Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell

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In her first adventure for British Intelligence Modesty Blaise with her loyal lieutenant, Willie Garvin, must foil a multi-million pound diamond heist. They travel from London to the South of France, across the Mediterranean to Cairo before battling, against impossible odds, a private army of professional killers.

I suppose given the age and the subject matter that a James Bond comparison is inevitable. Now It’s been a while since I’ve read any actual Flemming so I could be out of line for this but the plot and characters here are better than what Flemming would give us in his own super spy adventures. So I don’t sound like I’m blowing too much smoke up O’Donnell’s butt I will say that Flemming is a much better writer though. This might sound slightly contradictory but from the very beginning there is more to Modesty than we really ever saw of Bond and O’Donnell also supplies her with a nice cast of characters to help keep from things getting boring. They have quirks and foibles, ticks and tells. Modesty herself gets into a battle of wits, without knowing it, with her new handler as he tries to chicken her into taking her right hand man along as he knows they work well together but also knows that Modesty doesn’t want to order him to do so. This interplay works well with the number of times she gets one over on him during the set up alone showing why he wants and or needs her for the mission at hand. But even little things like her playing Cowboys and Indians with some boys on the street add some depth to her and make her feel more human than the agent who turns up, drinks, smokes, kills someone and then bangs the broad over the end credits.

The plot, which is about Modesty ensuring a shipment of diamonds gets into some rich guys bank, has a number of little twists and turns that Bond tended to lack. The two agents already missing or the jailbreak of her right hand man just to get the whole operation started. None of this feels tacked on to the tale to add some action to lagging sections or pad out the page count but a needed part of the plot and trust me if they were going to chuck in some action to keep the readers interest then they would have been doing so later in the novel because the book cries out for it more than once.

The tale feels a little dry for a page turning action thriller. Part of the problem with this is the sense that this is book one in the series. I’ve complained about every super hero movie being an origin story and while this is not Modesty’s first rodeo it is not only her first time working for the good guys but it starts to feel like everyone we meet has some deep connection to her past and boy do we have to talk about it. It definitely gives the book a tell don’t show vibe as everyone witters on about her origin, background, personality and overall bad ass nature. Now this could be because the character has some origin in the comic strips. Those dry paper comic strips where they have to exposition everything due to the limited number of panels and that’s fine for that art form but doesn’t work well in a book.

Thus the exciting action feel rather flat and dull and that says nothing for the bits lacking in any actual action and excitement. A good example of this can be found rather late in the book when Willie has bene shanghaied onto a secret mission. Modesty is being held back to ensure his cooperation. Now if this was Bond there might be some high stakes as to whether he can complete said mission anyway and keep his friend alive until he can figure a way out of this. This could be made all the more dramatic by Willie trying to leave a note or message for their allies back at base to let them know what is going on and why all while not letting his new over eager handler catch on to his double cross. But there is none of that. Not even an over eager boat guard who decides to do a double check of the hold at the wrong time.

I think part of the problem is that the pair are written as a little ‘too good’ and a little ‘too professional’. I get that they shouldn’t show fear or trepidation but that’s not to say they couldn’t feel it. Have a doubt in their mind or a sense of dread over their head. Now the boat heist is all part of their plan but even when things go wrong and Modesty and her beau are captured there is a sense of calmness as she awaits rescue by Willie that leaves the whole thing feeling rather by the book and rote.

I was looking forward to a new series about a swinging, sixties, super, spy especially one with as much of a reputation as the Modesty Blaise series but I “was disappointed to find that this series I’d not heard of was in fact not worth talking about.” – Dave Morris ‘Goodreads’.

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