Review: The Black Stiletto

The Black Stiletto
Raymond Benson
Oceanview Publishing
$25.95, hardcover, 288 pages (also available as an ebook)
Release date: Sep. 5, 2011

The explosions of an action movie or the “Pow! Bam!” of a comic strip are always exciting, but, for most superhero fans, what really makes a successful hero is the story. Setting aside the science-fiction bent of teens with mutant powers or mad scientists exposed to chemicals, underneath the mask is usually a normal person. What made him (or her) reach for a cape and start prowling city streets at night?

Raymond Benson’s The Black Stiletto offers a case study to answer such questions. Eisenhower’s in the White House, and Judy Cooper escapes an abusive stepfather, only to find herself embroiled in romance, murder, the mafia and vigilantism in New York City.

Her exploits as the Black Stiletto (named for her favorite knife) make her a household name through the 1960s. The police don’t know what to make of her, but, since Judy keeps her identity hidden successfully, they never have a chance to catch her.

When the book opens, Judy’s son, Martin, is going through her belongings at their old home. Stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, Judy is now in a nursing home. Benson skillfully switches from the son’s point of view to Judy’s diary as the reader and Martin uncover his mother’s secrets.

Benson’s previous credits include several James Bond novels and several movie and video game adaptations. His experience writing action sequences works well in The Black Stiletto. Judy’s escapades have more than a note of comic-book/action-movie realism to them, but this works well within the context of the novel.

What doesn’t work so well is the introduction of a third point of view. This one is from Roberto Ranelli, recently out of prison and with a vendetta against the Stiletto. The information in Ranelli’s sections is important and of interest, but the point of view is jarring. It makes sense for Judy’s sections to be written in the first person – we’re reading her diary along with her son. And since Martin is the first character we meet, it is easy to accept his sections in the first person. But when Ranelli is introduced, questions about how readers know what he’s thinking start to interfere with the story. Benson may have been better served to write Martin and Ranelli from a third-person point of view, saving the first person for Judy’s diary.

The point-of-view problem is a small quibble (as is the unnecessary preternatural hearing, grace, etc Judy exhibits from puberty). The Stiletto comes across as a believable vigilante, albeit one in a mask and black leather outfit. Her motivations are straightforward and she has justifications for becoming involved in the crimes detailed in the novel. Yes, she ends up with an almost-cliched job at a boxing ring and some of her back story reads as if Benson worked his way down a checklist of genre tropes, but he uses the cliches and tropes well. The story and Judy’s character remain the most important aspects to The Black Stiletto. And Benson captures the voice of 15-year-old Judy.

Benson’s website announces a second book in the Stiletto series (coming in May 2012). If the first novel is any indication, the second will be an exciting read.

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