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Friday, November 30, 2007

I, LUCIFER (1967)

Heads of state, powerful industrialists, and other people of authority and wealth are being threatened with death, the predicted demises all coming true unless the cash is delivered as per the extortionists' instructions. At the heart of the scheme is a deeply insane young man whose condition causes him to believe he's actually the biblical Lucifer, and he's blessed with strange psychic abilities that allow him to foretell the future with a high rate of accuracy. Controlled by a group of scoundrels who nurture his delusion, Lucifer's predictions are not one hundred percent on the money, so when the group's victims don't pay up or ignore the threats, the intended victims are murdered by hired killers to make it seem as though the eerie prognostications are guaranteed, thereby lending the extortion racket fear-inducing credibility.

One notable on the hit list who refuses to pay up is Rene Vaubois, a high-ranking official in the French Deuxième Bureau, and when the extortioinists dispatch assassins to kill him and thereby send a message to others who would not give in to their demands, they don't take one thing into account: Rene's close association with Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. After Modesty and Willie thwart the attempt on Rene's life, the hired hands that survive the encounter describe the pair to their superiors, who, upon realizing just who they're dealing with, have the good sense to give Rene a miss and proceed to other victims. But if there's one thing we know, it's that once you fuck with a friend of Modesty Blaise you may as well start digging the hole and make sure it's deep enough for yourself and anyone else stupid enough to have pissed her off, so Modesty and Willie embark on a difficult quest to find the secret lair of the extortionists and put them out of business once and for all.

But things don't go as smoothly as planned, and Modesty finds herself the captive of her quarry, alongside her recent boyfriend, the frequently hilarious poltroon Stephen Collier (a series regular, here making his debut). Once at the villains' island stronghold Modesty enters the bizarre world of Lucifer and his twisted handlers (pornographic puppeteers the Seffs being particualrly nauseating and offensive), and must endure under threat of a diabolically escape-proof doom until Willie figures out where she is and comes to her aid. But with no coherent trail of clues the likelihood of rescue grows smaller by the day, and Modesty must figure out how to survive in a nest of killers and madmen, all while keeping the way-out-of-his-depth Collier alive as well. By any means necessary.

This third novel in the Modesty Blaise series has a lot of terrific character bits and the introduction of Stephen Collier is a great bit of fun, particularly the contrast of his nerves of jelly demeanor with the personalities of Willie Garvin, Rene Vaubois, John Dall, and damned near every other male in the story. The villains are suitably perverse and weird, the plotting is solid, and it all reads smoothly enough, but the introduction of Lucifer and his psychic powers takes the series too far into the realm of the fantastic for my tastes. Admittedly one has to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to enjoy any book in this series since between the two of them Modesty and Willie can do pretty much anything achievable within the realm of human capability and neither of them are even forty, but once you have a guy who has actual superpowers involved in the proceedings it somehow cheapens the overall effect. It's not that O'Donnell couldn't have come up a formidible enough villain, it's just that throwing our heroes into the ring with a character straight out of the X-Men is a genre mix that doesn't quite work. There are some fans of the series who rank this one toward the top of the list, but I have to disagree. It isn't bad by any means, but...

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