Thursday, February 12, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Stormswift, by "Madeleine Brent" (Peter O'Donnell)

Stormswift, by "Madeleine Brent" (Peter O'Donnell)

A review by Rich Horton

Again, this book is not really that old, and not really a bestseller, though I imagine a decent seller at least. But I do sense that just a few years after his death, the author is slipping from the public consciousness a bit.

"Madeleine Brent" is a pseudonym for Peter O'Donnell (1920-2010), by far best known as the author of the Modesty Blaise novels (and comics). These books, about an orphan girl, displaced by the Second World War, who becomes first a criminal and then a spy for the British government, are tremendously enjoyable. (They actually began as a comic strip. The comic strip and the novels have different continuity.)

As Madeleine Brent O'Donnell wrote a number of historical romances, generally featuring a woman in peril who finds resources within herself to make her own way -- and, of course, to eventually win a good man. Apparently he maintained the Brent pseudonym as a secret successfully for some time. The Brent novels were generally quite well received. I saw Stormswift, one of the later Brent novels, from 1984, for $1 at a book sale, and as an admirer of the Modesty Blaise books I figured it was worth a try. And I was on the whole rather pleased.

Stormswift opens in Afghanistan in the 1880s. Jemimah Lawley, the spoiled daughter of a British civil servant who was killed in the Kabul massacre in 1979, has spent the past couple of years in an isolated "kingdom", at first as the "wife" of the local pacha, then as the slave of the local doctor, a Greek/English man who has himself been a captive of the local Kafirs for decades. After her rape by the pacha, who then discarded her after she failed to provide him a child, she has adapted well to being the doctor's assistant, and she is no longer spoiled. But then she is sold to another local pacha -- this one with a reputation for extreme sadism. She decides to escape, and the doctor arranges for her to go in the company of a peddler, Kassim.

Kassim, it turns out, is not what he seems. He hates Jemimah, out of resentment for his obligation to rescue her. But in the end she saves his life -- and she learns that he is actually a British spy posing as an Afghan. And she hears his mysterious delirious reference to "Melanie ... Stormswift ... bitch-goddess".

Jemimah returns to England, only to find that an imposter claiming to be her has taken over her home. She ends up touring the countryside in a Punch and Judy show ... the beginning of a journey that will lead her -- by a series of coincidences (mostly in the end reasonably well explained, I should say) -- to meet once again Kassim, and to learn the secret of Stormswift -- and to learn who her true love is -- and to even help another long lost friend ...

It is certainly in many ways quite preposterous. But it is also great fun. There is no point complaining about the contrivances involved -- they are part of the deal, and "Brent" embraces them thoroughly rather than trying to make this any sort of naturalist novel. I will say that the end is a bit unsatisfying -- Jemimah is put in a wrenching personal situation which ends up resolved very conveniently -- the whole finish is a bit abrupt, really. Still, fun work.

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