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Originally published Friday, March 1, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘Murder Below Montparnasse’: art, politics and mayhem

Cara Black’s latest Aimée Leduc mystery has the fashionable detective investigating high-stakes art theft in Paris’ Montparnasse neighborhood. Black appears Tuesday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearances

Cara Black

The author of “Murder Below Montparnasse” will appear at these area locations:

• She will sign books at noon Tuesday, at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737 or seattlemystery.com).

• At 4 p.m. Tuesday, at Wide World Books and Maps, 4411a Wallingford Ave. N., Seattle (206-634-3453 or wideworldtravelstore.com).

• At 7 p.m. Tuesday, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park. Co-sponsored by the Alliance Française; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).

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Aimée Leduc is never less than chic. The private investigator zips around Paris on a scooter, dresses in style, never turns down strong coffee, and in even the direst situation is attentive to high fashion. A knife-wielding bad guy is scary enough, but Aimée really gets mad when he slashes her vintage Yves Saint Laurent jacket.

“Murder Below Montparnasse” (Soho, 336 pp., $25.95) is San Francisco writer Cara Black’s 13th mystery detailing the detective’s lively adventures. As with previous books, it highlights a particular neighborhood, in this case the once-arty Montparnasse quarter. (Today it’s perhaps known best as the location of Paris’ only, and roundly despised, skyscraper.)

Montparnasse in the 1920s was a hub for creative types on the order of Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Chagall and Miró. A number of political exiles also spent time there, among them Lenin and Trotsky.

Appropriately enough, the story takes us into the worlds of both high-stakes art theft and revolutionary politics. It starts when a cranky Russian bookbinder contacts Aimée. He’s got something he wants guarded until it can be appraised: a priceless portrait by Modigliani of none other than Lenin.

But the painting is gone when Aimée arrives at the Russian’s studio. Worse, she and her assistant Saj hit a man with their car on the way to the studio — and, weirdly, it turns out that the guy, a Serb national, was dead before the collision.

In short order, the cranky Russian is found tortured and murdered, and it’s clear that more than one person is after the painting. As the detective digs further into the case, it also becomes clear that the inexplicably dead Serb had something to do with the theft.

The body count piles up and Aimée receives dire threats — it seems the bad guys think she knows where the painting is. The murdered Russian’s ties to radical politics also come into play. And there are hints that Aimée’s mother — an American revolutionary who abandoned her daughter and, wanted by Interpol, has been on the lam for years — is connected to the case.

Aimée enlists the help of several familiar characters. Among them are her godfather, a police official who was a friend of her late policeman father, and a pathologist who gives the detective information about corpses in exchange for baby-sitting his twin boys.

Missing from action is Aimée’s closest professional colleague, a computer whiz (who is also a dwarf) named René Friant. René has accepted a job with a Silicon Valley startup. But it quickly becomes apparent that René’s new life in America is not what it seemed at first. He uncovers shady dealings with the company that hired him, which puts his life in danger when he threatens to blow the whistle.

This secondary plot is the weak link in an otherwise consistently entertaining book. René’s story is predictable and doesn’t add much. It does provide a little more insight into the ongoing development of René as a character, but it seems sometimes that his adventures were inserted simply to beef up the book to full novel length.

That said, there’s plenty to recommend Aimée and her taste for coffee and couture. Plus, there’s a surprise at the end of the book that promises some very interesting times ahead.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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