S.F. author plots murder in Jewish quarter

The Jewish quarter in Paris, known as the Marais district, is resonant with history, the perfect place for a murder mystery. At least that's what Cara Black thought when she discovered it on a trip to France in 1984.

Black had visited France often, but this was her first time in the Marais district. She walked through it with a Jewish friend whose mother grew up there. Her friend's mother was 14 when the French police, under orders from the Gestapo, rounded up her parents.

This story inspired the San Francisco resident's first book, "Murder in the Marais."

In the new book, Black intertwines Holocaust history and contemporary French politics. A rabbi hires private investigator, Aimee Leduc, to decipher a 50-year-old encrypted photograph.

When a woman is then found murdered, Luduc is drawn into a complicated mystery that leads her to investigate old Nazi records, impersonate a white supremacist and crawl through a sewer. People keep telling Leduc to leave the past alone, but she's driven to unearth it.

The book takes place in the early 1980s when France passed an immigration law that reminded Black eerily of the laws of Nazi-puppet Vichy government.

"I felt there was a real parallel," Black said recently. "In '93 or '94 they passed this immigration law that dealt mainly with Algerian and African immigrants. Up to then it had been: If your child was born in France, you could stay. They changed that. Because they had so much unemployment — 3 million people unemployed — there was a lot of tension."

Researching the Holocaust was a "journey of discovery" for Black, who is not Jewish.

"When I started to write the story I realized that I didn't know what a ration card looked like, what kind of clothes the school kids wore."

Black began her research five years ago. She visited the Holocaust Center of Northern California and Le Centre de Documentation Juive (Jewish Documentation Center) in Paris. She communicated with the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel, and she interviewed survivors.

"At first it was very removed," she said of the Holocaust. "But as time went on I kept thinking: What if it was my son? What would I do if he was taken? It's still kind of amazing that this happened in this century.

"It made me wonder about French people, how they could allow this to happen. But I grew up in this country and we've never been invaded. When someone appears and tells you to do something and you're afraid, it's not really time for heroics. That's the guilt that a lot of French people carry. You do things to survive. My mind still boggles that it even happened."

Though Black isn't Jewish she feels a familiarity with the culture. She taught for five years at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco preschool on Brotherhood Way. Her husband currently teaches ceramics at the JCC's main campus on California Street, and her 10-year-old son goes to camp there.

The 40-something Black was taught by French nuns at Catholic school and has visited France frequently.

"I think I, like many Americans, have a love-hate relationship with France. We think it's a land of culture, good food and good clothes. And that's all true. Then the other part is we hate the fact that they're rude," she said.

"French people have the same thing for Americans. They say we're so crass and we eat bad food and yet they're all trying to be Americans. They like the fact that we're not bound by convention."