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Book Review: Black Stiletto: Black and White by Raymond Benson

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If you’re going to start a career in writing fiction, why not begin by scribing the ongoing adventures of one of the most famous characters in literature? Back in 1996, Texan Raymond Benson’s first novel, Zero Minus Ten, was the first of his nine officially sanctioned 007 continuation novels. When his James Bond work ended in 2002, he went on to write for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series and began his original “Rock and Roll Thrillers.”

Then, in 2011 Benson debuted a new character, a strong-willed and driven masked vigilante called The Black Stiletto . The novel opened in the present day when Martin Talbot found some surprising documents about his mother. The hidden diaries revealed that from 1959 to 1963, his mother, Judy Talbot, had been the legendary Black Stiletto. He discovered his mother had been raised in Texas, left her home after being raped by a brutal stepfather, and learned martial arts and boxing techniques in New York City. Endowed with heightened senses of hearing and awareness of danger, Judy Talbot adopted the Black Stiletto guise to get revenge for the death of her gangster lover before using her skills as an avenging angel against street criminals and Communist spies.

She’s now in a nursing home plagued with Alzheimer’s. Fifty years later, one of the thugs she put away is released, knows her identity, and tracks Judy Talbot to the nursing home where she remembers nothing — but has the instincts to save herself before her son’s eyes.

The debut novel had been told with alternating storylines bouncing back and forth between Martin Talbot’s investigations into his mother’s past and Judy Talbot’s memories from 1959. The sequel, Black and White, follows much the same formula with a few additional voices spliced in, notably the dictaphone recordings of FBI agent John Richardson. There are more descriptions of crime-fighting and personal matters from Judy Talbot’s diaries. These include discussions of her growing relationship with Richardson who unearths her identity, beds her, and nearly costs Talbot her life. She learns more than she wanted to know about him when she hears the Dictaphone recordings he had been making about her for his boss who assigned Richardson to be the one to arrest the vigilante.

In the present day, ironically, Martin learns about the son of a man who’d tried to blackmail the Black Stiletto in 1959. Now, the son wants to blackmail Martin to keep her identity secret. But Martin’s problems don’t compare with what his mother went through all those years ago when the Mafia had a hit out on her, she tried to save young drug addicts from a lifetime of crime, the FBI was trying to ensnare her, and her romantic life was more than unusual. After all, she’s sneaking into her lover’s bedroom and stripping off all her clothes — except her mask.

As with many sequels, it’s easier to be drawn into Benson’s world of late 1950s New York if you’ve read the first book. Much of the interest a reader can have with Benson’s characters is to work through the origin story to understand how a 21 year old woman can become a costumed crusader. The first book was full of the depth needed to get into Judy Talbot’s motives and development; the second book is clearly a part two of an ongoing series. Both novels so far are richly detailed, well-researched, and surprisingly believable. In particular, the Black Stiletto is completely human and takes on human gangsters and street thugs, not super-powered adversaries. In addition, Benson is very good at giving his narrators distinct voices which gives the books almost the feel of an oral history.

As we know, Judy Talbot operated as the Black Stiletto until 1963 and Benson has only taken us up to New Years Eve 1960; it seems evident we have several adventures coming. It will be interesting to see how matters progress now that Martin Talbot is the keeper of the family secrets protecting a woman who doesn’t recognize him anymore.

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