Black was born in Chicago, but she’s built her reputation on her insider knowledge of Paris: Her series featuring female private investigator Aimée Leduc often noses its way into the dim, anonymous corners of the city.
Though I can’t claim to have read all 19 Leduc novels, I’ve read enough to know that, while suspenseful, they’re also expansive in the manner of most long-running mystery series: Narratives ramble back into Leduc’s family history and digressively update readers on her friends and relationships. Not so, “Three Hours in Paris.” This is one of those espionage thrillers for which the word “taut” was invented.
Black’s stand-alone debut places her in that small but stellar company of top-notch suspense writers who have written World World II thrillers featuring female protagonists. I’m thinking of Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle,” Daniel Silva’s “The Unlikely Spy,” Susan Isaacs’s lighter-but-compelling “Shining Through” and the lesser known gem, “Fall From Grace,” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (authors of the popular narrative history of the liberation of Paris, “Is Paris Burning?”).
Black’s novel opens in 1940, months after Kate Rees, an American working at a naval munitions factory in the Orkney Islands, has lost her husband, a British naval engineer, and baby daughter in a Luftwaffe bombing raid. Though she still has family back home, Kate is stranded at her job in the Orkneys by grief and by the fact that civilian ocean crossings have been halted by Hitler’s U-boats.
Kate grew up on a ranch in Oregon where she learned to handle guns and, while practicing at the local shooting range, she attracts attention. In short order, she’s recruited by British intelligence for the ultimate mission: assassinate Hitler during a visit he’s scheduled to make to Paris. Because Kate can hit a bull’s eye, studied in Paris, and, most poignantly, feels she no longer has anything to live for, she’s the perfect agent for this suicidal assignment.
The opening pages of the novel are one long jaw-clencher, as Kate crouches in an empty Parisian apartment, steadily training her Lee-Enfield rifle on the steps of Sacré-Coeur where Hitler is due to appear. What ensues after Kate misses her mark is a marathon game of cat-and-mouse. Kate steals bicycles, disguises herself with smears of charcoal and stolen clothing, and narrowly skirts a zillion German checkpoints in a desperate effort to make contact with a shadowy network of resistance workers who may help her escape Paris — or turn her in to the Gestapo.
Meanwhile, the Führer himself has summoned a crack Munich homicide detective named Gunter Hoffman to find the sniper within 36 hours, or else. With the anger of a woman who suspects she may have been set up to fail by her male handlers, Kate struggles to stay one step ahead of her pursuers by murmuring to herself the elementary tradecraft command of RADA: Read the situation, assess options, decide, act.
Here’s a snippet from a vividly choreographed, extended scene at an outdoor cafe in which Kate must make a live-or-die decision about whether to signal a suspected contact: “A young woman walked by with a shopping bag full of leeks hanging from a baby carriage. Leeks? The nearest market was at Maubert. . . . How many times had Kate shopped there before class? . . . Kate took a deep breath. It was time to take out her lipstick, apply it and blot her lips. The signal. Hyperalert to her surroundings, Kate tried to focus on the task at hand. But she was filled with unease. Her arm tingled, a shiver in the heat. The woman leaned down toward the [baby] carriage. If she was the contact, shouldn’t she have started to walk in Kate’s direction by now? . . . Her gut told her something was wrong.”
Black’s familiarity with the streets and routines of Paris gives that passage its aura of authenticity. But much more dazzling is the ingenuity with which Black keeps aloft the crucial question of this superior suspense tale: namely, how is Kate ever going to get out of Paris?
To throw in one more reference to another great World War II suspense novel, “Three Hours in Paris” ranks right alongside Geoffrey Household’s 1939 classic, “Rogue Male,” which is also about a failed assassination attempt on Hitler. In Household’s masterpiece, his failed sharpshooter literally goes to ground and eludes capture by staying very still in a confined space. Perhaps Household’s thriller strikes a bit too close to the bone of our current circumstances. “Three Hours in Paris,” in contrast, gives readers who are stuck inside the nerve-racking but undeniably liberating image of a rogue female racing and dodging all over the streets of Paris.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
THREE HOURS IN PARIS
By Cara Black
Soho Crime. 345 pp. $27.95