Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cherchez la Femme

By Cara Black

Cornelia's taking the day off and invited me to blog -- merci Cornelia! Here's some thoughts on where Murder in the Rue de Paradis, my next Aimée Leduc Investigation and eighth in the series, came from and how it always comes down to a woman...non?

Cherchez la femme...

We've all seen her whether in the pages of Elle, posing on a streetcorner in Paris, or the café near the Louvre in that flowing John Galliano; lithe, knees so thin they knock together, the pouting lips, chiseled cheekbones and thinking I could never wear that. Much less look like that.

Or the studied casual look; long tousled hair, in a trenchcoat--the Left Bank wardrobe staple--Birkin bag slung over her shoulder, lighting a cigarette and catching the eye of every man on the narrow cobbled street. In heels, thin boots, or strappy sandals, we've all seen her. In a foreign film, on a Junior college year abroad in France, the au pair down the street at 6 a.m. who looks together taking the garbage out. The Parisienne with that je ne sais quoi air and looking right elegant about it, non?

And with competition like that we think..forget it, right? The scarf thrown around her neck tied with an art only French women possess. I know it's genetic. And I don't have that gene.
Or their hair's held up in a chignon and they hang out at La Coupole like Simone de Beauvoir writing books, waiting for Jean-Paul Sartre and taking that last drag on their Gauloise before plunging into more Existential thought.

Ok, no more moaning and feeling inadequate, American femmes...some Frenchwomen (matter of fact a lot who I know) have no closet of designer wear and rush to the Metro for work, like the rest of us mortals. But I've never seen a woman applying mascara on the subway like I have in New York.

I wanted to investigate, cherchez these femmes and see what the ordinaire Parisienne might have (besides the gene pool, an appreciation of wine that seems to come with birth and sitting on Papa's knee every Sunday during the long lunch, a way to say those "R" words that seem to make words growl and spit like one's going to hawk up) a little contrast to the made-up look.

Time to look beyond the mystique...why these femmes were not only thin but looked eternal question many of us ask ourselves.

And with boulangeries on almost every street with this in the window?

Smoking? As of Jan 1, 2008, France banned smoking in public places - prohibited in bars, cafés, brasseries, bistros... but one can still bring one's dog.

I checked the smoking and non-smoking temperature in late January in Paris. Despite the cold crisp air, smokers took to the trottoirs - outdoor pavements - gave a Gallic shrug and as far as I could see lit up and went back into the café, bistro, etc., and finished their espresso.

No big deal and even the daily papers were surprised at no big demonstrations or infractions. Not only that my two good friends, smokers, had quit! What's going on here? Do they go to the gym? Why, my friend shrugged, walking up the hills of Montmartre in my heels gives me exercise enough. Point taken.

Or trawling the flea markets like these ladies

And then my husband said next time you're in the street in the Latin Quarter or near Pigalle, just stop and look around. Did they drive these?

Not likely. He suggested I focus on one woman and write down what I saw. Well, I did. I found her. She wore nothing flashy, designer, no thousand Euro Birkin bag but she did look put together, something I rarely achieve.

Simple, and with a style all her own. This is what I saw: black boots with a short Louis heel, black pants, a good handbag--leather, sleek and simple--slim leather coat that hit her knees, a splash of color around her neck--a wool, polka-dot scarf knotted at her throat, and running for the bus.

It was that put-together look, singular, stylish and all her own. My husband reiterated that it was all about putting together what you owned and, let's face it, he said, a Parisienne invests in a good pair of boots, handbag, a coat and the rest... well, she mixes and matches to great effect.

And then, because I strolled through the tenth arrondissement near the Gare du Nord in the quartier known as Little Istanbul to get to the library archives, I saw another woman. She wore a black chador, her head covered with a dark blue scarf; young, in her twenties. Attractive and in a hurry. She stopped in a corner epicerie, an "everything" kind of shop, to buy an umbrella since it had started to rain. A slow insistent kind of Paris rain. Good idea so I went in to buy one, too.

And when she reached inside her chador for her bag I stood behind her in line and a whiff of Chantilly perfume wafted, slight but lingering. I saw a flash of red and sparkle of gold jewelry around her neck. What else was beneath that chador? I could only guess but it sparked my interest. A stylish suit, a dress, a pair of designer jeans? But her leather bag caught my attention, expensive, lambskin and soft like butter, I could tell that much.

So here was another Parisiene femme... my mind whirled. And what a perfect cover; she could be a student, a mother, an office worker. And because a mystery writer's mind works in bizarre ways, I thought "what if a woman used that to thwart the authorities and get away with murder. What if she was an assassin, a hit woman...who would look twice at her or demand to see beneath her chador?"

OK, I'm twisted and see into things most people wouldn't but why not? Why not pit Aimée Leduc, my computer security detective against her, this woman who could blend into any crowd, any shop, any street corner in the arrondissement and no one will look twice. And why not have a nameless, unknown assassin suspected of taking out Aimée's investigative journalist boyfriend Yves at dawn on the rue de Paradis just a block over? The only witness recounting a swirl of a black chador disappearing down the passage...

And so Murder in the Rue de Paradis, Aimée Leduc's eighth investigation was born.

Hope to see you in March when it comes out, all my events are on . Please come by!


  1. In this day and age, I think that a woman in a chador would be suspected for the very reasons that you stated. Who knows what could be hidden underneath.

    As for me, with 20 degree below zero wind chills predicted, I'm dressing entirely for warmth, not looks. Especially since it's my week for bus duty!

  2. Nice to see you here, Cara!

    And thanks for the glimpse of Paris.

  3. Try to stay warm, Gayle. No stilettos in the snow. And good point about now, I think the police would look at it differently. The story takes place in 1997 after the famous bombing in the St. Michel Metro and French police were clueless.


  4. But, but, Cara--March? I picked up a copy yesterday....

    Tom, T.O.

  5. Hey, Cara, welcome. Paris. Sheesh! What great research trips you get to take. I need to rethink this whole writing about the city in which you live thing.

  6. Tom...really? Goes to show you what I know!


  7. Hey Patty,

    Thanks for having me here.Research is the best part of my job. I never planned to write a series or even a series in Paris.

    Hope to see you in LA at the Book Festival if not before...


  8. Okay, you've got my attention.

  9. Cara, what a wonderful post--and thank you so much for taking the wheel here on Wednesday!

    I got to have a great time in Scottsdale, AZ, last night with Our J at Poisoned Pen. Lots of great people came out to the event, and then we had a delicious dinner afterwards with Barbara Peters and Rhys Bowen (olive oil cake! with berries and clotted cream!)

  10. La langue française aussi bien que les femmes me sont très chères. Mon roman d’intrigue a commencé en Suisse Romande.

    Since it became absolutely necessary for me to use a few French dialogues, I provided footnotes with English translations. My sister did not like to have to guess at the French.