Girl Spies in Print
Posted 25 September 2011 - 12:09 PM
James Yardley wrote these two adventure novels in 1970 and 1971. They feature the beautiful Kiss Darling and her sidekick boss Angus Fane. Kiss isn’t a spy, she’s an insurance agent trained in Computerised Intelligence Therapy, which is a fancy word for photo-recall. Naturally she’s gorgeous, intelligent and loses her clothes a fair bit.
The first novel is entitled KISS THE BOYS AND MAKE THEM DIE and is set in Egypt, where a multimillionaire businessman has discovered a lost temple of Ramses and, to fund his bizarre Isis revolutionary cult, he’s been selling the antiques on the market, rousing the suspicions of TOPP, Kiss’ employers. While the story is quite fantastical in a cinematic way – there is a beautifully scripted beginning as two scuba divers swim to the underwater entrance to the tomb, through the eye of a huge sunken statue – it doesn’t really go anywhere while our heroine gets trussed up, married and rescued, sometimes all at once.
Most of the derring-do is carried out by the brusque ex-policeman charmer Fane, who manages to seduce a local Arab girl and fight the baddies. Fane is much too arrogant to be truly likeable and while his word play with Kiss is funny in an old fashioned un-PC way, he feels like a throwback to The Sweeny. Fane beds the women, shoots the bad guys, drinks the whiskey and generally does all the hero stuff. Kiss is saddled with the detecting bit.
She’s also imbalanced by the almost impossible to believe scenario that she is still a virgin and wishes to remain so until she meets the right man. So her circumspect behaviour makes the womanizing of her boss appear distinctly tawdry.
For all that, the story rattles along at a fair pace and I enjoyed it. Ditto A KISS A DAY KEEPS THE CORPSES AWAY, which features another multimillionaire, this one plotting to exterminate 90% of the earth’s population. He’s a real Bondian villain. This one lives on a dramatic Pacific island, cryptically entitled Noah’s Ark. [Doesn't this all sound very familiar - MR '79 anyone?]
The story starts well, with a haunting scene of plague ridden bodies in Africa and a stunningly described air crash, but it runs out of steam by the end and resolves itself in a rather messy fashion at a Royal Wedding, a public finale which almost replicates the climax of the first novel.
Once again Angus Fane is on hand to provide the banter, the sex and the fighting; our Kiss sits on the sidelines looking pretty and utilizing her all powerful memory. Again, the fun is the telling. If you concentrate too hard on the plot this one falls flat about half way in when the villain turns out to handily be a master of disguise. He’s also rather useful at developing drugs, the kind that make you talk, walk, sleep or die amongst other things.
Both adventures are okay as far as they go, except they don’t really go far enough. I hankered for Kiss to do something more athletic than drink coffee or brandy and was disconcerted that her chastity stays intact while her boss beds whoever he meets. A curious case of double standards, one feels. Especially so when our heroine is represented on the covers as a sexy naked blonde.
Overall a nervous thumbs up.
Posted 25 September 2011 - 12:20 PM
Posted 25 September 2011 - 03:40 PM
Posted 26 September 2011 - 04:38 PM
Dustin, I think that movie is Blake Edwards 'The Tamarind Seed' starring Julie Andrews. She plays a widow who gets involved with a Russian attache. It's based on a book, but I can't remember who wrote it.
Posted 26 September 2011 - 05:58 PM
Regarding the Tarantino TV version, it isn't great but in fairness, it is my understanding that it was done on a micro budget and that it was done simply to maintain option rights rather than be a legitimate pilot.
As long as we include private eyes, I'll throw out Honey West. Original novels by G.G. Fickling, TV series starring Anne Francis.
Posted 26 September 2011 - 06:50 PM
Dustin, I think that movie is Blake Edwards 'The Tamarind Seed' starring Julie Andrews. She plays a widow who gets involved with a Russian attache. It's based on a book, but I can't remember who wrote it.
I recall that one, too. (book by Evelyn Anthony a.k.a. Evelyn Ward Thomas)
But no, that wasn't the one I meant. That was called S-H-E (see here: http://movies.yahoo....1800113585/info) though I can't remember what the title was supposed to mean besides - obviously - referring to a female agent.
Modesty Blaise simply is a gem, one of the great super-spy adventure series, period. Without her both Cathy Gale and Emma Peel probably would have turned out as different characters. In my opinion every fan of the literary Bond ought to take a close look at the series, it's enormously entertaining and gripping. If you really consider to learn more about Modesty you should immediately forget all about the two films you've already seen, they are nothing like the real article.
MB started out as a daily comic strip in the Evening Standard in 1963 and became enormously popular during the following years; so much so that a film project was announced and dropped again. A second project loosely based on the strips was filmed in 1966, by which time the comedy approach was considered. As nearly always when large sums of money and American passports are involved a number of changes was considered for the sake of the money people, leading to lots of changes to O'Donnell's original script, ultimately resulting in an utter mess of a script that's nothing like O'Donnell's characters and ideas. The final product can only be described as a failure. Vitti is simply miscast, likewise Terence Stamp as Willie. Dirk Bogarde could have been a fantastic Willie but he has to make do with Gabriel - a frail old man in the originals. Bogarde does his best but overall the film's a bad joke.
That said the whole doomed project also had an upside. O'Donnell was asked to write a film tie-in (before he got wind of the gang rape that was to happen to the whole effort) and he handed in a decent thriller for warm-blooded adults in trains, aeroplanes and wherever else they may happen to read such stuff. It sold quite well and started the series of Modesty Blaise novels.
Currently the entire run of daily strips are reprinted by TITAN, and you could do worse than checking up on their backlist and try to get copies of the early Holdaway years (the first six books 'The Gabriel Set-Up' through to 'The Hell Makers') and Romero's first stint (the next seven books 'The Green-Eyed Monster' through to 'Yellowstone Booty'). Pick one of each run and I promise chances are you'll be hooked.
The current TITAN reprits also feature a number of quite interesting background articles, interviews, and - until his passing - story introductions by Peter O'Donnell himself. Priceless material.
The novels are really a league of their own and I strongly recommend them to every fan of the classic Bond and other such spy adventures. There's a wealth of background detail involved with the books, lending Modesty's world much more depth. The books need not shy away from comparisons with the comics, to the contrary. Their plots, suspense and originality are often a notch above the strips, surely also due to the adult target readership of the books. That said the books took their time to settle into their own pace and some fans consider the recipe was found with 'I, Lucifer'. Anyway, I recommend starting with the first, simply titled 'Modesty Blaise' and work your way forward. If that's not possible be sure to read 'Modesty Blaise' before 'A Taste for Death' which is a sequel of sorts.
But regardless if the comics or the books are your thing, you'll find a wealth of suspense, ingenuity, daredevil stunts, outrageous danger and shocking events, all wrapped up in a package of fine writing (and exquisite pencil artistry in case of the comics) and spiced with bizarre characters and events that would have been worthy of Bond. In fact Peter O'Donnell for some time would have been the best choice for the continuations. Oddly enough O'Donnell penned the Daily Express strips for their Doctor No adaption. Kingsley Amis was a great fan of Modesty Blaise and his Colonel Sun reads in parts more like a Modesty adventure.
You don't know Modesty Blaise as yet?
I envy you!
Edited by Dustin, 26 September 2011 - 07:10 PM.
Posted 27 September 2011 - 01:08 PM
I'm not sure Cathy Gale would have been much influence by Modesty as the two arrived concurrently, but I think Emma Peel and Tara King definately would, plus the assorted 'Girl Spies' I am researching and reading of here.
I was lucky enough to catch a print of the '66 movie at the BFI and the accompanying leaflet rather sings its praises - the BFI does tend to talk up every film, even the really crappy ones - and while I certainly didn't think it was a good film, it was visually interesting. Dirk Bogard made a faintly absurd camp villain; the role as he played it could have been performed equally well by Charles Hawtrey. What particularly disappointed me (and you could maybe help or hinder me here) is that Modesty herself didn't seem to be terribly active. There's actually a strange scene in someone's attic flat when she seems to be hiding and acting like a spoilt nymphet rather than a cool sophisticated spy. Is that par for the literal course? Sadly the film troo often spirals out of the directors and teh actor's control, despite a few good scenes - I was particularly struck by the underwater sequence. Monica Vitti is hopelessly cast, but she does look fabulous.
I'm not a great fan of graphic comics, but I'm tempted to purcahse O'Donnell's first three novels, perhaps only for their exciting titles and '60s cover art.
Posted 27 September 2011 - 07:17 PM
The project got going when the daily strips in the Evening Standard where already going strong for three years, with five though-as-nails thrillers under the belt that I would consider to be among the best of the genre, regardless of medium. The only minor concession to the newspaper strips is a toning down of lethal violence (mind you, lethal; violent enough they still are, considering the time and medium). But there is nothing funny, girlish or amateurish about the character and the stories.
When the production started gaining momentun the idea was obviously that the established Bond could not be topped, so they decided to spoof. O'Donnell was not at all aware of the doubts and just set his original character into hair-raising danger as he always had done, just with the extra edge that the novel form allowed. The books see Modesty in situations that we would not like to see male characters in. She masters and survives these situations by mustering every ounce of strength, stamina and also sheer stubborn willpower. Particularly notable is the strictly platonic relationship with Willie Garvin, who is truly a friend with an almost telepathic understanding of her actions and thoughts. The two together are a team that's next to invincible, yet their victories are always depicted in a way that makes the two superhumans likeable and believable within the story. I'd rate the novels up to Dragon's Claw and most of the stories of the first decade of the newspaper strips on par or above most Bond books by Fleming, with the possible exception of YOLT.
The comics are gripping in their own right for the often unusual perspectives and the lush detail the panels practically brim over with. Not only is the traditional b/w series one of the most colourful in the entire genre, it's also one of the few series that depict their very own design vocabulary. The setting, the architecture, the clothes and cars and accessories, and of course the remarkable characters themselves, all that is depicted with stylish detail and in the best sense fantastic and memorable. Even if comics are not your thing I'd still argue that you are missing out on a great reading experience.
Edited by Dustin, 27 September 2011 - 07:19 PM.
Posted 13 October 2011 - 11:44 AM
Jimmy Sangster was a producer, writer and sometime director who worked for Hammer Pictures, that erstwhile British film company whose stock-in-trade became nudity obsessed horror flicks or feature length, badly adapted TV sit-coms. Katy Touchfeather, Sangster’s literary creation owes much to both genres. She has her tongue firmly in her cheek and she isn’t averse to divesting herself of her clothes at the merest sniff of a kiss.
Katy Touchfeather works for the mysterious, arrogant, snob Mr Blaser, who represents an unnamed government organization. By trade she is an air hostess and this training allows her to carry out her espionage duties while in the guise of Air India, BOAC, Al-Italia, etc. While her two adventures, TOUCHFEATHER and TOUCHFEATHER, TOO are not pørnographic, chiefly because the sex is treated as something akin to a joke, it is ever so slightly disturbing that our heroine is so inclined to hold a pilot/actor/bullfighter/car salesman/and so on in every airport. I guess she’s a product of the age; this was the early 1970’s. Hence for every dead body or nasty scrape our Katy gets involved in, there is an orgy to attend or a new lover to seduce.
Katy’s admittance that she thoroughly enjoys all the bed-hopping and considers herself a modern independent girl doesn’t entirely convince because the mean, old fashioned and disturbingly misogynistic Mr Blaser is quite happy for her to sleep with the enemy as much as kill them to achieve his results. He’s an ungrateful whelp of a man and, like Katy, I wondered how anyone could possibly work for such an unpleasant beast. It is telling that one of Katy's friends thinks Mr Blaser is a some sort of pimp.
A case of better-the-devil, for Katy meets some right nasties in these two adventures. The first concerns the billionaire Geraston, who has been selling nuclear secrets to both sides to increase his personal fortune. The adventure swoops around the globe and is described in a refreshingly honest and humourous fashion. I enjoyed it immensely. The action is a bit oblique – Sangster seems more concerned with his central protagonist’s emotions and fears – but the plotting is very tight and the locations impressive.
The second story is much shorter, only tipping the scales at 140 pages but no less exciting for that. The sex takes a bigger slice of the pie here and Mr Blaser tends to pontificate too much, but overall it’s a solid yarn. Here the billionaire villain, Constantin Galipolodopolo, is hording undeclared unminted gold to increase his personal fortune. Both novels feature similar action scenarios: a taxi cab kidnapping, a watery end, Katy disguised as air hostess several times. However both are well written, intelligible novels. You don’t need a flow diagram to work out what’s happening and the twists, when they do come, are entirely reasonable and yet still surprising.
Jimmy Sangster’s screen writing abilities probably aided the telling of these tales, as does his preference for relating them in the first person. I’m not a particular fan of that style, but here it adds much needed humour and some emotional depth to the main character. Her reflections become infused with all the facets of her persona. We learn a lot about Katy and a lot about the people she meets. Indeed the piece is less concerned with the machinations of the plot, which are perfunctory at best, than with Katy’s impression of the world and its people.
Sangster hangs enough thrills on the bones of his books to keep a reader hooked, but overall it’s the natural narration of his marvelous creation Katy Touchfeather who keeps one interested. She may have a predilection towards sexual matters, but she’s no less believable for it. What rankles is the manner in which all the men seem to take this as either extremely offensive or an excuse to openly paw at her – or they are gay.
TOUCHFEATHER and TOUCHFEATHER, TOO are a little dated, but generally I like them both. I wish there were more. My Corgi versions have really crap covers (I prefer the American ones) so it took me a while to get enthused enough to pick one up and start to read but I am awfully glad I did.
Posted 13 October 2011 - 04:06 PM
As long as we include private eyes, I'll throw out Honey West. Original novels by G.G. Fickling, TV series starring Anne Francis.
THAT'S my girl. I've been keeping it under wraps, but I'm presently "involved" on this. The ball's been rolling on this for me since '08 with Glori's blessing and L.A. P.I. Honey West with curves and nerves is lurking nearby.
"She's a good woman, a great P.I....Nobody ever said she was sweet."
Posted 18 October 2011 - 01:29 PM
Posted 18 October 2011 - 06:02 PM
Posted 11 November 2011 - 02:48 PM
It isn't in print, but as I watched this in stupified silence the other night, I felt I simply had to write something. I am aware there is a thread for Covert Affairs somewhere on this site, but it fits in nicely with my thread too.
I caught the pilot episode of this US TV series after seeing it advertised in my newspaper and thought it may be worth a peek. I shouldn’t have bothered. This was risible stuff.
Covert Affairs starts with a CIA personality profile Q&A for our heroine Annie Walker. This is banal and vague; the questions being indirect and untaxing. When the inquisitor decides to ask about Annie’s sex life, she is stung by the intrusion and replies “It rocked.” This is boastful and demeaning – she has just revealed herself to be both promiscuous and a braggart: not what any self-respecting covert organisation would be looking for, I hazard.
The lead sequence is intercut with flashbacks to her last great romance: a three week tumble in Sri Lanka, which has all the expected accruements of a love affair: candles, beaches, rain, skinny dipping, seashell bracelets swapped before an impromptu exit by the man. The show is full was dreary formulaic stuff already and I felt like switching off before the credits even started.
Annie’s naive behaviour during the Q&A persists through the whole episode. Her training is curtailed as she’s so bloody good at everything and she is thrust blinking like a startled rabbit into the testosterone fuelled atmosphere of the Agency. She’s clearly undisciplined so naturally considers power dressing in heels, skirts, suits and blouses open at the cleavage the best way to get noticed. It is; she’s hit on in seconds.
Thrust into a mission that requires none of her language skills but all of her cleavage, Annie has to collect digital information from a Russian defector by posing as a call girl. The Russian is subsequently assassinated and Annie loses the gizmo with the intel. Returning to collect it, she suddenly realizes that life at the CIA is full of death, deception and criminal activity, a trait she continues to be surprised by throughout the story. This is a phenomenally ridiculous assertion for her to suddenly make. Exactly what had the agency spent three years training her for – picnics with kittens?
Naturally Annie has to learn to juggle her home life with her working life. She lives with her sister, who is unaware Annie no longer works at the University, and is forced to endure a dinner party during which an inappropriate suitor talks non-stop and tries to kiss her. This was writing at its most flat. All the cliché’s of embarrassing family lives were present. We learn Annie has an interfering big sis, keeps a cat (of course she does, it’s cute, right?) and is so tired after her ‘dress like a hooker and shoot ‘em up’ first day at work she doesn’t bother to change for bed or remove her make up. She awakes as immaculate as she retired. Now that’s a feat the CIA could really invest in.
If Annie’s home life is idiotic, so is the population of the CIA. Annie’s best friend is a strange blind seer who is as creepy as he is pleasant. Their heart-to-hearts take place in downtown bars staffed by gorgeous long legged waitresses and inside the women’s wash room. These scenes reminded me of Ally MacBeal and I half expected our toothsome twosome to burst song: “Spy in the House of Love” anyone?
As the story progresses, you begin to sense the CIA really are a bunch of numbskulls. Having agreed to harbor the Russian defector, it is almost impossible to believe they never had a facial picture of him or authenticated that the man in custody has the appropriate body tattoos. Annie doesn’t notice this either and she sees him naked! Even I twigged and I’m watching at home on TV! Later they have to run a ‘target status’ search to identify Victor Petrov as a potential victim; they even look up his schedule on the net, when his whereabouts was mentioned to Annie at the dinner party. She simply hasn’t noticed. Not such a hot shot then – too self-absorbed to listen to others. Frankly, this is ludicrous plotting. There are no red herrings in the story. Other than Annie’s sister, nobody is introduced into this tale unless they have relevance to the plot, however small. You can sense too the likelihood of minor characters recurring in future episodes, such as the suspicion prone, flirtatious FBI officer and the scheming female journalist.
The action sequences are boring, slow motion stuff, shot with the usual shaky camera work and over dubbed with loud music. The final confrontation reminded me of the worst of Charlie’s Angels, as our Annie leaps on the assassins back, little fists pumping at air. At least she changed her shoes. It was good however to see Annie actually use the handbrake when executing a handbrake turn. At the finale a mysterious figure from her past reappears and we all nod sagely and say: “Ah, so this is the plot line for the next twenty episodes.” Did I care? Not a jot.
The show is glossy and fairly fun in a sort of early Wednesday evening 1970s Six Million Dollar Man way, but it lacks depth and offers a stereotypical view of espionage, sleek, sassy and stylish. The horror of death and deception which Annie found so abhorrent is hardly touched on. The two most interesting characters are Annie’s immediate superiors – the woman in black and the man in grey – two shadows bickering over their differing hidden agendas, including terminating a prickly marriage. The producers will need a bit more of their kind of messiness to make Covert Affairs stand out.
Posted 22 November 2011 - 01:56 PM
James Eastwood’s heroine spy Anna Zordan featured in three late sixties novels that each share a peculiar obsession with the central character’s sexual habits. They are not however particularly sexy adventures. This isn’t because Anna Zordan has a bland personality or an ugly facade – far from it – but more because Eastwood has so overtly sexualised her that the espionage and the excitement drift too far into the background leaving little but her carnal preoccupations to occupy the reader. Sometimes it’s turgid stuff.
This is most noticeable in the second novel, where Anna bemoans not having had sex for two months, seduces her boss, flirts outrageously with an obese henchman, fancies a dastardly airline pilot, teases the lesbian villainess into submission and, in a moment of sheer misogynistic narrative, submits to a rape and enjoys it. During this tale several characters refer to her as a ‘whore’ and even Anna herself suggests she is a ‘little tart’. This isn’t very endearing writing and rather spoils what should be three excellent sorties into the world of female spies.
THE CHINESE VISITOR starts with Anna’s recruitment to the British Secret Service. She works for an unnamed off-shoot of MI6, housed at The Studio, a fake film production office in Kent which nominally lists erotic documentaries as its stock in trade. Anna’s father and mother were spies and both were killed by Chinese activists, Communist recruits of the unnamed, almost unseen villain The God, a man who resembles Buddha but lacks his divine grace. Sarratt, head of The Studio, marks her potential and slyly arranges for her subsequent entry into the world of espionage. Sarratt is as smooth as they come but he’s equally plagued by guilt over sending Anna (and other agents) to their possible deaths. This makes a marked contrast to the usual aloof hard as nails spy-master.
Soon Anna is sent to infiltrate The Organisation: those very activists who caused her parents death. Finally reaching Albania, she comes into contact with Steiner, who recruits Communist sympathisers in a manner not dissimilar to how Sarratt recruits his agents. Being a comely young girl, The Organisation considers they can manipulate Anna and this neatly parallels Sarratt’s fears over the influences he wields. Anna seems hardly to notice and is much more interested in bedding the Italian rascal Antonio, who turns out to be The Organisation’s torturer in chief. Escaping his clutches, Anna quickly uncovers a plot to mastermind a series of high profile assassinations which will threaten Cold War peace.
The novel starts slowly, but the early interplay between Anna and Sarratt, as well as Steiner’s reflections, keep the reader interested. The violence when it comes is swift and sharp and there is a twist at the end of the tale which I didn’t anticipate. It is disappointing however that, having built up the mysterious ‘God’ into a spectral all powerful leader, his appearance as a fat sweaty bald seventy five year old man who has a heart attack before Anna can actually kill him is an anticlimax. The finale of the novel is remarkably rapid.
The second novel, SEDUCE AND DESTROY, was originally entitled THE LITTLE DRAGON FROM PEKING, which isn’t as sensationally catchy but is more relevant. Aside from the fore mentioned sexual content, the novel draws parallels between Anna’s current situation, Sarratt’s war experiences and the hallucinogenic memories of the matriarch Grossmutti. At times Eastwood tries to suggest there is a deeper resonance to his tale of Neo-Nazi’s exploding an atomic bomb over Nuremburg, but it’s hard to spot. Once again, while ex-fascists are in the mix, it is the Chinese who will profit.
The tale is well told and doesn’t bore, but my earlier observations make the story lopsided. Anna spends an awful lot of time in a towel, in a bath robe or naked, and seems only to succeed because she is using her sexual allure as a weapon. That the previously impervious Sarratt should succumb to her will merely makes one wince. Like most of the rest of book, that seduction isn’t very subtle. Like THE CHINESE VISITOR everything ends very swiftly.
The third installment in Miss Zordan’s adventures is COME DIE WITH ME. I have the American version. It has a crappy cover and is incredulously entitled DIAMONDS ARE DEADLY, but it was cheaper, which makes me feel better as the pages within are tepid at best. This one has a medley of plot strains, including human organ transplants, bacteriological terrorism, the destabilization of governments and the hunt for a missing writer who may or may not be the link to these disparate events. This last is the most baffling and I was reminded of an episode of The Avengers, where Emma Peel has to enact episodes from a TV show to amuse her captors.
For all that, the novel starts strongly and Anna’s pursuit of Sandy McTaggart, the said writer, is both playfully sensual and intriguing. Once she’s snared her prey, the novel dive bombs and by the time the villain, Laszlo, is having a fresh testicles grafted onto his groin, I’d given up. Frankly it’s incomprehensible. Eastwood regurgitates theories and psychobabble he already utilized in the previous two books. COME DIE WITH ME has a dulling repetitive air. It isn’t even particularly exciting.
Anna Zordan’s three adventures are fixed in their time period (1965 -1969) and suffer because of it. While some elements of the stories do work surprisingly well – I particularly liked the Anna’s introduction to The Studio and Sarratt – the over emphasis on sex and sexual matters is a distraction. These are not sexy novels but exploitation ones. The action is generally luke warm. The plots are fair nonsense. In the hands of a half decent writer, they might stand a chance, but I fear James Eastwood is out of the late-60s neo-Fleming mould and lacks The Master’s finesse.
Worth a read if you like this sort of thing, but more of a distraction than a necessity.
Posted 05 December 2011 - 04:48 PM
Olga Quinn wrote these two novels in 1969-70. As you can tell from the dubious spelling of Marieanne, they are not exactly rooted in quality.
SPIES ON THE ROOF finds Marieanne Payne freshly widowed. The raven haired twenty seven year old beauty is persuaded back to work for the Department by her some time lover and partner in espionage Johnny Armstrong. His method involves a doubtful seduction technique and a lot of irritating banter. Once more in the fold Marieanne is dispatched to Tibet in pursuit of a scientist who has developed the Cala virus, a bacteriological weapon which wreaks sterility. Sound familiar?
I hardly raised a flicker of concern for these two stereotypical characters who seemed to be carved out of the worst excesses of sixties spy movies. Armstrong is a callous manipulator, as cold as the Himalayas he sends Marieanne to, whose only warmth is his jumpers and awful jokes. She meanwhile is too shallow an emotional beast to be taken seriously. Marieanne spends most of the novel in a sulk, having been paired with a Russian to accomplish her mission; she despises Russians as they were the architects of her husband’s murder.
So far so routine. What makes the adventure so risible is the paucity of the prose. I’ve seen more elaborate descriptions in children’s novels. It takes one sentence to shoot a villain, one paragraph to blow up a Buddhist temple and the climax (the destruction of a rocket silo) is almost an afterthought. The romance is deadly dull and so obvious as to be an embarrassment.
SPIES GO RUNNING is better because here Olga Quinn has decided to concentrate a little more on the relationships between Marieanne and the men in her life: the charming gun runner and Jason King look-a-like Hitchin Smith and that annoying condescender Armstrong. Sadly she doesn’t have the skill necessary to make more than a half-hearted attempt at the emotive side of the story.
Instead we get a lot of swift sex and even swifter violence in the Lebanon as Marieanne attempts to retrieve Britain’s own biological weapon, KX4. Turning Marieanne into something of a good time swinger has its moments, but a decent thriller really ought to have more thrills. At one point a mountain is blown apart by MIG missiles, but Olga Quinn’s inability to make such a dramatic moment exciting is startling. The novel does have a fairly worthwhile climax, but even that’s spoilt by an inappropriate coda.
I don’t really know what else to say about these two novels. They lack suspense and genuine intrigue. I wasn’t interested in the characters or the plot. At best the narrative is perfunctory. They are very, very disappointing. Even if you enjoy girls blowing things up, you’d struggle to get any pleasure out of Marieanne Payne.
Posted 18 March 2012 - 11:58 AM
I am fairly familiar with the history of Modesty Blaise, a comic strip character created in 1964 by Peter O’Donnell who featured in the Evening Standard newspaper. The strips were immensely popular and as Modesty shared some traits with Our Man Bond and the girl agents of The Avengers, it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling. O’Donnell was approached to write the shooting script for a movie. This screenplay was later drastically changed to suit the camp touch director Joseph Losey wanted to bring to the film. Losey seems a very curious choice of director for what could have been a rather muscular piece. The lightness he brought to proceedings removes much of the potential tension from most of the scenes. The film is also saddled with Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise – a pleasant enough actress to look at, but far too delicate and naïve to play the tough, uncompromising heroine.
It is interesting to read Peter O’Donnell’s debut novel, MODESTY BLAISE, an adaptation that is less of a companion piece to the film than an adventure story on its own. It isn’t wholly successful, but in O’Donnell’s hands scenes that in the movie were comedic slapstick are infused with glamour, intrigue, suspense and violence. Modesty is given a strong and believable background and her dealings with the men in her life (all the other major characters are male) are thoroughly persuasive. She may be a beauty and a sensual lure, but she is not sensitive, rather more practical. Her liaison with the artist/spy Paul Hagan shows her logical, but not completely reserved, nature. She is cautious both in life and love and not given to impulse. Subsequently Modesty is as equally adept at killing as she is at love making. The number of enemies she dispatches in this novel would put Bond to shame. She’s vigorous and athletic in the fight. Simply put, this is not a woman to be trifled with. O’Donnell cleverly hints at Modesty’s past life as head of the criminal elite The Network and it is through that we learn how the facets of her character gel together. While this technique does include some repetition, it certainly helps the reader to familiarize himself with the main protagonist.
For Modesty’s antagonist, O’Donnell has provided the odd ball villain Gabriel, who is a touch childlike, preferring milk to wine and spending evenings watching Tom & Jerry cartoons. He’s not in the grotesque class of 007 baddies, but he has a few neat lines and there is an underlying menace to his behaviour. While clearly a little camp even here, O’Donnell’s portrait is nothing like the effeminate playboy portrayed by Dirk Bogarde. He’s also surrounded by a veritable rogue’s gallery of baddies, none of whom are particularly memorable, with the possible exception of Mrs Fothergill, his executioner in chief who, it is hinted, may be a hermaphrodite.
Modesty is recruited for the British Secret Service by Sir Gerald Tarrant, an upright establishment figure, but one who leaves his office and doggedly pursues her across Europe for no discernible reason. This is one of the weak links in the story as it is obvious O’Donnell is seeking a method to explain Modesty to his audience and has chosen the twin pairing of Hagan and Tarrant, both of whom share an intense interest in her, whether personal or professional. Several chapters in the middle of the novel share a gentle prose that slows the adventure to a walking pace. It doesn’t really pick up until the last quarter when Modesty is forced to project her kidnapping by Gabriel.
Another weak link, although one O’Donnell forced on himself at the outset, is the constant presence of Willie Garvin, Modesty’s lieutenant and Q-Branch alternative. While Garvin himself isn’t a poor character – in fact in some ways he’s more intriguing and believable than Modesty – he does undermine the central hero’s role, as the author needs to spend so much time explaining what each of his double act is doing. Garvin isn’t a white knight – Modesty is quite capable – but they do end up rescuing one another almost as much as leaving each to fight their own battles. That Garvin is a cockney shouldn’t be an issue but the author chooses to use dialectic speech, a technique that is never entirely successful as it leaves the reader no room for personal interpretation. It sits badly on the page and [for this modern reader] is not easy to digest. Garvin’s Cockney is not alone: Arabs and Scots suffer similar fates.
In terms of the plot, O’Donnell has it spot on. An Arab Sheik is transporting by sea ten million pounds worth of diamonds and Tarrant’s spies have word they will be lifted; but the agents have been eliminated and he needs to nullify the threat fast. Only one person can help him: Modesty Blaise. Like many of Fleming’s stories, it’s a slim premise, and O’Donnell has woven several excellent scenes and set pieces to expand what is essentially a workmanlike canvas. This succeeds because it allows him to concentrate on people and things and atmosphere rather than masses of extraneous plot detail. I particularly enjoyed the initial chapters in France, where I caught a genuine feel of the Mediterranean coast and the people who inhabit its underworld. The hit man Didi, the dancer and goodtime girl Nicole and the local kingpin Pacco are all excellently realized, better so than the more expansive portraits of the major adversaries.
Some of O’Donnell’s descriptive writing is wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the first meeting between Modesty and Hagan, which has a lyrical quality unusual in thrillers. Hagan’s artistic bent allows O’Donnell to paint some fine observations, including one at the conclusion where “his [Hagan’s] hand moved on her neck, following the line that baffled his brush.”
Overall, I enjoyed MODESTY BLAISE. It does lack some suspense and the action passes with relatively little heightening of drama, but the central character of Modesty is very solid and O’Donnell’s penmanship is never in doubt. A little more thought over the middle section, which drags, and the eventual climax, which is wordy and then finishes abruptly, would have helped, but the first third of the novel is very strong and lays a solid foundation for the series to follow. If I had to, I’d give it six, maybe seven, from ten.
I’m looking forward to reading the follow up, SABRE TOOTH.
Edited by chrisno1, 18 March 2012 - 12:03 PM.
Posted 31 March 2012 - 09:11 PM
Peter O’Donnell followed his first novel, the adaptation of his own screen treatment, with a completely new adventure, SABRE-TOOTH. Here Modesty and the erstwhile Willie Garvin are pawns to the leader of the Kuwait Liberation Army, Karz, a Mongol warlord taken to precipitating revolution for a fee. Like O’Donnell’s first novel the story is inventive, visual, occasionally exciting, very fashionable and spends plenty of time hopping around various exotic locations.
It is however over-populated with minor characters, some of whom, like the civil servant Fraser are utilized for purely extraneous reasons. Others though, such as the industrialist John Dall or the army commander Liebmann, do aid the plot and provide much needed observational insight. The major villain of the piece is a letdown, displaying uncharacteristic indecision at moments of crisis. Karz starts off being utterly ruthless, cold and obsessional, but the appearance of Modesty Blaise and, more tellingly, the forceful Willie Garvin seems to irk him and when he needs to be firm, he wavers. The portrait doesn’t hold up as well as the less physically impressive, but more devious, Gabriel. Karz is simply an over blown thug.
It is left to his bizarre henchmen, the Twins, to provide the required mystery and horror. These two siblings, separated Siamese psychopaths, remain in the background for most of the story, but the menace we know they wield is never far from the surface of the page. The reader knows with cloying inevitability that there will be a confrontation between the Twins and Modesty, the question is where and when and how will she win. Those questions are answered with brutal certainty, but it takes us an awful long time to get that far: the novel starts off very slow and some of the scenes in the first third feel like unnecessary padding.
This is particularly galling when the last segment, which takes place in a secret army encampment buried in the Afghan mountains, passes swiftly and effectively. That portion of the novel is also the most difficult for during it Modesty is subjected to what amounts to not one, but two rapes. These incidents are unseen, but O’Donnell chooses not to gloss over the events and spends a long time prevaricating over who might be guilty and who may be to blame. This in itself is brave writing especially as it wasn’t uncommon in sixties novels for female characters to suffer this sort of peril and have it completely ironed flat, as if the occurrence were inevitable. O’Donnell deserves credit for trying to explain Modesty’s and Willie’s feelings. Unfortunately the eventual method of her escape, with Willie’s gargantuan aid of course, lacks the need for this turn of events and gives the whole episode a nasty exploitive taste.
The middle third should be the most interesting as Modesty and Willie set themselves to be coerced into Karz’s scheme. Yet O’Donnell has telegraphed from the outset the lever which will be their downfall and it comes as no surprise, making the excellently described casino scenes, the theft of a priceless art work and a well-executed kidnapping completely superfluous.
The prose lacks the refinement of O’Donnell’s first outing and has a tendency to wallow in the minds of its characters rather the action on the page. The sequences involving Sir Gerald Tarrant are already beginning to feel burdensome. As a reader the intrigues at Whitehall interest me far less than the goings on in Tangiers or the Hindu Kush and while Tarrant still acts as a sort of surrogate narrator, O’Donnell already has a good feel for his central character and doesn’t need an extra voice to explain Modesty’s motivations and machinations. I’d rather hear it from her mind.
Anyhow, SABRE-TOOTH was good enough for me to pick up I, LUCIFER, O’Donnell’s third effort. This is a more uneven piece, unbalanced chiefly by the bonkers plot involving a delusional precognitive who believes he is Satan and calls himself Lucifer. His bizarre circus trick is to predict death. Seff, an odd-ball puppeteer, and his chief executioner Jack Wish, are blackmailing potential victims into paying fortunes to stay alive. The villains are suitably grotesque, but their methods are simply unfathomable. Lucifer really ought to be the horrific lynch-pin of the group; he has visual impact as well as strong maniacal motives, but the author relegates him to Seff’s patsy. He is nothing more than an insane man-boy with a very peculiar gift - although O’Donnell is careful to exact the reader’s sympathy for this lonely, rather sad and exploited character.
I, LUCIFER starts well with some intrigue and violence in Paris, where Modesty has embarked on an affair with the cod-psychologist Stephen Collier, but O’Donnell then returns to safer ground, lots of story exposition and dull stuff about gadgets and fighting. Again, the middle section should be the most interesting as Modesty is captured by the villains, who have commandeered Collier’s services to increase Lucifer’s effectiveness, but it’s hopelessly drawn out. You can sense the plot’s a real muddle and O’Donnell is merely trying to iron out the huge creases. The novel picks up towards the end, but the climatic gun battle is longwinded and takes the gloss off a fine closing third. It isn’t helped by having the action explained, for the most part, from Collier’s point of view and while we get to read of his anxieties, we get no feeling or emotion from Modesty Blaise. She almost becomes a cipher, seeming to lose all her personality at the moment her thoughts, plans and actions should be taking precedence.
Also, distressingly, Modesty once again has to utilize her sex to succeed. This time she is forced to embark on a sexual liaison with Lucifer for several weeks while awaiting rescue. O’Donnell's attempts to explain her behaviour fall rather flat. To this reader it is simply convenient to use the heroine’s sensual charm as a weapon or a ruse. No amount of philosophizing about her independent spirit and her mental capability to block out unwanted physical or emotional contact can betray the misogynistic bent in the writing. The best that can be said of the proceedings is O’Donnell seems to recognize the flaw and makes the telling decidedly un-erotic.
Overall I, LUCIFER is a thorough entry into the series without ever stretching the author or the reader. It shares much the same format as the previous novels, particularly in the growing band of ‘hangers on’ for Modesty and Willie. It is also already becoming tiresome that these two ex-criminals have a contact in every city, town or country who can lend aid or information. In Willie Garvin’s case he also seems to have a girl in every city, town or country, and doesn’t hesitate to tell an excruciating story about each one, although I think this may be Willie’s [O’Donnell’s] idea of humour. They both ought to stick to throwing knives and shooting people – they’re better at it – as indeed is Modesty.
More of the rough stuff, please!
Edited by chrisno1, 31 March 2012 - 09:17 PM.
Posted 15 July 2012 - 12:28 AM
Modestly declared by the on cover blurb ‘the best Modesty yet’ A TASTE FOR DEATH (1969) has a fine central villain in the monstrous Delicata and a splendid beginning in Panama, but overall I felt it very much more of the same.
The interesting stuff in Peter O’Donnell’s fourth Modesty Blaise epic comes during the initial chapters as Willie Garvin rescues the blind girl Dinah Pilgrim from the clutches of Gabriel, who has returned to haunt our heroes once more. O’Donnell, like Fleming before him, shares an affinity with the exotic and his descriptions of pearl diving among coral reefs in azure blue seas, of golden beaches speckled in verdant green, the luxurious killing ground, are tremendously intoxicating. This is not the first time I’ve felt empathy with the surroundings of O’Donnell’s people. The slow build to sudden violence in chapter one was very good and the ensuing murder, kidnap and rescue well-constructed and tense. This was refreshing, encouraging stuff.
I was also impressed with O’Donnell’s handling of Willie and Dinah’s relationship. We know from experience that Garvin is a womanizer; the pleasure here was in his reluctance, his tenderness towards Dinah. He is protective of her almost as a father or brother, while clearly desiring her. Dinah is fully aware this stems from his perception of, his guilt over, her disability, not from any sense of propriety. Hence it is she who seduces him. The resulting copulation is pleasantly erotic.
When things begin getting rough, O’Donnell proceeds well with a nasty booby trap laid on for Modesty. Sadly O’Donnell rather lets himself down by having the issue resolved by Willie, who escapes his handcuffs and defuses the bomb before she comes to the rescue. As the erstwhile cockney says himself: ‘I could have saved my wrist.’ It rather defeats the object of having Modesty as the heroine if the other characters continue to work alone.
In fact as the story develops, while our heroine is present, she is surrounded by characters that do much of the explanation, suffer much of the fear and interpret much of the emotion for us. Modesty’s imperviousness is becoming a narrative mill-stone. It’s very difficult to keep vibrant a character that apparently has no flaw and needs no counsel.
O’Donnell’s tactic is to instead concentrate on Modesty’s – and by extension Willie Garvin’s – unfulfilling private lives: emotionally stunted, the twosome end up with only each other, inhabiting that chaste mistress-servant relationship that serves them so well. This isn’t completely successful on the author’s part, as her behaviour hardly exacts our sympathy. Poor Stephen Collier, tagged along again to play the Greek Chorus, becomes more wrought by each page; it’s no wonder he leaves her, if he was ever really with her.
Action wise A TASTE FOR DEATH is pretty good, but after the Panama incident, it’s a slow novel which basically repeats the formula first used in SABRE-TOOTH. Here Modesty and Willie are imprisoned by Delicata and Gabriel and their goons at an archaeological dig in the Sahara, where Dinah’s metal divining helps to locate some long lost Roman treasure. Breakout is guaranteed, inventive, but takes an awful long time coming. There is an inconsequential sword fight and a climatic trek through the desert. The baddies meet suitably gruesome deaths. It all ends rather satisfactorily.
The novel does drag in places; I still feel O’Donnell uses too much padding. Overall however, he’s got this one about right. A bit sharper on the action and a bit more of Modesty and the novel would be a classic. It’s successful, but only in a roundabout fashion. Too often I want O’Donnell to get straight to the point, but he seems to like going in circles.
Several of the events we’ve previously encountered – incarceration, a hopeless but loyal and brave boyfriend, unrequited love for Willie and Modesty, a strong villain, a robust climax, sordid sex and the potential threat of rape – arise once more in THE IMPOSSIBLE VIRGIN, a novel that suffers from an indecent title and a lack of incident. A good fight in an aeroplane and a top class villain alone can’t help this one, the first Blaise adventure set in the seventies.
Nobikov, a Russian spy, has struck gold. Satellite photographs have revealed mineral deposits in Rwanda, and he sets out to secure the mining rights. He reckons without the midget gangster Brunel, a man not unacquainted with Modesty Blaise, who double crosses him and attempts to extract the deposits whereabouts by torture. On his death bed, Nobikov gibbers the coordinates to Doctor Giles Pennyfeather, a man who heals more by faith than medicine and, perhaps because his wistful unworldly outlook is miles away from Modesty Blaise’s, he has developed an unlikely relationship with our heroine. Brunel meanwhile decides to extract the information from the good doctor and hence our tale commences.
It’s an okay romp as romps go. There are a few taut scenes, especially the fight on the plane, and Brunel makes a very good villain, probably O’Donnell’s best so far, a brutal, methodical man seemingly in hypnotic control of his charges. There is also a very good female protagonist, Lisa, a beautiful albino slave, used and abused by Brunel and his cohorts to achieve various forms of physical or logistical satisfaction. Lisa’s troubles are well constructed and the eventual device of her compliance quite original. I enjoyed the sections where O’Donnell entered her mind and revealed her thoughts and fears; she comes across as very real, although by the end she is nothing more than a passenger.
Equally impressive were the moments when Modesty finds herself alone and abandoned after the death of Willie Garvin. O’Donnell writes compassionately about the relationship, the bond, between the two chancers and this reinforces the reader’s belief in their attachment. Modesty’s loss was keenly felt. That Willie survives would be no shock, but as before in O’Donnell’s telling, it is disappointing that the sky dive to safety is told in flashback and hence lacks the tantalising tension and terror that such a scene should invoke. Told as it is, and in full knowledge Willie is alive and well, this particular episode is unrewarding. You almost wish he had died, as Modesty’s grief stricken thoughts are far more interesting than Willie Garvin landing on a flock of snow covered sheep.
O’Donnell’s dénouements are generally good, but he stumbles badly towards the end here, having Modesty engage a mountain gorilla in a pantomime fight before resolving the action with a silent knife fight in a forest laden by hives of vicious African hornets. Most readers I am sure, would expect the wasps to be set free, but alas we were deprived that sting in the tail. None the less, THE IMPOSSIBLE VIRGIN is a worthwhile read that doesn’t stretch the reader except when having to accept the implausible and the ridiculous and the bemusedly bizarre.
PIECES OF MODESTY followed the next year (1972). This book was not given a hardback publication, possibly because it wasn’t strictly an original novel, but a compilation of six short stories based on previously published comic strips: ‘A Better Way to Die’, ‘The Giggle Wrecker’, ‘I Had a Date with Lady Janet’, ‘A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck’, ‘Salamander Four’ and ‘The Soo Girl Charity’.
The comic strip origins are very obvious in the swift setting up of the story, the lack of in depth character detail and the, in general, single moment of danger, but because of those short comings, the stories work remarkably well. O’Donnell’s professional career began as a short story writer and he shows craft and style delivering each of these succinct and tart adventures, a talent seldom found in his long, almost too involved novels. The psychobabble he usually ambles through is completely removed and replaced with a straight forward narrative and the barest of flesh on the bones of his protagonists. This allows the reader to form the features of the tale themselves and is ultimately very successful for the characters and the author are forced only to say what is relevant.
The opening tale is a tense, gruesome hostage saga set in South America that reveals the depths of a pacifist’s soul. The second tale, ‘The Giggle Wrecker’ has an appalling title and is the most fanciful and childish [read: cartoonish] yet it still benefits from a dab of Cold War espionage, being set in East Berlin and revolving around a fake defection. Indeed most of the stories are fairly inconsequential, most notably the fourth, which features a gang of high society robbers, though even here among the ridiculous personnel, O’Donnell finds time for a spine tingling midnight kite surf to board a speeding yacht.
The third story is uniquely told in the first person, and narrated by Willie Garvin, and is a standard Blaise kidnap, torture and escape job. The villain Rodelle is reminiscent of Delicata, even sharing a history with our man Willie. The climax is grim. ‘Salamander Four’ starts with sculptor Alex Hemmer suffering a similar artistic block to that of the painter Hagan in O'Donnell's debut novel – he can’t mould Modesty’s image and his work is unfinished. The caper he is accidentally involved in resolves his method. It’s the least brutal of the stories and ends on a hopeful note.
Lastly, ‘The Soo Girl Charity’ is a bleak and cold story of adultery, murder and wife beating. It was impossible not to be reminded of Fleming’s ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’, but this story lacks the finesse of Fleming and only succeeds at its very end, where O’Donnell gives the reader a choking unexpected twist. Modesty Blaise is equally dumb struck.
I enjoyed all these episodes and wish O’Donnell could transplant some of their brevity into his lengthier pieces. The action orientated, rapid stories seem to capture the essence and urgency of a page turning comic strip much more than the thoughtful, solid and precise prose that occupies the novels. There are gaps in the make-up of the characters, but that isn’t an issue in the short story form and, confined to a mere thirty or so pages each time, O’Donnell really shows his talent here, both in comprehension and cohesion. A good note for the future I trust...
Edited by chrisno1, 16 July 2012 - 12:28 AM.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 12:07 PM
Continuing my on/off series:
WELCOME SHERAZAD (1969) has a very fetching cover, with a mini-skirted, long legged, red headed babe leaning on an assault rifle. That the interior content of the novel doesn’t quite follow the promise of its exterior is hardly a surprise; paperbacks like this were packaged endlessly so in the 60s and 70s.
Sherazad is an agent of BOSC (the Bureau of Special Cases) and is armed with a host of tricks in her handbag and a body that drives men to distraction, usually policemen and villains. But she isn’t ever armed with an assault rifle. The series is written by Alfred Mazure, who was formerly a comic strip artist, and his madcap plot and flair for the visual is inherited from that past. Here, Sherazad is asked to infiltrate Verity Productions, a film studio in deepest Hampshire, and discover why a series of young starlets have disappeared while working on its movies.
So far, so Charlie’s Angels. What brings Mazure’s story to life is his eye for wacky detail. Right from the off our heroine attends a drug fuelled party and the swinging nature hardly stops: Verity Productions is inhabited by a cast of oddballs, there’s a mad scientist and an even madder baddie, BOSC is staffed by cowled Benedictine monks, in a forest roam dozens of wild naked cannibals, a gorilla attempts to molest Sherazad, I could go on. Among the bizarre occurrences Mazure has included a splattering of intrigue and a few tight corners for his character to escape. I was particularly impressed with a clawing fight in the hold of an open hulled aircraft and the final torture scenes are vivid and memorable. More of that kind of thing would have been welcome. What drags the story down is that it’s so slight and his lead character, while proficient, simply isn’t very interesting. Even the sex is a bit nonchalant, happening without us ever being present and funneled through a host of innuendo.
The most jarring aspect is the dialogue, which has dated tremendously, the prime offence being Sherazad’s use of ‘heigh ho’ to describe a potential bedmate. This expression (one I am not familiar with) is overused to the point of annoyance and makes her sound like some sort of fuzzy hippie. Another repetitious theme is the incompetence of the local police chief, a man called Crump (yes, I know), who is constantly outsmarted, either by Sherazad or by the villain. Quite why the police have to be such dolts is a mystery and these un-amusing comedy scenes add nothing to the rather daft storyline.
WELCOME SHERAZAD is a quick read, but a bit more thought about the spying and less on the tongue wagging gossiping of the characters would be as welcome as that cover photo of Sherazad.
Someone must have had a word in Alfred Mazure’s shell-like because both Inspector Crump and ‘heigh ho’ fail to make an appearance in SHERAZAD ON A TRIP (1972) a wild and wacky adventure that takes place in the imaginary African enclave of Miarandi.
This story is, frankly, a complete mess dealing as it does with a strain of mutant bees whose sting delivers hallucinogenic fantasies - hence ‘on a trip’. The insect world isn’t the most terrifying of opponents and the demise of these nasty critters isn’t exactly a surprise; what is are the oddball subplots: an infernal Chinese colonel out to turn Miarandi Red, a sex mad President who cares nothing for affairs of state and a playboy blackmailer, head of a strange cult for married damsels called the Lions.
This latter is the most peculiar offering. Sherazad first encounters Bobo Sun T’hen, the Great Lion, in his opulent palace wearing a lion mask and surrounded by a host of female lionesses, also masked. They are initiating a new recruit into the pride and while there is an undercurrent of the sordid, Mazure isn’t bold enough to describe it and the scene falls rather flat. Indeed, like the first novel, sex is remarkably absent from the piece. You can’t help thinking other contemporary writers would be more explicit.
While Sun T’hen is an intriguing character, and his entrapment and blackmail plans feasible, he isn’t ever revealed as the true villain, for there appears to be an ‘otherworldly’ explanation for the mutant bees. This weird alien abduction plot adds little to the piece and someone really ought to have got the author to reconsider his pitch. He’s built the intrigue and suspense very well up to the three-quarter mark then he simply seems to run out of ideas and conjures an X-Files style climax. This is a great pity as Mazure’s descriptions of the LSD-like ‘trips’ are startling, provoking and highly visceral. They lend considerable impact to the novel. Suggesting Sherazad is thwarting an alien invasion merely drowns them in unreality.
For all that, it’s a diverting story, which I enjoyed without ever being very interested in the characters or the plot. There are instances of murder, torture and a suitably robust battle to the death between Sherazad and Sun T’hen. Up until then mind, her worries were only a lioness (of the four pawed variety), a groping President and a swarm of angry bees. Throughout it all, the heroine remains fun and bubbly and marvelously adroit. Her dialogue is snappy and shows more verve than before. The other characters are a bland interchangeable bunch and seem to speak in italics a bit like this when the author wants emphasis on important words.
Overall, both books are a fair stab at the thriller genre, but they don’t quite hit the mark. They lack atmosphere and the danger passes amiably by. Alfred Mazure ought to have stayed with comics. His third novel, SHERAZAD UPTIGHT, is quite rare and too expensive to purchase at the moment, but if I find a cheaper copy, I’ll let you know what I think of it.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 01:36 PM
There's Irish author Ava McCarthy's current series of thrillers featuring hacker Harriet 'Harry' Martinez. The Insider (2009), The Courier (2010) and Hide Me (2011). The film rights were sold earlier this year for a six-figure sum.
Posted 31 December 2012 - 05:55 PM
I am a big fan of the Sally Sin novels by Beth McMullen. Just when she’s starting to settle into retirement, Sally's old Agency boss, Simon Still, shows up to recruit her for one more job – stopping Illegal arms dealer and dashing nemesis, Ian Blackford.
Posted 02 January 2013 - 03:37 PM
I wasn't aware of Sally Sin, so thanks for that.
I'll try to look up both of these girl spies.
Posted 06 October 2013 - 11:12 PM
I've been a little remiss in my reading, but here is a Modesty Blaise update. I only have 4 more novels to go, but sadly The Night of Morningstar seems much too expensive to purchase at the moment. I hope to finish the other three novels after reading Boyd's Bond update 'Solo', which for some reason is a prospect I am not looking forward to. Still, roll on Modesty Blaise of the 1970's....
MODESTY BLAISE #4
THE SILVER MISTRESS (1973) is Peter O’Donnell’s seventh stab at interpreting his comic book creation Modesty Blaise for the prose novel. It’s a flat affair which follows much the same format as his other novels. Once again Modesty, Willie Garvin and two assorted hangers on are captured by the bad guys and have to affect a daring escape. This time however, they are also attempting to rescue the head of MI6, Gerald Tarrant, who has been kidnapped by a ruthless gang of blackmailers. The action moves from the French Pyrenees’ to London and back to France via a brief trip to Hong Kong. Willie’s sometime lover Lady Janet becomes fortuitously [or not] involved at this point as it turns out her sister is being blackmailed by the same bad guys.
While the plot barely passes muster, the characters prove to be equally shallow. O’Donnell revels in caricature. The villains are a collection of ogre-like misfits. Their nominal leader is Colonel Jim, a man sexually obsessed with his young puppyish wife. Both are poorly drawn characters and you don’t believe for a minute they could mastermind the international spy ring they run. They are surrounded by a plethora of nastiness: Claire, a Scotswoman who likes dressing up as a nun and purports to be the sole arbiter of moral guidance; Angel, a youthful minx who likes nothing better than garroting her victims; and Sexton, a muscle-bound martial arts expert intent on proving his fighting prowess by triumphing over Modesty Blaise. There are more, but they are less consequential. This quintet of weirdness would probably work very well on the drawn page. Graphic novels tend to exaggerate and they would benefit from less prosaic descriptions. Ultimately, I wasn’t interested in them or their hapless plot. They all sounded very familiar, as if O’Donnell is giving us variants on Delicata, Gabriel, etc. It’s telling that the most interesting character, the Hong Kong magnate Wu Smith, only features for one chapter. His life of vice and power, framed by tradition and loyalty, is beautifully evocative of a lost bygone world, exemplified by his love of cricket battles.
O’Donnell cuts up even worse with Quinn, a mountaineer caught up in the fray whose dialogue is written in such an affected manner as to render him rude, chauvinistic and ignorant. He lacks any social charms and, rather like the barely-there Lady Janet, he’s merely a plot spoke to keep the wheel turning but serves no purpose to the overall arc of the story. Quinn may as well be written out half way. Quite what Modesty is supposed to see in him, I never gathered. She seems much more attached to poor Gerald Tarrant, who is the most rounded figure of the lot, experiencing as he does pangs of guilt and fear during his incarceration and torture.
There is some action, but it takes an age to arrive. Modesty’s final battle with Sexton is suitably mythic and mystic, but there is a long drawn out closing chapter that sees all our heroes racing go-karts through Hyde Park and rather takes the edge off of a robust climax. I’d like to say the novel has tension and intrigue, but it doesn’t. Occasionally O’Donnell gets under the skin of a character and offers a little light on the play, but these occasions are rare. THE SILVER MISTRESS is a by-the-numbers affair and not particularly memorable.
My copy of LAST DAY IN LIMBO (1976) has a dreadful 1970s cover but fares a little better than the previous adventure by virtue of its more action orientated goings on. Not by much mind for O’Donnell yet again repeats his tired formula of prison breaking.
This time a dying matriarch, Miss Benita has created Limbo, a strange coffee plantation in the remote jungle somewhere in the heart of Belize, and turned it into a slave plantation full of rich white slaves, culled from their wealthy station by her nephew Paxero. While the matriarch has a history, motive and background worth retelling, the main dastardly duo, Paxero and Damion, share the familiar hallmarks of bored perversion, usually kinky sex and motiveless killing. O’Donnell is clever enough to not actually describe their behaviour first hand. Instead it comes in dribs and drabs through the narrative. This builds a certain tension and fascination about the pair which is never fully exploited. Both their demises are nd unexceptional. In fact while the climax is a well described protracted gun battle, one is left a bit underwhelmed; such nasty characters ought to have the coup de grace offered in a far more fitting display.
The story brings together several former characters, Lucifer, John Dall, Stephen Collier and his wife Dinah. The latter of these is subjected to a kidnapping and torture which is gripping and horrific, especially as we (the reader) knows she is pregnant, while the evil protagonists do not. The miscarriage comes as no surprise. While O’Donnell is able transcribe his characters’ emotions well, I do wonder why he has to constantly submit his women to such barbarism. The men who police the plantation, the Specials, are a heartless, brutish bunch, prone to rape and whippings; Modesty again allows herself to be mistreated (not once but twice) and is shot again; the supporting British agent Maude Tiller has been gangbanged by the Paxero and Damion and is still in the throes of recovery – luckily she comes through unscathed. Meanwhile all Willie Garvin has to suffer is a lost romantic liaison.
The good stuff in the novel, much like the previous book, comes in the preamble to the main affair: a short piece set in Switzerland and another longer section in Guatemala. Here the story fairly romps along, is both tense and intriguing and isn’t bogged down with psychobabble, excepting Dinah’s magical divining skills. Elsewhere there seems to be a lot of excess padding. Not much is happening and characters spend a long time talking – especially Collier who must rank as one of the author’s most annoying creations – his wife calls him stupid, but she’s forgot to mention obnoxious, self centred and boorish.
Despite its failings, LAST DAY IN LIMBO is an easy read and I did enjoy it. Occasionally the descriptions capture the essence of the tale, you can almost see some images being crafted for the frame of a Daily Express comic strip, but goodness, O’Donnell needs to rethink his plot lines and come up with something more original. As it stands this constant rehash of old ideas is wearing very thin.
While DRAGON’S CLAW (1978) follows much the same pathway as the previous six novels, it’s refreshing that Modesty and Willie at last battle the odds alone. We do have the prerequisite hanger-on – another artist, the wimpish, forever grateful and muddled Lucien [Luke] Fletcher – but unusually he’s killed off half way and serves merely as the catalyst to adventure.
The novels starts well, with a theatrical execution on the remote Pacific isle of Dragon’s Claw and the introduction of a triumvirate of villainy, all closely observed by the prescient Chinese, Doctor Feng. They have all the motifs one expects from O’Donnell’s baddies and the chief antagonist, Beauregard Browne, shares an effeminate manner not unlike Gabriel’s, but one which masks the ruthless strongly masculine nature lurking below. His companion, the nymphomaniac Clarissa is a stereotype and a counterpoint all at once, providing an amusing foil to Beauregard’s procrastinations while remaining in a high state of arousal from the moment we meet her to the moment she dies. Their assassin, the deluded priest Uriah Crisp, has the hallmark of Lucifer about him. His demise, when it comes, is swift and gory and richly deserved.
After this excellent introduction, we visit Modesty in her sloop, sailing the shark infested Pacific and rescuing the delirious Fletcher from his sinking dingy. The artist was last seen a year ago in Malta and quite how and why he’s ended up with Modesty is the crux of the story. The pace is quicker than much of the author’s previous output. There are some entertaining scrapes in Malta and in London, including a daring theft from a sculpture gallery and Fletcher’s sudden murder, before our two heroes are kidnapped. The latter occurs in a manner I didn’t anticipate and is probably the best twist O’Donnell has provided in his whole output.
The piece is much lighter than before. It doesn’t dwell on the past or the indignities of the characters and, for once, there is little in the way of sexual exploitation – let’s not forget that here Clarissa is beholden to her urges and actively encourages them, while in the past Modesty has often surrendered herself purely to seek advantage and tends not to enjoy it; this time she remains chaste other than her odd affair with Luke Fletcher. The action is well presented, especially a wickedly exciting seven second shootout towards the novel’s climax, and has a cinematic [as opposed to calligraphic] feel that hasn’t materialized in O’Donnell’s work since his debut. He’s also clever enough to present a subtext, one of vanity, which inhabits us all, but which Willie and particularly Modesty seem not to be prone to. The villains meanwhile all suffer from this sin: Beauregard’s orchids, Clarissa’s sexual accomplishments, Feng’s scientific nous, Uriah’s six-shooter circus tricks; even Sam Solon, the Aussie newspaper magnate, is feeding his own sense of importance through the narrative.
While the villains’ motives are less than convincing, the storytelling certainly is and the lack of a truly spellbinding conspiracy doesn’t really matter here. It is repetitious, but it displays much more purpose, more zip and élan, than the novels which immediately preceded it. My copy boldly states DRAGON’S CLAW is ‘probably the best’ and it probably isn’t far wrong.
Posted 06 December 2013 - 04:21 PM
MODESTY BLAISE #5
The first Blaise to grace the 1980’s, THE XANADU TALISMAN keeps up a vivid pace and an interesting plot which, more so than any other adventure, refers back to Modesty’s early life, both as the founder and disbander of the Network and as an orphan child in the Middle East. It occasionally treads dangerous ground – an underage rape, a despotic Caesar-like villain – but its violence is for the most part never perfunctory, pulling at the threads of the plot.
The novel starts during an earthquake in Morocco, where Modesty unwittingly saves a double crossing hit man, Bernard Martel, who is later murdered infront of her. Martel is employed by El Mico, the mysterious and ruthless head of a crime syndicate whose stock in trade is theft, death and coercion.
Intent on carrying out his dying wishes, Modesty and the ever cheerful Willie Garvin embark on a caper to find the legendary Pahlavi Crown and rescue a kidnapped English woman from a harem in a gorgeous palace high in the Atlas Mountains. How they get there makes for enjoyable fun, missing much of Peter O’Donnell’s usual lengthy stretches of psychobabble and replacing it with plenty of intrigue and derring do. The only dim light is the return of the muddling Doctor Giles Pennyfeather, a character I didn’t care for when he first arrived way back in THE IMPOSSIBLE VIRGIN and dislike even more now. That he’s hardly relevant to the plot doesn’t help, although without him our heroes would still be stuck in a Moroccan dungeon. His appearances all seem serendipitous, he’s like a mystic, almost foretelling the future as well as healing the sick and reading minds. At least he seems more at home in the world of spies than his first effort and plays his role effectively, if boyishly well, even if his patronizing manner rankles.
Willie Garvin is less involved in this story, for once merely the genial sidekick. There is one odd scene where he seduces an air hostess and it rather sticks in the reading as the novel is absent of his usual bed hopping excesses. Garvin’s Casanova-esque exploits were never funny and stood alone as here, they look very tawdry. There are small supporting roles for a host of characters who may or may not be familiar from the cartoon strip. I particularly enjoyed a series of bleak confrontations with gangsters in Corsica and another with an aged eccentric holed up in a cave in Morocco, a figure from Modesty’s past.
The villain, El Mico, is a strange creation, less of an individual than a myth, and his triumvirate of nasties is headed by Nannie Prendergast who wields her influence over the assassin brothers Dominic and Jeremy Silk. Latterly, we encounter Prince Rahim Azhari, a billionaire exiled in his Xanadu estate where he enjoys terminal gladiatorial games and an eighty head harem. His benevolence makes him more of a threat than El Mico, but he’s merely creepy when he should be captivating. Towards the climax the action comes fast and there is an unexpected twist which satisfies. Like DRAGON’S CLAW, THE XANADU TALISMAN is much more concise and effective than O’Donnell’s earliest output and I’d congratulate him on that. It’s a great read and a better story, even if it relies on familiar incident to propel the narrative. It’s probably a more succinct introduction to the world of Modesty Blaise than some of his other novels.
THE NIGHT OF MORNINGSTAR (1982) starts ten years in the past, as Modesty Blaise breaks up the Network in favour of a life of luxury. There is one dissenter, Hugh Oberon, and he vows one day to come back and haunt Modesty.
This is hardly a surprise, but O’Donnell has fashioned a much more original plot for this one, involving a Russian backed terror group, the Watchmen, whose ultimate aim is to turn Western Europe into an authoritarian paradise. While there are still far too many villains, here they seem a less perverse bunch, concerned in the main with logistics and psychobabble rather than bizarre killing rituals. They do carry out ‘Individuals’ which are one-on-one combat trials to the death, but again we are spared the details and the usual escape plan devised by Modesty around said combat trial is noticeably absent.
Instead we are presented with a very effective thriller set in London, San Francisco and Madeira. Modesty meets some old acquaintances, gets one of them killed, foils a plot to detonate the Golden Gate Bridge and gets captured by the Watchmen. Willie Garvin saves Sir Gerald Tarrant from assassination, extracts vital information by subterfuge from a bent fixer and gets captured by the Watchmen. The escape is rudimentary and the climax a little underwhelming, but in the main O’Donnell does the right things well.
I must however quibble again about the reappearance of Stephen Collier and his blind wife Dinah. The author clearly enjoys these two characters, but Dinah is a one trick pony: everyone looks out for her because she is blind and has been in a few nasty scrapes and gets frightening premonitions; meanwhile Collier is the word-horse for a repetitive strand of improprietous humour; there is nothing this man won’t say that makes him look out of touch, ill-feeling or snobbish. Quite what his wife (or Modesty, his old flame) (or anyone else for that) really thinks of him is anyone’s guess. O’Donnell gives him something productive to do here, but I sense his scenes generally have been used as page padding for they add little of interest to the story or characters. Everything he and his wife do here (and in some of the other novels) could easily be accomplished by other characters or needn’t be accomplished at all.
That aside, THE NIGHT OF MORNINGSTAR is a solid and enjoyable read which finally breaks the standard set up Peter O’Donnell has given all his novels. Sometimes the scenes and the dialogue feel more comic strip. In the main it is a shorter and more punchy tale and you can almost picture the incidents being illustrated for us. It’s a pity the change came so late in the series as a bit more espionage and a little less escapology would have been welcome a few books back.
DEAD MAN’S HANDLE is the last of Peter O’Donnell’s original series and was published in 1985, twenty years after the initial adventure. While the story holds no eventual surprises, again the novel does have a slightly differing structure.
Here Willie Garvin has been kidnapped and brainwashed to assassinate Modesty Blaise. The plot this time revolves around Modesty herself and how she uses her contacts and associates to discover his whereabouts and thwart the villain’s plot. It’s quite refreshing to see the ex-Network Mam’selle relying almost completely on her own wits to resolve a case. By the climax, things are back to normal (imprisonment, escape, trial by combat) but the story is very enjoyable and fairly purrs along, unlike some earlier efforts.
The novel has an excellent introduction, flashing us back to Modesty’s first meeting with Willie, reintroducing characters who will play a part in the forthcoming opus. The action is swift and the pace is fast. This is sustained throughout the novel, O’Donnell’s shortest, and reaps rewards. Sadly while this is a welcome change, for once the author’s villains do not stack up: this lot are a bunch of crazed lunatic Satanists who get their kicks from carrying out murder and fraud on a grand scale. There are elements of Lucifer, Gabriel and Colonel Jim in Doctor Thaddeus Pilgrim, and some of the other antagonists are also fleetingly familiar; occasionally the obvious repetitions spoil the moment. The inconsequential criminal subplot doesn’t help, nor a long winded coda that lacks any humour. Overall however the bricks do stack up fairly well in this one.
Perhaps the best aspects of the book are the moments when Modesty or Willie are reflecting on their relationship and their history and the lengths they will go to save each other, the pain each has suffered in life and how they have overcome these incidents to continue living and loving. Their loyalty to each other, their understanding of each other, has always been clear, but O’Donnell crystalizes the relationship by clearly referencing the past. While the input of people such as Weng, the Colliers and Krolli is important, you never sense it over reaches in this novel and the focus remains squarely on the two main stars.
DEAD MAN’S HANDLE is a thorough adventure with much to recommend it. Zippy, violent, sexy, tense, at times horrifically skin crawling and unpleasant, it’s a great way to sign off the bulk of Modesty’s adventures.
N.B. I am aware that the short story collection COBRA TRAP was published in 1996. I have not however been able to source an inexpensive copy of this novel. When I do, I will do a write up.
Posted 02 February 2014 - 11:47 AM
MODESTY BLAISE #6
Found one !
COBRA TRAP is a much later Modesty Blaise collection. Coming in 1996, some 11 years after DEAD MAN’S HANDLE, and not even receiving a paperback edition until some ten years further on, it is a short selection of five stories that encompass the whole of Modesty’s life since just before the demise of the Network, the crime syndicate she fronted until her mid-twenties. Each tale dips in and out of various friendships and adversaries, and each one reveals just a little more about the makeup of our Modesty and her genial sidekick Willie Garvin.
It’s a curious compilation. Some of the stories feel like period pieces; others are more up to date (mobile phones are mentioned, for instance); all share an underlying melancholy as characters reflect on their actions and their lives and how they and those interact with each other. It lacks the detail of Peter O’Donnell’s novels and each telling feels very much like an afterthought to the main bulk of his heroine’s adventures.
‘Bellman’, the opening gambit, starts in Tangier when the Network is still in existence and Modesty is trying to frame a sex-trafficker and get him jailed. She succeeds, but later Bellman is freed and decides to exact revenge. It’s a long winded piece that hints at the similarity between villainy and heroism, especially when both want to hide their realities from those they love. Bellman in that respect resembles Modesty. In others he is completely different. Caught in the middle is his ward, Sandra, a confused young woman who eventually has to admit to the dark side of her benefactor. The action doesn’t excite and the denouement is scarcely taxing.
‘The Dark Angels’ stars a fantastic acrobatic troupe. They also specialize in murder. It’s set just after SABRE TOOTH and shows us the first time Sir Gerald Tarrant utilized Modesty and Willie’s talents directly and deceitfully. That aside, it holds no special interest.
The middle story, ‘Old Alex’, starts strongly with Modesty buried in a cave in the Pyrenees. Latterly we discover Salamander Four (or three of them at any rate) are responsible for the attempt on her life. There is a twist in the tale which sees the confidential assassination bureau wound up in spectacular fashion via a telephone call and its nominal leader Angus McBeal admits to a touching family history that has altered his thinking. Unfortunately the rest of the caper is just that, a thin knockabout farce which touches on all the worst aspects of O’Donnell’s story telling.
There was nothing to suggest ‘The Girl with the Black Balloon’ would be much different and while this story has similar flashes of brilliance to its predecessor, such as the scenes where a conscientious objector refuses to be rescued or an aborigine sniffs a glove like a bloodhound and promptly scents the bad guys in the room, overall it has the same comic book thrust which organically binds O’Donnell’s work: killers dressed as monks, prison breaks, outrageous rescue plans. The humour, like the previous tale, is labored.
‘Cobra Trap’ meanwhile is a more satisfying adventure. It is the shortest and the most recently set. Here many of Modesty’s acquaintances have moved on, some have even died, and the Mam’selle herself is a tad over fifty and losing her edge. Willie Garvin is going to mild fat and is reflecting on his life and his future. The Collier’s, Stephen and Dinah, reappear for the umpteenth time and while I still find the fussing professor a painful read, it seems entirely appropriate that Modesty’s swan song should be in saving her and Willie’s best friends - each other accepted of course.
There is a poignancy to the story which pulls the heartstrings and the author writes touching and economic paragraphs to sum up his casts’ history, their inter-tangled lives and loves and their reliance on each other, both during these amazing adventures and domestically. I enjoyed it immensely although at times it needed expansion. The action passes quickly and with little drama until the final few pages. At times I longed for expansive prose, which is odd, given I usually want less diverse wordsmithery from O’Donnell. Yet the climax of the tale, high in the Panamanian jungle, Modesty and Willie fighting the odds once more, really deserves more from the writer because it’s demanding much of the reader. Overall though it’s a very good short story, revealing depth of character, body and soul while stretching the tension through an extended suspenseful train journey. Even the neglectful brevity doesn’t stop this being a resounding, if sorrowful, thumbs up.
The adventures of Modesty Blaise have certainly been diverting. I enjoyed reading them, but have many reservations. I’m not convinced Peter O’Donnell possesses a rounded literary style. I disliked the laboured humour and found many of the characters and situations outside of the main plot annoyingly trivial. The action when it came was generally well described, but it often would take an age to arrive. The early novels feature Sir Gerald Tarrant eulogizing a lot and these passages slow the stories. The seventies sagas seemed bogged down with side-plots and feature more and more bizarre villains. The comic strip pretentions become very obvious in the later novels, yet they tend to be punchy and tense, while the early ones are grittier, have strong adversaries but drag terribly in places. My overriding impression however is one of repetition: the author chose a premise [one of capture, incarceration and escape] and stuck with it through almost the whole series. The lack of invention disappointed me more than anything else.
Suffice to say, if I had to recommend any - let’s say a top five - I’d go for the following:
DRAGON’S CLAW, MODESTY BLAISE, A TASTE FOR DEATH, THE XANADU TALISMAN, THE NIGHT OF MORNING STAR.