I gave this paper at Bath Spa University

 

Aimée Leduc is the punkish private detective created by Francophile American author Cara Black. Aimée lives in Paris and has so far appeared in fifteen novels, the latest about to be published in the UK. The plan is for her to solve crimes across each of the twenty arrondissements of Paris, a bit like Léo Malet had planned for his detective Nestor Burma, though he gave up this quest mid way through as Paris was changing too quickly for him! One thing you can say about Aimée is that she will never give up!

In 2013 I appeared on BBC TV’s Mastermind. Despite this, I don’t profess to be an expert, but I thought my specialist subject of “The crime novels of Cara Black” was an ideal chance to promote Aimée Leduc as a fantastic, fictional detective to the BBC world at large especially when, as I awaited the general knowledge section, John Humphreys would ask “…and why the novels of Cara Black?” I had all my reasons ready, more so perhaps than the answers to the actual questions, though who would have guessed that they’d ask me about her make of blue crash helmet? But alas, the programmes format had changed, there was no contestant-Humphreys banter and I was bereft. The following essay should make up for John Humphreys sleight.

I am discussing Aimée Leduc in the context of whether she is feminine or feminist. Why can’t she be both is the obvious response and it ill behoves any man to get into the intricacies of the feminist debate, but why not indeed? Does Aimée do women a disservice by behaving in a feminine way?   I will take as my definition of feminist one of the most used, that is:

In the most basic sense, feminism is exactly what the dictionary says it is: the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women. [1]

We really cannot argue with that. Though I’m sure some would try. As for feminine, that should be in the eye of the beholder. All the men in Cara Blacks novel are attracted to Aimée Leduc, just as she is attracted to all the “bad boys” “Good guys” are attracted to her as well, so as a definition of feminine we will take this from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Having characteristics conventionally associated with the female sex, such as prettiness and delicacy. [2]

I will discuss this later, but first some background. Prior to discovering Aimée Leduc, Simenons Maigret was my detective hero. French to a tee, we discovered Paris and its underbelly together. Alongside Private Eye Nestor Burma, we saw sights we’d never visit on our own, would never try uninvited and it was this implied invitation that was key. Invited to a world we could know nothing about until we were presented with it. Aimée Leduc has taken up the baton and now seems way ahead, through her exploits we see a Paris of the 1990s that we would never have known.

Cara Black herself takes a nod to Simenon when she says that she dreams that when he was, “…magically risen from the dead and writing again… [She would see him sit] …down, pipe hanging from the side of his mouth and say… ‘Maigret needs a helper.’” [3]

She is almost seeking this as a proposal to work with the great man.

One cannot compare them, so I will not attempt it, suffice to say, Paris was introduced to me by Malet and Maigret with Cara Black continuing the theme, bringing the city alive in a way no one has since. Firstly how to describe Aimée Leduc? We meet her in the opening novel Murder in the Marais. A whirlwind later she is mother to a six month old daughter and has conquered the enemy in fifteen stories. Stories is a misnomer. Epic may be too much, but she is somewhere in between. And a whirlwind it is. As fellow crime author Yrsa Sigurdardôtter writes in Books to Die For:

Aimée is not one of those “female males” that one sometimes comes across in crime novels, the ones who just don’t feel right. To the contrary Aimée rings true. Despite being tough she is also vulnerable… her being fashionable is as refreshing as it is unique. [4]

She certainly is! In a nutshell, the heroine of Black’s books, Aimée Leduc, rides her motor scooter around Paris in Chanel skirts, and other second hand haute couture finds, runs her own computer security firm and has a penchant for bad boys. She has a pixie haircut, often with different coloured dyes; a lizard tattoo with the accompanying back story. Her Chanel painted finger nails are chipped, a constant motif throughout the stories exemplifying her ‘hands on’ attitude. Aimée has never ending legs and a figure to die for. I’m not sure if Cara Black suddenly realises that there may be too many references to finger nails as we read in her fourteenth novel, Murder in Pigalle, “Her chipped, neon-green-lacquered toenails were in dire need of a pedicure…” [5]

So she is obviously not just hands on! Her kohl-rimmed eyes, stunning punk like looks combined with her fashion sense are uniquely French. Cara Black tells us that compared to herself,

She’s taller, thinner, more fashion conscious and smarter with computers than I am. She also has a great 17th century apartment in a townhouse on Ile Saint Louis.[6]

I am sure Cara Black would like to be Aimée and envies her the life style she leads. I think Cara Black identifies with Aimée in a way that many authors cannot with their creation and this allows her to get inside her head and be the character she is. The research that obviously goes into every novel is a reflection of this and shows the esteem Cara Black has for Aimée.

Aimée Leduc is modern French woman personified. Though lonely at times and yearning for love, she does not need a man to define her. She is empowered and tough. This is the attraction to her readers. Her audience can identify with her. As Cara Black says, her readers, “…seem to love the contrast between Leduc’s chutzpah and her vulnerability — and that she doesn’t fit any particular category.[7]

Cara Black also notes that, “…she knew she couldn’t write as a French woman, so she made her heroine somewhat of an outsider: [8]

These are interesting statements, vulnerable yes, but any woman, and this is not patronising in any way, would be vulnerable in this line of work. She comes up against some vicious men, but Aimée of course refuses to accept that the odds are against her. It is the idea that she is an outsider that I would disagree with, Paris is part of Aimée and Aimée is Paris. Beautiful, flirtatious, aggressive when needs be, but vulnerable at all times. Especially when Aimée herself says, “I’m a Paris sewer rat born and bred.” [9]

Cara Black tells an interviewer,

“She’s got an air of je ne sais quoi, handles a Beretta, finds haute couture at the flea market – all the things I’ve experienced and some I’d like to. And along with it Aimée’s personal life – her boyfriends, the sense of belonging she’s always looking for which reflects the young Parisiennes I know who even though chic, slim and with cheekbones that could slice paper have relationship trouble.” [10]

But though she likes to appear tough there is a vulnerability, both physically and mentally. Her mother disappeared when she was eight and many stories filter through to Aimée about what she has done, including spying, murder, art theft and terrorism, but throughout every novell she misses her mother terribly and when she is with Morbier in Murder below Montparnasse, “The little girl inside her ached to question him about her mother’s past.” [11]

Then there is the physical threat. She knows she cannot compete against those bigger and stronger than her. Cara Black is quite explicit about this when Herve Vitold in Murder in the Marais tries to buy her off. Aimée is brave in her reaction to an attempted bribe, but vulnerable to the physical threat:

“’Threaten somebody else.’ she glared at him ripping his check into franc-sized pieces.

He grabbed her wrists, imprisoning them in a viselike grip… she realized his large manicured fingers could snap her bones in half like matchsticks.” [12]

Luckily in this situation the threat is a bluff, but it does make Aimée think twice about how exposed she can become.

She has to take every advantage she can as in the denouement of each novel we have the chase, a breathless cornered Aimée and then the pay off. How will she get out of this situation? Rather like the Perils of Pauline there is always a way. In Murder at the Lantern Rouge, the aggressor Jean Luc rushes her,

She raised up her arms to ward off the blow. His glasses went flying…an odd look spread over his shadowed face…And she realised the lock pick in her… hand had gone into his eye. All fifteen centimetres of it right up to the handle. His eye was a mashed purple globe… [13]

She has to swallow hard here, but whether through luck or judgement she has come out on top and the unpleasantness does not faze her in the slightest.

Even when pregnant and at the most vulnerable a woman can ever be she is still their fighting her corner, fighting to the death literally in Murder in Pigalle:

With all her might she whacked the Perrier bottle at his temple. He cried out in pain… She hit harder at his face until the bottle shattered. She jabbed the jagged, broken bottle neck in his thigh. Crying out he dropped her… [14]

This is perhaps the most bloody of her fights in all the novels, this when three months pregnant. Whether she is feminine or feminist doesn’t even come into it here!

In Murder on the Isle Saint Louis the end is the same, it is perhaps more amusing as she fends off Claude Nedorevique, murderer, but father of Stella, a baby that Aimée had been protecting, he made the mistake of moaning about his fate and she wasn’t going to put up with that,

He was playing his vulnerable card again. But he’d said the wrong thing. She hated men who whined…

‘You refuse to understand.’ he said…

‘Wrong Claude,’ she said, ‘I do understand.’

She fired the Beretta thorough the Jacadi bag. The first shot hit his shoulder, the second his kneecap.

She let him live, after all he was Stella’s father. [15]

In other incidences she is not so forgiving,  just plain ruthless, belying her appearance; in Murder in Passy, a Basque terrorist is taken out:

She squeezed the trigger, shooting through her coat pocket.

There was a deafening crack. He grabbed his chest… Aimée fired again hitting his shoulder…” [16]

Here she has to be merciless, it’s killed or be killed. But we expect this of her, she is not afraid to take the shot. In the opening novel, Murder in the Marais, she takes out the hit man Vitold:

Aimée shot through her leather bag, drilling him three times in his crotch…

‘See what happens when I get upset?’ she said.[17]

There is no messing about here! She is unforgiving, will never take a chance when she has right on her side; will never let the enemy get on top. The killing doesn’t seem to affect her either. She just moves on. Such is the pace of the stories, she doesn’t really have a chance to contemplate what she has done. She just gets on with the job. She is a professional.

Aimée is all woman. You could not see a sweat shirted V I Warshawski or a Kinsey Milhone going shopping in the haute couture flea markets, trying to pick up a bargain. No matter how feminine they may try to be, they cannot match the look of Aimée Leduc. Even when she does dress down, it is with a sense of style:

But for now she pulled on black leggings that came up to her hips and Melacs old oversized T-shirt from a jazz concert at the Olympia, stepped into her red heels and scraped her tousled hair into a clip [18]

We see the feminine side of Aimée as Cara Black herself tells us,

I love to go window shopping ‘with’ Aimée, hang out at the flea markets and think what vintage couture she’d find, what case she’d be working on, what bad boy she might be attracted to. It’s an evolving process to find out where she’ll be in her life. To me she’s a contemporary young Parisienne who has office rent to pay, a business to run, a dog to walk on the quai lining the Seine and trouble with men. [19]

The emphasis on style and chic is unique to the detective that is Aimée Leduc. This reinforced the soft centred, feminine side of her. She is no hard boiled private dick. It doesn’t matter what she is wearing, she will get the job done, in an interview Cara black gave in the role of Aimée Leduc, she explained,

“Sometimes I dress up, you know, a little undercover to avoid unnecessary questions. In the armoire I’ve got outfits for every occasion, electrician’s overalls, a vintage black Lanvin dress that goes anywhere, a health inspectors uniform, a leather bustier for those ”special” cases.” [20]

When these clothes get ripped or damaged though, and they do in every book, another constant motif emphasising that she is not afraid to go where it hurts, there will be a momentary pang of regret, but she gets on with her job. After all, she knows where to shop or when to ask her best friend Martine, for the haute couture that gives her so much style.

The pace of each novel is maintained by the time frame they are set in. Her first novel Murder in the Marais takes place over four days. Murder in Montmartre six. In Passy four days and so on. The plots though complex at times are easy to follow. Due to the tightness of each novel, the structure of the story rarely alters and that is the simple beauty. Pacey, thrilling, an adrenalin rush at times, we follow Aimée as she chases across Paris rooftops or underground. On the road or along the tight narrow alleyways of a hidden Paris. All is a rush, a race against time. Again with Cara Black appearing as Aimée we see this,

She arrived a little breathless; short skirt, heels, oversized Vuitton bag and tight black leather jacket… After a drag on her Gitane that revealed her chipped fingernail polish Aimée ordered an espresso, set her cell phone on the table and sat back to be grilled. [21]

She is cool under pressure, she cannot be deflected from her cause, and there is almost a nod to Philip Marlowe as we see that Aimée is the knight riding to the rescue of the distressed, but she will never be the damsel in distress. As Aimée tells Abraham Stein in Murder in the Marais, “No one acknowledges the victims’ families… I know this and I want to help you.” [22]

She speaks from bitter experience. The murder of her father hangs heavily over the series and she is desperate to find answers to his assassination, even though everyone tells her to forget it or to let it lie.

There are many recurring themes, the loss of her fugitive mother, who left her when she was eight is a key one as is her relationship with Morbier, her god father and fathers’ old police colleague. Both challenge her at times as she tries to come to terms with her mothers’ disappearance and also Morbier and his wiles.

She is determined to carry on her work at Leduc Detective agency even when at a low ebb. The ‘bad boys’ she invariably meets and then leave in varying circumstances. There are a number of recurring relationships through the series with her business partner Rene and best friend Martine, but also she meets characters new to us from her recent and distant past and usually wants to take advantage of them. This is perhaps a little out of character and she often feels guilty about it, and we could perhaps want to see some of these relationships developed further as they seem to pop out of nowhere, become ‘one offs’ to suit the story and then disappear again. One example is her old school friend Laure Rousseau in Murder in Montmartre who has a really interesting story line implied after the initial murder enquiry, but is allowed to fade away. Perhaps this will develop in later episodes, we can but wait.

She uses an old friend, Leo, in Murder in Clichy to help her trace phones and the wheelchair bound Leo is quite bitter that Aimée only ever seeks her out when she needs her help. In Murder in Passy when she next asks her for help:

“Leo made a pfft sound, ‘like toute le monde. You’re no different. I help out, then its adieu.’

Stricken, Aimée realised how much it meant to Leo.” [23]

Despite this she carries on through each of the novels maintaining contact or picking up contact with those who can help her. There are so many she has had contact with personally or through her father. Each of them remember her or owe her late father a favour. Aimée is only too happy to collect. This may seem shallow, but it is a necessary dramatic device for Aimée. In her defence, she always has the victim at heart, always:

“When the system fails, the bureaucrats dictate the rules, I just can’t sit back. Someone has to find the truth, help those who can’t extricate themselves…”  [24]

And it is by any means. She will not let the little person suffer and always feels great guilt if she fails. She knows how the system works and this is another bone of contention for her. There seems to be in built corruption in the Police. Her father was forced out, accused of crimes he never committed and she has had this understandable chip on her shoulder since then. Knowing how the system works has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. She knows how long she can be kept in the garde de vue on a flics whim, how her phone could be tapped at any time and by several different state bodies, how she can be followed by suspicious law enforcers. She knows the tricks, but they also put more pressure on her as she knows how time can run away from you and you lose track of the investigation or more importantly, lose control. This is why she seems to always be working at top speed, always racing against time, against the criminals and as ever against the police.

Her relationships with men are quite fluid. Cara Black repeatedly tells us that she meets and falls for the bad boy type, though what exactly that is I am not sure as the major love interest in her life all have good qualities. Yves the investigative journalist who she loses when he is murdered just after proposing to her. Guy, the eye surgeon who wants more than a woman who dashes in and out of his life on a whim and Melac the flic who she swore she would never have a relationship with, all seem strong characters and perhaps that is why the first two are written out of her story, whilst Melac is going to be trouble as he looks for custody of the daughter he initially didn’t care about. [25]

The bad boys on the other hand are many and are often mistakes. These are more fleeting and she soon realises she has done wrong. Invariably she ends up sleeping with or ending up attracted to the villain of the piece. I do find it incredible however that when Mathieu Albreque refuses to give her an alibi for the attempted murder of Rene that she seems just to let it go, but as a plot devise I suppose she had to. I would have preferred seeing her going to his house, kicking in the door and confronting his wife!

We see Beto tantalisingly and briefly introduced in Murder in Pigalle. Is there mileage in this relationship? He certainly seems to be the archetypal ‘bad boy’

Sometimes it is almost as an afterthought that she has sex with her lovers. Melac would not have been chuffed at this aside from Aimée after spending the night with her. He is but an afterthought, it may have been pleasant, but what was his name?

Through a haze of sleep, Aimée… found her legs entangled in sheets, an arm around her shoulder: soft, warm breaths on her neck. The pale apricot rays of

dawn wavered over the discarded clothes. And she remembered Melac. [26]

Though Yves would be more pleased with her memory of him,

“They ended up in the tub with the bottle of Remy, surrounded by steam, most of it of their own making.[27]

These do seem to be devices to show that Aimée is vulnerable, is a woman with needs, but one who cannot commit as she has enough going on in her life already. The argument whether she is hard boiled or soft centred comes down to this. She wants a man but does not need a man. She has relationships, but cannot keep them as she cannot give enough to them. She is upset when this happens showing her soft side, but then she is hard enough to move on and ignore what has happened.

The relationship with Guy ends in Murder in Montmartre, but not before the memory of,

“…the warmth of his surgeon’s hands on her skin, his wonderful hand’s; his tapered fingers that had stroked her spine under the silk duvet…” [28]

makes her very well aware of what she may be missing in a physical sense anyway.

In Murder below Montparnasse she discovers she is pregnant. This will have a dramatic change on her life style. Can she carry on with how she has lived her life before this, will she allow the father in to her life?  Will she share her life with the father?

We see her feminist side coming out in her reaction to pregnancy. She is three months into it and shows no sign of slowing down in Murder in Pigalle. She continues to put herself and now the baby in positions of danger. She ignores please from Rene, her partner at the Leduc Agency, to slow down. Is she reckless or does she knows no other way to live and work.

Her love life seems somewhat more complicated. She is turning over in her mind what to do with Melac. He is the father, but is with his estranged wife. He visits Aimée out of the blue and of course they have sex. This is inevitable, though not planned. Is this because she is weak or just because she wants some comfort?

“Why did she want him to keep stroking her stomach? To keep feeling his hot breath in her ear? Why couldn’t she ignore that shiver she’d missed so much?” [29]

The sex of course is perfect and she wakes to find herself wrapped in his body. He spoils the mood of course with his male assumption that they should marry and the child should bear his name:

“Marriage wouldn’t change anything, not that I would marry you,” she said…”As f        or wanting to be the father, give the baby your name – get in line.” [30]

Her hard boiled nature comes out, the feminist in her knows she can deal with everything without his help. “I’ve never asked for your help… and I’ve no intention of starting now.” [31]

It is wrong to see all fictional female detectives wanting to take up the baton of Marlowe or Coffin Ed Johnson or Sam Spade. Which of them would offer, or even be accepted as baby sitters in return for compelling autopsy evidence that helps her case and allows her to keep one step ahead of the police? Why does Aimée have to be hardnosed or tough? Even with all the odds of patriarchy stacked against them, women can get to the top of every profession by being as good if not better than their male adversaries. Granted it is so much harder, but does a woman have to out tough a man in the detective business to get the criminal. She can use her wits, just as any man can. The physical disadvantages can be overcome. In Aimée s case, with a bit of luck at times. She does not deliberately go out to confront the enemy in a stand off. Face to face battles are to be avoided, but we know that she can more than hold her won. Mike Hammer may have waved his gun around and got results, but real life is so much more different than a gangster heavy America of the thirties. Hard boiled is old fashioned. You can’t get away with it nowadays. You play by the rule book. It may be unwritten and also a bit dodgy at times but there are rules.

Going beyond the law might be adventurous and exhilarating for the reader, but real life crime detection is not about guns and fast cars and molls on arms. In the real world, would a woman say to herself I have to be rough and tough, fight men as equals and never back down? Or would she say I have my talents and I will work and live on my own terms?

In Aimée’s case a thorough knowledge of Paris, of cybercrime, an awareness of police procedure and the law are her talents. These are well honed. She has comfort in the fact that she is the intellectual equal of anyone and does not have to out tough the enemy. Is it patronising to say that yes, she can use her feminine charms as a way of gaining an advantage? In the real world we would use any advantage we had and that doesn’t mean we cheapen ourselves. Does a woman cheapen herself if she uses every one of her talents to succeed compared to a male protagonist? Indeed what does it mean to cheapen oneself anymore? I think we know the answer to that.

Aimée Leduc, fashionista, girl about town, hard as nails but with a vulnerable side, is not your normal private investigator. She is not above flirting with a protagonist, male or female if it means she can get business done. She does not see this as demeaning, but as using her skills. This is what we should think of nowadays. It is about getting the job done by using what talents we have to do so. If this means using her sex or the offer of sex, then so be it. We have moved on from the strait laced days of detective fiction and are reading works based in the real world.

Aimée is neither soft centred nor hard boiled. She is what she is. A professional with a determined approach to doing what she sees as right. She fights against what she sees as the wrongs in the world and is constantly looking for justice. Justice for her father, for her mother and for the little people who constantly cross her path making life so difficult for her. Her only softness, besides in her love making is that she cannot say no to the victim and fortunately for us, that is where every one of her adventures begins.

 

References

Author Interview: Cara Black Published February 23, 2011 http://parisimperfect.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/cara-black/

[1] http://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/whatisfem.htm

[2] http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/69184?rskey=kRgzmY&result=1#eid

[3] http://www.murderati.com/on-the-bubble-with-cara-black/

[4] Books to Die For Declan Burke, John Connolly  Hodder & Stoughton 2012 p464

[5] Murder in Pigalle p175

[6] http://www.myfrenchlife.org/2012/02/22/interview-cara-black/

[7] In Paris, A Mystery Writer Whose Name Is ‘Noir’ http://www.npr.org/2009/08/10/111513882/in-paris-a-mystery-writer-whose-name-is-noir”

[8] In Paris, A Mystery Writer Whose Name Is ‘Noir’ http://www.npr.org/2009/08/10/111513882/in-paris-a-mystery-writer-whose-name-is-noir”

[9] http://paris-expat.com/books/interviews/cara-black/

[10] http://peoplethingsliterature.com/2014/01/03/cara-black-interview-welcome-back-to-thailand/

[11] Murder below Montparnasse p42

[12] Murder in the Marais p92

[13] Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. p292

[14] Murder in Pigalle p304-305

[15] Murder on the Isle Saint Louis. p288-289

[16] Murder in Passy p250

[17] Murder in the Marais p334

[18] Murder in Pigalle p93

[19] Author Interview: Cara Black Published February 23, 2011 http://parisimperfect.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/cara-black/

[20] http://paris-expat.com/books/interviews/cara-black/

[21] http://paris-expat.com/books/interviews/cara-black/

[22] Murder in the Marais. p44

[23] Murder in Passy. p106

[24] In Paris, A Mystery Writer Whose Name Is ‘Noir’ http://www.npr.org/2009/08/10/111513882/in-paris-a-mystery-writer-whose-name-is-noir”

[25] Murder in the Champ de Mars p9

[26] Murder in Passy. p130

[27] Murder in the Marais. p131

[28] Murder in Montmartre p2

[29] Murder in Pigalle p237

[30] Murder in Pigalle p239

[31] Murder in Pigalle p239