Murder at the Porte de Versailles by Cara Black
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Georges Simenon,
translated by Linda Coverdale
The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

Over the years, mystery writers from Edgar Allan Poe to Clara Black have been attracted to the contradictions of Paris, to the decay beneath its glamorous surface and the bad things that happen when darkness douses that magical light.

Black is an American writer who has made Paris her stalking ground. All 20 of her “Aimée Leduc Investigation” titles are named for the scene of a crime committed somewhere in or near the city, which this time around is the Porte de Versailles, an exposition center in the 15th Arrondissement.

Two months after 9/11, on the same night that Aimée is throwing a third-birthday party for her daughter Chloé, a police biology lab in the 15th is bombed. A close friend of Aimée’s who works there doesn’t make it to the party; he’s been seriously injured in the blast, but suspicion falls on him when the police find traces of explosive under his fingernails.

Skeptical about his guilt, Aimée, for years a private detective but now a consultant and expert witness, temporarily joins up with a police counterterrorism unit to hunt for the perpetrator.

The flics are focused on an old student radical group, but Aimée has other ideas, so she hops on her Vespa and races around Paris to chase down those leads, some of which date back to her late father’s time on the force and some of which are red herrings.

This deep into the series, Aimée has acquired a complex backstory. Devotees will sail through, but the newcomer might need a minute to get acclimated. However, Black’s pithy, pacey style enables her to efficiently sketch in background while moving the story forward and creating that all-important ambience. Hanging over the book is the suggestion from the father of her child that Aimée and Chloé leave Paris to live with him in the country. Better for Chloé, perhaps, but for Aimée? Jamais.

While stylish, well-connected Aimée is the ultimate Paris insider, Jess Hadley, the heroine of English writer Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment, is her opposite number, a barmaid from Leeds and first-time visitor, so provincial she draws a blank when she encounters the glass pyramid outside the Louvre. Jess has come to Paris to hit up her adored half-brother, Ben, for money, but soon after she arrives at the very grand old apartment building he’s recently moved into, she discovers that he has gone missing.

All 20 of Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc books are named for the scene of a crime committed somewhere in or near Paris.

A classic fish out of water who doesn’t speak the language, Jess can’t crack the social code of Ben’s oddly hostile neighbors who definitely don’t want to help her find him. But what she lacks in sophistication, Jess makes up for in street smarts and tenacity, which help her find a way to see through the bourgeois respectability of the other tenants to their real selves, and the dangerous truth about their toxic relationships.

Foley contrasts this with the bond between Jess and her brother, both of whom grew up in foster care, pitting the snobbish, amoral French against the scrappy, working-class English. It’s not an original contest, but Foley turns up the creep factor and expertly plays with our preconceptions to make this an involving follow-up to her 2020 best-seller, The Guest List.

Lucy Foley contrasts the snobbish, amoral French with the scrappy, working-class English.

The narrow slice of Paris that Jess encounters is decadent and sordid, a view Georges Simenon’s seminal Paris detective, Commissaire Jules Maigret, would recognize. For his perspective, I took a look at one of Simenon’s Maigret novels, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, written in 1930. It takes Maigret from headquarters at the Police Judiciaire on the Quai des Orfèvres into Belgium and assorted European train stations, so it’s more Euro- than Paris-centric. But Simenon is not so much concerned with local color as he is with taking a hard, sometimes bleak look at the human condition in the form of a concisely told crime story, which is why his books endure.

One day in Brussels, having finished his business early, Maigret surprises himself by following a shabby young Frenchman who is behaving suspiciously, possibly criminally, all the way to Bremen, where Maigret ultimately witnesses his suicide. Having already inserted himself into the scenario, he is conscience-stricken by its outcome and begins to investigate the past of the dead man, known as Louis Jeunet. This takes him to Liège, where the seeds of Jeunet’s desperation were sown 10 years earlier in his wild student days.

Though Maigret is described as a broad, solid man, whose face “seemed punched out of dense clay by strong thumbs,” he is no brute—in fact, he’s a keen and discriminating observer. His obsession with this pathetic character may seem irrational until we see that his intuition, abetted by a few crucial facts, is leading somewhere.

Georges Simenon is not so much concerned with local color as he is with taking a hard, sometimes bleak look at the human condition in the form of a concisely told crime story.

An extended battle of nerves between Maigret and an overly bluff businessman type he first encounters at the morgue and then too many times afterward to be accidental is a fine example of Simenon’s ability to create and fine-tune the tension throughout the book. As for the existential dilemma he finally faces and the choice he must make, Maigret sums it up wearily for his sergeant: “There’s nothing funnier than life, vieux.

Unlike Simenon, Agatha Christie wasn’t one for psychological depth in her work. “How fond her novels were of categorizing people. A woman does this, an American does that, Italians are just like this. Perhaps she felt comfortable with such generalities because she fit her own so splendidly. Stiff upper lip, a fine English lady.” Or so says her fictional rival early in Nina de Gramont’s The Christie Affair.

Even if you don’t know much about Christie’s life, you may know that she once disappeared in 1926, after her husband of 12 years, Archibald “Archie” Christie, abruptly asked for a divorce. The question of what she did during those 11 days, while a massive search was underway, persists to this day, since she claimed to have had amnesia regarding the lost time.

De Gramont uses this incident as a jumping-off point for her novel, which reimagines the story from the point of view of Archie Christie’s mistress, Nan O’Dea. Despite what could be construed as a sensational angle on an old event, de Gramont’s approach turns out to be refreshingly thoughtful and inventive.

Nan’s backstory, of a young Englishwoman who re-invents herself after a traumatic experience and coolly plots to steal Archie from his wife, stands up quite well in a first-person narrative that moves back and forth between Nan’s tragic girlhood and Agatha’s evolution from spurned wife to secret adventurer in a boarded-up manor house in Harrogate.

Even if you don’t know much about Christie’s life, you may know that she once disappeared. The question of what she did during those 11 days is the jumping-off point of Nina de Gramont’s novel.

Not coincidentally, Nan is staying at a nearby hotel, where another crime involving some unfortunate guests unfolds—a clever Christie pastiche. Nan may be a home-wrecker, but she’s a complicated one whose troubled past makes her actions understandable, if not morally defensible.

And what of Agatha? As it turns out, it’s possible that Nan’s theft of shallow, caddish Archie was the best thing that could have happened to the fine English lady with the stiff upper lip.

Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City