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The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings by Raymond Benson

November 10, 2014 3 comments

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The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings by Raymond Benson (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is the final book in the tetralogy featuring this female “avenger” of the 1960s. Before coming to the detail of the review, I need to express real admiration for the craftsmanship that’s gone into the writing of this set of four books. Some degree of honesty is now required. Authors and publishers could sell their wares in monster packages of more than 700 pages (as in the books forming A Song of Ice and Fire saga by George R R Martin). For some reason, a surprisingly large number of titles in science fiction, fantasy and horror have achieved their own epic proportions when it comes to word counts. So it would have been perfectly possible to publish these four books as a duology or trilogy if we’re only thinking in terms of packaging. Yet here comes a single, coherent book that’s conveniently divided into four “diaries” plus other content to give the history a modern context. Each book has a nicely controlled narrative texture and reaches an appropriately cliffhanging climax at the end of each book. Indeed, just judging the whole on a technical level, it’s a masterclass on how to build and control the dynamics and tension of the narrative over four volumes. For the record, this is a single story. Although there could be more books featuring a female “avenger”, the title of this last volume tells you it would be a different hero.

Raymond Benson

Raymond Benson

In this final volume, our slow-reading son finally gets into the fifth and last section of the diaries while his mother’s health steadily worsens, his intended realises there may be more to this man than first met the eye, and his daughter begins to think her interest in martial arts may just come in handy as the killers close in. She’s already despatched two of them — they were about to discuss family relationships with her father towards the end of the last book. The legal overhang from this intervention is resolved quite early on as the DA decides she was acting in defence of her father and so deserves a free pass. Now more bad guys are on the way and the family must work together to avoid the repercussions from events fifty years ago.

As in the previous books, we get a rotating point of view between the primary characters. The original Black Stiletto takes us through the history of what happened when she worked out the identity of the copycat Stiletto and began more seriously to consider how she might clear her own name and protect the child now growing inside her. We also get the child’s father explaining his point of view while the boy, now grown into a man, gives us his often rather pitiful efforts to protect those around him. Fortunately, courage skips a generation and finds contemporary residence in his daughter who becomes the more active solution to the growing problem. The result is a delightful confection of outright thriller and historical mystery as the Black Stiletto puts together the pieces to bring down a major part of the southern mafia’s operation. In this, it’s interesting to see how the original naive young woman has evolved into a slightly more circumspect mother-to-be. Once the son is born, she becomes even more cautious, but contrives to acquire enough money to be able to live on after she disappears, and to make an interesting use of the diamond that featured so strongly in the last exciting instalment. This is not to say she becomes “bad”, but she does begin to take a more flexible approach to the opportunities as they present themselves to her. It all makes for a great read and I recommend the whole tetralogy as great fun with a thriller edge, finishing on a high with The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings.

For a review of the second and third books in the series, see:
The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies
The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes.

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

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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.

The Black Stiletto: Stars & Stripes by Raymond Benson

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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.

Raymond Benson

Raymond Benson

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.

For a review of the next two books in the series, see:
The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings
The Black Stiletto: Secrets & Lies.

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

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