Moms With Stilettos
Mothers make wonderful protagonists. I’ve often used them in my thrillers. The lead characters in several of my novels are indeed women, and many are moms, despite the fact that once upon a time I wrote guy-oriented stuff like continuation James Bond adventures.
By the way, the title of this article refers to knives, not shoes. That’s right, my latest series features a mother with Alzheimer’s who many years ago was a mysterious stiletto-wielding, costumed vigilante operating in Eisenhower/Kennedy-era Manhattan and L.A. She was known as the Black Stiletto, and she took on common crooks, the mafia, and Commie spies—but her identity has been a secret for fifty years.
This is my new mom.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my real mother. We have a great relationship and she’s the best mom in the world, but, apparently, judging by my work, I enjoy creating fictional moms whose dark secrets are uncovered by their children. I’ll leave it for the psychoanalysts to determine why this might be a recurring theme in my novels, but consider this—could it be that when one gets to be a certain age, the story of our parents’ lives prior to raising children becomes more interesting?
James Bond must have wondered about his parents’ lives. They were gone before he truly got to know them—killed in a climbing accident when young 007 was eleven years old, at least that’s what Ian Fleming tells us. In the late nineties and early part of the New Millennium, I was commissioned by the estate of Fleming, a master thriller writer, to author new contemporary 007 stories and movie tie-ins. This seems so long ago to me now, but luckily the six original novels are still in print, collected in the anthologies The Union Trilogy and Choice of Weapons, along with some rare Bond short stories (I like to think of them as “bonus tracks”). I wasn’t allowed to explore Mr. and Mrs. Bond’s pasts, nor did I particularly want to. Bond is not traditionally involved in familial relationships, it would be out of character. He works better as the cold, ruthless, and resilient secret agent Fleming created.
When that gig ended in 2002, I began re-inventing myself by concentrating on my own personal works, and that’s where the moms come in. My first original tale, Evil Hours, is more of a novel-with-a-mystery than a thriller. Inspired by a true crime, it concerns a married woman with of two young children who is haunted by the murder of her own mother thirty years earlier. Writing a female protagonist for the first time was challenging, especially in first person, which also happens to be a stylistic choice I’m fond of. Finding the right, believable voice took several tries. Evil Hours eventually became an extremely personal novel for me, as it took place in a fictional version of my childhood home town.
I must have still been exploring my feminine side, for my second novel, Face Blind, was about a young woman who suffers from a real neurological condition called prosopagnosia or “face blindness,” meaning she can’t recognize faces. Not a mother this time, but the female lead character sure gets into a heap of trouble. Mistaken identity, gangsters, murder—all nuisances exacerbated by her disability.
The heroine of Sweetie’s Diamonds, my third effort in fashioning a believable feminine lead, is a single mom and high school teacher. This time her dark past is discovered by her thirteen-year-old son with Marfan syndrome. The pair ends up leading psychopathic mobsters on a wild chase across America to protect a cache of stolen diamonds. Yes indeed, this mom really does have some disturbing secrets, but she also steps up to the plate to meet a number of difficult challenges—my first feminist character.
I took a break from ladies after that one and wrote four books featuring male protagonists, although there are strong women in supporting roles. Torment is a paranormal romance about a man who is obsessed with a woman who may or may not be a ghost. The historical thriller Artifact of Evil concerns a very sinister mother, the apocryphal Lilith, Adam’s “other” wife, the creature who gave birth to all the demons in the world. In my two much lighter “rock ‘n’ roll thrillers,” A Hard Day’s Death and Dark Side of the Morgue, the detective protagonist interestingly has a mother battling Alzheimer’s. My own mother-in-law succumbed to it not long ago, so I have first-hand experience with this cruel disease.
That brings us to The Black Stiletto, the first entry in a new series I launched last year. One reviewer cleverly called it a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” I’m thankful to this journalist, for until he hit the nail on the head it was difficult for me to accurately describe the book.
The character’s origin story goes something like this: Judy Cooper grew up in the small West Texas town of Odessa (incidentally where I’m from), ran away from an abusive step-father, and found herself in big bad New York City at the tender age of fourteen. She cultivated friendships and support on the Lower East Side, while working as a custodian in a men’s gym. Judy learned how to box in her spare time, and later studied martial arts before most Americans had heard of them. At the age of twenty she became the Black Stiletto, one of the most famous but enigmatic persons on the planet. She had no super powers; the vigilante was simply extremely athletic and possessed heightened senses that allowed her to hear and see more acutely than most folks. Judy refused to be pinned down in the traditional role experienced by most American women during the period. Active between 1958 and 1962, the Stiletto kept her identity a secret and eventually retired as Judy Talbot to the Chicago suburbs, a single mom with an infant boy. Judy tells her story in first person through a series of diaries, and each book in the series covers one year.
A parallel story takes place in the present as Martin Talbot, her grown son, must wrestle with this valuable knowledge as he takes care of a mother dying in a nursing home—a woman now quite unlike the exotic figure she once wrote about. Yes, it’s Alzheimer’s again, and this time it plays a more crucial role in the tale. Not only is the disease brutal to its victim, it is also extremely difficult for the patient’s immediate family. Throw in a granddaughter who may have Judy’s early proclivities, and what could be a baby boomer soap opera becomes a journey of discovery that is full of realistic and dramatic crises.
The second book in the series, The Black Stiletto: Black & White, expands the story to include topical events and pop culture. This yarn involves her in race relations and the civil rights movement of 1959. The currently in-progress third book’s background will be the Kennedy/Nixon presidential campaign of 1960. Part of the fun of writing these books is anchoring the world in reality with relevant references. For example, Judy is a big-time Elvis Presley fan and follows his every move with joyful, hardcore obsession. She loves Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, reads Beat Generation authors like Jack Kerouac, and is curious about “that Negro music” called jazz.
The action-adventure aspects of the Stiletto’s story are also depicted with realism. Judy often gets hurt, she is susceptible to media misrepresentation, and is wanted by the cops and FBI for taking the law into her own hands. Black & White takes her to Harlem, where she confronts a dangerous drug kingpin who has a hold on a significant individual in Judy’s personal life.
The Black Stiletto’s in-the-present role as a mother becomes more poignant when her son Martin has to foil a blackmail attempt, the seed of which originated during Judy’s reign as the Stiletto, as well as struggle with his daughter Gina’s unfortunate collision with violence while off at college. Even though she’s incapacitated, Judy’s legacy informs and influences Martin’s decisions.
I’m having a ball writing the Black Stiletto’s saga. It’s conceived to be a five-book series that culminates with revelatory answers to questions asked throughout: Why did the Stiletto retire and disappear? What is the significance of the mysterious trinkets Judy kept in a locked strongbox? How will Martin resolve the drama in his life that is fueled by his mother’s illness and secret? And, most importantly, who was his father, the man he knows nothing about? Some of these resolutions I’ve known since the conception of the character. Others I am still discovering for myself. And that’s when writing novels for a living is just plain fun.
Stepping into the minds of female characters continues to be demanding, but I’ve found I’m quite comfortable doing so. Maybe it’s because I’m a huge fan of Ingmar Bergman. As a writer and director, his works seemed to understand the feminine persona better than most filmmakers except, perhaps, Woody Allen. The deeply-textured roles they’ve created for women and the sensitivity by which they are presented on camera is profound.
From the machismo stylings of James Bond to the feminist leanings of the Black Stiletto, my career over the past decade has certainly undergone rebirth and discovery. At first glance it might appear that my own novels are as far from 007 as one can get. In truth, they are about everyday people faced with extraordinary circumstances, and, yes, many of my heroines are often mothers you might meet at the neighborhood grocery store. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to thrill readers with exploits of crime-fighting, capers, and derring-do.
My mom would be proud.