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Noe Valley Author Cara Black Finds Mystery in France
By Jim Christie
During a visit to Paris in 1984, Noe Valley writer Cara Black and a friend explored the Marais, an old district of cobblestone streets and dilapidated mansions originally built for the French nobility, which by World War II had become a Jewish ghetto.
The friend told Black the story of her mother, who, as a 14-year-old Parisian Jew, lost her parents when they were shipped to a concentration camp. The girl escaped the Nazis' roundup and fended for herself till the end of the German occupation. But her family never returned.
The haunting story stayed with Black. Then years later, it became even more vivid when she met another Holocaust survivor who related a similar experience. The idea for a novel began to gel.
Now, 15 years after that first tour of the Marais, Cara Black's debut novel, Murder in the Marais, has been published, and Black is well into the second in a series of mysteries featuring her computer-sleuth protagonist, Aimée Leduc.
Publishers Weekly called the book "a thrilling, quick-paced chase involving neo-Nazis, corrupt government officials, and fierce anti-Semitism." The magazine also deemed it "a standout first novel." Apparently other readers agree: Murder in the Marais just went into its second hardcover printing after an initial run of 5,000.
Cara Black's life so far -- she's in her late 40s -- is an intriguing religious, cultural, and ethnic amalgam that might warrant a mystery novel in its own right. She was born in Chicago to parents who now live near Palo Alto; traveled through Europe and worked in Switzerland; attended Sophia University, a Catholic university in Tokyo where she met her Japanese husband-to-be; was a preschool teacher at a local Jewish Community Center (though she's not Jewish); and for her novel set in Paris, created a half-French, half-American female private eye, whose partner is a computer-hacking dwarf with a black belt in martial arts.
That said, where does Noe Valley come into play?
Black moved to San Francisco in 1976 and married Jun Ishimuro in 1981. Now she and Ishimuro live on Alvarado Street with their 10-year-old son, Shuchan, and with Ishimuro's mother, who moved from Japan a few years ago to join them.
"The neighborhood was the draw," says Black, who started house hunting when Shuchan was 18 months old.
"We were living in the Mission in a great little house on Shotwell," she says. "We liked it, but there were some gang problems at the time. Having a child gives you a different perspective. So we started driving around on Sundays, and we just hit this street [Alvarado]. Jun saw an open house, so he stopped to have a look. He came out and said, 'Go in, and look out the little window in the bathroom. That's what we'll have.'"
The view is nice, but that's not what's important to Black. "I like the neighborhood feel," she says, "and so many people from Shuchan's school [San Francis-co School] live in this area. We've chosen to live here, we like it here, and my family's nearby. We're not going anywhere."
Black was an avid reader as a young girl (mostly Nancy Drew mysteries), but she didn't start writing until her son was 2. "I was always too busy, too young, and too impatient," she says with a grin.
Her first attempt as a novelist was a murder mystery set in San Francisco that she calls her "learning-to-write" book. She eventually "put it in a drawer" after it failed to interest any literary agents. Then she began Murder in the Marais.
During the three and a half years she spent on the novel, Black joined a writers group, took a mystery writing class at City College, wrote a scenario for NBC's Unsolved Mysteries, and enrolled in a poetry class at U.C. Extension to sharpen on her technique. "That was daunting," she says. "I am really impressed by people who write poetry and short stories."
When she finished the novel, Black was still unable to find an agent. Her husband, a bookseller at Kinokuniya Books for 11 years and now at the Friends of Photography Bookshop at Ansel Adams Center, suggested Soho Press, a publisher that considers non-mainstream material from "unagented" authors.
Cara Black has an agent now, but she enjoyed going "right to the top" for her first book contract.
She describes her main character, who is in the vein of Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, as "single-minded, not afraid of danger, but unlucky in love. Aimée is enough of a Parisian to know how to wear a silk scarf, but she's struggling on the fringes of French society. As the lone detective seeking justice, she's an outsider."
Since her novel's publication, Black has been interviewed on TV and radio, including a recent segment on Sedge Thomson's West Coast Live.
Her "big event," though, was a June book-signing party at Cover to Cover on 24th Street. "I was nervous," she says, "but they were wonderful and I really felt comfortable."
Black also appreciates the "wonderful Noe Valley librarians," who receive her thanks in the book's acknowledgments. "I worked with Lourdes [Fortunado], Roberta [Greifer], and Carol [Small], and they were all so nice. Whenever I needed help or to look things up, they were right there." (Noe Valley's librarians were also acknowledged by Ruthanne Lum McCunn in Wooden Fish Songs.)
In the midst of events surrounding the publication of Murder in the Marais, Cara Black has continued to write, usually early in the morning: "When I'm really good, I get up at five or five-thirty when everyone's still asleep," she says. "I break off for breakfast and they [her husband and Shuchan] go to work and school, and then I try to work until about eleven."
By then, she says, "I get antsy, so I usually walk down the hill. It feels kind of like Europe. You can just walk down 24th Street and buy fresh fruit, a magazine, or something to eat. I probably patronize every shop on the street. I love it at night, too. At eleven o'clock, when I realize I don't have anything for my son's lunch the next day, I can literally run down the hill to Bell Market to get food. It's really nice."
For research on her second novel, Black headed for France in August, but this time it was a family affair. "We did a house exchange," she says. "We crossed in the air with the French family. They got a slice of Noe Valley, and we were hanging out in the [French] countryside with Shuchan."
When asked if this was really a working trip, Black laughs and says, "I deserve to goof off, don't I?"
Probably so, but whether for work or play, Cara Black was back at her computer keyboard again in late August.
Murder in the Marais is available at the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore and Cover to Cover Booksellers on 24th Street. The first chapter appears on Cara Black's web site: www.carablack.com.
Excerpts from Cara Black's
Murder in the Marais
Aimée unlocked the door that read leduc detective that led to the office she'd taken over after her father's death, flipped on the lights, and draped her jacket over her armchair. Nineteenth-century sepia prints of Egyptian excavations hung on the walls above digitally enhanced Parisian sewer maps.
Hecht moved his cadaverous frame across the parquet floor. Something about him struck her as familiar. As he lifted his arm onto her desk, she saw faint blue numbers tattooed on his forearm peeking out from his jacket sleeve. Did he want her to find Nazi loot in numbered Swiss bank accounts? She scooped ground coffee into the filter, poured water, and switched on the espresso machine, which grumbled to life.
"Specifically, Monsieur Hecht, what is the job?"
"Computer penetration is your field." His eyes scanned the equipment lining the walls. He thrust a folder at her. "Decipher this computer code. The Temple E'manuel is hiring you."
Aimée walked through the long shadows cast across the courtyard of Hôtel Sully. Dark green hedgerows manicured thinly into fleur-de-lys shapes broke up the wide gravel expanse. This tall mansion, another restored hôtel particulier, gave access to Place des Vosges via a narrow passageway.
She'd left René a message telling him where she was meeting Morbier. René's cautionary tone pulsed in her brain and she felt open to attack. Threatening faxes, graffitied threats, and hostile cars forcing her off her moped hadn't disturbed her
as much as the virus attack on their computer system. Computers were their meal ticket. Her Glock, loaded and ready in her jeans pocket, was molded to her hip.
A buttery caramel aroma drifted across the courtyard. Her mind darted to the warm, upside-down apple tart for which Ma Bourgoyne was famous. The restaurant lay past this narrow passage, under the shadowy arcade of Place des Vosges. She pulled out her cell phone and punched in René's number again. No answer.
As she turned to open her backpack, a hot burning stung her ear. Powdery plaster spit from the stone arch as a neat row of bullets peppered the wall..
Reprinted by permission from Murder in the Marais, published by Soho Press (New York: 1998).