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In the past few decades we’ve seen a number of efforts to showcase what superheroes in the “Real World” might look like: of course there is Alan Moore’s pathbreaking WATCHMEN comic series (1986-87), along with the 2009 movie version; the long-running WILD CARDS series (1987-present); and the HEROES TV series (2006-10), among many others. For those of us who enjoy stories about superheroes, it’s always fun to imagine what our own world might be like if superheroes were “real.” Raymond Benson, one of the authors selected to write some additional James Bond novels after Ian Fleming’s death, has written THE BLACK STILETTO as his own entry in this sub-genre.

THE BLACK STILETTO is set during the late 1950s and follows the adventures of a small-town girl, Judy Cooper, who travels from a broken home to New York City and ultimately becomes the world’s first (and only) costumed vigilante/superhero. The book is told from three perspectives. The first are entries from Judy’s diary. Her voice in the diary entries is fairly convincing. Judy is a young, simple girl, without much education, and is new to the big city. She is a kind of naïf, and while that works for story purposes, her prose is not as engaging as a more sophisticated narrator’s might be. My only qualm about this kind of perspective is that it drains some of the immediacy of the action and excitement from the story as they are later retellings of things that happened to Judy, who later records them in her diary when safe back home. As we’re reading, we know that everything turns out fine for Judy, or else she wouldn’t be calmly writing about them. We gain a little reflection from Judy on why she did things and how she feels about them later, but I’m not sure that the trade-off is worth it. It’s an interesting narrative device in any case.

While Judy’s chapters are contemporaneous with her ‘50s adventures, the remaining two perspectives are from the present day. The first is Judy’s son Martin, who is a bit of a nebbish. We need Martin’s perspective to give us some context in the present-day because Judy is, sadly, no longer in a position where we can speak for herself: she is in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. Judy worked under her secret identity for an undetermined period of time, then retired to a relatively normal life to raise her son, all without the public ever discovering who was behind the Black Stiletto’s mask. The final perspective, and the one with the fewest number of chapters, is Roberto Ranelli, a mafia hitman Judy tangled with early in her career. She was responsible for killing his twin brother (also a Mafioso) and putting him in prison. He gets out fifty years later and comes back for revenge. Roberto is a pretty twisted, evil guy, and provides some much-needed tension for the modern-day portion of the story. These chapters hold a real sense of menace that is missing from some of the other parts of the book, and this present-day plotline is wrapped-up nicely, if just a little unsatisfactorily. I was actually a little surprised that Judy’s granddaughter Gina didn’t end up kicking butt in the finale. I was pretty sure that Benson was setting Gina up to take up Judy’s crimefighting in the modern day, but that didn’t happen. Oh well, maybe in the sequel, as this seemed a lost opportunity.

I’d actually have liked to see Judy’s abilities played up a little more strongly, and hope that happens in the sequels. She has a number of minor abilities – enhanced speed, fighting prowess, strength, hearing and vision, healing abilities – none of which are superhuman per se, but they give her edges that the ordinary bad guys she encounters don’t have. Does she have actual super powers? Well, that’s never made clear. I’d say it’s strongly implied, but never spelled out.

I give this one 3.5 stars out of five. I really, really wanted to like this one. The premise is terrific and has lots of potential, but I was left wanting more. Much more. It ended being just a little clichéd and without much substance. This is fairly light action fodder, without a great deal of depth. I will watch for the sequel, as I understand that an entire series is eventually planned, but I do sincerely hope that the next installment is better – the next needs to be more engagingly written and faster paced.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers