Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Evolving Female Detective: Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc Novels

Novelist Cara Black (Photo by Michael Allen Jones)

From a doorway, Aimée saw the flic round the corner, then stop and question a woman with shopping bags. Quickly, Aimeé slipped inside the tattoo parlor. […] Seated before the mirror, a tanned, topless woman fanned herself with a Paris Match magazine. From the edge of her left shoulder to the top of her spine, an intricate lizard design was etched in green-blue. Fine droplets of blood beaded the edges. Hunched behind her, a man with a whirring instrument started intently at her back.
Aimée winced. The price of adornment was minimal to some.
Not to her.  
The coppery smell of blood made her uneasy.
Outside the curtain, she heard the flic questioning the makeup artist in the next room. No way she could go out there now.
The tattooist tapped his fingers on a Formica table lined with instruments. 
Footsteps approached.
“Go ahead.” She nodded, then put her head down. She covered her face with a towel and pulled a sheet over her leather skirt, praying it would be over quick. And that the flic would leave.
From Murder in the Sentier, the 4th book in the Aimée Leduc Investigations by Cara Black
If you are a voracious reader – and when I say voracious, I mean the sort of person who dives headlong into a new book full of hopes (often to be disappointed) – there are few things more satisfying that finding a genuinely rich and satisfying series character. While single works of literature often provide new best friends or lifelong influences (Pip, Elizabeth Bennet, Madame Defarge, Butt the Hoopoe…), our relationship to characters who we encounter in book after book may be less dramatic but far deeper. Granted, series’ characters are often less dramatic in their emotional impact – it is hard to imagine Oliver Twist retaining his impact if we were to follow him into middle age and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. But a good recurrent character, the kind that is hard to build and even harder to maintain, can impact the reader more softly, more slowly, the way that an old friend does. They may rarely surprise us, but they are a joy to be around, and when they do surprise us the revelation may be all the more shocking by virtue of its unexpectedness.

Recurrent characters are generally to be found in the mystery/detective/thriller genre of novels. One of the earliest paragons of this type is without a doubt Sherlock Holmes, who set a standard for recurrent detective fiction and actually introduced the idea of narrative continuity into the genre. The brilliant, addicted, and socially dysfunctional Holmes has been followed by a host of remarkable characters – among them Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey, Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot, Parker’s Spenser, Grafton’s Milhone, and Camilleri’s Montalbano. Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc is an important voice in this chorus, and it is through Aimée that Black’s books illustrate both how far the genre of the recurring detective has come, and how much room there still is for it to evolve.

Black’s Aimée Luduc Mysteries debuted in 1998 with Murder in the Marais, a dark novel that introduces the complicated protagonist and sets the tone for the rest of the series. So far Black has given us 14 books, each one named after an arrondissement of Paris – given that Paris has 18 arrondissements, one hopes that there are at least four more books to come. While the focus of the books is on the cases that Leduc and her partner are involved in, they also touch on issues in French and Parisian history and current events – the first book deals with traces of France’s Nazi complicity during WWII, while later books find their way into some of the economically disadvantaged and sometimes ideological radical parts of Paris that have been so much in the news recently. Via Leduc, Murder in the Marais introduces the reader to a Paris as wonderfully magical as any tourist brochure could hope, and grim and dark enough for Charles Dickens to recognize. Leduc herself is a joy to ride along with – usually on a motorcycle – not only because of how remarkably competent she is, but also because she is a deeply flawed character.

Now, being ‘deeply flawed’ is basically a requirement of any private detective, police detective, or spy. It is difficult to find great investigators who are not deeply disturbed on some level, be it neurotic and obsessive (Nero Wolfe and Poirot), an addict (Holmes and any number of others, in print and on-screen), or simply stunted – often by virtue of trauma – in their personal lives (George Smiley, Temperance Brennan). There are a few who are not deeply disturbed, but they are remarkable and, with the notable exception of Parker’s Spenser, usually European – Magdalen Nabb’s Marshal Guarnaccia and Donna Leone’s Guido Brunetti spring to mind. If one is a fan of so-called ‘cozy mysteries,’ a genre that has flourished in the last decade and is effectively the hot-cocoa and foot-massage branch of mystery books, there are many more. But with all due respect to ‘cozy mysteries,’ that branch of the genre is defined by the fact that they do not challenge the reader. Some few of them are genuinely well-written, but they are designed to be comfortable and non-threatening, and the characters’ flaws are comfortable and non-threatening as well – generally something in the vein of a weakness for chocolate or shoes (and yes, this sub-genre is geared almost entirely and often somewhat offensively towards a female audience). In edgier detective fiction, like literary fiction, it is hard to hold our attention with a mentally sound protagonist.

So Aimée Leduc’s ‘issues’ – ranging from daddy-issues (dead from a bomb) to mommy-issues (vanished) to financial woes and a reckless lack of self-regard – are not in themselves surprising. What is notable and surprising is that they are not written in as the secret keys to her success as a detective. Far too often it is the flaws of a character which serve as the key to their remarkable success – Holmes’ social dysfunction is a prime example of this – while for Aimée her flaws are things that she must struggle with constantly, roadblocks that she often (and often consciously) must confront in her struggle to live her life and do her job. In refusing to glorify or redeem Aimée’s flaws, Black already takes those struggles, and Aimée as a character, more seriously than most authors of detective fiction.

Aimée is also remarkable as one of the most recent incarnations of a new kind of female detective, one who has only really emerged in literature over the last forty years or so: she’s not only smart, she’s young and has a sex drive. For a long time the only female investigators in literature were post-menopausal and marginalized, Miss Marples in various incarnations. We may have loved them, but we really didn’t want to think of them on a motorcycle or picking up a date in a bar. A slow shift away from this matronly detective began as early as 1930, with Dorothy Sayers’ introduction of Harriet Vane into her Lord Peter Whimsey narratives (Strong Poison, 1930), but as compelling and complicated as Harriet is (and I would highly recommend the books that tell her story) she remained in many way an appendage to Whimsey (a status that Harriet herself would have found appalling). The independent and young female investigator began to gain serious ground with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels (which debuted with A is for Alibi in 1983 and have worked their way to W is for Wasted in 2014), and in the last decades has grown into a chorus of strong voices, including Precious Ramotswe, Stephanie Plumb (though personally I find her wholly accidental competence almost unbearable) Amelia Peabody, and Temperance Brennan (the books, not the television show).

Aimée Leduc is a unique personality, and is perhaps one of the best written of all of the contemporary women available. But at the same time she continues one of the underlying and troubling traditions of female detectives, a tradition begun by the early “girl detective” par excellence, Nancy Drew – they all may have their issues, and the modern incarnations may be notably screwed up in any number of ways, but they are all still hot.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have no objection per se to my literary companions using a fabulous pair of leather pants to accomplish their mission – after all, Lord Peter Whimsey used his peerage in much the same way, and Spenser uses his body as a tool in a variety of contexts. But when all the women are hot, or at least attractive, it becomes annoying at the very least. It would appear that while readers are ready to embrace and engage with a male detective with little obvious physical appeal (George Smiley, Marshall Guarnaccia, Poirot, Bernie Rhodenbarr), we are not yet ready to do the same with our female detectives. Perhaps it is a question of strength – in our male detectives strength itself is attractive, whether it is strength of mind or strength of body. Marshall Guarnaccia, for example, is socially inept, overweight, and has a serious eye condition that makes his eyes water if exposed to sunlight; George Smiley is a stooped, somewhat aged and balding man with almost no presence, and yet he is captivating. Yet their mental faculties render them genuinely attractive.

Our female detectives, of whom Aimée Leduc is a remarkable and still-evolving representative, have become younger, harder, more multi-dimensional and infinitely more interesting. But they still have to look good – they may be ‘curvy’, but God forbid they should be genuinely overweight! No author has given us a woman who is smart and appealing without being physically attractive – and perhaps that is simply a reflection of the fact that our society still identifies attractiveness in women according to far narrower criteria than we use for men. That a man might find a woman attractive who is actually overweight or has some other kind of physical impediment is still beyond the realm of believable.

Aimée Leduc makes inroads into this world, if only because her character flaws, her obsession and her pain, are so serious that they overwhelm her physical attractiveness. Black’s books are superb examples of the genre, not only (albeit largely) because of Aimée, but because they also invoke Paris – past and present – vividly. But as I wholeheartedly recommend this series to readers of mystery fiction and readers more generally, I can still wish for a woman who is flawed physically and mentally and who is still successful in her personal and professional and life… like so many of her male colleagues.  

Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for distinguishing between the Temperance Brennan of the television series and the Tempe of the books. I'll never understand why the TV-show producers felt it necessary to turn her into a Sheldon Cooper/Mr. Spock clone.