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Saturday, September 15, 2012


A group of professional scumbags fake the death of Sir Gerald Tarrant and hold him hostage, subjecting the ageing intelligence administrator to brutal torture at the hands of the sadistic Mister Sexton, a martial artist of the first order who knows how to work human pressure points to excruciating advantage. If you've read this far you know what this series is about, so do you think Modesty and Willie are going to to tolerate that bullshit?

THE SILVER MISTRESS is a tough book to critique because it's not so much a proper novel as it is a short story stretched to novel-length, and therein lies the problem. The basic plot is quite good, but there was really no need to pad it out into what amounts to a lot of slow-moving hoo-haa leading to the action not really getting underway until the book's nearly halfway over. Sure, there's the usual rich characterizations and the first full appearance by Willie's steady girlfriend, the charming and one-legged Lady Janet Gillam (previously seen briefly in the short story "I Had A Date With Lady Janet" in the PIECES OF MODESTY collection), but Henry Quinn, a former airline pilot, tested my patience by being rude and obnoxious to an annoying degree and to no great effect, and once his role as a concussed witness to Tarrant's kidnapping is over there's really no need for him to be in the story. There's much made of two "outsiders" to Modesty and Willie's (and to no small degree Tarrant's) danger-fraught world being allowed to accompany them on a mission, something I had an extremely hard time believing Modesty and Willie would ever allow to happen, and of the two only Lady Janet really adds anything to the proceedings. Sure, there's some business about Quinn getting over a severely traumatic event and butching up when push comes to shove, but frankly I just didn't care about the guy.

The only real bright spot in all of this over-extended mishegoss is Mister Sexton, hands-down the most formidable physical threat ever faced by Modesty and Willie, even moreso than Willie's own personal demon, the diabolical Simon Delicta (from book four in the series, A TASTE FOR DEATH). He's a master of hand-to-hand combat whose skills render both of our heroes unconscious in seconds when he first encounters them and, being aware of their considerable reputations as all-around badasses, he decides to keep them alive so he can finally have opponents worthy of his talents. When Modesty does finally throw down against this asshole it's the one bit where the book pays off, their savage battle allowing the story to reach a thrilling climax set in a cold, dank cavern in which Modesty strips nude, coats herself from head to toe with axle grease, and hands Sexton his ass in a fight that I doubt even Willie could have won.

As Modesty Blaise books go I'd have to rate this as middling — except for Sexton — and it's also the first entry where I really noticed O'Donnell's formula. The entries I've read previously all work from a set template, but they each had something going on that allowed me to ignore the beat-for-beat setup and enjoy the books nonetheless, but THE SILVER MISTRESS wears its by-the numbers construction on its sleeve. It makes me wonder if this is where O'Donnell began to weary of the series, or if he was having trouble coming up with the tense and exciting yarns that he seemed to spin with such deceptive ease.

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