Alex Segura’s career path in crime fiction – while enviable – is the result of hard-work and determination bolstered by a truly exuberant personality and genuine respect for those he has met along the journey. When his new novel, Secret Identity, hits the shelves next week, Segura’s success may seem like an overnight sensation to some, but loyal crime fiction readers have been rooting for Alex for years. His Pete Fernandez series amassed an increasingly fanatic following (and its fair share of award recognition) across the five novels featuring this flawed, but lovable, hero. Never one to rest on his laurels, Alex Segura now turns to what he knows best – the comic book industry – and skillfully weaves that into an unforgettable crime plot with #ownvoice elements; an iconic lead character; a gritty, authentic depiction of historical New York; and more than a dash of innovative creativity.
Alex Segura takes a risk right from the start by placing a bisexual Latinx heroine at the heart of Secret Identity. When readers first meet Carmen Valdez, she is working as the administrative assistant to Jeffrey Carlyle – editor-in-chief and owner of Triumph Comics. It’s the 1970’s and Triumph Comics is a third-tier – or more accurately a no-tier – company in the floundering comic book industry. For her part, Carmen views her current position as a stepping-stone towards becoming a comic creator herself, despite getting signs from every direction that women are not yet respected in this industry. Regardless of the seeming hopelessness of her situation, Carmen’s work ethic is undeniable.
When one of Triumph Comics’ stable of content creators reaches out to Carmen after hours to ask for her help in creating a new, more “modern” superhero, Carmen sees this as an opportunity to prove her worth. The only problem is that this man insists that Carmen keep her involvement a secret, at least until the comic becomes successful. The plan seems sketchy, but Carmen agrees, only to find her hopes thwarted when her co-creator is found dead and there is no one left to backup her claim of involvement in the creation of The Lethal Lynx.
Alex Segura takes his time getting to this death – despite it being the central crime element of the novel. The early chapters of Secret Identity recount the origin story of both the Lethal Lynx and of Carmen Valdez herself. Running in parallel, readers find out about Carmen’s past, growing up in Miami – as backstory elements are woven into the current day narrative – alongside examples of the creative process behind crafting a new comic book superhero from whole cloth. This proves to be a masterful move as it forever bonds both Carmen and The Lynx in the reader’s mind. The inclusion of pages from The Lethal Lynx’s comic book adventures is an inspired decision that elevates the verisimilitude surrounding the battle over ownership of this character.
As Carmen sets out to prove that she helped to create The Lynx, she is forced to investigate matters on the downlow. This places her in some unsavory locations and requires her to re-evaluate her opinions of many co-workers in the Triumph Comics family. Hot on her heels is an official investigation by the NYPD, necessitating that Carmen make some risky – and Lynx-like choices. Meanwhile, her personal life (in the form of an ex-lover showing up out of the blue) only complicates matters for Carmen. Alex Segura really shines in his depiction of this personal side of Carmen Valdez. Writers are too often criticized for writing characters who have life experiences different than their own and yet here is a prime example of how unbelievably successful this can be when approached with grace, respect, and humility.
At a time when diversity is a rallying-cry for much of the crime fiction community, Alex Segura truly walks the walk. Throughout Secret Identity, Segura never shies away from using Carmen’s native language without need of fussy or creative ways to provide translation. This choice – which may seem radical to some – only elevates the authenticity of the work and astute readers are always able to use context clues to understand the gist of what is being said. There is little doubt that Carmen Valdez will be a much-referenced character in any future discussion of diversity within crime fiction, but most important of all is that her humanity will resonate with readers from all backgrounds, helping to unify us all.
There is no better compliment than saying that only Alex Segura could have written Secret Identity. His historic knowledge of the comic industry combined with a formidable Latinx heroine makes Secret Identity one of the highlights of 2022.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.