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Book Review: The Black Stiletto by Raymond Benson

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Serious adult novels about caped or costumed super hero crusaders never work… until now. Fans of action-adventure are going to love this. Those fans probably grew up reading comic books like Superman, The Avengers, X-Men, and Batman comics but put them down sometime in early adulthood and took up more serious reading. Perhaps they are like me and still pick up one of those comic books when nobody is looking and get a private and secret delight in the stories, but they certainly aren’t going to admit that at the local bar or in a  reading circle/book club.

Well, those fans can now come out of the closet because Raymond Benson has changed all that with the release of The Black Stiletto.

The story opens up when Martin Talbot, a staid, boring divorced accountant is given a strongbox and a letter by his mothers attorney and, Martin suspects, his mothers old lover. Judy Talbot is in her seventies and was suddenly stricken with Alzheimer’s and is confined to a nursing home where she is slowly wasting away. Inside the letter is a key to the strongbox. As Martin reads the letter his mother confesses that she is really Judy Cooper, and more startling, The Black Stiletto, a costumed vigilante famous in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Needless to say, boring accountant Martin is incredulous and not a little bit unbelieving . The letter also reveals that the contents of the strongbox will lead Martin to the proof of this astounding claim. In the box is a set of three keys and a floor plan that Martin recognizes as a floor plan to his dying mother’s house. It is an unassuming, old house near downtown Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago, the very house he grew up in. The floor plan shows the location of a secret room that Martin never suspected was there.

Inside the house, which is run down, and on the market in a depressed post 9/11 market, Martin locates the secret room. He discovers The Black Stiletto costumes, the knife she took her name from, a couple of throwing knives, a pistol, some old comic books, and diaries. The diaries reveal, in addition to a picture of his mother he never suspected, not only how and why she became The Black Stiletto, but her childhood in west Texas, how she came, as a young runaway, to move to New York City, her problems growing up as a teen on her own, how she came to survive and make friends, even how she lost her virginity, fell in love, and became a masked vigilante.

The story recounts growing up in dusty Odessa, Texas. One of three children and how she was more tom-boy than little girl. How she discovers that she has an enhanced sense of hearing and vision, and an almost sixth sense or intuition to sense danger and whether someone is trying to lie to her. She is tall for her age, and has a natural ability in gymnastics, and in athletic pursuits such as running.

It is a poor family, her father having been killed in WWII leaving her mother to raise three kids and drink her sorrows away. Her stepfather is a large and abusive man, an oilfield roughneck with a pension for drinking too much and beating his wife.

One night, when Judy was 14, he gets drunk and rapes her. Judy runs away from home and winds up in New York where she falls in love with the city, becomes a waitress at a dinner, and eventually ends up living and working in a boxing gym. She is more or less adopted by the gym owner, Freddie, who clandestinely teaches her to box, and box well. Through the gym she meets a Japanese martial artist, Soichiro who also teaches her Judo and Karate. After she is seriously wounded in an attempted mugging, she meets Fiorello, a mafia enforcer and master knife fighter. Fiorello becomes her lover. It is when Fiorello is murdered and Judy intuits, using those sharpened powers of perception, that he was killed by his own don that Judy gets the inspiration to take revenge on his killers, disguised in the costume of The Black Stiletto. She has also always plotted revenge on her stepfather for the rape that drove her away from her family.

Benson brilliantly forms the story and masterfully turns it from a comic book, to an adult novel. He could have kept Judy as some reincarnation of Wonder Woman or Super Girl – a cartoon character. Instead, he makes her very real. None of her abilities are beyond the realm of reality, yet combined they form an extra ordinary person. Bringing together boxing skills, Judo for close in fighting and grappling, karate for power, her gymnastic ability and her heightened senses of seeing and hearing, combined with a street fighter’s guile, makes her a formidable opponent, (especially for opponents who would underestimate her as a mere woman), but not a super being.

The scenes, the descriptions of the city, the language, the music, the current events all make the story real and familiar. The action is perfectly paced, and the fight scenes, technically described, are at once fast and realistic but don’t slow the story. The characters come alive in personality and motivation.

The story is told from three points of view. First there is Martin, stuck in his all too ordinary and familiar, mundane life. A boring job he is about to loose to a bad economy, a divorcee, a sick parent he must care for but has difficulty finding time for, and the father of a daughter that taxes his patience. She is a bright girl, but refuses to walk in Martin’s plodding oh, so safe footsteps. He wants her to learn practical skills at college, she wants to be an actress.

Benson uses a brilliant literary device in Martin. His incredulity at learning through his mother’s diaries that she was a ‘super hero’ mirrors the readers. But as Martin uncovers the proof and reads the stories, he comes to more and more accept it, as will the reader. In that way, the reader is part of the story. This is a very effective and subtle way of bringing the story to life and lift it into the realm of an adult novel.

Next is Judy’s diaries as she recounts what drove her away from Texas and her family. Her naiveté as she learns to survive in New York, how she meets people, comes to study boxing, martial arts, learn knife fighting as well as make friends, discover sex, fall in love, develop a taste in music – especially Elvis Presley, grow from a child to a young adult and eventually become a masked avenger. How, after avenging her lovers death, she gets hooked on; becomes addicted to the adrenaline of becoming the Black Stiletto and fighting crime, first in capturing petty criminals, protecting innocent people from muggers, learning to move undetected through a city that never sleeps, adapts her costume to the seasons and the demands, and then even breaking open a spy case involving a communist plot to steal documents about the U.S. stance and nuclear capabilities and intents should there be a communist revolution in Cuba. Her adventures along the way are in a way training for bigger and more serious pursuits of criminals.The only annoying part of the story is Judy’s pension for using “ha ha’s” in the telling of her story and even these lend a feel for realism to the reading of the diaries and help to enforce Judy’s youth, naiveté, and growth.

The third narrator is Roberto, the second assassin of Firorello, and brother of the assassin killed by The Black Stiletto in revenge for Firello’s murder. Roberto has spent 52 years in prison because of The Black Stiletto, and is bent on having his own vengeance, regardless of his advanced age. He ruthlessly sets out to find Judy and will kill again to force those who knew her to reveal her whereabouts. He goes through some changes of his own, locating the bank his money was in 50 years ago, looking up old cronies, now in advanced age themselves, discovering that the mafia is greatly changed, and even learning to drive again after 52 years – an encounter with power steering is good for some comic relief. He also serves the purpose of filling in some back story.

The plot is simple, but beautifully crafted in the way that Benson fulfills it. The pace is excellent, filled with just the right amount of detail, personal revelations of the characters, and realism in action as well as background. Martin’s eventual realization that every so often, a few individuals in this world appear that transcend mere mortals and become something unique and important. Whether they are athletes, great actors or musicians, or government or military leaders and his mother is one of those individuals, or was for a time, are also the moral of the story and are completely credible to the reader as the story wraps up. It is a beautifully complete story, but leaves hints throughout that this is only the first chapter in the adventures of The Black Stiletto. Bravo, Raymond Benson.

The Black Stiletto is available September 5, 2011 wherever great books are sold.

As of January 2011, Raymond Benson is the author of 24 published books. These include six original James Bond novels (now collected in the recent anthologies The Union Trilogy and Choice Of Weapons), three 007 film novelizations, and the first two Tom Clancy Splinter Cell novels (for the latter he used the pseudonym of “David Michaels”). With John Milius he penned Homefront: The Voice Of Freedom. He also wrote the novelizations of the popular videogames–Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty. Raymond writes his own original suspense books as well — standalone thrillers such as Torment, Artifact Of Evil, Sweetie’s Diamonds, Face Blind, and Evil Hours, or his two “Spike Berenger Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits” featuring a music industry detective — A Hard Day’s Death and Dark Side Of The Morgue. The sequel to The Black Stiletto is due out next spring. There’s a lot more, so if you want the full story visit the author at his website.

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.