Cara Black is author of the long-running and beloved Aimée Leduc series, set in contemporary Paris. Her new novel, Three Hours in Paris, takes place in 1940, in Nazi-occupied Paris, and is an historical thriller that’s impossible to put down.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: All of your books are set in Paris, but what called to you and said, "Hey, wartime Paris"? Why that time period?
Cara Black: I found a revealing footnote in a history book of wartime Paris that shouted out to me. I kept thinking about it as often as the Aimée book I was already writing at the time. But I waited. Writing my Aimée Leduc books over the years, part of my research is to explore what Aimée would see on the streets in that part of Paris. It’s important to know the quartier’s history and what she’d be aware of or locals would refer to. This story grew from information and anecdotes I encountered during my many research trips to Paris. A few more books passed while Three Hours in Paris sat on the back burner.
I’ve always been interested, maybe a little obsessed, with the Second World War era. In France, I began to visit the battle-scarred sites I’d previously only read about. To this day, I am still deeply impressed by the Parisian buildings with bullet holes left from street fighting during the Libération in 1944. The war is very much still visible in Paris and so my WWII story was always lurking in the periphery.
Somewhere along the way I began keeping a separate journal to jot down ideas and note stories from older Parisians I spoke with. I began saving period photographs and old maps I’d find at the flea market. I consulted with private collectors of WWII memorabilia and interviewed former Résistants whose memories of the German occupation still contained a freshness and pain that was startling.
It wasn’t until I found myself poring over archival newspapers and documents that I found the footnote in the history book that I knew I had the story. The footnote referenced Hitler’s only visit to Paris in which two of the Nazis (Albert Speer and Arno Breker) accompanying him on this Paris visit, gave conflicting dates of this trip in their postwar memoirs. That ‘what if’ hit me and Three Hours in Paris was the only book I could possibly write next.
Did Hitler actually go to Paris for three hours in 1940?
He did. Only one time before abruptly leaving and he never returned.
Why did Hitler leave so quickly? What could cause him to flee from a city held in the Reich’s iron grip? Why no victory parade down the Champs-Élysées?
From this little imaginative exercise in “What happened?” came the opportunity to finally tell the story of occupied Paris and weave together all the lore I’d been hoarding.
In 1940, Germany invaded France. Paris was declared an open city to prevent its destruction, though it reeled during the first two weeks of the occupation in June, 1940. Many Parisians fled in an exodus to the countryside and what passed for the hastily reassembled government operated from Bordeaux. Rationing was on the horizon and a curfew was put in place by the occupying German command. Historians sometimes refer to this period as the honeymoon phase. The German soldiers, Luftwaffe, High Command, and staff were under strict orders to behave. And enjoy. This was Hitler’s gift to his troops after they had blitzkrieged across Europe. Hitler was also resting them. Operation Sea Lion, the name for Germany’s plan to invade Britain, had already been drawn up and stamped for approval.
In reviewer speak, this book is a ticking-clock thriller, which is easy for me to write and an easy way to categorize a book, but it must be really difficult to write a book like this one that has so many moving pieces. In essence, you're creating a resolution with each situation the character faces, so it's like writing a hundred little mysteries instead of one. Or am I wrong? How difficult was it to put this together so smoothly?
Thank you for the compliment of saying it’s put together smoothly! Writing this became a puzzle with many interlocking pieces. I like reading books in this style. However working on transitions and keeping the timeline taut was a challenge. When I’d get stuck, I’d go back to the conflict and what each character wanted, needed, and what the character would do to achieve it. I knew each character had a core conflict in trying to achieve their goal. Gunter Hoffman, the Nazi investigator, had a deadline from the Führer and his family was at risk, so this motivated him to the highest degree. Kate, on the run for her life, wanted to escape. But inside those broad overlying motives were others which I’d break down. I love it when things aren’t how they appear. I love books with twists and my goal was to twist expectations into different directions.
The Nazi officer hunting for the heroine has a Steiff Teddy bear he's taking home to his daughter. The bear travels through the book. Can you talk about the value of using the bear as a symbol, or as a way to soften the character (or both)? It's hard to make a Nazi sympathetic.
That’s so true, and yet while I abhor the human cost of WWII and Nazism, it was important to show the human side of Germans. I didn’t want to use the standard Nazi trope or show a cardboard cutout Gestapo incarnation of evil. To me, Gunter was a doting father, a husband, and foremost for this story a former Munich homicide detective, excellent in his job, who’d been promoted to Hitler’s special security unit. His moral compass was based on upholding the law, doing his job, and catching criminals. He found it harder and harder to do his job and hated being a Nazi tool.
As you were thinking about your main character, Kate Rees, did she appear to you fully formed, or did you flesh her out—adding, say, her skill at hunting and shooting, or her terrible experience losing her husband and daughter, just for two examples—to make her more real and vibrant on the page?
Well, Kate Rees, started coming to me in pieces. At first, she was from Wyoming, a ranch girl who learned to shoot almost after she learned to walk. But I’ve never been to Wyoming and she wasn’t coming across to me. While on book tour in Oregon, I saw a lot of ranches and farms, the logging industry, the cattle runs. One of my friends works iat the Ashland Southern Oregon Historical Society and told me about rural life there during the Depression. We’d pass these run-down ranches, cattle trails, and yet hardy people were still out in the country ranching and farming. The Oregonians I met were tough, loved the land, and many were descendants of frontier men and women. Their ancestors came to the West Coast in covered wagons, who farmed homesteads, cleared land, survived the Depression and two world wars, and this was the spirit I knew would belong to Kate. Kate would be a modern day, for her time, frontier woman.
Running a ranch is hard then and now. Cattle get stuck in barbwire, tractors breakdown, a storm ruins the pasture lands, crops wither, water sources dry up. You name it, it happens. And yet livestock need to be feed, the ranch maintained, and you don’t get to stop. Coming from this background, Kate would by necessity be resilient, think on her feet, make do, and get things to work. She’d grow up shooting game for the table and fending off feral animals who attacked livestock on the ranch. Once I had Kate, this cowgirl with moxie who had grown up using a rifle on the ranch, it became important for her to have a reason to get back at the Germans. After losing her husband and daughter, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain if she could take revenge.
In what ways does a strong character anchor the reader in the story?
Great question. To me, a strong character emanates purpose. Right or wrong, this strong character operates in life according to their code. We know the goal up front, it’s first and foremost for this character. They are driven, navigating by their personal code, because the stakes are high, maybe the highest. As in do or die, choosing life or death in the story. We’re drawn to them in their journey to achieve their goal, empathize with them as they encounter obstacles. We care about them and root for them to succeed.
Kate often is forced to assume a disguise on her flight through Paris. She takes on the personas of the kind of women who are overlooked or taken for granted—nurse, cleaning lady, old woman, mother with a baby. Was this actually a bit of a feminist thought or just sheer practicality?
Probably more in line with practical ‘tradecraft’ as John le Carré calls spying. In the many books I’ve read about female spies from Mata Hari to the present CIA covert operators, there is a common thread. Women agents can blend in or stand out depending on the operation. Or women can play the old woman card and be invisible. The best and most successful spy, in the words of a former MI6 chief—sorry I forgot his name—is the one you never notice.
Did you have a map of Paris set up next to your computer so you could keep track of just where Kate was heading, or do you know it so well at this point that it was unnecessary?
I’m a mapaholic so there’s always one of Paris beside my computer. However, this book required hunting down maps of the era (at Paris flea markets, eBay, French collectors, Metro archives, libraries). So I found street maps from the '30s and '40s, old Metro maps, historical Metro plans of lines used and closed stations during the war from my friend who works in the Paris Metro, a guide like the one Kate’s given from the late '30s. Online, I found the German maps for their troops during the occupation which listed the authorized bordellos, the health clinics, the restaurants-turned-cafeterias for soldiers, the reserved cinemas for soldiers, etc.
This story takes place in the very early days, actually two weeks into the occupation, so not everything is in place, at that moment. The streets and buildings in the story are still there, some street names changed after the war, some buildings have had facelifts, some buildings retain German graffiti and bullet holes like the Marine Ministry. I walked out and biked every route Kate took in the story. I entered those buildings and ran the escape route down those steep stairs in Montmartre to Marché Saint Pierre the fabric market. The Claverie corset shop is still there and you can’t miss it’s Belle Epoque storefront, though now it sells perfume.
Will there possibly be a second book about Kate?
What a great question. I’m playing with some ideas and who knows?
In this weird time on our planet, are you thinking of new and different ways to reach out to your readers and get them thinking about your book? I actually found this book comforting in a strange way, because Kate goes through so much in the story survives to tell the tale. It's kind of hopeful. Thoughts?
Everything has changed, things are moving fast and we’re in uncharted water. I’m trying hard to wrap my head around how to help readers find Three Hours in Paris, and think about its relevance today. On one level, it’s a story about resistance and the fight against fascism. We’re living in a time when so much going on echoes the past. Yet, given a situation like the one Kate finds herself in; choosing to fight back in a way she can, lends itself to today. Fighting back can be interpreted in everyday ways; speaking out, questioning and making your voices heard (i.e., #metoo). Not all of us would or could fight back Kate’s way but every act of resistance is Resistance. Kate to me is an everywoman—a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife—who finding herself against the circumstances of war and tragedy, struggles and persists and doesn’t let up. She knows the world wasn’t always like this. That it will pass, but in so doing there’s a toll taken. Yes, her struggle and survival is hopeful because it’s about persisting and doing what you feel is the right thing.
Cara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 19 books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris. Cara has received multiple nominations for Anthony and Macavity awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture—and invitations to be the Guest of Honor at conferences such as the Paris Polar Crime Festival and Left Coast Crime. With more than 400,000 books in print, the Aimée Leduc series has been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew. Her novel, Three Hours in Paris, is a standalone historical thriller published in April of 2020.