Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Murder in Belleville by Cara Black

Cara Black is without a doubt one of my favorite new authors. After I read her first Aimee Leduc mystery I ran out and bought the next six (it didn't hurt that I found them all signed at a local mystery book store). She has an incredibly nuanced understanding of contemporary French culture that makes her stories fascinating to read.
However... (there just had to be a however) Murder in Belleville the second novel in this series is so full of detailed French issues that without a deep knowledge of the topic it gets a bit laborious. Not to sound pompous but, I know much more about French/Algerian relations than the average American. I have taken grad classes on French Imperial History and contemporary French History and done reading on my own on this topic because it is so curious to me. And I still found myself lost between all of the different pro-/anti- French/Algerian factions and characters in the story. The history itself is terribly complex and while Black did a good job writing a realistic mystery, she did not help elucidate who hated whom and why. There were moments I found myself wondering why Leduc, the detective in the novel, had as much knowledge as she did about the Arab population as many French tend to ignore what they don't want to see.
The book is set in 1994 at a point when illegal immigrants in France staged a sit-in/hunger strike in a Catholic Church in Paris to resist being deported back to their nations of birth. For many individuals, deportation would have meant death at the hands of the home government for disagreement with governmental policies. The French were stuck with allowing the illegals to stay causing an obvious problem or deporting them and looking like schmoes for allowing them to be mistreated. What's a government to do?
I happened to be in Paris when this sit-in took place. I remember watching the news coverage of the Church and the discussions of "Frenchness." The immigrants in the Church tended to be Muslim and/or African. France is still discussing what it means to be French and the reality of a non-French speaking, non-Catholic population who hold French passports.
Black could not have picked a more apt event to highlight French tensions relating to Algerian residents in France. Like her first Leduc novel, Black incorporates characters who have realistic ties to a past that gives them strong opinions about the present. In this instance the story revolves around strong ties to Algeria - a pied noir (European citizen born and raised in Algeria) acts as a government minister whose job is to remove the immigrants from the Church. His loyalties are divided for many reasons that become apparent through the novel. She also uses beurs (the slang word for Arabs in France - usually used by the young) as the main population for the story.
As with Murder in the Marais, Black chose her venue wisely. Belleville, the 20th arrondisement in Paris, is largely home to an immigrant population. It would be a logical place for the beurs to live and interact. I learned more about that area than I had known previously as there is little reason for a tourist to visit that quarter of Paris.
I will keep reading Black's books. They're fascinating. To me they are the epitome of a good mystery - accurate details about a real place and time (which I happen to know and love) combined with a less-than-straightforward mystery that needs to be solved. But, as I probably said the last time I talked about Cara Black, these novels assume a detailed knowledge of French social and political mores that I don't think too many Americans understand which my prohibit them from finding the stories engaging.

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