Thursday, February 22, 2024

A Secret Surprise from James W. Ziskin

What is the most surprising book you’ve read in the last few years? 

It took me some time to decide how I was going to answer this week’s question. Because the book that most surprised me in recent years was one I had little interest in reading. I didn’t know how to present the book without sounding condescending or dismissive about the subject matter.

Let me explain. I’m not a fan of comics. I don’t read them and I don’t watch movies about superheroes or anyone traipsing around or swinging above the metropolis in tights and a cape. A couple of years ago, a book called SECRET IDENTITY came out. It was a mystery set in the comics industry in 1970s New York. Award-winning author Alex Segura wrote it. I know Alex from writer conferences and we’re friends on social media. We were even up for an Anthony Award once. (He won.) Alex is wildly talented and a stand-up, good guy, too. So when I started hearing great things about SECRET IDENTITY, I decided to leave my comfortable little bubble and explore something I wouldn’t ordinarily read.


And, as things turned out, SECRET IDENTITY surprised me. Delighted me. I was floored by it.

Maybe it’s the way Alex writes dialogue. Easy, natural, but sharp and on point. Or maybe it‘s the way his characters are so distinctive, believable, and engaging. So rich and unexpected. Odious one minute, seemingly sincere the next. Never stencils or borrowed from popular imagination.
Or maybe it’s his voice and the layered emotional description. Alex takes his time to show us what his characters do, think, and wonder. How they debate with themselves before giving a response. This patient storytelling pulls you in deep. You know these people better. You might dislike them or despair at their bad decisions. But they’re full and real, not just stock characters, placeholders, or clich├ęs. I found myself growing more impressed—and I confess, somewhat jealous—with each chapter read.
Anyway, never mind all that. Whatever it is that wowed me, Alex wrote one hell of a book. His heroine, Carmen Valdez, is a sparkling character. She sizzles in only the most contentious ways. Her courage, her foibles, her bad choices, and her talent all conspire to make her unforgettable and iconic. An inspiration to girls, boys, women, and men, the underrepresented, the dreamers, and even the patriarchy. At least she is if those folks are paying attention.
Alex’s feel for the 70s, his portrait of a decaying, bankrupt New York City, and the incestuous comic book industry are painted to what feels to me like perfect authenticity. Remember, I knew nothing about comics and, in all honesty, I hadn’t been interested in learning anything about them. But this book showed me how wrong I’d been.
SECRET IDENTITY got lots of attention and earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. It was named one of NPR’s best mysteries of the year, and was a finalist for the Barry and Lefty awards. Finally, it won the prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller.
My advice is to read this book. Like me, you might be surprised.

Here’s the synopsis, provided by Macmillan Publishers: 

It’s 1975 and the comic book industry is struggling, but Carmen Valdez doesn’t care. She’s an assistant at Triumph Comics, which doesn’t have the creative zeal of Marvel nor the buttoned-up efficiency of DC, but it doesn’t matter. Carmen is tantalizingly close to fulfilling her dream of writing a superhero book.

That dream is nearly a reality when one of the Triumph writers enlists her help to create a new character, which they call “The Lethal Lynx,” Triumph's first female hero. But her colleague is acting strangely and asking to keep her involvement a secret. And then he’s found dead, with all of their scripts turned into the publisher without her name. Carmen is desperate to piece together what happened to him, to hang on to her piece of the Lynx, which turns out to be a runaway hit. But that’s complicated by a surprise visitor from her home in Miami, a tenacious cop who is piecing everything together too quickly for Carmen, and the tangled web of secrets and resentments among the passionate eccentrics who write comics for a living.


Catriona McPherson said...

Yes! Me too - exactly. I know nothing about comics and thought this couldn't possible for me. How wrong we both were, Jim, Cx

Harini Nagendra said...

I have to go get a copy of this one, Jim! I loved Persepolis, but haven't read any other comic books as an adult.