Book Review: Pieces of Modesty by Peter O’Donnell

Title: Pieces of Modesty

Author: Peter O’Donnell

Format: Paperback edition, Pan Books

Published: 1972

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Being at least a bit of a connoissuer of Pop Culture, I have always been familiar with Modesty Blaise, primarily through the comic strips I’ve read in collection over the years.  Due to some fortuitous occurrences, I came into a large collection of books this last year and in the midst of this bevy of reading material were several Modesty books by Peter O’Donnell.  Pieces of Modesty is the first Blaise prose I’ve read. And as often happens with short story collections, even those done by a single author, this one is a mix of good stories and ones who wish they were better.

“A Better Day to Die” finds Modesty on her way to see a dying associate from her days as leader of the Network.  Her best man, Willie Garvin, accompanies her, but they are split up when the reality of South American travel through a country seeded with revolutionaries forces Modesty into the company of a missionary and his female charges.  When attacked by said militant types, Modesty must take care to free herself and the others from imprisonment and death, with help coming from a couple sources, one rather expected and the other rather unlikely.

This story opens the book and is an odd choice to do so.  It feels like the publisher expected that already established fans of Modesty Blaise would be picking up this collection, so there was little to no need to establish who Modesty and Willie are in relation to their own context.  Combine that with a rather telegraphed ending in one respect and this is a rather lackluster opener.  Having said that, one twist toward the end ups this one a bit for simply utilizing what might have been a throw away character point as an integral turn in the story.

“The Giggle Wrecker” finds Modesty’s sometimes ‘supervisor’/always father figure Tarrant in a spot where he has to once more have Modesty and Willie help him out of a tight.  An Asian Communist with a great deal of importance wants to defect from East Germany to Britain and needs to be gotten over the wall. Using an established route and plan, Modesty and Willie undertake the mission, only to find that their charge is rather more like a difficult child than a dissident genius.

Although there’s a rather fun aspect to this tale, it really is nothing more than another story about adventurers helping someone and that someone turning out to be more difficult than originally assumed.  Not a lot of characterization in this one and more fireworks than actual flame here.

Willie Garvin climbs into the narrator seat for “I Had a Date With Lady Janet.” By far, this was not only the best story in the collection, but hit all targets in every way.  The voice is Willie’s through and through and O’Donnell puts it on like a comfortable coat and brings Willie and everyone else to life.  We get to see a great glimpse into Willie’s feelings for Modesty when, on the night he is to have an evening with his Lady Janet, a regular paramour of his, Willie learns that a man he thought he’d killed is indeed alive and has captured Modesty.  With Lady Janet’s help, showing her own steel in a way, Willie undertakes to rescue Modesty.  The action, pacing, characterization, and voice are all superb in this short story that easily could have bloomed into its own full length novel.

“A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck” is another fun romp with Modesty and Willie, this time in the company of two old friends, a couple in their own right.  While on holiday, the four of them make their rounds of parties and such, only to end up in the middle of a crime spree. Jewel thieves are hitting the most prominent parties and getting away scot free.  Modesty puts her friend, a blind woman with skills all her own, and Modesty’s most prized string of pearls, a string hand harvested by Willie, on the line to catch the bloodthirsty thieves.  A good balance of excitement and insight makes this one a winner.

Modesty becomes involved with a sculptor and encounters a group of criminals that challenge her in every way in ‘Salamander Four’.  While living as the sculptor’s live model and enjoying all that companionship entails, Modesty helps a man who stumbles to their door bleeding.  This stranger turns out to be someone Modesty has never met, but knows quite well by reputation from her storied past and he is being pursued by a ruthless group of criminals known as Salamander Four.  Against the wishes of the sculptor, Modesty invests herself in helping the stranger escape and putting an end to this group of killers, if necessary.

Not as much romping in this one, but it reads as more of a tense chase scene, and that’s perfectly all right.  The story also allows readers to see Modesty interact emotionally with another man, other than Willie, and that is a welcome take as well.  Very tightly written, the action scenes definitely care the tale.

“The Soo Girl Charity” is definitely the weakest link in this collection. Angered by the behavior of a man while she is collecting money for a charity, Modesty intends to break into his house and appropriate a generous donation from him. What she finds instead is a kept wife that is being abused by the man and the tone of Modesty’s mission changes.

This story feels like a quick idea jotted down and then forgotten that was picked up and finished as an afterthought.  Modesty doesn’t seem as sharp or as aware as she’s written in previous stories and actually turns out the dupe in this tale, and not in a way that makes the reader feel okay about it.

As an entire collection, Pieces of Modesty is an average set of stories, ranking three out of five pages.

Three bullets out of six go into my gun for this one.  Some interesting stories, a couple of gems, but overall just a rather average read, if Modesty Blaise appeals to You.

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