Review by Frank Plowright
Because Peter O’Donnell was so prolific, there’s a danger he’s underestimated. Even discounting the novel and film spin-offs, he produced over ninety Modesty Blaise newspaper serials, every one of them extraordinarily tightly plotted, featuring exotic characters and locations, thrilling action and lasting around five weeks of daily continuity. He always varied the type of story, and although characters recur, he never resorted to recycling his old plots like some newspaper strip creators. Did he ever have an off day? Well, we find out here, but it’s only by his exceptionally high standards. The same applies to the art. Connoisseurs have their favourite from the artists who drew the strip, but no-one drew more of them than Enric Badia Romero over two separate spells, and his polished and confident versions of Modesty and Willie Garvin are surely the definitive versions. His versatility again shows over four strips set in assorted locations around the world.
To begin the title strip, Willie annoys local toff Sir Arthur Brockley by objecting to a planning application. Sir Arthur doesn’t know his son’s gangster reputation, only that he constantly wants new schemes financed, and generally turns him down. The murder frame of the title is Jake Brockley’s way of inheriting his father’s fortune and having old enemy Willie pay the price. It’s a clever plot hingeing on how Willie’s fingerprints can be somewhere he wasn’t. We know Brockley hangs out with a film effects specialist, but it still takes some figuring out, and even when everything seems to have been tied up neatly O’Donnell has further surprises in store.
‘Fraser’s Story’ concerns the assistant to Modesty’s secret service contact Sir Gerald Tarrant, who’s learned the whereabouts of a traitor responsible for over a hundred deaths during the Cold War, including the woman Fraser loved. It’s a clever use of changed political priorities after the real world collapse of the Soviet Union, and Randle has become influential in Russian criminal organisations. The suspense is heightened by a target’s awareness that Modesty and Willie are heading his way. Sharper readers will figure something else out, but it’s something O’Donnell wants us to suspect. It’s not the only aspect he dangles, and while emotionally drenched, the bigger moments are unusually predictable.
A trip back to Modesty’s youth opens ‘Tribute of the Pharoah’. She’s remembering an old Hungarian man named Lob who educated her as they travelled, particularly about a tribe called the Kush who successfully rebelled against their Egyptian rulers in ancient times and actually took over Egypt for sixty years. Modesty and Willie decide to return to Sudan and a tomb she once briefly lived in, and in a nice touch O’Donnell also returns to Willie’s youth, adding extra colour via the introduction of the formidable Mrs Prendergast, former administrator of the orphanage where he was raised. In her presence he reverts to a scared fourteen year old child. It develops into a hunt for treasure hidden for almost two thousand years, and a race against greedy thugs.
The closer revisits a familiar theme with a new twist. Modesty hates modern day slavery with a passion, and when a friend is abducted she and Willie take quick action. What differentiates ‘the Special Orders’ from previous dips into similar territory is that the kidnapped Sam is herself resourceful and O’Donnell contrasts her attempts to escape with Modesty and Willie’s to locate her at sea.
This isn’t quite top quality Modesty Blaise, but still very readable. It makes little difference which order the strips are read in, but chronologically the next collection is The Children of Lucifer.