Book Review: Murder in Montmartre by Cara Black

Murder in Montmartre
Cara Black
Soho Press, 2006
ISBN 1569474109
Hardcover (ARC)
Also available in trade paperback

On the wide, shop-lined Boulevard de Clichy by the Moulin Rouge, its garish neon now dark, plumes of bus exhaust spiraled into the air. A straggling demonstration blocked the street as loudspeakers shouted, “Corsica for Corsicans!”

Waiting passengers stood on the pavement with that particular patience of Parisians, the collective shrug of acceptance reserved for slowdowns and strikes. Newspaper banners plastered across the kiosk read STRIKE IN CORSICAN CONTRACT DISPUTE. Another said ASSAULT ON ARMORED CURRENCY TRUCK LINKED TO ARMATA CORSA SEPARATISTS.

She saw a peeling poster on a stone wall bearing a call to action and the Armata Corsa Separatist trademark, the tête de Maure, a black face with white bandanna, in the corner.

The strident Separatist movements in Corsica took center stage these days, elbowing out Bretons demanding school instruction in Gaelic and ETA, Basque Nationalists, car bombings.

Right now Aimée needed to speak with the person in the apartment with geraniums in a window box to discover if he or she had seen anything.

One January night computer security expert and private detective Aimée Leduc attends a retirement party for a former colleague of her father’s. Before the night is through a rookie police detective, a childhood friend of Aimée’s, is accused of murdering her partner. Aimée steps in when her friend is unable to assist in her own defense. One possible lead proves maddingly elusive: a man Aimée spotted near the crime scene, whom she suspects may have seen what unfolded, disappears into the warren of steep and narrow streets of Paris’ Montmartre.

The man Aimée seeks, Lucien Sarti, has good reason to hide. A musician on the verge of his big break, Lucien is in Paris illegally because he is suspected of being a Corsican terrorist. As he and Aimée each discover, however, he is also the ideal scapegoat for a bombing planned by militant Corsican separatists. When Aimée learns that her friend’s murdered partner was himself half Corsican, and subsequently uncovers a link between the murder and a decades-old corruption scandal involving her own father, she begins to wonder if she might be in over her head – or if she’ll be able to clear her friend’s name.

Murder in Montmartre sits about midway in Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc series, though it is the first I have read. Each book in the series focuses on a particular neighborhood in Paris, ranging from the Latin Quarter to the Île Saint-Louis to Montmartre in the present installment, home to the Basilique du Sacre Cœur, an infamous nightclub district, and incubator for many of France’s greatest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries: Matisse, Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, to name only a few.  Montmartre has a fascinating and eclectic history that suits the neighborhood’s personality, and Black serves as a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide as Aimée pursues the necessary clues to exonerate her friend. At the same time Black touches upon France’s prickly relationship with Corsica and the troubles stemming from its possession and occupation of the Mediterranean island. Although separatist movements in western Europe are not as active as they were 20-30 years ago, they have not completely disappeared, and new movements have emerged elsewhere in the meantime. While Black is not French, she lays out both perspectives – the French side from the point of view of the police, the Corsican from people both supportive and dismissive of the separatist movement – fairly and objectively.

This mélange of local color and separatist politics providing the background context for a murder mystery results in a dense, complex, and enjoyable story. I also have to praise Black for the supporting characters – the residents of Montmartre, in particular, but recurring characters too, such as Aimée’s partner René – who stand out vividly. The one weakness, unfortunately, is Aimée. Perhaps she has more personality in earlier books in the series, or perhaps the story in Murder in Montmartre was so complex Black couldn’t give Aimée the amount of attention she usually does, but I found Aimée to be disappointingly flat and inscrutable. Save this one flaw – a crucial one for me – I would recommend Murder in Montmartre without reservation; I do still recommend it, for the wonderful portrayal of a fascinating neighborhood and a fair presentation of a difficult issue.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, March 2011.