As a travel writer and private tour guide I’ve visited a lot of places the average tourist doesn’t get to see. Royal palaces, private chateau gardens, historic archives, exclusive clubs, and access behind the scenes for almost anything you could imagine is not out of the ordinary in my profession. But one of the most memorable weeks of my career started with a commuter train ride to Sevran, the infamous Parisian suburb where the 2005 riots made international headlines.
In early 2013 I received an email from an author asking me if I could possibly arrange a research trip for him in and around Paris. I received a lot of similar requests over the years, usually from authors writing historic fiction or romance novels. My Naughty Paris Guide, first published in 2008, had apparently been quite useful for the latter. But Mark Sullivan writes mystery and suspense thrillers. For this particular trip he was researching Private Paris, the latest book in a crime detective series he co-authors with James Patterson (for those of you aren’t acquainted with the genre, James Patterson has written 114 New York Times bestselling novels and has sold more books than those of Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown combined). In this particular series they have already published Private Berlin, Private Games, and Private LA.
Almost exactly three years after the research tour, Private Paris finally launched on March 15th and is already a New York Times #1 bestseller. Now that I can finally share a bit of the behind-the-scenes preparation that went into the novel, I spoke with Mark over the phone to get his take on how on-the-ground research made a difference in the final result.
He had a long list of places he needed to visit, places that would figure prominently in the thriller. The ritzy hotel where the detective would stay, the Paris police headquarters where he’d be working with local law enforcement, about a dozen murder locations in high-profile monuments, and of course the villain’s lair where everything goes down.
“We draft the outline long before I go on a research trip,” said Mark. “I have to read up on the current events of the destination, and for Paris it was the riots in the suburbs which intrigued me the most as a reporter, not to mention a novelist. It just seemed to me, and to Jim, like the Paris suburbs were a ticking time bomb for France.”
Which is how I ended up with Mark on the rather scruffy RER B one April morning in 2013. I asked a local expert to accompany us for some extra insights, who convinced us to take the RER instead of a private driver to give Mark a good idea of what it means to live in the ugly ‘burbs. The infamous riots of 2005 turned many of the cars and storefronts in the neighborhoods around Sevran into charred, smoking shells. Although cleaned up in the ensuing eight years, it’s still not the most attractive place I’ve taken clients on tour. We exited the RER just outside an ugly shopping mall surrounded by cracked pavement and weeds, the residential towers of Les Bosquets looming just behind. I hate to promote stereotypes, especially since we went looking for “bad” (and you usually find what you’re looking for), but within five minutes of arrival we witnessed one police chase on foot and another police patrol pulling over a car going the wrong way down a one-way street. “You get the idea?” I finally ask. In my patent loafers and pressed trousers, my usual work clothes, I knew I was probably overdressed. Not that it mattered. We were going to stick out no matter how we dressed. Normally this wouldn’t concern me too much except I had just read how the day before a French news crew was attacked by the local disgruntled youth while covering a story of a syringe found in a neighborhood playground. In the end no one bothered us (it probably didn’t hurt that Mark is a rather tall Crossfit enthusiast).
“Going on the train out to Les Bosquets really helped me a lot when we were writing the parts of the book set in that neighborhood,” explained Mark, so it was all worthwhile.
Although educational, the rest of the week’s visits were far more interesting. Mark was very methodical in his research, and not only needed visits to very specific places, but also meetings with very specific people. It took an amazing amount of organization and three assistants to arrange the schedule and set up interviews with high-ranking officials at the Ecole de Guerre, the Police Judiciaire, the Institut de France, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and the Palais Garnier.
With Mark Sullivan and the representatives of the Police Judiciare at the Palais de Justice.
Luckily, Parisians love writers, and many of them already knew James Patterson’s books, so I was pleasantly surprised that not only were we not refused anywhere, but were given the VIP welcome in many cases. We got a tour of 36 Quai des Orfèvres, met several Parisian fashion designers in their ateliers, got a demonstration from a Parkour specialist, watched a Michelin-starred chef and his team in action, and explored the layout of one of the city’s famous swinger’s clubs, Les Chandelles.
In each location Mark would explain the plot of the thriller in his not-so-bad Franglais (he’d been in the Peace Corps in French-speaking African countries). Then he would check with the interviewees that his characters were acting accordingly, that there were no major errors in his presumptions or plot twists, and that the locations matched up with what he and James had envisioned when they created the rough draft back in the US.
“The fashion designer (Emeyric François) really gave me a view into the world of Saudi princesses that I knew nothing about before our meeting, so that was a surprise,” says Mark. He and Patterson were later able to integrate it into a minor subplot which makes sense in the overall theme of the book, while the character Lille Fleures was based on another designer Stephanie Coudert, and her all-gray Belleville atelier.
Another important visit was inside the dome of the famous Institut de France. “I could see how it would be viewed from the Louvre across the river, and got a better understanding of the dramatic impact it would have for the dome of the Institut to be covered with a graffiti tag,” said Mark, referring to the “calling card” the murderer graffiti’d onto each murder scene.
When necessary I translated, but mostly I was there to make sure we stuck to the schedule and had the driver and contacts lined up for each day. At the Police Judiciaire, the famous 36 Quai des Orfèvres that Inspector Maigret fans will recognize, we actually had a special liaison detective from NYPD, Nicolas, who translated all of the complexities of the French police procedures. “It was helpful talking to them about what would take place after a murder in France,” says Mark. “For example, I had no idea until Nic told me about there being a judge assigned to the case from the start. If I didn’t know that I would have written an incorrect description of how a criminal investigation in France takes place.”
Mark Sullivan and the Brigade Criminelle on the roof of 36 Quai des Orfèvres…killer views!
Mark took a ton of notes, and for several weeks after the tour he would send me follow-up questions. At one point I got an email asking if I could go have a look at the back of the Opéra Garnier to see where someone could sneak in. I felt like a spy myself, checking out the height of the fence, the placement of the security cameras (doing this during morning runs was a handy cover). A few months later I got a very rough draft and made a few notes about anything I thought might not work in the real world in Paris, but it was pretty awesome to see the places we’d visited brought to life (or death, considering the gruesome murders).
Already familiar with the long road of publishing, I didn’t expect to see Private Paris hit the shelves before 2015. But then the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened that January, and they decided – considering the unfortunate echo of the book’s plot – to make a small reference to the incident in the book. I think this is important to point out, because doubtless there will be a few people who think Mark and James simply capitalized on current events in Paris, but the book was essentially finished in 2014. It was already in print by the November 2015 attacks, so there is no mention of that in the novel. “We can never stay ahead of that stuff, I just made sure it was as up to date as I could get it,” explained Mark. I won’t give away the plot twist, but it is a bit spooky how reality sometimes follows fiction!
I’m not normally into thrillers, but I love reading books set in Paris. Unless they get it “wrong”, and so many do simply because the author didn’t do their homework (yeah, I’m looking at you, Dan Brown), then I can’t be bothered to finish it. But Private Paris gets it right. Unless the editors changed things around in the final version (still waiting for my copy to arrive), this is the real deal, an authentic peek into the highlife and the lowlife of the City of Light!