“Too small for a bomb…”
So begins, in understated test-your-mettle manner, the 12th Paris-set installment in the captivating Aimee Leduc Investigation series.
Sizing up the shapes of things to come smacks of figurative foreshadowing and jump-starts the fever-pitch action coursing through the storyline of Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, Cara Black’s complex but suspense-walloped mystery featuring Parisian private eye Aimée Leduc. The same events that hit the ground running for the characters also spark a narrative that takes off on a tear for the reader. Whether hoofing it hurriedly on cobblestone streets, or going effectively and frenetically French-Connection-mode mobile, fasten your seat belts: you’re riding shotgun for an unpredictable ride.
And while along for the ride, the reader will suspect the unsuspected and should expect anything up to and including Chinatown sweatshops, Knights Templars, medieval guilds, double crossing, secret advances in fiber optics, human trafficking, a corrupt policeman, missing files, and — this particular Chinatown set in the environs of Paris – love, love lost, and overpriced designer fashions.
First things first, though. The opening pages are set in a restaurant where Aimée has met up with friend and business partner René and his new Chinese girlfriend Meizi, socializing with her unsociable parents. Meizi soon excuses herself to take an unexpected phone call. But when she does not return in a timely manner, Aimée and René seek her out only to find, in a grisly manner on a rat-plagued alley, the newly-murdered yet shrink-wrapped body of science prodigy Pascal Samour, whose wallet inexplicably contains a photo of Meizi – who still cannot be found.
As Aimée’s search for the connection between Pascal’s death and Meizi’s disappearance commences, the full impact of such a complex case is exacerbated as agents from the French secret service are also thrown into the mix. But just because pesky inconveniences like a lack of a pulse and other vital signs had waylaid Pascal – whom the authorities had been shadowing in pursuit of secrets about cutting-edge developments in fiber optics – doesn’t mean life, and science, doesn’t go on for them. After all, as the narrator notes, “Pascal Samour spawned more secrets in death than in life.”
While the insights the secret service garner from Aimée’s discussions with Pascal’s Armenian great aunt prove valuable — in addition to going the extra professional mile, Black also makes a humanizing point to have all-too-human Aimée take an interest in the personal lives of her colleagues — the trail for the secret service begins to detour into another direction. And soon enough the squad picks up another scent as Aimée pivots to follow-up with other loose ends, complications, and implications. That would especially be the case in zeroing in Meizi’s connection to illegal immigrant raids, by which Aimée comes to understand the reasons behind the disappearance of the young woman.
Touched upon and reintroduced in the novel are the themes and characters already developed in the previous 11 entries of Aimée Leduc Investigations. But while the backstory of Aimée’s mother, who disappeared when Aimée was a child, and her father, a former police detective killed in the line of duty, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge does contains key incidents that has a bearing on plot and characterization. In that regard, the reading experience may be enriched by some familiarity with previous installments, but this new volume – with its independent and self-contained storyline — is not significantly diminished as a standalone novel.
After all, you’ll always have Paris, evocative and atmospheric, but redolent with intrigue and unrelenting mystery, the novel a taut page-chaser with hairpin twists and turns that have their own twists and turns in its headlong rush to a caution-to-the-wind culmination. Black has painted such a rich sense of place, and crafted much in the way of gripping diversions and accelerating drive to rivet the reader to the pages. “Welcome to the gray world,” Aimée says at one point. “You learn as you go and you learn all the time.”
In fact, seeing life as a winging-it works-in-progress is a point, or at least a job requirement, that is permeated throughout Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. But it also marks something more. If hardboiled mysteries such as Raymond Chandler’s, say, are characterized by colorful similes or Philip Marlowe’s sardonic wisecracks, or Peter Falks’ title character in Colombo by his ostensibly absent-minded turning of the tables (“oh, I almost forgot”), a case might be made for a Cara Black trademark status for the way Aimée Leduc thinks on her feet, taking the potentially problematic in stride, getting her way, and moving on. Occurring especially when she’s in a interpersonal bind, these scenes of lightning-fast living by her wits are on unfailing display whenever she’s in need — which runs the gamut from awkward embarrassment to near-deadly dispute.
One protracted episode on the telephone, for example, sees the wily P.I. having to virtually part the red tape, as it were, in an encounter with a by-the-book lab assistant. As she spontaneously slips into elaborate theatrics replete with improvised sound effects, bureaucratic threats, and impersonation of the powers that be – pulling rank that she doesn’t have — Aimée gets the autopsy report she wants.
And to think: Chandler’s Marlowe, in The Big Sleep, slipped up when, disguised as a book collector in an antique book store, he couldn’t pronounce the title of the book he was looking for. Maybe he’s better at sizing up bombs in suspicious packages.