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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Prowling the Streets in Search of Justice: A SuperHero is Born


Growing up, I idolized Wonder Woman. She had it all--awesome strength and beauty, intelligence and kindness. To me, she was female perfection.
Ever practical, I knew I’d never achieve that ideal (she was just fantasy, after all), but following her tireless quest to rid the world of evil and replace it with love and peace allowed me to envision a place and time in which women enjoyed real power and respect (and could fix problems without a lot of senseless bloodshed).
It's never all about thrilling feats of derring-do, of course. There’s a bit of melancholy attached to any superhero story too--sometimes a sense of loss, and always feelings of loneliness. Nothing comes without a price. 
Raymond Benson explores what it would be like to become an all-too-human superhero in his new book, The Black Stiletto.
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Martin Talbot is a just a regular Joe. Ordinary-looking, middle-aged, and divorced (with shared custody of an only daughter), he’s not the sort to inspire second glances. Methodical and careful, he works at a large accounting firm by day, then returns home at night to a modest home in the Chicago suburbs.
He has no major complaints about his lot in life--aside from being sad about his mother’s condition. Judy Talbot, the lively woman from his youth, is now an elderly woman--still physically-fit for her age but mentally-felled by the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s--living in a nursing home... a woman who only sometimes recognizes her own son. 
Martin thinks he knows Judy--the single-parent mom he grew up with as well as the befuddled and distant woman she’s become. He is about to find, however, that he knows nothing at all...
After a surprise visit from her lawyer one day, Martin finds himself checking on Judy’s old (long for-sale) house. Dutifully following the instructions she’d penned years earlier in a note the lawyer gave him, Martin winds up in a secret closet buried deep in the old house’s musty basement--a tiny room he never knew existed. 
The furnishings in the hidden room are sparse: a few boxes filled to the brim with journals dating back some fifty years, and--curiously--a couple of leather costumes (Halloween? bondage fetish??). Knowing that whatever he’s just found can’t be the sort of thing Judy would want the nosy realtor stumbling upon one day, Martin loads the dusty lot into his car. 
What he learns when he cracks open the first diary beggars belief, though; his parent-- perfectly-ordinary, suburban-mom Judy Talbot--lived a whole other life before settling down... a life in which she was (according to what she wrote in her journals, anyway) none other than the infamous Black Stiletto, masked crusader notorious for taking on Communist spies, the Mafia, and other assorted thugs and baddies, from the late 1950s to the early ‘60s.
Martin voraciously pours over every word, and as the tale--an ancient, unsolved mystery as far as the authorities are concerned--is told, the truth comes to light for the very first time. In young Judy’s own words, Martin sees how an abused girl--finally pushed too far--took matters into her own hands, escaping from a life of unhappiness into one that was completely foreign to her... then somehow managing to pick up all the pieces and reassemble them into something new.
As the fantastic tale continues, Martin reads that his mother wasn’t content to be just a survivor; she had a burning desire to see justice done, too... eventually, opting to go outside of the law to achieve it. As impossible as it seems that his cookie-baking mother was once a vigilante wanted by both the police and the FBI, there it is, laid out in black-and-white... and somehow, it has the ring of truth to it.
Unfortunately, Martin isn’t the only one in on the secret--something he unhappily discovers when one of the Black Stiletto’s worst enemies suddenly shows up in the Windy City, hell-bent on settling an ancient score. This enemy isn’t one to worry about any pesky little details, either, like whether or not the Black Stiletto’s son and granddaughter are in the way. 
Can the mild-mannered son of the former heroine/vigilante save the day... or does the septuagenarian Stiletto have one final trick up her cardigan sweater sleeve? 

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The Black Stiletto is a mesmerizing tale. The fact that it’s actually told from several different points of view--and that it goes back and forth between present and past--is an interesting (as well as effective) way to relay the story. It allows us to get a handle on who Martin is, then to feel his frustrations and uncertainty when everything in his life starts changing. He’s not a bad guy, and when he thinks selfish thoughts or has trouble coping with his teenaged daughter’s opinions and plans, it’s understandable. 
Of course, the primary focus is on Judy. Seeing how such an iconic (in the framework of the story) character comes into existence is absolutely fascinating, and reading the words of a teenager is an unexpected (but oh-so-appropriate) choice--certainly much more affecting than if the tale were written as the memoirs of an old woman. The writing in the journals consistently sounds like that of a young (and, early on, innocent and naive) girl, a tone which lends her tale--that of the creation of an alter ego more Catwoman than Wonder Woman--a genuine poignancy. From the early tragedies and hard times that shaped the determined young woman and tough avenger she would become, to her invincible good cheer and can-do attitude, you can’t help but root for Judy, and like her.
Another element worthy of mention is the setting--notably that of 1950s New York. It just feels like author Benson must have surely gotten the details right, with the flavors, sights, and sounds of the city, as well as the overall look and tone of the era, and it was fun immersing myself in a time so foreign.
The Black Stiletto is a cool blend of smooth mystery-suspense with some dark comic-book spice, and I enjoyed every bit of it.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Mousies
[Note: The Black Stiletto will be released September 5, 2011.] 

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