Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The scars of World War II run very deep, especially in places like Paris, which played an important role in that war. And some of those wartime events still have an impact today. Let’s look at an example of how that plays out, and turn the spotlight on Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais, the first of her Aimée Leduc series.
Leduc and her business partner, René Friant, own Leduc Detective, a private investigation firm. One day, she gets a visit from Soli Hecht, who has come on behalf of a local synagogue, Temple Emanuel. Leduc’s specialty is computer security, and that’s a big part of why Hecht wants to hire her. He wants her to decrypt a particular code, and take her results to a congregant named Lili Stein. Leduc agrees and gets to work.
By the time she finishes the task and gets to the Stein residence, it’s too late. Lili Stein has been murdered, and a Nazi swastika carved into her forehead. Since Leduc’s at the scene of the crime, she’s certainly a ‘person of interest,’ even though Inspector Morbier (an old friend of her father’s) doesn’t think she’s guilty. Leduc isn’t arrested, but she’s now interested in the case, and Morbier reluctantly concedes that she might be helpful, so they agree to share information.
One very real possibility is that the victim was killed in a hate crime by Les Blancs Nationaux (LBN), a far-right, white-supremacist group. So, Leduc goes to an LBN meeting disguised as a new recruit. She finds out some useful information, but some of the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit together. So, she also follows up on the information she was able to decode, to see if the victim had learned something dangerous. And, she investigates the Stein family and its background, to see if there might be a personal motive.
Before long, Leduc sees that this investigation is much more than she’d imagined. She’s warned off several times, and threatened more than once. And it’s soon clear that someone is trying to kill her, rather than let her get to the answers.
In the meantime, there’s tension in the city because of a proposed EU treaty that will set very strict immigration quotas. Representatives from several governments have gathered in Paris to sign that treaty. Many see this agreement as a racist attempt to keep non-whites out of France. Others say that it’s a responsible way to ensure that unemployment rates don’t go too high and threaten the economy. There are marches, debates, and demonstrations on both sides of the issue.
Against this background, Leduc and Friant slowly begin to find out the truth about Lili Stein’s murder. In the end, and after more murder, they learn that it’s linked to a murder in the past, and to wartime events. It’s also linked to contemporary politics.
The book takes place in Paris, and that’s very clear throughout. As Leduc and Friant investigate, readers follow along to several parts of the city, including its underground catacombs, its art museums, and some very upmarket hotels. There’s also a look at some of the not-so pleasant places. Since the majority of the novel takes place in the Marais, there’s an especially close look at that section of the city. The edition I read even includes a map of that area.
The history of World War II, including the Nazi occupation and the weeks and months after Liberation, plays an important role in the story. As the events unfold, we learn about life in the Marais at that time. During the war, Jews are at constant risk, food is scarce, and anyone might denounce one to the Nazi authorities. Liberation isn’t much easier. Those viewed as collaborators are killed or at least brutally treated and humiliated. This, too, leaves long-lasting scars. It’s a harsh environment, and it’s against that backdrop that the older, linked, murder occurs.
Leduc is a private investigator, and Black shows how PIs get their information. Leduc and Friant are computer experts, so she’s an expert at hacking computer systems to find information. The novel takes place in 1993, before today’s WiFi, social media and smartphones, and in one sense, that makes the case a little more challenging. In another, though, it means that it’s a bit harder to trace Leduc.
And that’s a good thing, because there are some very dangerous people who would like nothing better than to stop her. There are several LBN members, for instance, who fear that she’s a threat to them. And there are some very highly-placed people who have secrets she could discover. That’s not to mention the fact that bringing up the past means that some people will have to face things they or their family members did many years ago. And some people don’t want those things made public.
But Leduc is not without resources. She’s smart and quick-thinking, and she knows the city well. She makes use of disguises and ruses more than once, and is in good physical shape. She’s tough enough, too, to get up again when she’s knocked down, if I can put it that way.
This novel has several elements of the thriller. In some places, there are some very fast-paced moments, nick-of-time rescues, and narrow escapes. Danger comes from unexpected sources, and some people are not who they seem to be. It’s not always easy to tell whether someone’s trustworthy or not. There’s violence, too. And, as is the case in some thrillers, there’s some suspension of disbelief involved. That said, though, there are also sections with plenty of description.
The story doesn’t end with someone being led away in handcuffs. Still, I can say without spoiling anything that readers who like to know what happened and who did what will be satisfied. And Black doesn’t gloss over the devastation that murder leaves in people’s lives.
Murder in the Marais is a uniquely Paris story that links past and present. It takes place in an important part of the city rich in history, and features a protagonist who knows that city very well. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder in the Marais? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 14 August/Tuesday, 15 August – The Cemetery of Swallows – Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol
Monday, 21 August/Tuesday, 22 August – Corridors of Death – Ruth Dudley Edwards
Monday, 28 August/Tuesday, 29 August – The Colaba Conspiracy – Surender Mohan Pathak