"The Night of Morningstar" (1982) should have been a great Modesty Blaise book, but unfortunately it disappoints. The excitement and danger of the first books in the Modesty series is sadly missing. It's almost as if Modesty and Willie Garvin (Modesty's loyal sidekick) are just going through the motions.
The reason I say that "The Night of Morningstar" should have been a great book is because Peter O'Donnell created a very exciting scenario and some fairly believable and nasty bad guys. A terrorist group called "The Watchmen" has appeared out of nowhere and is staging serious attacks, for example killing the entire Turkish Embassy staff in Madrid, wrecking a French nuclear power plant, blowing up a dam in Utah, and many other seemingly unrelated actions. Then The Watchmen target the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and then they target the President of the United States and three other heads of state at a world summit meeting. Serious stuff.
The Watchmen is a multinational group of highly trained mercenaries, and we are introduced to their top leaders. This includes Major the Earl St. Maur, formerly leader of a British Marine Commando battalion, and Colonel Golitsyn of the Russian GRU. These are the kind of men who can talk about destroying the Golden Gate Bridge or killing the President of the United States and you believe that they are actually capable of making these things happen.
With opponents like these and the major conflicts they are brewing up we should have gotten a fine Modesty adventure, somewhat reminiscent of "Sabre-Tooth" (1966).
So why did the story fall flat? Let me count the ways...
The biggest problem is that it seems as if Peter O'Donnell's writing style had softened. During the first six books in the Modesty series he described the fights with such forcefulness that we were really afraid about the possible outcome. Not so in "The Night of Morningstar". There's no longer the crackling tension, and we're never really worried about the bad guys prevailing.
It's not just the fight scenes but also the whole tone of the story that is no longer as tough as in the first books. In particular, there are a couple of silly scenes presenting gratuitous posturing and name-calling directed at Modesty, one scene involving a CIA leader and one involving a supposedly cold-blooded mercenary. The really tough guys and professionals don't descend to name-calling.
A final problem is that there is too much participation by members of "the Modesty family", the secondary characters who make repeat appearances in many of the Modesty books. I find it especially irritating that Stephen Collier, one of my least favorite members of this group, gets involved no less than three times.
Despite the above criticism I'm still giving this book three stars. After all, it is a Modesty Blaise story, and it has all the standard ingredients that make the whole Modesty series so good. This includes the intelligent and humorous tone and the inventiveness shown by Modesty and Willie.
Another positive aspect is the theme of international high-powered terrorism that has become a very real threat in the modern world. Peter O'Donnell was showing great perception in creating a plot like this back in 1982.
The best part of "The Night of Morningstar" is actually the first two chapters. Here we are presented with a flashback to a caper from the last days of The Network, the criminal organization that Modesty ran before she retired from crime. This story casts additional light on what Modesty and Willie did in "the good old days", and their unique relationship.
It's especially nice to see Modesty first in the role of ruthless and dispassionate leader of a major organization, and then seeing her switch easily to doing a dirty and dangerous job of infiltration all by herself. That's the Modesty we love.
The quote at the top of this review, "Now I am top man with you in The Network and I have enough money to last me three lifetimes" (page 6), is said by Garcia, Modesty's third in command. He's talking to Willie Garvin who is second in command in The Network. Pure nostalgia for us Modesty fans.
Despite my disappointment I'm recommending this book and giving it three stars. But do yourself a favor and start reading the Modesty books from the start of the series. The first six books are the best, and several of them are among the best thrillers I've ever read.