Thursday, September 1, 2011

Origins of the Black Stiletto

The Black Stiletto
by Raymond Benson

“My mother was the masked vigilante known as the Black Stiletto. I just found this out today, and I’ve been her son for forty-eight years. All my life I knew she had some secrets, but needless to say, this is a bit of a shock.” And with those opening sentences, I was absolutely hooked on Raymond Benson’s latest novel, The Black Stiletto.

In Benson’s world, everyone knows the name of “the Black Stiletto,” but her identity has been a mystery for decades. From the late 50’s through the early 60’s, this woman donned a mask and leather costume and took to the streets to fight crime. After a few years of activity, she dropped out of site, never to be heard from again—except for the comic book series, the feature film, and other pop culture references—until the day that suburban Chicago accountant, Martin Talbot, got a call from his mother’s attorney. She’d left a letter and a locked box in his care, to be given to Martin “in the event she died or became incapacitated.” At the age of 72, Judy Talbot is in pretty good shape physically, but Alzheimer’s has hit her hard. Most days she doesn’t even recognize her son.

A free teaser story
So that’s the set-up. The story unfolds in three narrative voices, two in the present day and one in the past. The first is Martin’s account and reaction as he unravels his mother’s true history. His mother has left behind a number of items, safely stashed away, including several diaries. Martin begins reading the first, for the year 1958. The second voice is his mother’s own account, writing in her diary as a young woman. It’s the Black Stiletto’s origin story. Every hero has one. Within her diary she summarizes her life story and what led her to becoming a masked vigilante, until she reaches the present day in 1958, and then carries her story forward. The third voice is that of Roberto Ranelli, who appears in both timelines. Back in the 50’s, he was a mob enforcer. In the present day, he’s a 78-year-old man, just paroled from Sing-Sing after 52 years. And he has revenge on his mind.

There is much that is delightful about this story. As I mentioned, the premise grabbed me right away. All I could think of was how it would feel to learn something that stunning about your mom! And while there have been variations on this story, with movies like Kick-Ass and other pop culture treatments, this one’s a little different. The period setting is exceptionally well-handled. It was an interesting time historically and socially, and Benson uses the period to great effect. He’s also having a lot fun with his audience. There are occasional nods and winks such as:

“As I drank another glass of whiskey, my eyes fell on a stack of Fiorello’s comic books. The latest Batman was on top. I picked it up and thumbed through it. In my foggy state of mind, I read a bit and couldn’t help but laugh a little. The premise was silly—some millionaire dressed up in a costume, had a secret identity, and went out to fight crime. Who would really do such a thing? I suppose that was the germ of the idea that would change my life.”

Judy is awesome! She’s a feminist (“I’ve learned a lot in my short life about how the world treats women.”) and a lady with an interesting system of ethics. Still, I have to admit that I loved Martin’s briefer appearances in the novel. I am captivated by his journey. There isn’t much to Ranelli. He has a role to fill, and he does his job. The book moves fast, and can be read in a matter of hours. It truly is pure entertainment.

The novel’s greatest weakness is the actual writing. I don’t think most readers attracted to this title are looking for gorgeous prose and exciting use of language. I wasn’t. The prose is very casual and idiomatic, with a lot of direct address to the reader, but it was clunky and awkward at times. It got weird with tenses occasionally, and the dropped g’s and all the “gonna”s and “gotta”s and other written dialect got on my nerves a bit. Possibly this is just my peeve.

Nonetheless, Raymond Benson has done a terrific job of setting the hook. This is just the first of a proposed five-book series. The Black Stiletto comes to a very satisfying conclusion with a full story arc in both time periods. Still, there are many unanswered questions that are a part of the larger Black Stiletto mythology. Martin says, “I’m just going to have to read more of Mom’s diaries to learn more. There’s also the mystery of the other items I found. What’s with the JFK campaign button? The heart-shaped locket? The roll of film?” And so forth. These are questions I want the answer to! I want the whole story, and I want to know how it all turns out for Martin and his family. Yes, I am hooked.

P.S.:  This is one of the cleverest book trailers I've ever seen.  Check it out!  Also, I'll be posting a fun video interview I did with author Raymond Benson next week.

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