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The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies by Raymond Benson

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As with most reviews, I’m setting the hare running with a new question to mull over before getting to the meat of the discussion. The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies by Raymond Benson (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is a book in which the point of view keeps switching from contemporary America to the America of 1961. Albeit I was in England at this time, I was emerging into a greater awareness of the world around me. By modern standards, I was still remarkably naive but that was the norm “back then”. And this prompts the question. Is this fascination with my own past a symptom of a mental disorder? In countries which experienced significant immigration, there were many cases in which homesickness advanced into what was then diagnosed as melancholia. Today, we would think of it as being a depressive disorder as loneliness becomes an increasingly negative emotion.

The Britain of 1961 still boasted a cold and fairly miserable climate — the Gulf Stream continued to produce bad winters and luke-warm summers. We lacked many of the amenities we now take for granted. But I’m nostalgic. This is not to say I’m depressed. The fact I would prefer to live in the past if it was possible (Dr Who fans can explain how it’s done in the comments section) is not a psychological disorder in my vocabulary — the Greek origin of the word is interesting: nostos means “home” and algos is “pain”. In the real world it means an extreme form of unhappiness that one cannot physically return home. In my own case, I am still living my life going forward into the future without any associated symptoms of pain. But it’s sometimes pleasant to revisit my roots even when some of the memories that surface are unhappy. It gives me a sense of continuity. This is not to deny the often bittersweet quality of the emotions associated with looking backwards. But as I grow ever older and so closer to death, I find many benefits from an increasingly long perspective.

Raymond Benson

Raymond Benson

The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies has a young woman in 1961 and the same woman now descending in Alzheimer’s in modern times. She only intermittently interacts with her son and granddaughter. This leaves the only form of communication through her five diaries. We’ve now been granted access to the first four. The fifth and final episode is due in November, 2014. Back in 1961, Judy Talbot was Judy Cooper, aka The Black Stiletto, a one-woman vigilante who had been boldly policing the streets of New York. Unfortunately, her best efforts have not been appreciated by the law enforcement community. The first third of the book therefore deals with the law of unintended consequences. NYPD has sworn to drive this dangerous woman off the streets. Every time she goes out, she almost immediately gets into trouble. If she did not go out, the police would not chase her. If no-one was chasing her, she would not run out into the road and cause accidents. Police officers and civilians would not be hurt. When a police officer is seriously hurt despite her efforts to save him, she decides it’s time to leave New York.

She has met a fascinating man who may be “Mr Right”. He has left a standing invitation for her to join him in Los Angeles. It’s therefore convenient to go investigate whether this is the start of a new life in a permanent relationship. Needless to say, the vigilante in her cannot stay hidden for long. However, this new city proves rather more welcoming than New York. Indeed, she’s so comfortable, she even drops into a bar for a drink while in costume. This is very much in the tradition of Adam West’s Batman who would sit masked in the back of restaurants with no-one taking any notice. As is required to move the plot forward, this leads to a chance meeting with an agent for the local DA who’s looking for a shortcut through the red tape to investigate the local gangs.

The Black Stiletto therefore becomes a stalking horse, breaking into properties with gang connections and provoking situations in which the police can enter without a warrant or can justify getting a warrant. Needless to say, she proves very effective and soon has local gang bosses deeply angry at their losses. It should come as no surprise that Leo Kelly, her man, is also rapidly moving up the regional ranks of criminality. He and his sister have a counterfeit operation and are known to rob banks when they need the money or other baubles. The relationship is doomed, of course, but it has set up the major plot lever to explain why The Black Stiletto had to retire and is still in physical danger. All this will be resolved in November and, from the current position, everything is very nicely poised.

As a character, I find the young Judy Cooper somewhat endearing. Although the early 1960s were less sophisticated, she takes innocent recklessness to new levels. But if we’re prepared to suspend disbelief on her ability to walk the streets in costume and not be arrested or shot down in a hail of bullets, this is very much a series to savour. In spirit, it edges towards the superhero vernacular with a masked vigilante taking on the mob and organised crime. But our hero has no superpowers. She’s merely very fit and a highly-skilled martial artist with knife-throwing skills. The result is a very vulnerable woman overcoming her weaknesses and making her own way in an America that was still intensely patriarchal. The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies is all very enjoyable even if you’re not into the nostalgia side of the reading exercise.

For a review of two other books in the series, see:
The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings
The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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