I, Lucifer by Peter O’Donnell (1967) – Some books are comfort food. I grab them when I don’t want to read anything complicated. The Modesty Blaise books by Peter O’Donnell are fine examples and sit on a convenient shelf in my library. I have them all (thirteen novels but none of the comic strips), and they are a little formulaic but definitely re-readable.
Modesty, if you didn’t happen to see several of the really bad movies made about her, is basically James Bond with décolletage. She’s smart, great with a gun, sneaky, loving, and unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat. She and her best pal, Willie Garvin (super-skilled with knives), ran a criminal network in Europe, retired, and now work for the British government. They’re rich, beautiful, have homes all over Europe, and are friends with influential people all over the world.
Generally (and I, Lucifer is no exception), they face some incredibly articulate bad guy while trying to save one of their influential friends. Modesty, spending some quality time with a psychic researcher she thinks needs some self-esteem, teams up with Willie in Paris to save the head of the French secret service from several assassin attempts. Oddly enough, rich people are receiving death threats asking for money or they’ll die from completely natural causes. And they do!
Modesty and Willie, not liking having their friends shot at or killed, track down Lucifer and his fellow extortionists. Lucifer, a beautiful young man, isn’t aware he’s part of the murderous scheme. He thinks he’s the devil visiting the upper levels for a while and predicting who is going to the lower levels with 85% accuracy. Seff, the real mastermind (who puts on puppet shows, get it?) and his motley crew (there’s always a motley crew in a Modesty book) kidnap Modesty snooping around and take her to Macau. There, she discovers they’ve hired the psychic researcher to increase the percentage of Lucifer’s predictions. They’ve also put an exploding cyanide capsule in her back to ensure her compliance babysitting Lucifer.
Willie, smart as well as extremely fit, tracks down Modesty and helps her rescue the researcher and Lucifer from the nefarious puppet master. There’s lots of fighting (as usual), some clever revelations on how the criminals are picking up the money, and several of Modesty’s boyfriends joining in the final battle.
As usual, the things I like about a Modesty book are the relationship between Modesty and Willie (strictly business, no hanky-panky), her free-spirited style (hanky and panky are okay with her temporary boyfriends), and the fight scenes. For years, I was intrigued by the amount of detail which Peter O’Donnell goes into when describing Modesty and her clothing: “Her black, shining hair was drawn up in a chignon on the crown of her head. The eyes were midnight blue, the face smoothly tanned, the neck long and graceful. She wore a white silk blouse with short sleeves and a skirt of deep blue velvet. A loose jacket, matching the skirt, hung over the back of the chair.” Every scene describes her clothing in intimate detail. It wasn’t until after he passed away that I discovered he’d been writing gothic historical romance novels as Madeline Brent.
Lucifer is interesting. While the caper is going on, they have to convince him that he’s really running the operation and Modesty is his lieutenant in hell. The poor schizophrenic psychic rationalizes everything so he goes along with them because they convince him it’s his idea. His fight scene with Modesty is short and exciting because he can predict everything she’s going to do. We don’t often see Modesty lose.
The climax felt a little rushed (okay, they’re on the roof of a burning building), but the premise is clever and the relationship is golden. I have friends like that, but they’re not very good with an AR-15 machine gun.