Field Notes from Paris

Nighttime in Paris

by Cara Black

You always remember the first time…the first time you felt Paris.  For me it was reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, exploring the gritty side with Inspector Maigret, listening to Edith Piaf songs,  – the city of light exuded sensuality and a hard visceral beauty. Fascination with Paris is a family trait. My uncle and my father, two brothers from Chicago with not a French vein in their bodies, were devoted Francophiles. As a child my father had read me Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a nineteenth-century edition illustrated with scary woodcuts. In that story, Paris was peopled by revolutionaries, men in frock coats, and Madame Defarge knitting with a malevolent eye.

My uncle, who lived with us, had stayed on the Left Bank. “Studying art,” he claimed, but really drinking a lot of vin rouge. He’d talk about how, after a night of partying, they’d end up at five a.m. in their tuxedoes at Les Halles, Paris’s famous fresh food market, where they’d eat onion soup next to the butchers working in their bloodstained aprons. How his teacher Georges Braque’s studio was so cold, and the artist such a tightwad, that when my uncle asked the master to put more coals in the stove because the model was turning blue, Braque gestured for him to leave and kicked him downstairs. His stories offered an earthy side to the photos I’d seen in Vogue, with slim, tousle-haired women, effortlessly chic in Chanel jackets, carrying dogs in their handbags. The glamor and the grit seemed to go hand in hand.

I never forget the actual boots down feeling of this place. Paris comes to me with the scent of ripe Montreuil peaches, the high heels clicking over the cobbles, the dripping plane tree branches leaving shadows on the quai, the flowing, khaki-colored Seine. Always the shiver from cold stone inside soot-stained, centuries-old churches, relics of history and mystery under a piercing blue sky. But feeling Paris is not the same as knowing it, and I have spent my life trying to connect to this city as one of my own.

I first came to Paris in a long-ago September. What I owned lay in my rucksack carried on my back. My travel mate and I woke up in the École de Médecine’s student dormitory somewhere in the Latin Quarter. Two medical students, who were on call all night, had given us their beds. Needless to say, they expected to share them with us the following morning. I remember that peculiar feeling of a fluffy duvet, sun pouring in the tall window, and two grinning male students greeting us with soup bowls of bitter coffee, and peaches. Peaches whose sweet juice stained our chins. We thanked them, maneuvering our way out by promising to come back. Somehow we never did.

That first September, wearing a déclassé flannel shirt and jeans, I haunted the cafés where famous writers wrote. Those cafés encouraged my resolve that I would write someday. But it wasn’t until years later in Paris, during another September, that I found a story. My friend Sarah took me to the Marais, then ungentrified, and showed me where her mother, at the age of fourteen, had hidden during the German occupation. Sarah’s mother’s family had been taken by the French police and she’d lived, hidden, wearing a yellow star and going to school, until the Liberation of Paris. Sadly, her family never returned.

The war had never felt close to me until that moment, standing on the narrow rue des Rosiers in front of a building where a tragedy—probably so many more than one in this old Jewish part of Paris—had occurred. It was the collision between the present and the past that floated in front of me as I imagined Sarah’s mother’s life. Almost as if the ghosts hovered out of reach, but there in the shadowy stone recesses of the building. I never forgot that shiver of encountering the past.

* * *

When my father heard the story of Sarah’s mother hiding in the Marais during the war, he handed me a slim crime novel by Georges Simenon and said, “Read this. It’s set in Paris.”

But it’s old-fashioned, I thought.

“It might be a way to tell this story you’re going on about,” said my father, so tired of the obsession consuming me after hearing about Sarah’s family.

So I blame my entry into crime writing on Inspector Maigret, the protagonist for Georges Simenon’s novels about a Parisian police inspector. Georges Simenon, originally from Belgium, first arrived in Paris as an outsider. While Agatha Christie is known all over the world as the queen of crime, George Simenon has sold almost as many books— between 500 and 700 million copies worldwide of his 570 books.

His Inspector Maigret novels captured my imagination. Could I approach understanding Parisians like an investigation, a case to crack like those slender Inspector Maigret novels that intrigued me? Maybe I could understand Parisians, blend in at least for a moment before I opened my mouth. Figure out the code they communicated in, discover if their flair disguised another reality. The seething passions below the surface that led to spilling blood. What better way than an investigation for someone like me—not as a voyeur but as an observer who noted details, caught a nuance, dug below the surface, always searching for motive, opportunity?

I identified with an investigator because I was always on the outside looking for a way in. And crime fiction sets Paris against a backdrop of gray, an overcast sky, and perhaps a corpse or two in the cobbled streets—discovered, of course, by Georges Simenon’s pipe-smoking Inspector Jules Maigret.

Though Maigret’s era passed long ago, it’s not all history. His “old office” in the police department at 36 Quai des Orfévres, the Paris Préfecture (often referred to as “36”), now belongs to a trim fortysomething commissaire with a laptop; gone is the charcoal-burning stove. Maigret’s unit, the Sûreté, is no more, but has been restructured and renamed the Brigade Criminelle, Paris’s elite homicide squad. From time immemorial, officers have hung bloody clothing from crime scenes to dry under the rafters in the attic at 36. This tradition hasn’t changed. Nor has the rooftop view, courteously shown to me by a member of the Brigade Criminelle. A vista with the Seine and all of Paris before us. Breathtaking. And beneath us are 36’s underground holding cells, which date from the Revolution, if not further back.

That’s become my job: to write stories about crime and murder à la parisienne, set in contemporary Paris. A way for me, an outsider, to explore and scratch that itch of curiosity.

The streets are the same as they were in Maigret’s time, but today’s Fifth Republic Paris is a blended wealth of cultural traditions from all over the world. For me, this means there are new enclaves and hidden worlds to encounter no matter how well I think I know these cobbled streets.

To know Paris, as Edmund White and countless others have observed, one must be a flâneur, taking leisurely strolls through the city, letting the unexpected moods wash over you and remaining open to discovery—in my case, with an eye for crime. One must take the pulse of a quartier, assessing its rhythm; know it by heart, from the lime trees flanking its boulevards to its nineteenth-century passages couverts. Only when I can feel that pulse can I start the rest of my research for a novel.

Writers, like detectives, must be curious, ask, “What if?,” which I had been doing since I first stepped on the cobbles. Detectives follow their noses, as the old adage goes; when a word rings false, when the indefinable something-isn’t-right moment happens—that is the moment to wonder, to ask questions. The exchange of a furtive glance, a figure ducking out of sight into the back of a café and failing to reemerge. In Paris, those who want to disappear can do so via the spare exit gate of a back courtyard, the city’s series of covered passageways, even over the gray zinc rooftops or underground through a cellar or an old World War II bomb shelter.

All a writer needs is that “what if,” and a story tumbles out. I imagine the line at the tabac by Pigalle Métro station evaporating, the group of teens breaking off into threes to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists; an artist in a tiny fifth-floor den closing her shutters to block out street noise; a man entering a jewelry store in the “golden triangle” off the Champs-Élysées with a gun to perform one in a series of daytime robberies. How I long to get it right, to write about the city with the confidence of a native to reflect the Paris of the 1990s with its hidden courtyards and criminal underbelly—updating the Paris Inspector Maigret had haunted.

Over the years I’d gotten to meet police, and in order to know more I’d gone out drinking with the flics, the local cops. Lucky enough to receive such an invitation one night, I joined several at the bar across the Seine from 36, where they’d taken over a back table.

An intoxicated young man looking for a fight entered the bar and approached us at our table—a table of off-duty police officers. Who knows why? Bad luck, I suppose. He began a drunken monologue. If you’ve had such an encounter, you know the kind. This young man was the sort you wanted to leave before he got belligerent. A few of the officers spoke with him and escorted him out. He sat down on the sidewalk outside, and one of the admin police, who resembled an accountant, stayed behind to join him on the curb across from la maison, as the Préfecture is called. This policeman spoke with him for a long time amid the smokers and passersby, talking him down rather than talking down to him. I’d gone outside for a cigarette and noticed them carrying on a conversation. I didn’t get involved, as I didn’t have anything to add, nor did I wish to accidentally provoke someone so inebriated. When I came out again later, they were still talking. The flic was kindly asking questions now. Maybe the kid had broken up with his girlfriend, lost his job, or just had a really bad day; I never found out.

It was something the flic didn’t have to do, with all his buddies inside drinking. Whether he enjoyed getting out of the bar, or the view of the Seine, or just talking with this kid, it really struck me as something Jules Maigret would have done. Maigret, the knowing, sometimes fatherly figure who knew people would tell you their story if you just coaxed it out of them. Averting disaster, heading off a confrontation, recognizing the signs that a situation could spin out of control. Maybe that was part of what they taught at the police academy. By the time the young man (who was still, in my opinion, one slice short of a baguette, sobriety-wise) finally left, he had a smile on his face. I’ll never know what happened to him after that, but I had the feeling he would just go home and sleep it off. He wouldn’t feel denigrated or demoralized in the morning, except for a hangover.

Georges Simenon’s novels are full of investigators, flics on their daily beat, the victims’ neighbors, hotel concierges, capturing a time, a part of Paris that exists now only in the imagination. A time when cell phones and numeric entry keypads were unheard of—one could only ring the concierge’s bell to gain entry after midnight. Everyone knew everyone else’s business in a city with enclosed courtyards, high walls, and watchful eyes. I think they still do. Parisians smoked and drank morning, noon, and night. Men’s wool overcoats and hats steamed as they came in from a wet winter evening to a warm café with a charcoal stove burning. People knew their neighbors. Snitches snitched. Girlfriends chatted with each other and mothers-in-law complained—human connections abounded, often forming a web of lies and deceit.

In that complicated world, Maigret keeps at it—plodding, questioning, then throwing out those questions, lighting his pipe when it goes out, and the suspect in the chair opposite him knows it’s only a matter of time. As does Maigret. He drinks at lunch, sometimes he gets angry, even orders sandwiches and beer in the afternoon. He takes the annual August vacances with Madame Maigret unless a case comes up—but when doesn’t it?—and detains him in hot, deserted Paris. But a few of his investigations find him out in the countryside, in hermetically sealed villages where observant eyes don’t miss a thing. As in many cultures, an outsider arriving in a small French village is often met with distrust, even more so if they’re different.

That hasn’t changed.

I confess that when I first began writing my Aimée Leduc novels, I would think, Okay. There’s a murder, a staircase dripping with blood . . . what would Inspector Maigret do? That wasn’t always much help, since Aimée is a PI, not a policewoman. But then I’d consider what she might do if Maigret appeared on the scene and questioned her after she found the body. That worked a little better. Of course, the police system in place now is different: Jules Maigret, as the head commissaire, would certainly not respond in person. Today, it would be the Brigade Criminelle and le procureur (the equivalent of our DA) who would hotfoot it to the scene and dictate the next steps in the investigation. I had to change my way of thinking about police process in a murder investigation, my flic friends told me. The way Maigret operated didn’t make for a plausible scenario now. So I relearned in order to keep the details in my books accurate, and came to the conclusion that Maigret had it easier than a head commissaire would today.

Is Simenon’s work dated? Historical? Timeless? I’d argue the second two. I personally like my Paris streets dark and narrow, with glistening cobbles. The air thick with mist and suspicion. The Montmartre cemetery wall, the same as it was then, hulking with old, lichen-covered stone. I’ve imagined a corpse there more than once. My friend lives a block away, and returning late at night from the last Métro, walking uphill from Place de Clichy, the cinéma marquees dark, the café lights fading as I cross over the cemetery, I hear the thrum of the old Citroën or Renault engine, the shift of gears, and smell the cherry tobacco (I like to think Maigret smoked cherry tobacco, though I don’t know that it’s ever specified; perhaps there’s a Simenon scholar out there who can tell me). Flashlights illuminate the corpse sprawled on the damp pavement; Maigret nods to his lieutenant with a “Take this down,” and we’re off on an investigation. An investigation that leads to the hidden life behind the walls, intrigue in the quartier, and worlds we’d never visit otherwise. Worlds that make me feel like I belong.

The iconic Préfecture at 36 Quai des Orfèvres is now falling to pieces, the flics say—well-worn and tired around the edges, ancient and unequipped to handle the new technology the force needs. They’ve moved to a brand-new building that’s designed to gather all the gendarme divisions in one place. It’s in the 17th near the Batignolles park, and the old train switching yards, abandoned for many years. Had France gotten the 2012 Olympic bid that went to England, this was where the Olympic Village would have been. I’m kind of glad that never happened. As some flics point out, the move has been long slated, but with the current budget crisis, there’s an advantage to keeping the current headquarters. The genius of being in the very center of Paris is that the city Tribunal is right next door. Prisoners awaiting trial literally go from their holding cells to the court through an ancient underground tunnel. A friend, a flic whose first assignment out of the academy was escorting those in custody from their ancient, funky cells to the court, aptly described the surroundings as “medieval,” as ancient and foreboding as they were in Maigret’s time.

On Boulevard Richard Lenoir is where the inspector lived with Madame Maigret. I confess to making a pilgrimage to their apartment building. While I know it’s a fictional building, I couldn’t resist scoping it out. I imagined myself saying, “It would be this street number and, yes, just as Simenon described.” Years later, riding a Vélib, a cycle from the citywide bike share, I returned home late to find that all the stations near my lodgings on the Canal Saint-Martin were full. Zut! It was late and drizzling, and I was hungry and looking to rest my aching feet. Finally, I found a single empty spot for my bicycle: on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, right below the Maigret apartment. How I wished Madame Maigret were still up waiting for Jules, warming a pot of cassoulet on the stove.

Even though I’ve made regular visits to France for over twenty years, I’m still l’américaine. I’ve been a guest at several of the locals’ weddings, heard about their husbands’ affairs . . . I’d like to think they trust me now. After all, I’ve been into their homes, which is considered an honor and no mean feat. But in many ways I’m still the outsider, the investigator. And yet they’ve given me a window into their lives, a way to see, so if that’s the way an outsider is, then I’m fine with it. I think if I ever do completely understand the French, the magic will be gone—but no fear of that. The first peaches of the season still drip and stain my chin, I’m full of wonder, and that duvet feels comfortable now.

Cara Black is the New York Times bestselling author of the Aimée Leduc series, and was awarded the Medaille de la Ville de Paris for contributions to French culture. She’s a dog owner with nomadic tendencies and drinks too much espresso.

Photo: “Paris, Café Panis” by Luc Mercelis, Flickr (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)