Raymond Benson is the award-winning author of thirty-two published titles. He’s also a film historian/instructor, musician, and stage director.
Benson’s THE BLACK STILETTO is back in the fourth novel of his five-book saga with SECRETS & LIES. It’s 1961. Judy Cooper, the Stiletto, moves to Los Angeles after meeting Leo, a charismatic man who has many secrets—could he be the father of Martin, Judy’s son? And is Leo the connection to a near-fatal incident that terrorizes Martin and his daughter Gina in the present? The Black Stiletto story takes a dark left turn with even more mysteries, secrets, and lies.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY says Benson’s appealing fourth novel is “reminiscent of heroes from the Golden Age of comics like the Black Canary and Lady Luck, thrill-seeking Judy makes an endearing protagonist.” And Pam Stack, Authors on the Air Radio, notes that Benson “ratchets up the suspense, demands answers to questions, and continues to capture the imagination of the reader so that we are begging for the book not to end.”
Sounds like THE BLACK STILETTO: SECRETS & LIES is just the thing to get readers off to an exciting New Year. Let’s talk with Raymond Benson on how he continues to keep readers on the edge of their seats in his well-received series.
THE BLACK STILETTO: SECRETS & LIES is the fourth novel in the five-book saga of The Black Stiletto, featuring a 1960s masked female vigilante battling common crooks. How do you write about such a crime-fighting, undercover female hero in an era when we don’t think of women as strong and independent?
I suppose that was the point. The period—late 50s and early 60s—is kind of hot right now, and I wanted to create a character in that time frame that would connect with women readers. Additionally, a good portion of the story also takes place in the present, when the character is elderly and dying from Alzheimer’s in a nursing home. I wanted a dichotomy between the Judy Talbot of the present and the Judy Cooper of the past, and how revelations about her exploits affect what happens to her grown son now. Yes, she was a feminist before that word was in our vernacular, and that helps make her unique. She certainly isn’t an ordinary woman of that era, and I guess much of the thrust behind the books is a comment on how women’s roles in society have changed.
Where did you get the idea to write a series about a mythical feminist legend with a secret identity?
I had been playing around with an idea about a grown man who discovers some dark secret about his dying mother with Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t know what that secret was. I definitely wanted to tell a story about Alzheimer’s because I’ve had some personal experience with it in my family. Then, one day my literary manager, Peter Miller, suggested that I come up with something that women would like because the highest percentage of book-buyers are female. I jokingly suggested that I create a female superhero—we laughed and then Peter got serious and said, “That’s not a bad idea. Think about it.” So I did, and I ended up combining the two ideas, and then everything clicked. The dying woman’s dark secret was that she was a mysterious costumed vigilante that was world-famous at one time, but no one knew who she really was.
The Black Stiletto series has been noted to be part complex novel and part comic book action. Do you agree and how do you balance this mix across a series while keeping the stakes high?
I do agree and I think LIBRARY JOURNAL really hit the nail on the head when they described the book as a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” That was so perfect that I use the phrase to describe the series to someone who hasn’t read it. While it certainly has a comic book sensibility in the action scenes in the past when Judy is the Black Stiletto, I’ve attempted to bring a great deal of realism to it. She gets hurt, she gets in trouble, she makes mistakes, and she’s very human. She has no superpowers, she’s just a great athlete, has heightened senses, and takes a lot of risks. Contrasted with the family story in the present, the mix just feels right. It was a matter of trying things out to see if they worked in the very first book, and I’ve continued as if the five books are really one big book with a beginning and end.
You tell the story of The Black Stiletto, Judy Cooper, partly through her diary and reviewers say you “absolutely nail the way women write in their diaries.” How do you write with such remarkable insight into a woman’s mind, and one from another era?
That’s a good question, and I really don’t know! I’m just very comfortable writing for female protagonists. It’s not the only time I’ve done it—I have at least three other novels in which the main characters are women, although the Black Stiletto is the first one I’ve done in a first person voice. It was very important to me to get the voice correct, so I had a few female readers vet the first book for me. My wife also reads everything I write before anyone else does, and she has a good eye and ear for the verisimilitude I want.
How do we see Judy grow as a character throughout the series and how challenging is it to show her growth in a diary format?
The diary format is really no different from a novel written in first person. Character growth occurs the same ways. It happens from what she does, how she reacts to other characters, how she approaches obstacles, and what she learns from her mistakes. Judy is a very restless young woman with a chip on her shoulder—and yet she has a sense of humor and a small-town-girl-in-a-big-city naiveté that serves as the foundation to build upon.
It can be difficult to write authentic crime fiction set in the 1960s. What kind of research do you do to make these books rich in period detail and credible to your readers?
The Stiletto’s past story in the first three books and part of SECRETS & LIES take place in New York City, where I lived for over a decade. Luckily, New York hasn’t changed much in terms of geography. Finding out what landmarks existed or didn’t exist in the late 50s and early 60s is just a matter of doing some detective work. It really isn’t difficult to confirm the facts. In SECRETS & LIES she moves to Los Angeles in 1961. I never lived in L.A., but I’ve been there many times, and I stick to areas I know existed back then. I use the same procedures to check and confirm details. The locations in the present part of the story with the son and elderly Judy take place where I live now, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. And writing about that is easy!
You’re also the first American author to be chosen by the Ian Fleming Estate to continue the James Bond novels between 1996-2002. What’s been the biggest difference for you between writing separate book series of two undercover male and female crime-fighters, and what have been your favourite—and least favorite—aspects of each to write?
Writing the Bond books seems so long ago! In many ways, I was learning how to be a novelist “on the job” when I was writing the 007 books. I imagine I could do a much better job now than I did then, seeing that I have another twenty-something titles under my belt since that time. That said, I’m proud of my Bond novels and didn’t particularly have a hard time with them. I was lucky in that I was a serious Bond fan and knew all the novels inside and out. That’s why the Fleming Estate hired me—they wanted someone who knew that universe well. The hardest part was coming up with a unique villain and his or her diabolical plot, something that hadn’t been done before! I wouldn’t say the Black Stiletto is easier or more difficult—it’s just different. I’m a better writer now, so there are different challenges. Writing my own original works will always be more fulfilling, therefore the Black Stiletto books mean a lot more to me. In many ways, I feel that, to date, the five-book Black Stiletto saga is my magnum opus.
Can you share what are you are working on now?
I’ve completed the fifth and final Black Stiletto book (ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS), due out in November 2014) so that’s going through the copyediting stage now. The Mystery Writers of America short story anthology I’m co-editing with Jeffery Deaver, ICE COLD—TALES OF INTRIGUE FROM THE COLD WAR, will be published in April. Finishing the five Black Stiletto books was like writing a 500,000-word epic novel and I was a bit exhausted at the end! I’ll be ramping up on a new project very soon, though, and I’m always open to tie-in, work-for-hire projects, which often come to me unexpectedly out of the blue.
Raymond Benson is the award-winning author of 32 published titles. Besides his current five-book “Black Stiletto” series, he was the third–and first American–author to be chosen by the Ian Fleming Estate to continue the James Bond novels between 1996-2002. He is also a film historian/instructor, musician, and stage director.
To learn more about Raymond, please visit his website.