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The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings by Raymond Benson

November 10, 2014 3 comments

BlackStilettoEndingsBeginningsCover

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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Shockwave by Andrew Vachss

May 23, 2014 3 comments

Shockwave-An-Aftershock-Novel-688810-da136862b1ab16e6d9f0

Shockwave by Andrew Vachss (Pantheon Books, 2014) is another of these books that challenges the reader to decide why we read books. One possible explanation is the naive hope they will somehow produce a sense of enjoyment. A good author is one who will transport the reader to another place where interesting, morally instructive and inspiring things will happen. Or we may expect laughs sufficient to help us temporarily forget the misery in our lives. This list is as long as those preaching escapism will know. So what do we make of books that show us a darker side of life? Let’s take vigilanteism as an example. The protagonist in these books is an individual who ignores the current social systems and laws. Whereas ordinary citizens must wait for the police to act and courts to adjudicate, favoring always the presumption of innocence and the right to due process, the vigilante becomes judge and executioner, arbitrarily short-circuiting all the safeguards society has put in place, and dispatching all those deemed unworthy to continue living. So our protagonist identifies a rapist, kidnaps him and, in a quiet place where no-one can hear him scream, cuts off his testicles and allows him to bleed to death. Is this entertainment? Well no. The author does not intend to describe such a scene to make us laugh. The author is offering us a alternative social model in which individuals with strength and determination flout the law and impose their own punishments on those felt deserving.

This is a first-person narrative about the life and times of a young man who had the “good” fortune to be rescued from a life of misery by an older man who worked for the resistance during World War II. Knowing the world is dog-eat-dog, this man teaches the boy how to survive. As soon as he appears old enough, the boy enrolls in the French Foreign Legion and learns more skills. More importantly, he gains a new identity and French nationality. There’s no longer any link to his past. When he has served his time, he continues to work as a mercenary, amassing wealth and giving himself the chance to make a clean break and live a life of peace should be opportunity arise. When he’s seriously wounded, the first stage of his physical recovery is managed by a nurse working for Médecins Sans Frontières. Some years later, he meets her and discovers she has burned out. What used to be self-sacrifice in a noble cause has become an unendurable burden as the mountain of bodies resulting from man’s inhumanity to man is finally too much. They bond and move to what’s intended to be a quiet haven where both can recover from their past life experiences. Except people like that can never really switch off their moral compasses. Wherever they are, they find themselves unable to look away when they see injustices that will not be remedied by the local law enforcement systems. In such situations, is not triage not justified?

Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss

It may be a girl who has been raped but, when our couple look further into the situation, they discover there’s a small group of young men who target young women and, for various reasons, the law enforcement officers will not take action. How many victims would you tolerate if you had the will and the skills to remedy the situation in a permanent fashion? Or suppose you became aware that a down-and-out schizophrenic had been charged with a murder he almost certainly could not have committed. Indeed, the more you looked into the situation of this body washed up on the shore, the more convinced you became this was a professional hit. Yet the local DA has the simple political drive to reassure his neighbours they are safe from the homeless that live in the nooks and crannies of the town and countryside around them. This defendant is a convenient scapegoat to close a case and secure re-election. There’s no personal malice involved. It’s just a simple political expediency in operation. For our protagonist, there’s just one problem. The usual clandestine extermination of the wrongdoers will achieve nothing. Without positive evidence exonerating the schizophrenic, he will go either to jail or a mental hospital. So either the DA must agree to withdraw charges or a court must formally acquit of all charges. This is a challenge and, in a sense, the only thing that saves the book from wallowing in amorality. In a sense, this is a situation that can only be resolved by someone altruistic helping in the defence of an indigent defendant. A rich defendant could use his or her wealth to buy the services of private inquiry agents to ferret out the truth. A poor man with mental disabilities has nothing given the public defence attorney has no budget with which to buy in expensive services.

On balance, there’s just enough in the book to leave us on the right side of the moral line although there are an alarming number of bodies that are left at the end. It’s not always easy to extract information without breaking a few eggs. Allowing for the ease with which the right information comes into our hero’s possession once he starts looking, this is a smoothly constructed plot about an interesting character. Even though I may not sympathise with his methods, I can at least understand why he is what he is. To that extent, Shockwave is a success.

For the review of another book by Andrew Vachss, see Urban Renewal.

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

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.

Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss

December 28, 2013 1 comment

Urban Renewal cover_full

In a long life, I’ve known a number of career criminals including one charged with murder. As people to meet in pubs and ordinary social settings, they are remarkably unremarkable. But in the right context, of course, they do radiate a certain menace. So books like Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) are always interesting because they walk the narrow moral line for authors in that they describe the ordinariness of these people’s lives interspersed by often cold-blooded outbursts of crime. To that extent, they reflect an underlying reality about life. Even the most deadly killers have families and friends. When they are not out on a job, they like to relax and do boring stuff. Indeed, it’s this time of being human that grounds them. Without this, they would be like mad dogs and bark so long and loud that even the most dense detective in the city would be able to identify them. It’s the quiet ones you never see coming.

For the author, there’s a dilemma. If the villain as protagonist is painted as completely “evil”, the majority of readers might find the reading exercise fascinating but only in a macabre way, i.e. many horror novels trade on the inherent evil of key characters to create the appropriate emotional response. But the more redeeming character features the author allows the protagonist, the less intimidating he or she becomes. At an intermediate stage this leads us to the vigilante. This is a socially useful individual who uses extralegal strategies to defeat the real evil around him. As readers, we’re invited to forgive the fact he or she kills the really bad guys because this activity satisfies the utilitarian criterion of delivering the greatest good for the least cost. Indeed, this plot usually introduces the human before the resort to criminality. This can be a loving parent whose child is kidnapped, raped and killed in a gruesome way. The police suspect who’s responsible but do not have enough evidence to justify the expense of a public trial. Our protagonist therefore takes the suspect somewhere quiet and asks pertinent questions with a cattleprod or electric drill. If guilt is established, we accept revenge as a justification for doing away with this pond scum. Should it prove not to be the kidnapper but other offences are admitted, we’re still encouraging our hero in the extermination campaign. The next one he takes will be the actual kidnaper. It will all work out for the best. One of the classic tropes is the apparently timid man or sexy woman who learns martial arts and how to shoot. They then walk the darker streets and back alleys inviting muggers and rapists to strike. This satisfies our general desire to have the streets turned into safer places for ordinary people. Since the police have to wait for the criminals to attack, this more proactive approach is more efficient.

Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss

In Urban Renewal, we have a tight group who are unquestioningly loyal to each other. Cross is the brains. As Marlon C Cain was a career criminal as a juvenile and ended up in the ultimate “pen” with Vernon D Lewis aka Ace. During their stay, they met an already massive individual who later becomes known as Rhino. This trio will add Princess, Tracker, Tiger and others. In a way, they become a family of misfits and outlaws whose only interest in life is survival and self-advancement. Their services are for sale, but this is not a simple murder for hire operation. They are far more sophisticated than that. More to the point, for all they would die for each other, they have no code of honour or morality. They do whatever it takes to earn the next buck, and then move on in search of the next. This makes them a very valuable resource to organised crime in their city (for now Chicago). It also means they are very carefully watched. If they become too dangerous to the mob or other criminal groups, the conflict would be short and brutal.

This is the second novel to feature Cross, but there are also short stories offering different views of the group and how it operates. The title gives us the theme. The group literally decide to invest their time (and some of their money) in a street which could be gentrified if the local gangs would decide to leave it alone. The homes are bought at the bottom of the market as the mortgage defaults cascade through the neighborhood. Now all they have to do is clear out the local rats. But at a metaphorical, we also see one of the group deciding he would like to live in one of these houses. This is a major psychological shift. His apartment is fortified and in a poor part of the city. He’s not suddenly transforming into an upwardly mobile social stereotype, but it’s nevertheless a form of renewal. Whereas Cross might otherwise have been less than committed to the role of pest control officer, the group must now work for real.

The other plot threads deal with an attempt to place a mole inside his organisation, a how-to become a player guide, disposing of inconvenient people, playing one mob leader against his ambitious deputy, and street racing 101. Although all these elements are woven into a relatively coherent whole, there’s a slight feel of fix-up as the structure tends to be slightly episodic. The upshot of all this is a book which holds interest. For all their amorality, the group is inadvertently a force for good. A part of Chicago ends up a better neighborhood in which civilians can live without harassment from local gangs, drug pushers and prostitutes. Several senior gangland figures are removed from their posts which disrupts the activities of their organisations. Some low-level thugs are persuaded to move up to better levels and an exploitative grifter gets his just deserts. Because these socially desirable results are not directly intended, we are denied the chance to accept Cross as a vigilante. He will always be too far off the reservation for acceptance. Nevertheless, Urban Renewal is worth reading. It’s not glorifying evil. Andrew Vachss simply catalogues the murders dispassionately and passes on.

For a review of another book by Andrew Vachss, see Shockwave.A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch

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Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch (Exhibit A, 2013) manages to combine two firsts in one package. As I mentioned in another review, Angry Robot has been spinning off new imprints. This is my first look at Exhibit A. It also happens to be the first novel by this author. Following the adage you should always write about what you know, he splits the action between Iowa where he spent his early years and California where he moved and now lives. In 2012, he retired at the rank of Lieutenant and as Commander of the Detective Division. Uncannily, he has a rookie cop in Iowa called Kevin Kearns and a retired Inspector in San Francisco called Bob Farrell. When a rookie author seems intent on mining his own experience, this can turn out either very bad or very good. Fortunately and possibly because the events described in this book are somewhat removed from his own experiences, this proves to be very good.

As is sometimes the case, I have to begin with a warning. The book deals with a violent and dangerous predator who, given the chance, enjoys killing children and young adults. When an author approaches the task of describing the actions and motivations of such a man, it’s easy to overstep boundaries and either lapse into melodrama or become too graphic in describing what happens. I suppose you could say we’re in the territory occupied by Thomas Harris with the books featuring Dr Hannibal Lecter, and Thomas Tessier with books like Rapture and Secret Strangers, where authors aim to strike a balance between the thriller and a horror novel. To be honest, I’m always uncomfortable when it comes to imposing a specific genre on to a book. To me, genre is nothing more than a marketing tool to tell a bookshop where best to shelve a particular title. An author should always be true to the subject matter and let the prevailing culture determine how far to go into the psychology and practice of sociopathic behaviour. Some might find the descriptions too distressing. Others might criticise the author for turning out something bland in the tradition of Criminal Minds — suitable for eight seasons on primetime television. Taste is highly subjective. So from the outset we see Vernon Slocum snatch a young girl from a school party, shoot a teacher and beat Kearns unconscious. A few page later, we have a trucker notice her body and call the police to the scene. This is the start of what you might call a minor crime wave as our Vet travels across country on his “mission”.

Sean Lynch justly proud of his first novel

Sean Lynch justly proud of his first novel

The book is branded as the first in an intended series featuring Farrell and Kearns. Farrell is the older, streetwise detective who’s seen it all before and understands how all the relevant law enforcement systems work. He recognises Slocum’s signature and, for understandable reasons, decides to pursue the man in a private capacity. Yes it’s yet another book about vigilanteism but, in this instance, it’s more forgivable. This is not personal revenge. It’s a desire to right past wrongs and prevent further deaths. So to confirm the identity of his prey, he needs to spring Kearns from informal custody. The FBI have no idea who’s responsible for this killing and, to appease the public who are baying for blood, they’re intending to blame the rookie cop for failing to prevent the abduction. Half the interest in the book is therefore watching Kearns lose his naive view of the world and decide where he stands on moral issues. Perhaps it’s easy to say a trained man with a gun will always be able to kill in self-defence. But how does he reconcile his oath as a law-enforcement officer to uphold the law and protect the public, with the increasingly obvious need to do something to prevent Slocum from continuing to kill? The answers to this and similar questions arise naturally as the plot unfolds. Although there are elements of convenience in the way it eventually plays out, I have the sense both Farrell and Kearns come out of it as well as can be expected in moral terms.

Thematically, the book features the stereotypical antagonism between the police and the FBI. Indeed, at every point in the book, the senior FBI officers are cast as not very bright, inherently unpleasant and obstructive. Rightly or wrongly, we’re expected to cheer whenever our dynamic duo and their support team member manage to scam or beat up one of the Feebs. We’re also to see considerable flimflam action with Farrell exploiting the gullibility of those who have what he wants. I’m always surprised that creative writers make the average person such a sucker or someone so easily bullied into compliance by apparent authority figures. Perhaps this is a symptom of my own naive faith in human intelligence. Anyway, no matter how credible the salesmanship of Farrell, there’s good chemistry between the pair and I’m interested to see whether the next book can maintain this standard. This plot is all in the heat of the moment and we’re bowled along with relentless pace until the prey is cornered. It will be different in the next book as they put up their shingle as PIs.

I have only one minor worry which is aimed not at the author but at whoever edited the book which I have read as an ARC. There are two or three short passages of recapitulation which are annoyingly redundant. Hopefully these have been removed in the retail version. Other than this, Wounded Prey is a genuinely exciting thriller which contrives to avoid the more obvious pitfalls inherent in portraying the potentially explicit subject matter. You should give this a try.

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.

Confession of Murder or Naega Salinbeomida or 내가 살인범이다 (2012)

April 8, 2013 1 comment

Confession of Murder

Confession of Murder or Naega Salinbeomida or 내가 살인범이다 (2012) makes a pleasingly dramatic start. It’s 2005. Our hero is drowning his sorrows in a bar when a masked man throws himself through the window to attack him. Recovering quickly from the surprise, there’s a terrific fight followed by a trademark chase in the rain. It’s always good for a director and scriptwriter Jung Byoung-Gil to make a statement of intent. No mater how cerebral this police procedural may get, there will always be a chance for fights and the occasional shooting. Anyway, our hero is left carrying a scar on his face to remind him of his run-in with a serial killer. Retreating ever further into the bottle, he views himself as an increasing failure as a detective.

Jung Jae-Young hot in pursuit

Jung Jae-Young hot in pursuit

 

This is Homicide Detective Choi Hyung-Goon (Jung Jae-Young) who, at his peak, was in charge of a major serial killer case. It was never solved. Then after the period of statutory liability has expired, Lee Doo-Suk (Park Shi Hoo) writes a book confessing to the murders. The news conference where he launches his book confessing to the murders is a nicely judged commentary on the role of the media. The author’s display of the bullet wound allegedly resulting from the shot fired by Detective Choi when they chased across roof-tops is guaranteed to grab everyone’s attention. When he starts to do the rounds of the parents of the girls he claims to have killed to show his remorse, the press follow and sales of the book are phenomenal. The question for the police, therefore, is whether the confession is real. A question that becomes all the more pressing when the author and the media come into the police station to greet the detective in charge.

 

The media, however, are anxious to get the alleged criminal and failed cop on to the same television show. If the cop kills the confessed murderer on a live show, the ratings will go through the roof. The television impresario played by Jang Gwang is magnificently capitalist. He truly understands the cult of celebrity and is out to exploit the opportunity to the maximum. There are two things going for him. The first is that the man making the confession is not only inherently newsworthy, he’s also rather beautiful. Vast numbers of women and teen girls are swooning over his good looks. Indeed, when the detective accuses him of being a fraud, we see the young girls outraged. They want their new hero to be the serial killer who used to go round killing young girls. The satire is moderately savage, charting the mindless irrationality of the cult that rapidly grows up around this admitted killer and the exploitation of this cult by the mainstream media to make millions of dollars profit.

Park Shi Hoo beginning to find life a little tough

Park Shi Hoo beginning to find life a little tough

 

Meanwhile, led by Han Ji-Soo (Kim Young-Ae), the mother of the last girl whose body was never found, the relatives plan their own quiet revenge. Except the manner of the kidnapping wins prizes for being one of the most amusing I’ve seen in years. It’s a complete masterpiece showing how amateur criminals are accident-prone when it comes to executing a plan and it’s worth seeing the film just for that sequence. The most dangerous of this group proves to be Choi Kang-Sook (Jo Eun-Ji). Her efforts with the crossbow prove highly effective. Mention must also be made of Jung Hae-Kyun who gives a performance of great physicality. He has terrific screen presence.

 

Taken overall, we have a wonderful film. Indeed, it’s one of the best of 2012. Although I think it rather obvious what’s going on, the mechanics of the plot are worked out with rigorous attention to detail. Absolutely everything you see has a purpose and builds up to a most satisfying emotional outcome in the epilogue. Park Shi Hoo smiles most convincingly as the man making the confession. That he manages to come over as sympathetic even when admitting to multiple murders is a significant triumph. Jung Jae-Young is also impressive as the detective slowly falling to pieces — a fall made all the more terrible when the flashbacks explain his personal history. Although revenge films can sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth as you feel vigilanteism is being condoned by film-makers, this plays absolutely fair with everyone, both individual and state officials, operating within the law and upholding its principles. Indeed, one character goes above and beyond the ordinary call of duty to ensure the law is not broken (too much). Confession of Murder or Naega Salinbeomida or 내가 살인범이다 is a film you should go out of your way to see.

 

For those of you who are fans of Park Shi Hoo, there’s a fan site at http://parksihoo4u.com/

 

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