How would you react on being stalked by a gunman on a lonely beach, and you're alone with a bikini-clad young lady and no weapon anywhere around?
That's the situation Willie Garvin, Modesty Blaise's close companion, is faced with in chapter two of "Dead Man's Handle". Willie, who is known for being very inventive, asks the young lady to lend him her bikini bottom and ... well, read the book and be amazed.
"He's probably wondering about 'is next incarnation. He's certainly finished with this one." (page 30) says Willie a couple of pages later in a comment on the condition of the would-be attacker. And now the stage is set for the slow but sure escalation leading to the final climax some 200 pages later.
"Dead Man's Handle" (1985), like all of the Modesty books, is an action thriller about Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. In this book they go up against a gang of criminals who, under the guise of being a religious sect, obtain money by "answering the prayers of the needy". That is, as long as the "needy" are rich and willing to pay to have their prayers answered, even when this involves the killing of a business competitor, for example.
Most of the story takes place in England and on a Greek island. The action really heats up when the bad guys kill one of Willie's girlfriends and kidnap Willie. Modesty, of course, goes after the bad guys to rescue Willie, willingly walking into what she knows is a trap just to get into contact with him again. Then comes the final battle with Modesty and Willie together against the band of approx. twelve skilled assassins.
The most disappointing thing about "Dead Man's Handle" is the main bad guy, Dr. Thaddeus Pilgrim. Dr. Pilgrim is leader of the "Hostel of Righteousness", and may be malevolent and a serious threat to Modesty and Willie, but his nastiness is a primarily a byproduct of his insanity. And it's not the kind of insanity that inspires awe or terror; instead it's an insanity that is self-destructive and petty.
Someone who feeds ground glass to a jackdaw and LSD to a white mouse is sick in a way that evokes disgust, not fright. I'd far prefer a bad guy who can really scare me, not one who is just repugnant.
Another problem with "Dead Man's Handle" is that there is too much repetitiveness. Many of the plot elements in this book are warmed-over devices from one or more of the previous books in the Modesty series. They may have been exciting the first time around, but now they're old hat, at least to those who have read the whole series.
Still, this is a Modesty book, and I am giving it three stars. There's a very nice flashback in the first chapter, telling how Willie became Modesty's right-hand man by single-handedly doing a dangerous job that should have been impossible. Modesty's and Willie's fighting skills and inventiveness are wonderful as usual, and there's the usual intelligent and humorous slant on the whole story.
In summary, the poorest book in the Modesty series, but still recommended.
I'll conclude this review with a brief critique of the whole Modesty Blaise series of books. Here's a list of all of the Modesty books, along with my ratings (1-5 stars):
Modesty Blaise (1965) - 5 stars *****
Sabre-Tooth (1966) - 5 stars *****
I, Lucifer (1967) - 4 stars ****
A Taste for Death (1969) - 5 stars *****
The Impossible Virgin (1971) - 4 stars ****
Pieces of Modesty (6 short stories, 1972) - 5 stars *****
The Silver Mistress (1973) - 4 stars ****
Last Day in Limbo (1976) - 3 stars ***
Dragon's Claw (1978) - 3 stars ***
The Xanadu Talisman (1981) - 3 stars ***
The Night of Morning Star (1982) - 3 stars ***
Dead Man's Handle (1985) - 3 stars ***
Cobra Trap (5 short stories, 1996)
(Note that the last book, "Cobra Trap", came after a very long pause, and is a collection of short stories, not a novel.)
"Dead Man's Handle" marked a milestone. We Modesty fans didn't realize it at the time, but the series was basically finished. Peter O'Donnell had given us 11 books (10 novels and one collection of short stories) over a span of 21 years, and we had loved them all, and now it was over.
Looking back we can see that the quality of the series remained extremely high over the first six books, peaking with "A Taste for Death", one of the best books of fiction I've ever read. But then there was a slow and steady decline, with "Dead Man's Handle" marking a low point.
As the quality went down, the length of time between the books increased. The first few books in the series appeared at an average rate of one per year, then the frequency dropped to an average of one book every second year, and then one every third year. It was very frustrating for a die-hard Modesty fan, let me tell you.
But on reflection it was good that Peter O'Donnell stopped when he did. As mentioned, "Dead Man's Handle" marked a new low point, so it's probable that if Peter O'Donnell had continued he would have begun to make his fans unhappy about the quality, as well as the quantity.
In conclusion, if you like action thrillers placed in an international setting then give the Modesty Blaise series a try, and start with the first book. Still highly recommended, even though it's showing it's age.