Saturday, July 9, 2016

Book Review: The Black Stiletto (#1 of 5) by Raymond Benson

Title: The Black Stiletto (#1 of 5)
Author: Raymond Benson
Genres: Mystery| Thriller| Suspense| Crime| Female Sleuth
Print length: 288 pages
Publisher: Oceanview Publishing
Publication Date: August 7, 2012
Source: Purchased
Format: Paperback
Author website:

Could Martin Talbot's elderly, Alzheimer-stricken mother, Judy, really have been the Black Stiletto? When Martin discovers several volumes of her diaries hidden by his mother, he is stunned beyond all imagination. His mother, the underground heroine of yesteryear? The famed, still unidentified woman who battled Communist spies, took on the Mafia, and preyed on common crooks? The woman who exacted punishment on evildoers without mercy? But it is all described, in great detail, in the diaries. What caused her to begin her quest for justice. Her decision to act outside the law. Her feats as the famed and feared vigilante. How her reputation exploded. In short, how it all played out. Could it be true? Talbot is filled with doubt and disbelief. But the reappearance of one of the Stiletto's old enemies with a thirst for merciless revenge makes the story more than real and could imperil the life of not only the Stiletto, but her son and granddaughter as well. GoodReads

The plot: The Black Stiletto is simultaneously a superhero origin story, a story of family, and a story of revenge.

Martin Talbot's mother, Judy, is wasting away in a nursing home due to Alzheimer's. One day, he receives his mother's inheritance: a letter with a key, and a strongbox with random memorabilia. The letter contains the confession that she was, in fact, the world-famous Black Stiletto, masked vigilante of the 1950's. The key opens up a hidden room in Martin's childhood home, which contains her costume, collected comic books, and most importantly, a series of diaries that his mother kept during her time as The Black Stiletto.

It is through these diaries that we experience Judy Cooper/the Black Stiletto's voice, and we watch her come into her own: from a scared, young runaway to a masked vigilante out to right the wrongs of 1950's New York. It is also through these diaries that Martin learns about the secret life his mother has hidden from him all these years. Who was this woman and what other secrets does she have?

The characters: The POV shifts between the three central characters: Martin in present day; Judy Cooper, through her diary entries from 1958; and Roberto Ranelli, an ex-con with a vendetta against the Black Stiletto, who was just released from prison after 50+ years.

While I like the idea of the diary entries, I felt that Judy's sections were the weakest. Her reflections on her childhood and the lead up to the inception of the Black Stiletto were great, but since we don't get to witness the action as it happens, I felt rather removed from the scenes. Also, minor quibble: I get that this is the diary of a fairly young woman, but every time she wrote "ha ha" in her entries, I rolled my eyes. I don't know why this annoyed me so much, but it did. Took me right out of it.

However, the scenes with Roberto felt fully realized to me. I got who he was, what his motivation was, and I felt real menace coming off of him, even as I laughed at his duck-out-of-water scenarios. As a man who's been incarcerated for 50+ years in Sing Sing, being released into present-day New York must've been like Marty time-traveling to 2015 in Back to the Future II.

The sections with Martin gave an interesting contrast to the gritty, often surreal scenes depicted by Judy and Roberto. He is your everyman; an accountant at a large firm in suburban Chicago, with an ex-wife and a teenage daughter who, against his will, wants to study acting in college. His discovery of who and what his mother really was are in stark relief to his visits to the now frail, sickly woman that his mother has become.

The mystery: This wasn't a traditional mystery in any sense, so I can't really judge that part. It's more at home in the crime/thriller/suspense category.

Final bite: I really liked this book, but I expected to love it. I'm a huge fan of comics and kick-ass ladies, but this fell just a bit short. However, this is most likely due to my high expectations than any real fault with the book. I also recognize that this is the first in a series, and that trying to set up the origin story of a character as complex  as the Black Stiletto is a challenge. I will definitely be sticking with this series, because there is a ton of potential there. 

Rating: 3.8/5

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