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Secret Identity


Secret Identity

When Carmen Valdez was a young girl growing up in Miami, one of her most cherished memories was visiting the local pharmacy with her Papi and making a beeline for the magazine aisle. There she would find comic books and become overwhelmed by the latest issues of Flash, Captain America, Batman and others. This is where she wanted to escape. Even at this early age, she recognized that she needed to become someone else to survive.

If this sounds like the start of an actual superhero story, you wouldn’t be that far off. Alex Segura’s dynamic new novel, SECRET IDENTITY, is a love letter to the superhero comics industry circa the 1970s, and it is absolutely brilliant from start to finish. I was introduced to the wonder of comic books during this time, so following the story of Carmen, who is now in her late 20s and working as an assistant at Triumph Comics in 1975, took me right back there. She wants nothing more than to write her own superhero book, but being a woman in the ’70s, she knows the odds are stacked against her.

"SECRET IDENTITY is a joy to read from cover to cover. The comic book and pop culture references are abundant, and there is so much to unpack..."

Carmen’s unlikely chance may come in the form of junior editor Harvey Stern, who obviously has a thing for her. They become work buddies over coffee and cigarette breaks, but that does not prepare Carmen for Harvey showing up at her apartment one evening. After the initial shock of that bold move wears off, they spend the night brainstorming and coming up with the idea for a female superhero called “The Lethal Lynx.” Scattered throughout the novel are panels from Lynx comic book issues, all of which are worth the price of admission.

The problem, of course, is that Carmen cannot put her name to this. Her boss, Jeffrey Carlyle, already had shot down the prospect of her moving up from assistant to writer prior to her even meeting with Harvey. Still, she goes ahead and writes three terrific stories for the Lethal Lynx; she then gives them to Harvey to run with and find an artist to make it work.

To further complicate her life, Carmen’s old flame from college, Katherine (who is now married to a guy), is in New York City and wants to get together for dinner. There are some interesting flashbacks to their initial meeting.

At a comic book event, Carmen runs into Marion Price, who works for a rival publisher, and the subject of Harvey comes up. It turns out he was fired from Marion’s place of business, and she gently warns Carmen to watch out for him, giving no further details. Carmen begins to get a feel for what Marion was saying when she finds the six stories she had given to Harvey on their boss’s desk, done up with artwork and listing only his name as the writer.

A betrayed Carmen doesn’t have the chance to confront Harvey as he doesn’t show up for work or return any phone calls. She later goes to his apartment and finds him on his bed with a bullet hole in his forehead. SECRET IDENTITY quickly turns into a mystery running simultaneously with Carmen’s work plight. Her private search into who might have wanted Harvey dead sends her to places like the famous club CBGB and the opportunity to question its infamous owner, Hilly Kristal, who recalls that he was there a few nights prior to his death and was shouting at someone, “You’ll have to kill me for it.”

The final part of the novel, cleverly entitled “True Believer,” is all about redemption. We find Carmen not only closing in on the killer as if she were the Lethal Lynx herself, but also making huge strides in her career. SECRET IDENTITY is a joy to read from cover to cover. The comic book and pop culture references are abundant, and there is so much to unpack --- from the feminist movement of the ’70s to the almost classic noir mystery feel that permeates the second half of the story.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 25, 2022

Secret Identity
by Alex Segura