Sabre-Tooth by Peter O’Donnell (1966)

‘You’ve arranged fine weather,’ she said, and handed him the glass. ‘I didn’t realise the Foreign Office had such influence.’
‘We sacrificed two Civil Servant maidens under a full moon last night,’ said Tarrant. ‘It seems to have worked better than some of our other operations recently,’ he added in a dry tone. (p.25)

Why shouldn’t a thriller be fun? I mean really enjoyable, full of amusing characters and preposterous plots and wacky gadgets and dastardly baddies and urbane toffs? Why shouldn’t it keep a smile on the reader’s lips for hours at a stretch? Why shouldn’t books, in other words, be as childishly pleasurable as James Bond movies?

In 1966 the Beatles released RevolverTime magazine announced that London was ‘swinging’, and Peter O’Donnell published the second novel based on his successful comic strip character, the stunningly beautiful secret agent and crime-fighter, Modesty Blaise.

The first hundred pages

The opening scenes reintroduce us to Modesty, the splendidly sexy but awesomely intelligent and competent master criminal-turned-agent, and her sidekick, Willie Garvin, expert killer, schemer, babe magnet and creator of Bond-ish gadgets; and their contact with ‘The Department’, Sir Gerald Tarrant.

Sir Gerald meets them in Modesty’s penthouse flat overlooking Hyde Park, where he also meets the little girl, Lucille, rescued by Willie after her entire family were killed in some foreign hell hole, and who he has been funding through school. The servant, Weng, looks after little Lucille while the three adults drive in their Rolls Royce to enjoy an afternoon’s fishing on the Thames near Maidenhead, before repairing to Willie’s waterside pub, The Treadmill, where Sir Gerald watches Modesty and Willie work out, practicing armed and unarmed combat in the special ‘workhouse’ behind the pub. All the time Sir G is wondering when’s the best moment to present his proposition…

Meanwhile, in a secret valley somewhere in the Arab world, we are introduced to a small mercenary army recruited from the roughest, toughest, meanest freelance killers the world can offer. They are being assembled by the fearsome Karz, and whipped into shape by his lieutenant, Liebmann, watched by a clutch of new and old recruits – Hamid, Sarrat, Carter – through whose eyes we are introduced to aspects of the tough training and harsh discipline of the camp.

The Twins

Every spy romp has its evil genius but is not complete without a psycho sidekick (Goldfinger and Oddjob). O’Donnell gets top marks for creating Chu and Lok, two enormous killers who were born Siamese twins and only separated well on in life, and who now choose to go around joined by a leather strap joining their chests. Tied together psychologically and physically for life, the twist is that they loathe and hate each other. But not as much as they hate anyone in the mercenary camp who is found out to be ‘Unsound’ ie questions Karz’s orders: any such fool is thrown to the Twins to be torn to pieces in the camp’s amphitheatre, before the drooling audience of hired killers.

***

Back in Berkshire Sir Gerald slips into conversation with Modesty and Willie how he’s been keeping an eye on a political figure of fun, Es-Sabah Solon, leader of the so-called ‘Free Government of Kuwait’, who is doing the rounds of social events, speaking at fringe meetings, popping up on TV. And finally, Sir Gerald begins to outline his problem to them. Word has it there might be a coup against the government of Kuwait. Rumours there’s a mercenary army assembling somewhere. Would Modesty and Willie mind infiltrating it?

After some thought, they agree and begin to concoct a plan. Willie will put it about that Modesty is bored in retirement. Modesty will pretend to have a gambling problem, on a massive scale, enough to bankrupt her, enough to put her on the lookout for a money-making proposition…

The next hundred pages

Modesty fixes it with a friendly casino owner to lose an astronomical sum of money in a well-publicised card game against an American millionaire. Very Casino Royale.

There is then a detailed account of a complicated heist they mount to steal a priceless Watteau painting from a French art gallery; they are smuggling it out of the country when, whoops, the truck crashes and the painting is recovered. As in the previous novel Modesty has a tactical affair with an old flame – the cartoonishly named Mike Delgado – and lets him just close enough to witness her desperation at losing all that money and then, alas and alack, the Watteau caper being foiled.

Of course, it is a cover story, all fabricated to make the mercenaries think she and Willie are available and looking for paid work. And a few days later, they are indeed lifted from the beach by some thugs and locked up in an abandoned villa. Turns out this incarceration has been carefully arranged by the abductors to contain an obvious escape route – cleverly arranged as a test, like something from The Prisoner (1967).

But Modesty and Willie excel expectations by making a hammer and weapons out of the lead piping to the sink, breaking through the roof, knocking out their guard with a lead attached to a strip of blanket, and then taking out the restroom full of armed guards. This is the scene where Modesty deploys ‘The Nailer’ ie appears topless to a room of astonished goons, thus giving herself and Willie a vital 2 to 3 seconds to move into optimum positions to take out the baddies, him with his leaded weights, her with her trusty kongo, before grabbing guns, knives etc to finish them off.

In a scene typical of the broad humour of the whole book, there is no car to escape from the villa but there is an old Victorian carriage rotting in the stables. So, at gunpoint, Willie harnesses the surviving baddies to bridles and traces and gets them to pull them back into town.

A few days later they are relaxing by the pool at Modesty’s house in Tangiers when a phone call tells them the Baddies have seized Lucille and will kill her unless they join the mercenaries. Aha. That changes the tone. They expected to be offered the job for money, that had been their plan. The abduction of Lucille means the army are much more ruthless than they expected – now they’re playing for real stakes. And a qualm enters the reader’s mind: threatening children – even in fiction – leaves a sour taste…

The last 80 pages

So Modesty and Willie are kidnapped and taken to the secret base of the mercenary army, high in the Hindu Kush, north of Afghanistan.

Here they put on another act, pretending to have fallen out as a result of their imprisonment and Modesty’s gambling ‘addiction’. A tad implausibly, they are both allotted squadrons to command. We’d been warmed up for this since it was in conversations about the lack of intelligent captains in his army, that the Evil Genius Karz and his lieutenant, Liebmann, had first mentioned Modesty and Willie as possible recruits.

There’s a great scene where Modesty has to confront her group of 20 or so murdering psychopaths and assert her authority. She does this quickly by identifying the alpha male in the pack and knocking six bells out of him; and then, shrewdly, picking him up and dusting him off and appointing him her second in command.

But when Modesty and Willie grab some time together they assess the scenarios: jointly break out – Lucille dies; alert Britain – Lucille dies; go along with the military coup, in which case a lot of innocent children die and maybe Lucille dies anyway, given how ruthless Karz has shown himself to be. Modesty comes up with a self-sacrificing plan.

She breaks into the radio shack, knocks out the operator and sends a coded radio message to Britain with details of the planned assault on Kuwait. Then arranges for the operator to come round to witness Willie and Modesty fighting, making it look like Modesty is the traitor and Willie caught her at it. They stage manage it that Willie and the operator overcome Modesty (as if!) and then haul her before Karz who, inevitably, condemns her to death.

Which sets up a great scene in the amphitheatre the next day, as the crowd of cheering thugs watch an epic fight between Modesty and the Twins. Guess who wins? But, like all the fight scenes in these books, it is described clinically and precisely and persuasively. Willie pleads for Modesty’s life, using the grim reason that Modesty can be used in the seraglio, the comfort rooms, as one of the army’s sex slaves.

Hmm. In my review of the first MB novel I mentioned the unspoken pact between O’Donnell and the reader: we promise not to burst out laughing at the preposterous plots and cartoon characters, and he promises not to be cheap, vulgar or degrading about his heroine. This pushes the agreement right up to the brink. But I think it works and the novel emerges the stronger for it and even gains a measure of depth and true dignity.

For three hard nights Modesty is made a sex slave in the harem, and Willie has to put up with the taunts and boasts of the men who’ve had her. I think it’s well and persuasively done that Willie suffers most. When his allotted evening comes round, and he goes into her cell/bedroom, the pair keep up the pretence of animosity between them until they’ve disabled the inevitable bug, and then he quickly releases her.

But it is Willie who has suffered. Modesty was raped and abused as a child and is still able to turn it off, to leave her body, making it happening to someone else. It is Willie’s mental torment at knowing what was being done to his ‘princess’, the woman he has pledged to protect with his life, that is dwelt on at length. It isn’t exactly ‘literature’ – but it isn’t pulp played just for exploitation, either. And this new tone lasts to the end of the book, adding a measure of depth to Modesty and Willie’s characters and really bringing to life the special bond they enjoy – much deeper than love or sex or friendship.

Long story short, they find Lucille is being held in the same building as the sex slaves, rescue her, go under dark to the airfield, kill the guards (who just happen to be the ones who boasted about ‘having’ Modesty – ah justice is done).

They mine the huge arms cache hidden in a cave by the side of the dam (yes, dam!) holding back the enormous lake (enormous lake!), set the fuses – oh and there’s just time for them to be caught and held at gunpoint by Modesty’s lover from the early stages of the book, big Mike Dalgado, and some goons – before they take them out, run to the plane, and just manage to take off as the rest of the army comes running up with machine guns. Phew.

As the plane circles over the valley they see the arms dump explode big time, demolishing one wing of the dam and letting the vast lake of water flood through the camp, drowning half the army and wrecking their base.

They crash land in Afghanistan among American contractors building a road, are treated for their wounds and then flown back to Europe. In the final scene Sir Gerald meets them at Modesty’s home in Algiers. She is being courted by the American millionaire to whom she lost at cards in the rigged game at the casino. And now Sir Gerald arrives to apologise for putting her through such a horrendous ordeal.

Dignity

On the drive up the hill Sir Gerald tells Willie that he doesn’t know if he can even face Modesty, knowing what his initial suggestion ended up putting her through. Willie stops the car and explains there is no guilt: he and Modesty went into the ‘caper’ with eyes wide open and it was her plan all along. They’re professionals and they’ve put it behind them and so should Sir G.

O’Donnell conveys real delicacy and sensitivity in both the characters in that scene, and then builds up Sir G’s nervousness and embarrassment as he finally arrives at Modesty’s house – so that there is a real sense of relief and release when she welcomes him in the old polite and civilised way, going out of her way to reassure him and put him at his ease. It is a psychologically important moment in the story, which Modesty, and her author, meet with panache.

Tarrant stood very still, watching the dimly seen figure in white moving down the broad stairs which led up from one side of the living-room. He heard a series of clicks, and wall-lights sprang up in different parts of the room. She was just turning at the angle of the staircase, moving quickly and lightly down the last few steps into the room.

She wore a very simple sleeveless dress in white nylon. It was short, with the hem just above the knees. Her brown legs were bare and she wore open pale-blue sandals with small heels. Her hair was loose and gathered back at the nape of her neck by a jet clip.

She was smiling at him, moving towards him with both hands extended.

‘Sir Gerald.’ Her eyes were warm with welcome. (p.281)

In a number of scenes throughout the book, O’Donnell’s characterisation achieves a kind of dignity and depth which lift it far above its comic-strip origins. I really like these characters. Crisply written, with a good steady pace, a comprehensible plot, and a warm feeling throughout, this is a hugely enjoyable and uplifting novel.

Related links

Paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

US paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

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.
Advertisements
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: