When you set any book in an environment unfamiliar to readers, authors can panic and insert large descriptive passages and infodumps, hoping to give all-comers a reasonable insight into the context for the action. For these purposes, there’s no difference between genres. A romance can be set in any country, a historical novel in any century, a science fiction novel on any planet, and so on. The question is how to strike a balance between the need to move the story forward and the need for readers to understand the difference between the world they are familiar with and the world in which the book is set. Most readers in the West might find the setting in, say, Kolkata (Calcutta) or Bangkok as alien as one set on a hypothetical Mars. Equally, in these days of globalised markets, a book written by an American for the American market can turn up on the shelves of bookshops in Huddersfield and Kuala Lumpur. The experience for a British or Malaysian reader is to be plunged into an alien world where the culture is radically different and not explained. Not unnaturally, the American author expects the American readers to know and understand how life works in their home country. Yet, American authors also realise a significant portion of their readers are somewhat parochial and have little or no knowledge of life outside America. So, when American authors write about life in Paris, they tend to oversupply details of the physical and cultural environment. British readers have been jaunting across the Channel for centuries and have a more detailed understanding of the French and their capital city. Malaysians would still be lost.
From all this, you will deduce that Murder at the Lanterne Rouge by Cara Black (Soho Press, 2012) starts slowly as the author tries valiantly to bring American readers up-to-speed on all things Gallic. I was fascinated to see what an American author believes, (a) it’s important for her readers to know about life in Paris, and (b) by implication, how little she believes they actually know. This is the kind of book people will call atmospheric because it spends a considerable amount of time describing the air the characters breathe. This is not to unfairly criticise any of those involved. Sometimes the best way to educate people is through entertainment. Americans taking the time to absorb the detail contained in this book will emerge more knowledgeable. All praise to President Obama who’s obviously recruiting authors into a revamped Head Start plan to enhance adult education levels — note to publisher: perhaps a world map showing where France is would complete the package.
So here I make an apology. There have been rather a lot of books featuring Aimée Leduc and her business partner René Friant, but this is my first. As a stand-alone, it works well although, from many of the events, it’s obvious I would have enjoyed it more if I had understood how everyone fits together. As a series character, Aimée Leduc is both a throw-back and a modern woman. In the period just before World War II, there were number of French heroines like Simone Darthel who enjoyed the life of the rich while solving crimes and fighting for justice. Two features are relevant. All the details of their wardrobes were offered up as advice to their female readers. Second, they were aspirational figures showing that modern women could have better lives as independent individuals, holding down exciting jobs and proving they were equal, if not superior to, the men who desired them as they moved casually through the cafés and restaurants in their designer clothes (in search of criminals, of course). In more modern times, we have figures like Nikita as initially developed by Luc Besson and then transformed into a television character where, in a noirish way, our female secret agent/assassin fights terrorism and confronts a brutal world while trying to retain some sense of her own morality.
I mention this because although Aimée Leduc works as a private investigator specialising in IT security, she’s very much wrapped up in the word of spies and their handlers. That forces her to deal with both the local Parisienne police (courtesy of her French father) and the acronym-infested world of espionage (thanks to her American mother). Although she doesn’t quite have Nikita-level physical combat skills, she’s more than able to look after herself and, even though she picks up damage, is tough enough to keep going until she’s seen off the threat. As to the story itself, we’re quickly into the scandal-ridden world of the illegal immigrants from China and the sweatshops that provide stock to both legitimate and counterfeit fashion outlets in Europe. For such a subculture to survive, there has to be corruption both in the police and the relevant government departments charged with tax collection and the enforcement of labour laws. Cara Black gives us a whistle-stop tour and then dives into the more rarified world of the Guild system, life in the grandes écoles, life as it was in the 14th Century, life in the world of high technology. In other words, when it comes to research, she’s in part rerunning the Dan Brown trope of great truth buried in history — all it takes is a skilled detective with academic skills to dig it out.
So there we have it. I thought the opening third was overburdened with facts about life in Paris but, once the plot really gets started, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge becomes one of the best of the thrillerish PI novels of the year so far. There’s genuine interest and excitement as the focus slowly shifts away from the somewhat clichéd Chinatown subculture thread and becomes a more intense race to unravel the high technology conspiracy. Those of you who are unfamiliar with life in Paris may well find all the facts offer plenty of local colour and enhance your general understanding of life outside your city. This would make the book double-plus good for you. Coming new to Cara Black, there’s sufficient here for me to want to read more. As and when I have the time, I’ll start browsing through one or two of the eleven previous Aimée Leduc titles to see if they are as good.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.