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Cara Black and Tara Moss Talk Fiction and Fashion

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Cara Black and Tara Moss have some of the best-dressed characters in crime fiction around, so we thought it would be fun to set them up in conversation together to discuss the art of dressing for a life in crime. Their conversation was just as wonderful as we expected, and below you’ll find a wide-ranging discussion on everything from the Little Black Dress to what to wear while in hot pursuit. Cara Black’s latest Aimee Leduc mystery, Murder at the Porte de Versailleswas released by Soho Press on March 15th; Tara Moss’ latest, The Ghosts of Parisreleases today from Dutton Books. Thanks to Cara Black and Tara Moss for participating in this conversation and providing us with #fashiongoals.


Questions from Cara Black: 

Cara Black: Tara, I love vintage clothes and especially the LBD, little black dress. It takes you everywhere, right? Dress it up with pearls and heels, or dress down with a jean jacket and ankle boots. A vintage Chanel LBD would be my choice for the one piece I’d pack for anywhere—How about you? What’s your takes-you-everywhere piece?

Tara Moss: The little black dress is such a key staple, and the history is fascinating, knowing that before Coco Chanel transformed the view of women wearing black, it was reserved only for mourning or for uniforms in domestic service work. I love her quote: “Before me, no one would have dared to dress in black…A black so deep, so noble that once seen, it stays in the memory forever.” It has been going strong since, though I confess I am perhaps over fond of black. So many black dresses! If there is such a crime, I am guilty.

CB: Tara, what drew you to write about the second world war and the aftermath? Do you have family who served?

TM: I grew up on stories about the 1940s, and WW2, and fell in love with the strong noir and hard-boiled heroines of the period. Whether at home, listening to family stories, or in the bookshop or theatre, I was always drawn to the voices of this time.

My Canadian grandfather served in WW2, and Dutch grandparents, my ‘oma and opa’ survived occupied Holland. My opa was taken by the Nazis and forced into slave labour in Berlin and escaped by baking bread in the munitions ovens to bribe the foreman. His wife, my Oma, cycled across Holland to visit him and smuggle him sugar and flour in the hollows of her bicycle. That bread helped him convince the foreman to give him a day pass, which he used to escape. They were incredibly brave. My first Billie Walker novel, The War Widow, is dedicated to them.

CB: I find the crime novel is a great structure to hang a story. How does the crime novel format work for you?

ghosts-of-paris-199x300.jpegTM: The crime genre has a wonderful way of opening up stories that matter—stories about life and death, mystery, triumph and the struggles of existence. The genre suits explorations of social justice, which is an area I am fascinated with and passionate about as an advocate. The crime genre is to my mind one of the richest and most culturally important. For example, after the Golden Age of crime writing in the 20s and 30s, hard-boiled came to readers with stories of the street, of real, flawed humans, of the working class that no one had much bothered to write about before. Stories and legends had focused on royals and high society, not to mention gods, and now there were stories of regular folks—albeit often at their darkest or their toughest moments. The significance of these stories is often overlooked.

CB: Tara, do you start with the character first or a historical event? How does the past influence your writing?

TM: I have always started with character, but the historical events, and cultural and social moments seem to arrive with them. What happens if I take a thoroughly tough and progressive woman, a woman bent on justice and seasoned by war reporting, and place her in Australia—the ‘Antipodes’ if you will—right after the events of WW2, with the social and cultural tensions of the time, and social pressures pushing working women to return to the home after their experiences in newsrooms and factories and field hospitals? It is such a rich era to explore, and I think the stories of ordinary citizens, minorities, and women in particular, are the stories that have most frequently been overlooked during this era and others.

CB: Tara, Doing research takes me to the Archives in Paris, to the flea markets for old photos and meeting former Résistants who sadly are leaving us. Where does your research take you?

TM: My research always seems to take me below the streets of Paris, to the Empire of the Dead, for which I must admit a deep fondness. Those catacombs feature in an early scene in The Ghosts of Paris. This book also took me to the Paris Morgue and The Ritz Paris with its famous residents of the era, from Coco Chanel to the Gestapo during WW2. Their trouser ban for women guests also gets a mention!

CB: Tara, getting the details right is so important to bringing the reader inside the story. Do you ‘walk the ground’ in this place in your story? Feel the ghosts of the past?

TM: I am rather obsessed with including authentic detail in my stories, so the buildings need to exist, the tiles, the cobblestone, the old police station, the jail. I walk the ground, my cane in hand, and I feel the objects and often literally wear the clothes of the period, to step into the time and the spirit of the people who made an impact.

CB: Tara, you’ve done the catwalk and must have insider knowledge as a former model. Please spill and how it gives you an eye into your character’s world of fashion.

TM: There is fashion as an industry—when it is all about business it is as one-dimensional as any other industry—but there is also the art and social interplay of dress. PI Philip Marlowe was a great observer of dress, and what is says about each person he comes across, and in that way, attentiveness to clothing detail has form in the hard-boiled and noir genres. My background as a fashion model, as a sometime sewist, and as a vintage collector gives me an edge in understanding the details of dress, and I impart that knowledge to the reader and to my main character, Billie Walker. She ‘makes do and mends’, as people had to in the 1940s, and that knowledge of seam and fabric, fur, collar and cuff, gives her an informed view of the characters who walk into her office or run into her in a back alley. The scene would not be complete without it.

Questions from Tara Moss:

TM: Aimee Leduc has taken over her late father’s detective agency, as has my PI Billie Walker, albeit decades apart. What stands out to you as different for women in the work in 1947 VS 2001? Can you see social progress, for example, in how these women are treated in the trade? Technical advances in the work itself?

CB: Interesting question, Tara! When I began writing the Aimée Leduc series in the mid 90’s there were only three female detectives with their own agency in the Paris phone book. I met each of them. Asked each woman about her journey to becoming a detective. Each of the women were unique—one of a kind, yet practical and down to earth. None were militant feminists, one was a grandmother, but I found them assertive, competent and confident in what they did. My take was that each woman knew her agency fitted a certain client’s needs. So if a client hired her they signed a contract, gave a retainer and paid—it was a business. The client accepted their modus operandi to get the job done or they were escorted to the door. No complaints were voiced over sexism—which doesn’t mean it didn’t exist—but that they knew their metier and were hired for their unique skills. One detective, one of the most successful, told me she used her middle age appearance during surveillance to great advantage because she said ‘no one looks twice at a woman my age.’

TM: Murder at the Porte de Versailles marks your 20th Aimée Leduc novel, each book set in a particular quartier or arrondissement of Paris. What keeps you coming back to Aimee and your beloved, dangerous Paris?

CB: I’m a Francophile and just spent April in Paris—the chestnut trees were blooming, the purple wisteria dripped over the walls and the cafe terraces were full. I love discovering new places, secret corners, unknown terrain and these still exist in Paris. It’s a thrill to explore and use what I find in the story. I always feel there’s so much I don’t know. Each arrondissement has its own flavor and ambience which spurs me to dig deeper and get to know the pulse of this quartier. 

TM: Our latest novels are set in the aftermath of WW2 and Sept 11 respectively. Why did you choose that period for this story, and how do you feel the shadow of those violent events impacts the characters?

CB: One can’t get away from history in Paris—not that you’d want to— but for me using a historical event gives context and provides a way to explore the darker side of the City of Light. Parisians were affected by German Occupation in WW2 and also by 9/11—no one lives in a vacuum and trauma often follows in generations.  My detective Aimée Leduc’s life progresses in the series and we move forward in time. Now she’s thrust into investigating a bombing at the Paris police lab in the wake of 9/11. This is personal for her since her friend the lab manager is the primary suspect and it all happens in the shadow of 9/11.

TM: I adore your descriptions of dress. For example, your playful description of Martin in Murder at the Porte de Versailles: ‘Martin’s oversized glasses, silver pompadour, and leather tan —even in November—gave him the appearance of a seventies-era film producer at Cannes.’ It’s so vivid. We often underestimate the social and cultural significance of dress and what it reveals of human character and people’s lives. What ways do you think dress influence your character’s lives and the experience of the story for your readers?

CB: In so many ways a character’s outfit and make up, says who they are. Or want to be. It can hint at their essence or hide it. Aimée’s nail lacquer i.e. gigabyte green gives a layer to her personality and if her nails are chipped it reflects her life; she’s got a business to run, a toddler to mother and care for, and no time for a manicure. She’s a modern Parisienne who stays ‘au courant’ and juggles her life. But she’s got a fashion gene that I don’t have which gives her a style—an effortless thrown together chic that is part of who she is. She’s very much a woman who I think a lot of woman secretly would like to look like. Or be. I know I want her apartment on the Ile Saint-Louis and the wardrobe in her armoire. As a female detective she uses style to give her a shield, another persona, to blend in or stand out as the situation requires. In surveillance she uses stereotypes ie wears overalls to sneak into a building with the workers, a black leather catsuit to attend an art opening.

TM: You live in San Francisco and travel to Paris frequently. How do you go about researching the novels for this series? How long do you spend in Paris for the writing?

CB: I never spend enough time in Paris. I just got back and am writing up my notes, checking my descriptions and cleaning up the voice recordings I made out in the ‘field’.  I love recording sounds; the canal as a boat passes through, the birds, the whoosh of a milk steamer in a cafe and people talking on the bus in Paris. It gives nuances to people’s speech and way of speaking and reminds me of the bus ride when I’m back in SF. Usually I go to the Archives to research as well as talk to flics – police – and interview doctors and a former medical pathologist at the Paris Morgue to find specifics that happen to a victim. Chat with shop owners, a senior who has lived in the quartier for fifty years which helps immensely to see the changes in the area as the French say plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose “—the more things change, the more they stay the same’’. It’s so helpful to speak with inhabitants who can remember that wonderful detail that is a gift to a writer. Pure gold.

TM: As crime writers, we often have the duty to dispatch characters we care about. Even after 21 years in publishing, I can’t seem to harm an animal in my fiction, for example, which is something considering what I sometimes do to the humans. Is there a type of murder you find you can’t write about, or are no holds barred in your novels?

CB: I can’t harm an animal, either, yet, like you, there’s a body count in my stories. I’ve yet uncovered a murder that wouldn’t make a good story—the motives, the emotions, the setting playing a character. My stories come from real life events, past crimes and characters, I fictionalize the story since I’m writing fiction.

TM: You dedicate your latest novel For the ghosts. Who are the ghosts of your Paris?

CB: My first ghosts were the spirits I felt in the Marais. Turning the corner one night, I sensed the presence of people who’d lived in these buildings, who’d walked the cobblestones my feet were hitting. Especially those of my friend’s mother’s parents—Jews who’d been rounded up on this street in 1942 while she was at school.  Ghosts pervaded this quartier where the Jewish population once lived, worked, studied, prayed, loved, had children and hid in these 17th century buildings. To me, they were still ‘here’ and I wanted to tell their stories. I couldn’t let them be forgotten. Passing one dark alleyway I shivered. A presence emanated and later I discovered it had been the site of a prince’s assassination as he was waylaid by swordsmen loyal to the king. So the ghosts come from all centuries.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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