Stars and Stripes is the third volume in Raymond Benson’s ongoing series about the Black Stiletto, a female masked vigilante who operated in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In the first novel, The Black Stiletto (2011), Martin Talbot discovered material that revealed his mother, once known as Judy Cooper, was the Stiletto who left behind detailed diaries of how she became a crime fighter. She had a special sense that warned her of danger, she was adept with knives, and she was no slouch in physical combat. All these years later, she’s now a virtual invalid with Alzheimer’s. In the first book, Judy Talbot resides in a nursing home unaware that a killer she sent away 50 years before has been released and is now out for revenge.
The Black Stiletto established the format for all the novels so far. Every event was told in the first person, alternating between Martin Talbot’s perspective in the present as he learns more and more about his mother while reading her diaries, which detail her various adventures in the streets of New York in 1958 and 1959. The sequel, The Black Stiletto: Black and White (2012) expanded on these points-of-view by splicing in the Dictaphone recordings of an FBI agent who, at first, hunts the Stiletto before becoming her lover. While Martin is blackmailed by a man who knows his mother’s identity, the diaries paint a series of episodes where the Black Stiletto takes on the Mafia, tries to help drug addicts, is pursued by the cops, and is bedded by her lover while wearing her mask.
Even more so than for Black and White, readers of Stars and Stripes will need to know the origin story and what followed to get into the new grooves of the third book. For example, in Stars and Stripes, Martin Talbot is so plagued with the secret knowledge of who his mother was, he’s stricken with frequent panic attacks. This complicates his blossoming relationship with an attractive doctor at the nursing home. But you’ve really got to care who Judy Cooper was to really get engaged in the diary entries covering New Year’s Day 1960 until the end of the year. That’s because the plot is so episodic with many chapters describing the Stiletto on the prowl being chased by criminals, the law, and the elements, but only a few of these events interlock into the twin dramas of her duels with the Tong and an attempted assassination of John Kennedy before the November election.
As usual, Benson is extremely good with the historic details that create verisimilitude as with Judy’s observations on the music of the times and the growing political interest of Miss Judy Cooper as she becomes a “Kennedy Girl.” So Stars and Stripes is a readable addition to the saga, even if the story tends to meander with weeks and months of the Black Stiletto not accomplishing much. If you like the first two books, you’ll likely want to carry on with the saga and hope at least one more novel will answer many of the questions left in place since it all began. How did Cooper become a Talbot and just who is Martin’s father anyway?