The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes by Raymond Benson
Back in the early 1960s, there were only two terrestrial television stations in Britain. The BBC and ITV although the commercial network was divided into regions which produced local content and some shows for national distribution. The sensation of 1962 was the sudden appearance of Honor Blackman as Dr Cathy Gale in The Avengers (no connection to the comic book series). This show was groundbreaking, potentially showing vigilanteism through the agency of a suave man and ass-kicking woman with a leather-fetish. Even had the series been made in a format that could have been shown in the US, it would undoubtedly have been censored because of its violence. We Brits were made of stern stuff in those days and could be exposed to regular sessions of Cathy Gale disciplining criminals without being corrupted (it was probably too late for most of us). Not, of course, that I’m suggesting anything even faintly pornographic about the series. But there were always sexual overtones about the concept of the show once Honor Blackman was drafted into the cast. Not only did she break with role stereotypes by being seen to fight and beat men, but there were always questions as to whether she and John Steed were “having an affair”. Extramarital sexual activity in those days was considered a little risqué for inclusion in a national television show. Not that we were prudish as a nation. Sex before marriage was something we all did but didn’t often discuss in public.
Against this background, it’s fascinating to come to The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes by Raymond Benson (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) the third in the series following the life of Judy Cooper, aka the Black Stiletto. This series is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s in America, and sees her fighting for truth and justice in her own inimitable way. Intertwined is the contemporary story of Judy Talbot, mother of Martin, now fading away as a person courtesy of Alzheimer’s.
At this point in the twin-track story, we’ve come to the heady days of 1960 and John F Kennedy’s announcement he intended to run for President. Our knife-wielding vigilante is stalking the streets of New York in search of wrongs to right. To say she’s a complete amateur is to understate the naïveté of her behaviour. Courtesy of her activities in the first two books, she’s achieved some degree of notoriety and the police are supposed to arrest her on sight. Yet very much in the tradition of the Adam West version of Batman, she scrambles across roof tops and through the shadows on the streets without attracting too much attention from pedestrians. Obviously, New Yorkers were used to masked women stalking the streets in search of criminals to beat to a pulp. This changes when she ventures into Chinatown and finds herself taking on the Tongs. Now she’s quickly spotted and has to fight her way out of difficult situations with spectators looking on. What saves her is the insularity of the Chinese community. Although everyone is frightened of the Tongs and will not help her, they will not let word of the emerging conflict leave these streets. It’s essentially a private matter. The other factor which comes into play in this part of the historical thread is the sense of honour and respect between the two sides. For all the Black Stiletto is undermining the authority of the Tongs by publicly beating up one of their lieutenants and leaving him tied up to be arrested, this does not prevent discussion and resolution of the dispute on agreed terms. One interpretation would be that both sides are acting outside the law and so are free to agree their own rules of engagement. Another way of looking at this is as a convenient plot device based on the concept of face. Despite embarrassing the individual members of the Tong, our heroine eventually gives face to the Tong leadership by showing it respect — gei-mian-zi.
Whereas I find this element in the plot slightly less than credible, the second element built around the Kennedy campaign works well. The young and politically innocent girl volunteers to support the campaign, and gets caught up in skullduggery, even meeting the great man when he comes to New York. From my side of the Pond, the general tenor of the passages describing 1960 feels right with the emergence of tension between left and right as the countercultural Beat Generation consolidates itself in New York with long-haired “beatniks” prepared to risk public disapproval by appearing in public. In this I note her willingness to engage in sex which reflects the increasing cultural liberalisation of the time. The diary format means our view of events is highly episodic and covers many months of activity. It matches the modern day sections of the book where Martin struggles with his own awareness of his mother’s past. As an ironic commentary, his daughter may actually be following in her grandmother’s footsteps by learning martial arts and engineering a situation in which a serial rapist (and possible murderer) is taken off the streets. As readers, we can understand why Martin’s anxiety levels are high. If you’ve read the first two books, the reason for his panic are even more obvious.
Taking all this together, The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes is an impressive effort at an inherently difficult subject. Writing about vigilanteism forces the author and reader to confront the issue of how far we approve extralegal violence in a good cause. None of this heroine’s actions are tainted by revenge. Like Cathy Gale in The Avengers, she’s essentially disinterested in her use of violence. Indeed, she’s so naive, it’s easier to forgive her reckless disregard for the law and her own safety. Sometimes going out as The Black Stiletto drunk, you wonder how she’s managed to survive two books without being killed or arrested. In the end, I’m persuaded this falls on the right side of the moral line and leaves me praising the general sense of fun in watching her balance out the foolishness with occasional bursts of bravery. The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes is a very good value thriller.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.