There was no hint of doubt on the faces of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. They were absorbed and speculative. Tarrant knew he could not have called them off the scent now anyway. The caper was real, no matter how baffling its operation, and they were fascinated by it. (p.102)
Having read some short, punchy spy novels recently makes me realise how these Modesty Blaise novels, by contrast, are rather leisurely in style and pacing – this one is 286 pages long. The time is spent in a slow build-up to the eventual plot or ‘caper’, dwelling at length on scenes which establish character rather than forwarding the story. This explains why, although it is of course a novelisation of a comic strip, I feel I’ve got to know and like the characters, especially the old world courtesy of Modesty’s ‘control’ at British Intelligence, the elderly, fatherly and eminently polite Sir Gerald Tarrant.
As with Sabre-Tooth, the novel opens by pitching us straight into the enemy camp. We are introduced to the bizarre menagerie of Dr Bowker the discredited psychiatrist, wizened old Seff the marionette-maker, his creepy wife Regina, Mr Wish the ex-Mafia killer, and Lucifer.
‘Lucifer’ is a young man with remarkable psychic skills: he can predict when people are going to die. Seff has latched onto this and turned it into a scam: they give Lucifer the profiles of a number of VIPs and he selects those he knows will die of natural causes. Then they add in half a dozen figures Lucifer hasn’t predicted; these are the targets for extortion. They write to both groups, warning them that they will die if they don’t pay the money demanded (around £60,000), and include in the letter the list of everyone who’s been threatened.
Invariably, most don’t pay, but keep an eye on everyone mentioned in the letter and are terrified to see a large number of them dying in the three months or so after receiving the letter. The survivors quickly cough up. Thus, over the previous year or so, an increasing number of high-profile government targets, in the UK and abroad, have been paying large sums to Seff and his colleagues.
It was the psychiatrist Dr Bowker who first identified ‘Lucifer’ as a man with very special and genuine psychic powers, but why the name? Because, after suffering a catastrophic breakdown brought on by a failed love affair, ‘Lucifer’ developed the psychotic delusion that he is in fact the Prince of Darkness and those around him are his slaves and that periodically he descends into Hades to glory in his Kingdom.
The narrative gives us sporadic descriptions of these terrifying delusions seen from Lucifer’s point of view, as he flies over the Lake of Fire watching the Damned in their torments, another example of O’Donnell’s highly enjoyable and vivid way with words.
Seff, Bowker and Regina and Mr Wish all encourage ‘Lucifer’ in his delusions because his paranormal power of ‘precognition’ – ie his money-making talent – seems to be somehow linked to them, although even Bowker can’t explain why.
It is, in other words, a straightforward criminal scam – extortion, or demanding money with menaces – but with a bizarre and way-out twist, well suited to a psychedelic episode of The Avengers or… a Modesty Blaise novel.
Into this strange scenario come Modesty and Willie, at first asked to help by Sir Gerald Tarrant, their contact in British Intelligence, who fills them in on the story of the threatening letters and the mysterious deaths. Then they become directly involved in saving the life of their friend, head of France’s Deuxième Bureau, René Vaubois, after he receives one of the gang’s letters. Because, it turns out, Lucifer isn’t always correct: about twenty percent of the people Lucifer predicts will die, don’t, and so Seff has to send in assassins to kill them anyway, to keep up the fear on the others. This is what happens to Vaubois and we see Modesty and Willie save him from these assassins twice in one action-packed night.
There is a whole sub-plot which consists of Modesty sleeping with a guy named Steve Collier, who claims to be a metallurgist. He witnesses her and Willie sorting out the assassins and asks Modesty, not unreasonably, ‘Who the hell are you?’ But now that the ‘caper’ is in full swing, she is a woman on a mission – they have one last night of passion before she bids him adieu and disappears from his life… (Is it empowering that it is a woman taking the lead in initiating and ending affairs to suit herself?)
After saving Vaubois’s life, M and W use their former underworld contacts to track down the gang to the house they’re renting in Denmark, and Modesty goes in to investigate… but as she walks in, pretending to be the landlord’s agent, who should walk into the hallway at just the wrong moment? Steve Collier! Turns out he’s not a metallurgist at all, he is expert in precognition! Bowker and Seff had begun to worry that Lucifer’s powers are failing so they had invited world-famous psychologist Dr Collier as an expert in the field to fly out to their house and interview and assess Lucifer.
Collier blurts out ‘Modesty!’, blowing her cover in front of the gang. She manages to take out Mr Wish but then has a gripping unarmed fight with Lucifer who beats her because he effortlessly predicts what her next move will be and anticipates it.
Modesty and Collier are removed at gunpoint to a yacht, then by charter plane, then another plane to a remote island on the Philippines. Here Seff demonstrates what a callous baddie he is by getting Bowker to make incisions in their shoulders and inserting tiny radio-controlled cyanide capsules, which he can detonate from a hand-held device if either of them steps out of line. Creepy Regina has a spare. No way out!
It is here – while an anxious Willie and Sir Gerald are trying to track her down – that Modesty has to come up with a plan of escape. Part of which involves her seducing … Lucifer, which she successfully does, thus achieving a sort of security in the house of crooks (and giving rise to some odd scenes and droll dialogue – ‘Don’t wait for me, Lucifer, I just want to fix my hair.’)
Meanwhile, Sir G reports that the latest recipient of a Lucifer Letter is none other than John Dall, the brash American multi-millionaire we met in the last adventure, Sabre-Tooth. They let him in on the whole caper, and inform him that the baddies have got Modesty. He agrees to help out with his own private battleship and army!
It’s Willie who does the clever stuff, deducing the gang’s location from the nature of the sea-borne pick-ups and the latest drop zone specified in the letters. He has spent a long time trying to figure out the peculiar method by which the buoys containing the ransoms are collected and now comes to the far-out conclusion that they are collected by a pair of trained dolphins with a belt stretched between them; the dolphins swim up to the floating buoy, the belt tugs it free of its moorings, and then the dolphins return to the dolphin pen and their trainer towing the treasure behind them. And so John Dall’s rescue ship anchors off the tiny Philippines island where we know the baddies are based.
In commando kit with blacked-up face, Willie sails ashore in a small dinghy to evade the radar. He sneaks up to the house, finds Modesty’s room, breaks in, removes the cycanide from her shoulder and patches her up. But then she insists on staying so she can help Steve and even Lucifer who, after all, is a seriously sick young man.
Willie and she argue about it and Modesty wins and Willie claimbs back out the window and sneaks off to cover. Unfortunately, as he slips his bag over a mound, it sets off an old Japanese mine which blows him up, concussing him, and he wakes up a prisoner in the house, tied up and surrounded by the villainous local pirates Seff has hired to guard them.
Seff concocts the sadistic idea of making Modesty and Willie fight a duel – if she refuses he’ll detonate the cyanide or just have them both shot. So the scene shifts to a dramatic cliff-top location where they choose their weapons, Modesty a revolver, Willie his knives. As Seff counts the seconds out, they draw and Modesty shoots Willie in the guts. Blood spurts from his guts and his last words are a curse on her as he plummets to the rocks below and then is washed out to sea by the tide…
… Whereupon he starts swimming for the dinghy he’s stashed a few miles along the shore. It was all a set up between him and Modesty, using their trusted secret signals, and Willie – Mr Knife – deliberately cut himself as he threw his knife wide, so that blood spurted from the cut as if from a bullet wound.
From the dinghy Willie sends a radio signal to Dall’s American forces waiting offshore to come in at dawn. And then Willie sets off back to the house to rescue Modesty and Steve, breaking in, giving Modesty time to remove Steve’s cyanide device and dope Lucifer, and all four of them retreat to the rooftop of this old colonial mansion, and commence the long shootout with the gang and also the 30 or so pirates they’ve recruited, which constitutes the climax of the story.
After hours of shooting have deteriorated into a standoff, Seff and Mr Wish decide to set the whole house on fire, which makes the rooftop no longer defendable. So our heroes toss gas grenades over the parapets and leg it down a rope ladder.
Seff has already killed Bowker in familiar mad psycho fashion. As the fire gets going he sends Regina down to the dolphin pen to (rather horribly) kill their nice native trainer. But in doing so, she tangles her foot in some rope and, at the sound of the shots, the terrified dolphins swim off across their pen and drag the screaming Regina into the water after them where she drowns.
Confident that Modesty and Willie are being burned to a crisp on the roof top, Seff and Mr Wish arrive at the dolphin pen looking for Regina only for there to be a quick draw of guns between Modesty and Mr Wish and – well, guess who wins — at which point the dazed and confused Lucifer emerges from the shadows, strides over to wizened old Seff, picks him up and dashes him to pieces on the rocks below.
The surviving pirates are making their way to their ships in a panic, and it is not long before Dall’s Americans arrive. Willie and Steve join them by the dolphin pen and the last scene in the novel is Willie struggling to undo the belt tying the two dolphins, before liberating them to swim free out to the ocean. Caper over.
Half way between camp and kitsch and silly and intriguing, pulp thrillers often feature some grotesque angle and this one sports several humdingers:
- Lucifer the whole concept of a young man whose mental breakdown is so drastic that he thinks he’s the Devil
- ESP the once-fashionable notion of clairvoyance and ‘advanced precognition’
- the dolphins turns out the money the blackmailees cough up has to be packed into buoys. These are to be found in crates at warehouses where the blackmailees are told to collect them. Then they are instructed to fill them with the loot (diamonds, gold) before sailing to specified locations and dropping them overboard. To be, as Willie the clever engineer works out, collected by a pair of trained dolphins, named Belial and Pluto!
O’Donnell always describes the furnishings and fixtures of the many rooms the characters find themselves in and is also very precise about what they’re wearing.
Modesty Blaise lay on her back, a hand shielding her eyes. She wore a pale blue silk summer dress, sleeveless, and flat shoes. A blue suede handbag stood beside her. (p.81)
The bald man in the white coat was talking with quiet enthusiasm to an audience of two, a dark and very striking girl in a wine-coloured cashmere dress with three-quarter-length sleeves, and a big fair man with a cockney accent. (p.102)
She wore a cream linen suit with camel shoes and handbag. Her only jewellery was a pair of deep amethyst drop earrings. (p.133)
Modesty lay on a towelling-covered mattress of foam rubber, a beachbag beside her. She wore a black one-piece swimsuit. Her hair was loose and clipped back at the nape of the neck. Willie dropped down beside her. He wore tailored slacks and an expensive shirt with a cravat at the throat. (p.145)
She wore dark slacks and a cream tunic with a round collar. The tunic was loose and fell to a few inches below her hips. Beneath it, belted higher than usual, she wore the Colt .32. (p.146)
In the darkness, John Dall and Willie Garvin stood by the rail. Dall wore a navy blue shirt and wrinkled slacks, with a peaked cap pushed back on his head. Willie Garvin was in black. (p.192)
The easy confidence with which O’Donnell describes the clothes and with which the two good-looking lead characters wear them, reinforces the swinging London vibe, beautiful people wearing beautifully-made, stylishly casual clothes – Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp.
Modesty Blaise novels
- Modesty Blaise (1965) Introducing Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin, as they protect government diamonds from a fiendish international criminal, Gabriel.
- Sabre-Tooth (1966) Modesty and Willie get involved with a small army of hardened mercenaries who are planning to overthrow the government of Kuwait.
- I, Lucifer (1967) An eccentric bunch of crooks have got hold of a mentally ill young man who thinks he is the Devil but has the useful knack of being able to predict natural deaths: they are using this to blackmail VIPs, until Modesty and Willie intervene.