual visit, Leduc does none of the things you'd expect from an experienced P.I.: call for backup, set up a tape recorder. Instead, she fills the time checking the messages on her answering machine. When Hald departs, telling Aimée she will give her just a few hours to raise the 50,000 francs to buy the rest of what Hald knows about her mother, Aimée never attempts to put a tail on Hald, confer with René or do any Internet research into Hald's story. Instead, she trots off to borrow heaps of money from a wealthy friend in the fashion industry, musing along the way about her inability to quit smoking and entertaining the reader with a travelogue about the cityscape.

The quest for cash takes Aimée into the Sentier of this book's title, a district were cyber-entrepreneurs backed by wealthy investors share warehouse space with fashion houses and prostitutes. Designer Michel Mamou, a close friend of René's, provides the money just in the nick of time. And Hald calls Aimée's cell phone with the name of a Paris landmark, the 15th-century Tour Jean-Sans-Peur, where she can be found in 20 minutes.

Of course, Aimée arrives to find Hald dead on a bench outside the tower, shot in the head by someone who apparently escaped the notice of both tourists and workmen. Hald's purse, which presumably held precious documents, is gone. Aimée calls the police anonymously, and when she sees a flic (summoned by one of the tourists) approaching, runs and hides in a tattoo parlor. Arriving home, with a painful tattoo of a lizard on her back, she is apparently surprised to discover that ex-con Hald had rifled her bathroom medicine and linen cabinets. Here our professional P.I. hyperventilates some clichés straight out of a romance novel, italics, exclamation marks and all:

Nothing was missing, but what had Jutta been searching for?

Then the realization hit her. Someone had killed Jutta. She could be next!

Miraculously, the plot of Murder in the Sentier recovers and moves on, revitalized by the introduction of a second narrator, Stefan. A gifted mechanic whose role in the Haader-Rofmein group 20 years earlier had been practical rather than political ("robbing banks had been fun"), he hears the news of Hald's death on the radio at the garage where he now works under a false identity. Chilled, he, too, wants to know who killed Hald, and what her death might mean for him.

Aimée and Stefan are set upon intersecting paths, both motivated by their memories of Sydney Leduc and their fear of whoever is desperate enough to hide what happened to her. From here on, Murder in the Sentier turns out to be a plenty diverting tour, but only if you can put up with Aimée as your impulsive guide. Her close calls are so often manufactured by her poor judgment that it's hard to care what happens to her, even as she's being pursued through the back alleys of Paris. (Fleeing from an unseen gunman, she shimmies up a waterpipe, noting in the process that she is wearing Manolo Blahnik high heels.)

I confess, I'd rather have heard this intriguing tale from the perspective of Aimée's investigative partner, René. A computer whiz, he probably could have solved the mystery in a few hours online and on the phone, resulting in fewer chases, fewer pages and far less strain on a reader's credulity. | April 2002


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.