The Path to Montparnasse
The inspiration for Murder Below Montparnasse came from several story-nuggets that fell my way, plus some digging on my part. Montparnasse, the epicenter of the 1910s late Belle Époque cultural scene, was the perfect place to set my story idea of an art heist gone terribly wrong. And after twelve previous investigations, it was the right time for Aimée Leduc to cross the river and solve a crime on the Left Bank—she’d only done so once before, in Murder in the Latin Quarter . The story also provided the opportunity to deal with a question raised in the last book, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge , about her partner René Friant’s personal issues. Characters in trouble are compelling, and Aimée is really in the soup in this one.Several years ago, I was in the Paris Police Prefecture, chatting with a ranking officer from an elite division I can only compare to a sort of Parisian SWAT team. I was asking him a procedural question for a book I was working on. He was quite helpful, with a wealth of experience, and quite funny. We hung out in the hallway talking under a skylight, as I remember. He suggested I think about using stolen art in one of my books. “Great idea,” I said.
He also mentioned that his great-grandmother had owned a cabaret in Montmartre at the turn of the twentieth century. This was a family business, and years later when the family decided to modernize and spruce up the building, they found painting on the wood of an old wall that had been covered for years. It was supposedly by Toulouse-Lautrec, but the signature was illegible. Legend, they discovered, said that Toulouse-Lautrec had lived in Montmartre and frequented the cabaret, enchanted by the girls there, and after drinking more absinthe than he could afford (since he was penniless at the time), he paid for his bar bill by doing a painting on the wall.
Unfortunately, in the remodeling the wall was lost.
But this intrigued me. I realized that many artists who are now world-renowned weren’t always famous—that in their impoverished early years, many lived hand-to-mouth and frequently made art on bistro or bar walls as payment for a meal. This was often the case in Montparnasse on the Left Bank, which (after Montmartre’s prices went up) was a cheaper, poorer district—unlike what it is now. Modigliani, a resident of the quartier, was notorious for always living on the margins, barely scraping by offering his art in trade. So it got me thinking, what if …? That dangerous question one asks that sparks a story!
But I was writing another book at the time, so I simply kept all of this in my notes for the future. Around two books later, when I was thinking about art and looking over my notes, I decided to try making an appointment with the Art Police in Paris. Yes, the Art Police. They exist, and even agreed to talk with me! I was surprised and thrilled; they are busy people and sometimes it’s hard to connect with the people you’d most like to interview. It turned out that the two Art Police I was meeting with—Corinne, the chief, and Jean-Luc, her second-in-command—were taking English lessons and would happily practice their English with me. Of course, they already spoke English well, but wanted to perfect their conversational skills, since they often attended international conferences on art theft where the primary language was English. Wow—what luck. We became fast friends. I ate at Jean-Luc’s home, took them out for sushi—their favorite—met them in cafés, and got to see inside the vault repository that held recovered stolen art—pretty special, I thought. They even showed me the stolen art database registry used internally by the police. I kept pinching myself at the access they allowed me. Then, as if that weren’t enough to set the ideas surging in my head, they suggested that I speak with an art collector, an American, who was a semi-expert on Modigliani (it turns out there are all kinds of Modigliani experts, authorized and otherwise). He gave me a wealth of information that I could spin into plotlines. But the cherry on top was an introduction to Interpol and two agents in Lyon who filled me in on the crime networks stealing art in Europe. They dispelled any romantic ideas I had about art thieves, like in The Thomas Crown Affair or debonair Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Art stolen specifically for the connoisseur was rare—1 percent of all art theft, if that. Much more often, stolen art was a commodity to be traded, bartered, sold, or even ransomed back to owners and museums.