CHECK-LIST OF MODESTY BLAISE COMIC STRIP STORIES – PART 1 (1963-1986).
69: Story name: Lady in the Dark – 1989/90 ****
Location: MB’s cottage in Wiltshire – Austria, Castle Edlitz, Carinthia – Kingsbrook airfield, somewhere in Wiltshire.
Villain: Kassel (Salamander Four); Maria Feist.
Other characters: Canadian-born Dinah, and statistician/psychic investigator husband Steve Collier; Weng; Countess Edlitz; the Countess’s loyal butler Hans.
Body count: 0.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB changing, in the shower; Dinah in bra and panties, getting dressed.
Who kills who? : Not applicable.
Summary/theme: Crime caper – treasure hunt. Early in the 1800s the wicked Count Edlitz of Carinthia, Austria, arranged to hid his collection of Thrace and Roman gold, silver and jewels (discovered in a well) in the maze of caves beneath his castle, blowing up the exterior entrance with his men and horses still inside. The only other person who knew the secret was father confessor Karl, but, such is their greed and distrust, they kill each other, and hence the location of the treasure – if not the legend – dies with them. Fast forward to the 20th century, and Dinah Collier, the blind psychic wife of MB’s ex-lover Professor Steve Collier, is helping MB locate underground water and power pipes in preparation for a swimming pool at her Wiltshire cottage. Dinah and Steve are booked to fly to Edlitz Castle at the request of the Countess Edlitz, Canadian-born widow of the last Count, hoping to finally find the lost treasure. However, Steve injures his back and WG volunteers to go instead. Unbeknown to them, Maria Feist, descendent of Father Karl, has employed Salamander Four to help her secure the treasure, still using Dinah, and with Maria impersonating the real Countess, who is locked up in the castle dungeon. Salamander Four’s plans start to fall apart when Dinah notices Maria’s voice isn’t that of the real Countess, with whom she had previously spoken by telephone. Dinah and WG are quickly taken captive and the gang use the threat of flogging the real Countess to get Dinah’s cooperation. When MB phones (she is still in Wiltshire, nursing Steve) WG calls her “Modesty” rather than “Princess”, thereby alerting her to their plight. Salamander Four make two attempts to intercept her, in England and Austria, but as she reaches the castle she meets Hans, the Countess’s faithful butler. Meantime, WG and Dinah have worked out the old Count had a secret passage from the dungeon (the very cell they are in!) to the treasure caves, which Dinah had already located above ground – the psychic impression of the dying men being too much for her to conceal. They are just planning how to escape the now short distance out when MB appears, coming from the opposite direction! Kassel, desperate to recapture his ‘lost’ prisoners, asks his controller for a helicopter, but MB and WG use darkness to overwhelm the entire gang and Maria, tying them up just as the telephone rings. MB answers and announces who she is. The controller merely says the longer Kassel stays in prison, the longer he gets to live. The Countess decided to denote the treasure to the Austrian Ministry of Art.
Critical comments: A workable story, and improvement on “The Big Mole”. However, in comic strip 7394A, MB’s ‘cottage’ has been transformed by Romeo into a two-storey mock-Tudor, 1920s/30s suburban-style house with a turret-like chimney. Nothing like the Holdaway or Burns house, and nothing like Romero’s later depiction of MB’s cottage in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92), or it’s later transformation yet again in “The Hanging Judge” (1998/99), back into an two-storey house built into an slight hillside! While Romero remained consistent to Holdaway’s version of MB’s penthouse and WG’s ‘Treadmill’, he was all over the place with MB’s cottage. Even more baffling, here her cottage quite closely resembles Romero’s later depiction of Lady Janet Gillam’s ‘farm house’ as seen in “The Murder Frame” (1997).
This is the first comic strip story to feature Canadian-born Dinah Collier (née Pilgrim), although husband Steve Collier had briefly featured in “With Love From Rufus” (1972). Steve had first appeared in the novels in I, Lucifer, while Dinah (then unmarried and still under her maiden name), first appeared in A Taste for Death (1969), when arch-villain Gabriel had her sister Judy murdered. Dinah had been blind since eight, and lived in a world of sound, senses and smells. She was also psychic, able to using dowsing techniques to detect objects, or even fluids, hidden beneath the ground. In both this story, and the original novel, this ability attracts the attention of villains seeking treasure. In the comic strips, they subsequently appeared again in “A Present for the Princess” (1992/93) and “Durango” (1996/97). Romero’s depiction of Dinah is workaday – at least she isn’t the usual lookalike, Axa-type blonde. The novels describe her as being “between beautiful and pretty”, and “small” in stature, but with a quality about her that is notable. Alas, we can only speculate how Holdaway or Colvin might have illustrated her. At the beginning of this story MB is employing her dowsing skills to determine the location of any underground pipes or cables in the grounds of the Wiltshire cottage, so that MB might construct a swimming pool. However, in the novels parallel world, MB had already asked Dinah to do this quite early on their friendship, in A Taste for Death, not long after realising the Canadian girl’s abilities. Thus the rather annoying divide between the MB comic strip and novels/short stories. In the novels, Steve Collier was initially MB’s lover in the first two books, and Dinah was intimate with WG, in part because he had saved her from being kidnapped by Gabriel’s thugs, and she needed comforting after they had murdered her sister. However, an emotional bond develops between her and Steve Collier as the novel progressed, as much because of their shared captivity by the Delicta/Gabriel gang. MB especially never insists on exclusivity with her lovers, as we see with Giles Pennyfeather, in both the novels and the comic strips. It is quite normal for lovers to become merely very close good friends. Thereafter – especially in the novel/short stories – Steve and Dinah are a couple, having quickly got married to each other rather than MB or WG. In the closing pages of A Taste for Death our two heroes discuss their reaction at being given the “heave-ho” (as MB put it), but without displaying a great deal of emotional upset. In the final MB short story, “Cobra Trap”, the Colliers eventually have two children, Dan and Sue, already grown-up teenagers, Dan being a student.
Yet again Romero’s rendering of the Edlitz Castle in the Austrian province of Carinthia, perches atop an exaggerated steep hill, resembling more a fantasy fairy-tale castle, rather than one in real life, and with impossible soaring steeple-turrets and central keep. The grim historical introduction to the Edlitz treasure at the very beginning of the story is supposedly set “two hundred years ago”, although the costume of the then Count Edlitz seemed to date earlier – WG himself later says “three hundred years”. In fact, the characters dialogue, and the Lawrence Blackmore Titan Books story introduction mentions the “upstart Napoleon” and “Emperor Francis”, the latter being the Holy Roman Emperor, so Blackmore dates events to prior to the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz. Again Blackmore reports there is a small town of Edlitz, but in Neunkirchen, not Carinthia, with (in 2011) a population just under 1,000. Carinthia (Kárnten in German) borders Italy and Slovenia, and was a Habsburg Duchy from medieval times, incorporated into the Austrian Empire in 1806, then the Kingdom of Illyria until 1849, and crown lands from 1867 until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.
Again, we have MB and WG up against Salamander Four, who, in the comic strip, we had previously met in “The Wicked Gnomes” (1973, Romero), “Green Cobra” (1979, Burns), and “Pluto’s Republic” (1984/85, Colvin). At one point, when WG and Dinah are first attempting to escape, Kassel threatens to shoot Dinah unless WG surrenders – but, given that they needed Dinah’s psychic/dowsing skills to still find the buried treasure cave, the threat was surely bluff only. And, indeed, Dinah then says their threat to shoot WG instead, as likely to disrupt her psychic ability, so better to keep him alive! When WG and Dinah flew to Salzburg they were met by another, sinister Salamander Four man pretending to be the Countess’s chauffeur, and the car would appear to be a 1950s Citroen, rather like the French police used at that earlier period. When MG flies out to Austria in her Piper Comanche (plane registration G-ATOY, the same as used in “Million Dollar Game”, 1987), from ‘the small airfield at Kingsbrook’, what we glimpse of the airfield as she takes off would appear to be more extensive, with at least three hangers, an impressive control tower, and two of Romero’s strange ‘science fiction’ pinnacle towers! Again the villains use the fake police trick to intercept her – no wonder MB was immediately suspicious after all the times this has happened in the past, either to her or WG!
And we have another villain with a surname beginning with ‘K’ – see my comments in Part 1.
70: Story name: Fiona – 1990 ***
Location: ‘Tanarachi’, in the Chittagoon Hills, Bengal, India – Gogol’s circus, somewhere in India (perhaps near Calcutta) – MG and Tarrant en route through Dacca.
Villain: Mr Wu Smith; chief henchman Maung.
Other characters: ‘Fiona’ (circus chimpanzee); Mr Rance (Wu Smith laboratory underling); Tarrant; Dr Sumitra Latham (Bengali parents, originally from Uganda); Dr David Latham (Sumitra’s husband); Gopal (blind Bengali hermit and holy man); Georgi Gogol (WG co-partner and circus owner); Kropski (circus animal trainer, supposedly in charge of the chimpanzees); Sharon (girl in WG knife-throwing act, who throws a wobbly at Fiona’s infatuation for WG).
Body count: 1 (2, if you count Fiona the chimp).
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: WG had his hopes dashed with Sharon, from his knife-throwing act.
Nudity rating: MB in very skimpy shorts and crop top.
Who kills who? : MB shoots Maung just as he shoots Fiona, who is attacking him.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. The story initially splits into three strands – the first has former Network nurse, now Bengali medical doctor Sumitra Latham, consulting with blind holy man Gopal. Her British husband, Doctor David Latham, has been naïvely acquiring much-needed drugs and medical supplies for their remote hospital in the Chittagoon Hills, from the underlings of Mr Wu Smith, who she realises are ‘evil men’ processing opium into heroin. They are using an abandoned jungle temple to the Hindi snake goddess Manasa as their laboratory/factory. Gopal foresees the intervention of MB (“once your benefactor…dark…strong…a princess…”) but that she will die “unless another dies for her”. Meantime MB is indeed planning a surprise visit, but is accompanied by Sir Gerald Tarrant, who is on a personal family pilgrimage to his brother’s wartime grave. On the third strand, WG is touring in India with Gogol’s Circus, and performing his knife-throwing act (the “Great El Cozador”), only to be interrupted by circus female chimpanzee Fiona, who is infatuated with him. Upon learning MB is visiting Bengal, he decides to join her, but Fiona stows away with him, forcing him to go overland rather than fly. Sumitra tells David she thinks MB is coming and he, in turn, blurts this out to Mr Wu Smith, who thereupon arranges for MB to be waylaid and put out of action long enough for them to finish their drug preparation. MB and Tarrant, driving up by jeep, easily overcome Maung and his henchmen (she using an improvised quarterstaff), as does WG (with help from Fiona) a little later. MB quickly realises something is amiss, and when Fiona retrieves a packet of heroin with the temple, Sumitra confesses to the situation – David, desperate to keep the hospital running after the latest, devastating cyclone – is being ‘bought off’ to keep quiet about Wu Smith’s drug producing enterprise. However, when David goes alone to confront Maung, he is tied to the goddess statue, and threatened with a live cobra. When MB and WG intervene (in the absence of Wu Smith, who prefers subtlety), they are put down a snake pit with another cobra. Again Fiona helps them escape, but in the ensuing taking out of the gang, Maung is about to shoot MB when Fiona (who already associates him as WG’s enemy) attacks him, getting shot instead – thus fulfilling Gopal’s prophecy! By the time Wu Smith arrives by plane, the gang (except for the dead Maung, shot by MB) are down the snake pit, and the drugs and equipment destroyed. MB offers Smith’s freedom for $200 million in Krugerrands (to go to David’s hospital), and a signed confession she could use against him with any British officials, should he try to retaliate. The threat of him and his underlings remaining down the pit with a few cobra snakes, gets a quick compliance. Afterwards WG buries Fiona near the hospital.
Critical comments: On first read I rather took against this story, but then initially I also didn’t appreciate Colvin’s artistic mastery over Romero either. On re-reading it, it is not, by any means, amongst the best of the MB comic strip stories, but not the worst either. That said, Romero’s art is mostly workable, but with a few odd glitches. Here the main criticism is again his apparent inability to effectively depict non-European cultures or characters. Colvin was especially good at this. Instead Romero’s illustration of the Bengali holy man Gopel looks more Oriental (south-east Asiatic perhaps, Indo-Chinese) than authentic Indian/Bengali. Despite MB and Tarrant flying to, and through, India, the fellow passengers on the aeroplane and at the airports, are mostly European, few native Indians as one might expect, and as I think both Holdaway and Colvin would have included. Even WG’s friend Yasin could be of almost any nationality. Only the Indian with the London taxi cab has a turban, rather a token gesture, perhaps! More crucial – given its importance within the story – is Romero’s depiction of the statue of the goddess Manasa, also known as Manasa Devi, goddess of snakes. Worshipped mostly in Bengal, Jharkhand and north-east India, she traditionally was said to be the daughter of the sage Kashyap and the sister of (Naga, half-snake/half-human) King Vasuki. She was reputed to be “kind to her devotees”, but harsh to non-believers. Although not all temples contained her image (instead sometimes a branch of a tree, a pot or snake was the focal point), Wikipedia gives a vivid description of what her statue would look like. She was depicted as being covered with snakes, either sitting on a lotus or standing on a snake, “sheltered by a canopy of the hoods of seven cobra snakes,” and often with a child on her lap, apparently her son, Astika. What has to be stressed here is that she would be depicted very much in the Hindu/Indian artistic mode: facial features; round, almost globe-like breasts; headdress; girdle; elaborate jewellery; and multiple arms. Instead Romero’s statue – quite bizarrely – is entirely in the Western/Classical Greek/European mode, completely nude, apparently fair-haired, with Caucasian facial features, and a few snakes entwined about her arms (only two, not four!) Completely and utterly wrong in every way! We are in an Bengali/Indian temple, not a Greek or Roman one!
Again we meet the villain Mr Wu Smith, banker and crook, “of the New Provident and Commercial Bank” of Macao, who became the most long-lasting of MB opponents, appearing in both comic strip and novels. Here again, he escapes to threaten them another day! Sir Gerald – here apparently given a ‘month’s leave’ – very generous of HMG – plans to visit his brother’s grave in the War Cemetery at Imphal, capital city of the Indian State of Manipur. This refers to the July 1944 ‘Siege of Imphal’, and the 14th British Commonwealth Army, by the Japanese, in which there were over 50,000 Japanese casualties. Despite its subsequent obscurity, Mountbatten once described it as “one of the greatest battles in history” – perhaps a trifle hyperbole. The Cemetery contains over 1,600 British and Indian dead.
Here again, also, we see Georgi Gogol’s Circus, part-owned by WG, which we first met in the story “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972-73, drawn by Romero). Thus originally conceived in the comic strip, ‘Gogol’s Wonder Circus’ (as it is called in the novels), only appears in The Xanadu Talisman (1981) and The Night of Morningstar (1982), where it was explained WG first met Hungarian Georgi Gogol in the south of France just before the Network was wound down. On this occasion, we do not meet Chloe the elephant, but instead Fiona the female chimpanzee, who is infatuated with WG, apparently thinking either she is the human or WG is a chimp! As a relationship, perhaps, it was inevitably doomed right from the start, but again it illustrates WG’s empathy with animals – even a deadly cobra snake! For this latter close encounter, WG explains he once worked a month at the “Pasteur snake farm in Bangkok” and knew how to squeeze out snake venom. Although founded in 1912, this is actually (since 1922, by Thai royal decree) named the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, now located in Rama IV Road. Again, with Gopal’s chilling prophecy, we have an element of the supernatural – used often by Peter O’Donnell as a convenient plot device.
On a more sombre note, chimpanzee males are stronger than most human equivalents and can be quite violent. Genetically, they are our nearest primate relatives. However, when Peter O’Donnell wrote this story there was estimated to be about 1.3 million chimps in the wild. Now the figure is believed to be between 172,000 and 300,000 only. In other words, in less than 30 years, one million chimpanzees have been wiped out – by us, hunting them or destroying their habitat. WG would be angry.
71: Story name: Walkabout – 1990 ***
Location: Palm Beach, New South Wales, Australia – Sydney – Great Victoria Desert – Nullarbor Plain – railroad depot – Kalgoorlie – Forrest Airfield – yacht at sea.
Villain: American Mafia hoods, Renzo and others; ‘Four Fingers’ Fitch; Snowy and Jimbo; Martin Lang (aka Mario, American lawyer and crook who has lived in Australia as a Mafia ‘sleeper’ for 20 years.)
Other characters: Debbie Grant (partner in Sydney law firm, WG girlfriend); Jacko (Aborigine and ex-Network member); Larry Houston (head of Internal Security); Tankai (young Aborigine maid); Luki (Tankai’s father); Doctor Dan Hailey; Bert Dalby (boss of Dalby Air services).
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Debbie Grant.
Nudity rating: Debbie in a bikini, surfing and on beach with WG. MB in just loincloth or nude, in the Outback. Several bare-breasted, topless Aborigine women. WG, who Burns and Colvin drawn with shadowy chest hair, now has a fluffy blonde patch instead, as illustrated by Romero! Like his frequent depiction of him or MB wet, under a shower or emerging from swimming, seeming covered in streaming water droplets, this looks quite artificial and ridiculous.
Who kills who? : Fellow thug Snowy kills Fitch with speargun instead of MB.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. WG is at Sydney’s Palm Beach, in Australia, where he renews his relationship from two years previous with lady lawyer Debbie Grant. Meantime MB is 1,500 miles away, on ‘Walk-About’ in the Great Victoria Desert with ex-Network member, Australian native Aborigine Jacko and his tribe, indulging in some ‘Stone Age culture’. Debbie is working closely with Larry Houston, of Australian Internal Security (who WG and MB know), on building up a case against an incursion into Australia by the America Mafia, whose ‘front man’ in Sydney is a crooked, naturalised lawyer named Martin Lang (‘Mario’ to his US partners). WG warns Debbie that she and Larry could be targeted, little suspecting Lang has already set up an elaborate assassination attempt on Larry through his henchman, Aussie ‘Four Fingers’ Fitch. Fitch has convinced Luki, the more incredulous Aborigine father of Larry’s maid Tankai, that Larry plans to dishonour his daughter, and use magic to harm her unless she complies. He thereby tricks Luki into attacking Larry with a spear, despite Tankai’s attempt to stop him. Larry is badly injured and Tankai urges her father to flee. Serving time in prison is the equivalent of a death sentence to an Aborigine. Meantime, after three weeks in the bush, MB is driving back by jeep, planning to stop over at a Trans-Australian railway depot for the night, when the sudden appearance of a camel in the road causes her to crash, trapping her leg. It is the fugitive Luki, working as a ‘fettler’ on the railway, who rescues her from the jeep’s petrol tank exploding, but – by a bizarre twist of fate – the spear given her by Jacko pierces his back, in an echo of Larry’s near-fatal injury. MB helps the local doctor in performing surgery, saving Luki’s life, but not long after the police arrest him for his murder attempt on Larry. MB realises he has been set-up and vows to help him. WG installs bugs in Lang’s office, enabling them to monitor the Mafia plans, and, together, they are able to arrange they are the only available pilots to fly Lang and the Mafia gang under Renzo, their leader, to Ceduna (in South Australia). Instead, they land and abandon them in the desert, where Jacko and his tribe ‘rescue’ them, forcing them to partake in their ‘walk-about’, living on foraged food like lizards and grubs. Jacko, meantime, pretends he cannot speak English other than “Hello”. Once they are suitable broken in spirit, MB and WG appear and force them – Lang especially – to sign confessions, before arranged for them all to be deported back to the USA. However, before being flown out, Lang contacts Fitch to revenge kill MB, although his fellow Mafia hoods refuse to sanction paying any financial reward. Unaware they are not getting payment, Fitch and two henchman, Snowy and Jimbo, kidnap Debbie and hold her on a yacht at sea, knowing MB and WG will attempt to rescue her. While WG approaches underwater (as Fitch anticipates), MB arrives disguised on water-skis, taking out Jimbo. Underwater combat follows, with Snowy killing Fitch by accident. WG enjoys time with Debbie, while MB introduces Jacko to Larry Houston.
Critical comments: A second return to the Australian Outback, and its native Aborigine inhabitants, previously visited in “The Stone-Age Caper” (1971, also drawn by Romero). That too featured the ex-Network member and Australian Aborigine Jacko, who again we also met briefly in “The Highland Witch” (1974). He only appeared in the comic strips. Here we discover something of his back-story – WG getting him “out of trouble in Marseilles” and finding him a job in the Network’s ‘boat section’, “on one our ships”. MB helped pay for him to study engineering, and he now has his own marine repair business, but still ‘goes native’ periodically, to keep in touch with his cultural roots. Australia, and especially the native Aborigine culture, obviously fascinated Peter O’Donnell, who used it again in one of his ‘Madeleine Brent’ novels The Golden Urchin (1986). MB, who we are again reminded spent her childhood and early teens living a similar nomadic existence, spends several weeks with his tribe, “living on lizards, grubs and snakes”, although she finds it hard to enjoy taking an active part in a kangaroo hunt. This primitive lifestyle she then inflicts on the American Mafia mobsters, prior to booting them out of the country. When their naturized Aussie lawyer frontman, Martin (Mario) Lang attempts to insult Jacko as “scum”, MB reminds him Jacko’s ancestors have lived here 20,000 years, and it was their land before the Westerners came. In fact, it is longer – estimated to be 50,000 years. In 2016 Aborigine numbers were given as 759,700, or about 3.1% of the total population.
Debbie Grant (who WG says is “the only lawyer I took a bubble bath with”, looking at times rather like Romero’s version of Maude Tiller) only features in this story, but Internal Security chief Larry Houston had featured in the novel Dragon’s Claw (1978), and is mentioned by name in the later comic strip story “The Killing Game” (2000), this being his first – and only – actual ‘crossover’ appearance. The story repeatedly illustrates the Aborigine psyche, often living in two, quite different worlds. In his introduction to the Titan Books edition, MB expert Lawrence Blackmore remarks, in the real world, the mafia had already been operating in Australia from the 1950s, for over two decades, under Lennie McPherson, George Freeman, and Abe (‘Mr Sin’) Saffron. For the most part Romero’s artwork is competent and workable, except for his illustrations of the Aborigine children, who are – quite frankly – depicted as grotesque, with peculiar shaped heads! Just weird!
Once again, in a country has huge as Australia, we have the rather unbelievable coincidence of fugitive Luki being the one to rescue MB from the crashed, burning jeep, to be followed by him being speared in the back also, as he had speared Larry Houston. The underwater combat previously being perfected by MB and WG in John Dall’s Texas swimming pool in “The Girl from the Future” (1989), here comes in useful!
72: Story name: The Girl in the Iron Mask – 1990/91 ****
Location: Mammon Hall, in the Swiss Alps – the “Treadmill” WG’s pub – (briefly) somewhere in Yugoslavia – ‘Kippel Hole’, freak 50-metre-deep pit in the Swiss Alps, located about “20 miles” from Mammon Hall.
Villain: Millionaire twins Reggie and Humphrey Bone; three-man ‘Magpie’ terror group; three-man ‘Iliad’ terror group.
Other characters: Celeste (Bone brothers’ housekeeper); Tarrant; Dave Craythorpe (pilot): Joe Mellar (Bone’s London contact and ‘fixer’); Damion, Tarquin and Jeremy (UK-based hit-squad); Doris (WG barmaid at the “Treadmill”); Valjevo (Yugoslav ex-Network member, now retired).
Body count: 6
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB flashing plenty of leg as she climbs out of Kippel Hole. Getting changed out of her ragged dress in the helicopter as they fly to confront the Bone brothers.
Who kills who? : MB foot-kicks two of the ‘Magpie’ team down Kippel Hole. The ‘Iliad’ team shoot the third man. WG kills one of the ‘Iliad’ team. Humphrey Bone shoots brother Reggie, then has fatal heart attack himself.
Summary/theme: Revenge caper. Retired and aged millionaire bachelor twins Humphrey and Reggie Bone enjoy ruining rich people by manipulating the stock market from their retirement mansion in the Swiss Alps. Having grown bored with this game, they decide instead to take revenge on MB for thwarting their attempt to ruin Texan tycoon John Dall. They employ two separate terror gangs – code-named ‘Magpie’ and ‘Iliad’ – the former to kidnap MB, who is driving from Yugoslavia to Zurich, having been visiting ex-Network retirees. The ‘Magpie’ team put MB down ‘Kippel Hole’, a deep pit near to the Bone’s Mammon Hall, her head encased in an iron mask with only a slit-like opening for her to breath. The brothers watch on a TV monitor relayed by a camera used by one of the ‘Magpie’ team on a crane hoist. Celeste, the Bone’s housekeeper, is horrified and secretly phones WG at the “Treadmill” with a brief message to “Look for your friend in Kippel Hole”. Tarrant is able to identify what and where this is. WG is only briefly delayed going to the rescue, by an inapt gang of three young and arrogant thugs the Bones had commissioned to watch him. MG, meanwhile, having figured out her predicament, and despite unable to see in the inhibiting mask, manages to climb out, and is able to turn the tables on the ‘Magpie” team, plunging two down the hole, and taking the third prisoner, enabling her to access a spanner to remove the mask. At that point the ‘Iliad’ team – tasked with secretly monitoring ‘Magpie’ – open fire, just as WG parachutes down and intervenes. The two survivors, having revealed their employer, are hoisted down the hole, while WG and MB fly by ‘Magpie’s’ helicopter to Mammon Hall. Celeste scares off the Bone’s security guards by saying who is on the way. Humphrey hoped to bluff his way out by blaming Reggie and shoots him, thinking to make it look like suicide. Minutes later, however, he himself suffers a fatal heart-attack. MB and WG promise to help Celeste and her young daughter – named as Nicole, at school in Neuchatel, whom the Bones threatened, thereby keeping her like a hostage. Celeste, in turn, says she will simply let the Swiss police “make what they can” of four bodies, two surviving terrorists, and a crane at Kippel Hole!
Critical comments: Yet again, as with the Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli or Russian army Colonel Greb, the Bone brothers are introduced with a pre-existing backstory, but here their previous encounter with MB is actually crucial to the entire plot – the reason for their revenge – yet it is remarked upon only in vague outline in just one early strip, number 7652, that MB foiled a plot by the Bone twins to financially ruin John Dall. There is nothing about this in any previous comic strip story, nor do they appear – even just mentioned in passing – in any of the novels/short stories. We gather they used the financial markets to bankrupt or ruin their victims, but how then did MB stop them? We never learn. Indeed, MB and WG only discover that the Bones are the instigators of the iron mask plot quite late in the story, after having eliminated both of the hit teams. WG’s only response is “the mad millionaires”. This is a pity, because it again implies additional stories not in either the comic strip or novel/short story collections, but also because their hatred of MB is the ‘McGuffin’, the key to everything that follows, in what is otherwise, quite a good story, O’Donnell back (for now) on form.
The ”book by that French chappie” referred to by Reggie Bone is, of course, The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandra Dumas (1802-1870), part of the D’Artagnan Romances, a fictionalised interpretation of the real unidentified prisoner held 1669/70 to 1703 at the time of French King Louis XIV.
The ‘magpie’ team technique to take MB captive – a fake car accident, overturned and on fire, somewhere presumably in the Italian or Swiss Alpes – rather depends on having a completely deserted, otherwise traffic-free, road both ways, least some other motorist should intrude upon the set-up, before, during or after the snatch. The use of a tranquilliser dart to subdue MB is reminiscent of the Mahmoud gang hit, in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72). The ’yippie’ hit team employed to take out WG as he tries to leave the “Treadmill” to search for MB – Damion, Tarquin and Jeremy – make a reappearance in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92). Given he is in England, it is rather curious that WG’s (unidentified) car is a left-hand drive.
Dave Craythorpe, the aircraft pilot, featured in both the comic strip and novels/short stories. In the latter he appeared in “I Had a Date with Lady Janet” (1972), A Taste for Death (1969), The Impossible Virgin (1971), “The Soo Girl Charity” (1972), and The Silver Mistress (1973). In the novels he had a Beagle Pup, based at White Waltham, near to “The Treadmill”, and was said to fly smuggled goods in and out of France. This story also has Doris, WG’s barmaid at “The Treadmill” pub, mentioned by name in “Death in Slow Motion” (1983), but seen here for the first time, although, typically, Romero depicts her as a young, Axa-like blonde – again! She, too, featured in the short story “I Had A Date with Lady Janet” (Pieces of Modesty, 1972), and got mentioned in Last Day in Limbo (1976), where she and her husband decide to emigrate to Australia. Strange then, that she is still working at “The Treadmill” in both this, and the other post-1976 stories, unless WG employed someone with the same name!
The helicopter used by the ‘Magpie’ team was a Bell 206, manufactured US/Canada 1967 to 2017. Again one of Bone three-man security detail was “with Bora’s mob” – the rival drug-dealing gang MB had put down in her Network days, mentioned on a number of occasions elsewhere in both the comic strip and novels. Peter O’Donnell had already used the surname ‘Bone’ in the story “Idaho George” (1978), with the rather stupid, female criminal gang leader Anastasia Bone. There is also a passing reference to Bernie Chan (made by the Damion mob), a crooked London jeweller and fence, who, in the novel The Night of Morningstar (1982), MB and WG kidnapped and tricked into revealing information they needed.
73: Story name: The Young Mistress – 1991/92 ***
Location: MB’s penthouse flat, London – Mount Galleries, Blakewell Street, London – MB’s cottage, near Benildon, Wiltshire – Lacey’s yacht, Shadwell Bay.
Villain: Bruce Lacey.
Other characters: Dr Giles Pennyfeather; Weng; Hooker (Lacey’s minder/trainer); Marian Hall; Eddie Parker (Marian’s boyfriend); John Dall; Tarquin, Dalmion and Jeremy (the ‘B’ team hit-squad).
Body count: 2
Modesty’s lover: Giles Pennyfeather; (she declines to spend time with John Dall, promising to see him “in the Fall”).
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude, and in bra and panties getting dressed (earlier with Giles, later as they prepare their showdown with Lacey on his yacht); MB, having removed her Velcro skirt, bare legs and panties as she takes on Hooker and Lacey in the gym.
Who kills who? : Lacey shoots Hooker in a crazy rage. Weng accidentally hits Lacey with powerboat, breaking his neck.
Summary/theme: Art fraud caper. Dr Giles Pennyfeather is “between jobs” in Chad, doing locum work at a surgery in London, while staying with MB at her penthouse. Their Sunday morning in bed is interrupted by a telephone call from Marian Hall, one of his patients, who has been badly flogged with a riding crop by her ‘boyfriend’, a wealthy, art gallery owner named Bruce Lacey, who MB recognises as a vicious thug and possible criminal. She accompanies Giles to the flat above Lacey’s art gallery, but as they are leaving Lacey arrives, with his minder, Hooker. Giles calls him a swine, sadist and scumbag, prompting Lacey to take a swing at him, forcing MB to intervene. She, almost effortlessly, takes out both men, leaving Lacey tied to a climbing rope in the gym, just as WG arrives (having been updated on the situation by Weng). Only then does Lacey realise who they are, and vow revenge, intending (so he says) to strip and whip MB in turn. At Giles’ insistence, Marian goes back to the penthouse with them, and confesses to MB she copied a valuable Impressionist painting for Lacey, who then sold it for $30,000, whilst keeping the original. Lacey has since blackmailed her, saying she could go to prison for art fraud. MB traces the sale to an American, who turns out to be none other than her millionaire boyfriend, John Dall, in New York. Meantime, Giles and Marian go into hiding at MB’s Wiltshire cottage, but Lacey is able to find the address through a newspaper contact. WG, however, easily deals with the ham-fisted attempt to snatch her back. Dall having brought the fake painting to MB’s keeping in the UK, she and WG break into Lacey’s gallery, take the original and replace it with the copy, but now marked FAKE with a hot poker. Dall flies back to New York, and the following day Giles flies to Chad. But Lacey has kidnapped Marian, together with her former boyfriend, fellow commercial artist Eddie Parker (who she really loves), and sets MB up for an exchange – prisoners for the Impressionist painting. MB is prepared, however, wearing a plastron fencing jacket under the bodysuit, and faking being knocked out by a tranquillising dart. Meantime WG parachutes on the yacht, with Weng following in a power boat. They easily take out the unsuspecting four man crew, but in the final confrontation Lacey shoots Hooker dead, before falling overboard, still with his gun. As Weng swings the power boat round the yacht’s stern, he hits Lacey, breaking his neck. WG meantime retrieves the Rembrandt Lacey wanted Marian to copy next. They dump Hooker’s body into the sea also. Later Marian and Eddie thank them, Marian having painted her ‘last’ masterpiece, the “Mono Lisa” (signed with her own name) as a gift for MB.
Critical comments: Marian Hall is the ‘Young Mistress’, not in a sexual connotation, but as a copyist of Old Masters – Lacey’s “little joke”. There is no ‘Blakewell Street’ listed in London. Lacey is described as a “yuppie wheeler-dealer – rich – criminal type – keep fit type” with his own basement gym. The term ‘yuppie’ was first coined about 1980, as a ‘young professional’. The ‘Charlot’ is described as a ‘minor Impressionist’, of whom MB remarks “Yes, he’s become fashionable of late”, but this raises some query. Attempts to clarify more detail of ‘Charlot’ seem to draw a blank. There is a Louis Henri Jean Charlot (1898-1974), a French-American painter in the Mexican style. Otherwise there is apparently a ‘Marie Charlot’, said to be a 19th century Belgian Impressionist painter, but who might be a fictitious name used by a 1970s ‘painting factory’ creating fake Impressionist works! At least one ‘Marie Charlot’, entitled “Victorian Ladies”, was priced and sold (for real) at about $425. Much less than the $30,000 which the dealer paid Lacey, or the unstated price John Dall then paid, for “Tulips in a Blue Vase” (18” x 24”). Lacey’s next proposed swindle was to be a Rembrandt, which a collector wanted him to value as authentic. He planned for Marian to copy it, he would then ‘age’ it, and return the fake, keeping the original.
This sees another appearance of Dr Giles Pennyfeather, a crossover from the novels, who had previously appeared in the comic strip story “The Wild Boar” (1985, illustrated by Neville Colvin). Romero’s depiction of him keeps very much to the Colvin image, if perhaps a little less dishevelled and cartoony. MB’s mental description of him is “artless, guileless, usually penniless, academically hopeless, but has a marvellous gift for making people well”, and a “lovable idiot” at times who she pretends to rage at, although it’s questionable who, of the two of them, normally gets who into crazy and dangerous situations. Her other regular lover, American/Texan multi-millionaire tycoon John Dall, expresses mock jealousy of him, and the two couldn’t be more dissimilar, in character or circumstance.
Again, however, Romero goes completely ‘off-piste’ with his crazy depiction of MB’s Wiltshire cottage. From Jim Holdaway’s original two-storey house including roof space, to John Burns’ version – similar enough, and I think perhaps the best – to Pat Wright’s one-storey chalet-like shack, we, rather bizarrely, actually have several – quite different – versions by Romero, of which this is the most outlandish – a thatched building with dormer windows in the roof, and his usual crisscross pane windows throughout, but with Giles and Marian looking as if totally out of scale in the near foreground. Given that Romero (unlike Colvin) did attempt to remain consistent to Holdaway’s version of MB’s London penthouse and WG’s ‘Treadmill’ pub exterior, his lack of singular vision for MB’s cottage is rather oddball. However, we learn the cottage’s name, “Ashlea”, located “one mile west of Benildon”, Wilts., although this distance, too, varied over time in the comic strips or novels. In an earlier story it was three miles.
The hapless, but cocky, hit-man trio, Tarquin, Dalmion and Jeremy, had already appeared in the story “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90), getting thrashed by WG on the forecourt of the ‘Treadmill’. Here they suffer similar humiliation, but by WG disguised as an old man – “Garvin’s grandfather”, is their conclusion – an idea O’Donnell was to use again with the French agent Henri in “Our Friend Maude”, just two stories later, still in 1992.
74: Story name: Ivory Dancer – 1992 ***
Location: London East End judo club – ‘Dalliance Farm’, ranch and stables, Kentucky, USA – MB’s London penthouse – Disused quarry, Kentucky – Matt Ringwell’s Circus at Ashville – Limestone Hills (old mine).
Villain: Gallo and gang.
Other characters: Sam (Samantha) Brown; John Dall; husband and wife Mike and Sally Duggan; Matt Ringwell; Lolita and husband, ‘The Mighty Hercules’.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: John Dall.
Willie’s lover: Circus contortionist Lolita (WG ex, from Gogol’s Circus).
Nudity rating: MB nude in bed with John Dall; MB in ‘bikini’ spangles as ‘Conchita’, WG’s knife-throwing act partner; Sam in bra.
Who kills who? : WG hits and kills Gallo with mallet. WG gets face cut with bull-whip. Sam gets bullet skinning her rib.
Summary/theme: Race horse ransom caper. MB accompanies WG to young Samantha Brown’s East End London ‘judo club’. Sam has already shown herself a natural at horse-riding on holiday visits to MB’s cottage in Wiltshire. They invite her to accompany them to stay with Texan multi-millionaire John Dall at his equine stables and stud-farm in Kentucky. Dall has just paid $10 million for champion race-horse ‘Ivory Dancer’, but crime boss Gallo plans to kidnap the horse for a $5 million ransom. He threatens to disfigure the wife of Dall’s stable manager, Mike Duggan, with acid, unless Mike cooperates to switch off the stable alarm system. Meantime, Sam is staying with the Duggans, and shows great empathy with ‘Ivory Dancer’. Everyone agrees she is like a young MB. Another distraction is a nearby circus, the owner of whom knows WG, and who asks if WG might do his knife-throwing act with MB. Later, on their way back from visiting the circus, Gallo attempts to take MB and WG out of circulation using thugs with steel-tipped bull-whips and a car-wrecking crane. WG uses 50-cent coins as missiles while MB gets the crane driver, then taking the rest of the gang with a butterfly kick and the kongo. Afterwards they speculate inconclusively who might have had a grudge against them. Sam, meantime, has a sort of premonition about Ivory Dancer, and one night accidentally sets off the stable alarms, much to Dall’s displeasure. WG and MB perform the knife-throwing act as ‘El Cazador and Conchita’. That night Gallo contacts a distressed and fearful Mike Duggan, who switches off the alarms and Ivory Dancer is stolen. Dall’s response to the alarms being off is to blame Sam, and Mike Duggan confesses it was him, terrified by what they might do to his wife Sally. Sam, however, has gone. leaving a note saying she thinks she knows were Ivory Dancer is. MB realises the gang will use the circus as cover to transport the horse (its colour disguised) away undetected. MB, WG and Dall go after the circus in his helicopter, and see the trailer, having by then already pulled off into woods. As the gang open the trailer, Ivory Dancer leaps out with Sam riding bareback. One of Gallo’s gang shoots, grazing her rib, before Gallo stops him, least he hit the horse. Flying overhead, WG uses tools as missiles, until the helicopter rotor blade is hit by a shotgun bullet. They land near to where Sam and Ivory Dancer are hiding, and (having bandaged Sam’s wound) MB and WG go back to deal with Gallo and gang. MB uses Sam’s bloody shirt to make it appear she fell, and was injured, from the helicopter. WG, with his hatred of men who threaten women – Sally, Sam or MB – uses a mallet to kill Gallo.
Critical comments: This is the second appearance of Sam Brown (now age 13), who featured in “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88). Sam would appear again one last time, in “The Special Orders” (1998). We are told that the Contrax business had been “last year”, although Sam’s age in that story was only 10. In the interim, her brother Tyrone, aka ‘The Cherub’, had quit the Hell’s Angel’s gang, and now had a “steady job” as a motor bike courier, while “Aunt Joan” now lived with them. In the school holidays Sam had stayed at MB’s cottage in Wiltshire, where she had developed an instant affiliation with horses, hence MB’s invitation for her to accompany them to John Dall’s ranch stables in Kentucky. Multi-millionaire John Dall is one of the most frequent crossover characters from the novels, either appearing in person – as in “Yellowstone Booty” (1978/79), “Butch Cassidy Rides Again” (1986/87), “The Girl from the Future” (1989), “The Young Mistress” (1991/92), and “Durango” (1996/97) – or merely mentioned, as in “The Gallows Bird” (1973), or “Garvin’s Travel’s” (1981). Presumably he has more than just the one ranch, as this time the action takes place in Kentucky, the ‘Bluegrass State’, rather than Texas. From “The Young Mistress” we know he has a house at East Hampton, New York State, again presumably to be near his New York City office. Although a Texan, he has native First Nations Indian heritage.
In his introduction to the Titan Books edition, MB expert Lawrence Blackmore remarks on the number of real race horses with ‘Dancer’ in their name – quoting ‘Northern Dancer’, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1964, and ‘Gate Dancer’. ‘Sword Dancer’ and ‘Native Dancer’, all winners of the Triple Crown. An internet search (Keeneland equibase) seems to show there really was a ‘Ivory Dancer’, with jockey John Lively, in the USA, circa 1978-80. Again, we have to question why MB’s open-topped sports car is a UK right-hand-drive. It gets written off anyway! Members of the Gallo gang mention how MB and WG had already “bust” the Preacher’s and Dino Quinn’s gangs. As usual, the warnings are dismissed out of hand. Peter O’Donnell’s love of – or fascination for – circuses is again apparent – this time with an American circus, Matt Ringwell’s, whose lady contortionist, Lolita, was formerly with Gogol’s Circus, part-owned by WG. Needless to say, she is another WG ex-girlfriend, although now married to the strong man, ‘The Mighty Hercules’. Once again Romero has a distracting background of silly circus tricks going on, as we saw in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73) – totally unnecessary and rather unrealistic. Commenting on their knife-throwing act together, MB confesses she finds WG being in disguise as a “Mexican nut-case” always a bit scary. No doubt she is recollecting her near-death experience with the Bubbles gang in “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976/77). Mike’s wife Sally is yet another look-alike Romero blonde – ‘Axa’ in clothes!
75: Story name: Our Friend Maude – 1992 ***
Location: Paris – ‘Le Gant Noir’ nightclub, Paris – MB’s penthouse, London – Vaubois office, Paris – Bois de Boulogne, Paris – Chateaux Avalon, Loire district – the deserted village of ‘Bezier’, located in a valley scheduled to be flooded for a new reservoir.
Villain: Kaut (illegal arms dealer); Zebart (so-called ‘High Contractor’).
Other characters: Maude Tiller; Rene Vaubois; Claudine; Tarrant; Henri (Vaubois agent, disguised as old man, and later as police ‘Inspector Leroux’); Sir David and Lady Waters (British residents living in France).
Body count: none.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Claudine; Maude Tiller.
Nudity rating: MB in undies, getting dressed; MB in undies changing from ‘sans-culottes’ outfit to black bodysuit; Maude in undies, nightie; Maude getting dressed to go and see MB; Maude topless (‘the nailer’) viewed from back.
Who kills who? : Not applicable.
Summary/theme: Attempted assassination caper. French Intelligence chief Rene Vaubois, working with Tarrant’s department, is getting close to compiling incriminating evidence on rogue arms dealer Kaut. Kaut, therefore, planned an elaborate scheme to brainwash (by narco-hypnosis) Tarrant’s agent (and MB friend/WG girlfriend) Maude Tiller, and trick her into shooting Vaubois, under false instructions he is a top traitor to be eliminated. This, he thinks, will ‘cold-case’ the investigation, and also undermine Anglo-French trust. Maude (who has just visited Vaubois on a mission from Tarrant) is kidnapped in Paris and taken to Kaut’s chateau at Avalon, near the Loire. The scam is overseen by Zebart, self-styled ‘high contractor’, posing as a Tarrant department psychologist, together with Kaut henchmen and actors who impersonate Jack Fraser, Tarrant, and the intended victim, Vaubois – all of whom (although they don’t know it) are to be disposed of afterwards. Unbeknown to Kaut and Zebart however, WG (in Paris with another old girlfriend, Claudine) sees Maude with Zebart in ‘Le Gant Noir’, a Parisian hangout for the criminal fraternity, and he tells MB and Tarrant, who confirms Maude should be on leave in Switzerland. MB contacts Vaubois, who introduces her to one of his more eccentric agents, Henri – a ‘master of disguise’ – who has been investigating Kaut, and also working undercover at ‘Le Gant Noir’, where he had bugged the pay-phone. Convinced Maude has been snatched and possibly brainwashed, MB and WG are assigned to unofficial duty with Henri, basing themselves at the abandoned village of Bezier, near the chateau. Kaut is using a costume (18th century theme) masked ball to cover for his meetings to sell nuclear weaponry, and (thanks to Henri’s trickery) MB and WG are able to gain access to the chateau as one of the guests. In addition to obtaining incriminating documents from Kaut’s safe, they rescue Maude (who is resisting her instructions by ‘Tarrant’ to assassinate Vaubois) and all flee to the deserted village, where – without resorting to gunplay – they are able to eliminate Kaut and Zebert’s henchmen one by one. WG and Maude look forward to a month of unbridled passion together in the Caribbean.
Critical comments: This story brings together a number of ‘crossover’ characters from both comic strip and novels – another appearance of Maude Tiller, Tarrant’s blonde female agent and WG girlfriend, who we first met in “The Puppet Master” (1972, illustrated by Romero), next, again featuring as a captive, in “The Wicked Gnomes” (1978), then “Garvin’s Travels” (1980), where both she and WG are taken captive and subject (not very successfully) to brainwashing, and next in “The Double Agent” (1986, both illustrated by Colvin – his is the best version of Maude), and later in “The Murder Frame” (1997, by Romero again), and “Fraser’s Story” (also 1997). Her first appearances in the novels was in Last Day in Limbo (1976). In this story we discover she has been with Tarrant’s department six years, and twice in a kill situation. French Intelligence chief Rene Vaubois, who first appeared in the novel Modesty Blaise (1965), although originally called Léon, his name changing to Rene in the next novel Sabre-Tooth (1966). His first appearance in the comic strip (as Rene) is in “The Magnified Man” (1967, illustrated by Holdaway), and again in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73, by Romero), and “The Wild Boar” (1988, by Colvin), where he is the captive. He appeared in most of the novels, unlike ex-Network courier Claudine, another of WG’s girlfriends, who he regularly visited in Paris. She only featured in I, Lucifer (1967), and in “Bellman”, the extended short story version of “The Killing Ground”, published in Cobra Trap (1996). In the comic strip, she had a brief ‘walk-on’ part in “Sweet Caroline” (1983/84, perfectly depicted by Colvin), another – even more brief – part in “The Killing Distance” (1994, by Romero), when she is masquerading as MB to confuse the villains. We are introduced to a new character, Vaubois agent ‘Henri’ (apparently his code name), who appears again – this time only briefly – in “The Killing Distance” (1994). In our more PC age of the 2020s, some might take offence at the radio names MB and Henri use – ‘Rosbif’ for MB and WG, ‘Frogman’ for Henri (Maude is ‘Ladybird’). Racism! Or maybe not, just tongue in cheek humour.
Once again MB employs her ‘speciality’, the ‘nailer’ – a female going topless to distract or momentarily delay the reaction of the male villains. In the novels it is used only in Modesty Blaise and Sabre-Tooth (1965 and 1966). The first time she used it in the comic strip stories was “The Reluctant Chaperon” (1975), while a full nude version features in “The Inca Trail” (1976), “Black Queen’s Pawn” (1993) and “Death Symbol” (1999). But, at MB’s suggestion, the female character, Judy, uses it in “The Stone Age Caper” (1971), and Maude uses it twice – in “Garvin’s Travels” (1980/81), and here in this story, in the desolate empty church, MB having rung the bells to attract the bad guys.
In the first MB comic strip story “La Machine” (1963), the Parisian underworld club was named ‘Le Gant Rouge’, a name which (rather confusingly) Peter O’Donnell used again in the first novel, Modesty Blaise (1965) for gangster Pacco’s club, but which was in Cannes, on the Cote d’Azur. Perhaps the Paris club has since changed its name to ‘Le Gant Noir’? When asked by WG what news, club patron Louis remarks, “Lemont runs Montmartre now, Durand broke the St. Denis mob, Marcel got his throat cut – routine stuff.”
Struggling to reconcile reality with the unfamiliar ‘secret British training establishment’ under Zabert’s tutorage, Maude queries where is Chuck Daneby, in charge of weapons, or Jacoby, her regular martial arts instructor? Jacoby might be the individual featured in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72) when we first see WG teaching Maude unarmed combat. He featured in Last Day in Limbo (1976), where WG thinks him a “nasty bugger”, and sets him up for a knock out. In the novels the department’s training establishment is call ‘Three Meadows’.
The story – if rather far-fetched – is typical O’Donnell fare, but again rather let down by Romero’s artwork. Overall the art is sketchy and often without detail. In several (night views) the chateau is silhouetted as sitting on a hill, and as Romero’s usual spires and turrets-type ‘fairy tale’ castle, whilst in other views the front is a more conventional mansion, with wrought-iron gates. Glimpses of the interior appear rather like a stage-set, simplistic and theatrical. The abandoned French village seen here, is worth comparing to how Neville Colvin depicted a similar (Corsican) village in “The Wild Boar” (1985), and, in particular, the church interior. Colvin’s illustrations are more convincing and realistic.
76: Story name: A Present for the Princess – 1992/3 ***
Location: Republic of Montelero, near the Columbian border – village of Yuti – Covent Garden theatre, London – MB’s cottage in Wiltshire – MB’s penthouse in London – Toccopina (large city and sea port for Montelero) – bandit’s hideaway, in the “mountains east of Toccopina”.
Villain: A succession of bad guys.
Other characters: Ramon (ex-Network stringer); Tarrant; Dinah and Steve Collier; Rima and her father Jose; Julio (the hidago’s son); Joe Ling (Anglo-Chinese drifter and petty crook); Strobel (crook in Toccopina); Azul (local bandit); Weng; Mr Haley (bookseller and psychometrist); Police Captain Juan Corinto; Mary Foster (American from Nebraska, whose husband was murdered by Azul’s bandits).
Body count: Too numerous to count.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: (Perhaps after the story) Rima in Toccopina, Mary Foster in Nebraska.
Nudity rating: MB waking up, nude in bed from her premonition about WG.
Who kills who? : Average of two killings a day on the emerald fields. MB and WG kill at least six of Azul’s bandits. More, including Azul, are killed by the police.
Summary/theme: Lost and found caper. WG is away on one of his ‘field-trips’, searching for emeralds (to make earrings for MB, the ‘Princess’ of the title) in the near-lawless Republic of Montelero, bordering with Colombia. Having already witnessed several murders a day, he quietly strikes camp and slips away, but is persuaded by an ex-Network man, Ramon (who has long since gambled away his ‘golden handshake’), and several other get-rich-quick desperadoes. Finding the rope-bridge across a gorge broken, WG is trapped and forced to dive into the river below, where he is knocked semi-unconscious by a drifting log. Further downstream, he is rescued by a young widow, Rima, and her elderly father, Jose. Much to her father’s disgust, she cares for him, despite that he has no money, and has (thanks to concussion with the log) lost his memory – if not his abilities to fight with knives or play cards. Meantime, back in England, MB grows more concerned about his welfare following a night-time premonition, and eventually asks Dinah Collier to use her dowsing skills over a series of maps, and the bookseller, Mr Haley, his psychometrist skills with the pearl necklace WG made for her, to try and establish where he might be. Mr Haley’s ambiguous impressions especially was of a “big man” with “three green eyes”, “lost and unremembered, with emptiness in his head, saved by the widow”. Back in Rima’s village, the son of the local landowner (the ‘Hidalgo’, noble or gentry) arrives, intending to sleep with her, but WG challenges him to a knife duel, easily beating both him and his bodyguard. Despite not remembering his past, name or MB (he is called only the ‘Inglese’), WG feels he must somehow travel to England to find his ‘talisman’. Rima insists on accompanying him as far as Toccopina, the nearest big sea-port. Once there, WG easily wins money at cards, but is seen by Joe Ling, a Anglo-Chinese petty crook, who knew him before his MB/Network days. He convinces WG his name is really Harry Brett, wanted for murder, and arranges for him to ‘hide’ with the local bandits in the hills. Rima pleads with him not to go, saying she doesn’t believe he is a ‘bad man’, but without success. Meantime MB has arrived in Toccopina, and visits police Captain Corinto, just as Rima also arrives, and it transpires Corinto knew her as a young girl – they both come from the same village. Rima realises MB is the woman ‘talisman’, and that Joe Ling lied about WG being a man wanted by the police for murder. MB deliberately drives into bandit country to be taken captive, and discovers a confused and distressed WG – still with no memory – and the bandits already holding a number of women as sex-slaves, including Mary Foster, from Nebraska, whose husband they had murdered. WG helps release the women, and they disable about two-thirds of the bandits weaponry, before forced to flee on foot, where MB and WG hold the narrow pass while Mary and the other women try to escape. When WG wants to remain, fighting to his death, MB knocks him out with her kongo. No sooner have they re-joined the other women (the bandits, having already lost a number of men, still fearful of making a direct assault), so Captain Corinto arrives, with Rima. While Azul’s bandits are either killed or captured by the police, the knock on the head has restored WG’s memory, and both Rima and Mary line up to thank and kiss him. The ‘three green eyes’ are emeralds, one of which is presented to Rima, to help fulfil her little private business dream in Toccopina (with Captain Corinto’s promise of protection and friendship), the other two she insists go to MB, knowing WG intended to present them to her as earrings.
Critical comments: Another amnesia story, like MB in “The Puppet Master”, or WG (if more briefly) in “Yellowstone Booty”. Indeed, there are several echoes here of previous, or other, MB comic strip stories in the series – MB and WG holding the narrow rocky pass against the hoards of bandits, echoed MB and retired Colonel Rodney Spooner in “A Few Flowers for the Colonel” (1982); the women being held as sex-slaves as in “Milord” (1988) and “Death Symbol” (1999); WB being swept away in a fast-flowing river, and MB waking up in the night convinced something has happened to him, as in “Yellowstone Booty” (1978/79) – presumable the “one other time” she casually mentions here.
As we have often seen now, Romero is good at depicting wilderness, but hopeless at other locations. Early in the story MB and Tarrant are the Covent Garden Theatre, but one distant, night-time, external view shows the Houses of Parliament from the Lambeth bank of the River Thames – nowhere near Covent Garden, which is off the Strand, beyond the Hungerford Bridge! Even more bizarre, is that MB’s Wiltshire cottage has changed its appearance yet again! Tarrant and Steve Collier are seen in conversation with the house in the background. It is now located atop a sloping open hillside, and has a double, angled wing either side of a central entrance, one with a tall, external chimney – vaguely similar to the original Holdaway/Burns versions, but larger, and more isolated in its own ground. Throughout this last third of Romero-illustrated stories, the cottage was rarely the same twice, and often totally different, complete inconsistent. Another, lesser, quirk was in strip 8135, where the character Joe Ling (who didn’t look especially Chinese) suddenly lost his distinctive moustache. The widow Rima – depicted here very much as a dark-haired MB lookalike, is said to have a “heart of gold”, but a “greedy, idle father”, who only hoped that the ‘Americano’ (as they first assumed WG to be) would be rich and reward them – “perhaps with 50 dollars”. Upon discovering WG is English, penniless, and lost his memory, the old man complains how the Inglese “are not rich, and even lose at football.” Early in the story Rima said her ambition was to open her own café in Tocoopina, but later WG says it was a shop. Her dreams were shattered when bandits killed her husband and stole all their money. The final confrontation between the police and Azul’s bandits is not even illustrated. Suddenly, from one strip to the next, it is all over, and Azul himself is declared amongst the dead. Given the built-up, this seemed something of a cop-out. Dinah and Steve Collier had already previously featured in “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90), and would so again in “Durango” (1996/97). This story again illustrates Dinah’s extraordinary dowsing ability, but this time also coupled with Mr Haley’s psychometrist talent, which we first saw as long ago as “The Mind of Mrs Drake” (1964/65). It is obvious that Peter O’Donnell was constantly fascinated by such extrasensory perception (ESP) ideas and possibilities. Steve Collier remarks to Tarrant that “scientifically a bee can’t fly, but it does.”
77: Story name: Black Queen’s Pawn – 1993 ***
Location: Madagascar – the village of ‘Mandofo’ – Salim’s yacht at sea.
Villain: Salim; and chief henchman Koch.
Other characters: Greg Lawton; Catholic missionary Father Brienne; Faro (one of Koch’s henchmen); villagers Chakota, wife Noniko and daughter Andri.
Body count: 0 ?
Modesty’s lover: Greg Lawton.
Willie’s lover: WG, at the end of the story, is “rubbing noses with the village girls” – their equivalent of kissing!
Nudity rating: MB bathing in wooden tub, later fighting Faro, naked under her robe; She and WG swim naked out from the flooded chamber; MB nude except for luminous paste, preforming a ghostly ‘naked nailer’, Koch and his men believing them dead.
Who kills who? : Although Father Brienne says Koch or his men have already killed someone, it is not made clear whom, or in what circumstances. Greg Lawton again gets wounded (MB is a dangerous girlfriend to have), this time in the arm.
Summary/theme: Lost treasure caper. In 1834 Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar had a secret ‘treasure’ hidden, which she hoped would grant her immortality. Subsequently she had all those with knowledge of its location – the astrologers, 520 slaves, and her captains – killed. “160 years later” MB and American veterinary surgeon Greg Lawton are in a remote area of Madagascar, looking to find a preserved, hopefully intact, 2,000 year old egg of the Aepyornis, an extinct, 10ft tall ostrich-like bird, but which was unique to the island. They arrive at the village of Mandofo, site of the ruins of Ranavalona’s summer palace, to find it has been taken over by Koch, who MB recognises as the ‘enforcer’ for a Lebanese crook named Salim. He likes to sneeringly refer to her as ‘Duchess’. The aged Catholic missionary, Father Brienne, intervenes and explains Koch has a copy of Ranavalona’s map, and is seeking the treasure, using forced labour from the village. Salim, meanwhile, is on board his yacht, in the Indian Ocean. MB assures Koch she has no interest in the treasure hunt, but is still forbidden to leave. At one point, Faro, one of Koch’s goons, starts beating a young village girl, and MB (clad only in a robe, having been taking a bath) intervenes and restrains him. Despite Koch instructing him to back off, Faro pulls a gun and Lawton takes a bullet in the arm instead. Whilst MB is still nursing Lawton better, WG arrives by jeep, not suspecting the situation until too late. Fearing that Koch may now have them all “put down”, MB decides on a ‘stopper’, she and WG will find the treasure themselves. Reluctantly – consulting by radio with Salim – Koch agrees. They note the course of the nearby river has changed from the map, having been dammed since. Salim, however, holds Lawton hostage on his yacht. By temporarily re-channelling the river, they uncover a flagstone under the silt, that leads to an underground chamber with ornate carved murals, and a giant gold-leafed Aepyornis egg. Despite Father Brienne pointing out how the more primitive superstitious mind works, Koch refuses to believe this is the treasure. MB says she wants to photograph the murals, knowing this will give Koch the opportunity to breech the temporary dam and flood the chamber, but, unbeknown to him, they take shelter in the part of the chambers above the river level, then swim out at night. At Father Brienne’s house, he has a laboratory in which there is paste from firefly beetles that glow in the dark. MB does a naked, glowing ‘nailer’, appearing and disappearing (thanks to a black cloak), shattering Koch and his men in panic, where she and WG can pick them off, one by one. WG then imitates Koch’s voice to summon Salim, together with Lawton, from the yacht.
Critical comments: In the context of the story, Queen Ranavolona (aka Ramavo-Manjake I, or Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, c.1778-1861, ruler of the Kingdom of Madagascar 1828-1861) is depicted as a mad, sadistic tyrant. She certainly aspired to traditionalist policies, but she was an astute politician who was determined to protect her country against the encroachments of colonial European powers, and it would appear they subsequently encouraged the stories of her apparent cruelty and evil character. That said, it appears that the population certainly declined quite dramatically in the middle years of her reign, from 5 million in 1833 to 2.5 million by 1839. Her empire extended over much of the island, except for an enclave to the west, and the more arid southernmost tip of the island. She was succeeded by her son, Radama II. Romero depicts her ruined ‘summer palace’ as being of stone. In fact, one of her construction projects was a massive wooden palace at Manjakamiadona. The Aepyornis were known as the ‘elephant bird’, and weighed on average 520kg (1,200 lbs). They probably became extinct about AD 1000. They featured in a David Attenborough BBC television programme broadcast in 2011.
The aged Father Brienne is one of Peter O’Donnell’s ‘good’ clergy, having served as a missionary in Madagascar for 50 years, and is able to read Malagasy script. The treasure map – an O’Donnell fantasy, and only partially complete – had reputedly passed to a “French serviceman” during the French colonial period. French is still the lingua franca amongst the villagers. When WG remarks about Father Brienne’s possible reaction to a fertility scene carved into the wall of the underground chamber, MB remarks “You can’t shock a Catholic priest.” Salim is another bald, ugly man with a moustache, but with an attendant young female in the background on the yacht. Kock too had a moustache and dark glasses, and wears a baseball cap throughout, looking at times a bit like the actor Tom Sellick in the TV series Magnum P.I. Brienne warns MB that Koch has already “killed once”, although it is not made clear who, or under what circumstances. Certainly no one is killed in this story. WG, on his first encounter with Koch’s thugs on the outskirts of the village, asks are they “part of Doctor Dougal’s team working on the classification of prehistoric man-eating lepidoptera?” and when the thug, who had pretended to be a “scientific researcher”, says yes, WG points out he just invented Doctor Dougal, and ‘lepidoptera’ are butterflies!
78: Story name: The Grim Joker – 1993/94 **
Location: Benildon, Wilts – MB’s cottage – the “Treadmill”, WG’s riverside pub – ‘The Retreat’, a 19th century folly on the Scottish island of Moggairne, 15 miles from the mainland.
Villain: ‘The Grim Joker’ – brothers Mark and Matthew Goodchild, and Prudence (‘Pru’) Hill.
Other characters: Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard; rich uncle Mortimer Goodchild; TV interviewer Ray Sandham; Tarrant; Weng.
Body count: 6
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB in bathrobe and short nightie; MB in undies and just panties getting into camouflage outfit; Pru in bra and panties; MB nude, swimming and moving WG about.
Who kills who? : The Grim Joker kills public school headmaster Simon Colby; gossip columnist Robert Laine; and snobbish wine critic John Clarence. Matthew shoots Pru. WG plunges Matthew and Mark into the whirlpool.
Summary/theme: Inheritance murder crime caper. There had been three bizarre, apparently unconnected, murders by the self-named ‘Grim Joker’ (each appropriately ingenious and with the signature “ho-ho-ho”) – that of a rather unpleasant gossip columnist; a snobbish wine critic; and, most recent, the hanging from a railway bridge near MB’s Wiltshire village retreat of Benilton, the headmaster of a local public school. This last shocking murder is still the talk of the village fête, where Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard, confides in MB and WG. Unbeknown to them, the ‘Grim Joker’ is watching – brothers Mark and Matthew Goodchild (disguised as vicars), and their shared girlfriend Pru Hill. While Pru remarks that MB is a “lush bird”, they fail to recognise them, then or later. Their modus operandi is to establish a series of random, motiveless killings, before they murder the brothers’ rich uncle Mortimer for his money. With little to go on, WG and MB decide to provoke the Grim Joker to attempt to murder WG next, after he is interviewed on television slagging off the Grim Joker as a gutless scumbag who only kills ‘soft’ targets. The bait set, WG and MB then withdraw to a remote Scottish island folly, belonging to a friend of Tarrant’s, which they often use for mediation. WG lives in the gothic house, MB hides in a cave, her presence therefore unsuspected. When Pru makes enquires at the ‘Treadmill’, she is told only where WG is, with the implication he is an alcoholic who needs to ‘dry out’ periodically. Pru pretends to be a weekend sailor adrift in her motorboat, and, at first, WG falls for her story, until she attacks and drugs him. He manages to hit out, badly bruising her face, before becoming unconscious. While Pru is waiting the arrival by boat of Mark and Matthew, MB investigates, dresses WG, leaving boot marks leading to the cliff edge, then takes a still unconscious WG and temporarily places his body to look like he fell to his death on the rocks below. The brothers are none too pleased, and blame Pru, who, in turn, says the knock-out dosage couldn’t have been strong enough. Meantime, MB (swimming nude), sets all three boats adrift, then removes WG’s body. He wakes up in the cave, much peeved to have been taken for a sucker. By then relations between the brothers and Pru have deteriorated, with them blaming her for not tying the boats up properly, while she has become paranoid, convinced something on the island is out to “destroy” them. Their plan is to signal to the passing local ferry, but Pru has used WG’s small hand tape-recorder to dictate a ‘confession’, putting all the blame for the murders on Mark and Matthew. When they discover this, they shoot her and dump her body in the sea. WG takes the opportunity to search the house, finds the recording, and a clown outfit that was intended for him as their latest Grim Joker murder. Instead the brothers find themselves confronted by “Clarence the Clown – Willie Garvin sent me”, and WG quickly stuns them, before dragging them to a sheer clifftop above a freak whirlpool. To MB’s initial shock, he briefly instructs them the only escape from being sucked under, then all three go over the edge, but only WG dives right or emerges again. Later Inspector Brook concocts the story all three died when their boat sunk, with no mention of MB or WG. When Brook tells Uncle Mortimer, he just laughs and says his nephews were pompous idiots; they were never in his will!
Critical comments: None of the three Grim Joker victims are especially likeable, the gossip columnist was said to have a “vitriolic pen” (one wonders if Peter O’Donnell had anyone in mind), and was crushed by a giant roll of newsprint, while the wine critic was a snob, and was drowned in a barrel of Madeira, prompting MB to remark about a similar fate of the Duke of Clarence 500 years before, that the Grim Joker is a “literate monster”. George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence (1449-1478) was the brother of King Richard III, and was reputed to have been drowned in a butt of malmsey wine (notably in Shakespeare’s play Richard III). Although said to have been executed at the Tower of London, he was not beheaded, and it is possible the barrel of wine story (or rumour) may have its origins in his body being preserved thus, to be transported to its burial place at Tewkesbury Abbey.
Again, as in the story “The Young Mistress” (1991/92), Romero depicts MB’s cottage in Wiltshire as being thatched, with a glass patio-like door. However, in the story “The Hanging Judge” (1998), Romero shows MB’s cottage has changed yet again, for the fourth time! Romero also continues his peculiar quirk of portraying children rather weirdly, in this case out of scale – in strip 8291, a young girl stands next to a fair-ground stall, looking a bit like a giant in relation to those about her. Peter O’Donnell continues his own tradition of ‘wicked’ clergy, having Mark and Matthew (who, although brothers, look completely different in appearance) pretending to be vicars, despite being accompanied most of the time (but not, obviously, when visiting Uncle Mortimer) by sexy blonde Pru – the third member of the Grim Joker, who takes turns to share her favours with them in the bedroom. We are perhaps reminded of another fake priest, Father Lamont, in the story “Milord” (1988), and the fake abbot and monk (ex-OAS killers from French Algeria) in “La Machine” (1963). Again, too, we have a desolate island off the Scottish coast – but with a convenient cave, like in the story “The Killing Ground” (1968), or “The Aristo” (1994/95). The 100 year old folly, ‘The Retreat’, “built by the fifth Earl of Tiachearne”, is another weird Romero fantasy, this time in the Gothic style, but looking (as always) too small from the outside to its more spacious interior.
The structure of the story is quite unusual, in that for much of the first half we share the viewpoint of the three Grim Jokers, while MB and WG often are there in the background, almost on the fringe. However, while we come to understand their ultimate motive – basically, an updated version of an Agatha Christie story, to murder their wealthy uncle for his inheritance – and something of the addictive nature of their bizarre murder spree (especially on Pru), strangely the two brothers seem to lack any backstory. Perhaps, of course, this illustrates the limitations of a newspaper comic strip over that of a novel, but one cannot help but wonder what twisted events or thinking first drove them into their strange and rather sinister mènage à trois. As if to compensate for this shift of focus, the second half of the story sees the trio very much on the back foot, as MB (in particular) engineers the seed of their ultimate downfall, with them, never once, suspecting her presence. Pru proves to be the weakest link, while the two brothers, in their single-minded arrogance, ignore her doubts and suspicions. WG’s own ruthless act of retribution is both a bit shocking, but perhaps also just.