Thursday, May 6, 2010




With the recent passing of author Peter O’Donnell, I was moved to go to my bookshelves and treat myself to another reading of Modesty Blaise. O’Donnell’s debut novel, featuring the enigmatic female adventurer and (semi) retired master thief, is still a joy. In the same way reading Fleming’s original Bond novels, Modesty Blaise, transports you to a time, place, and lifestyle filled with danger, coolness, and sly humor. For me, Modesty Blaise’s adventures, like Bond’s, stand alone on the page – separate from any cinematic derivatives. These are stories best enjoyed when read.

I actually came to Modesty Blaise very late in her career. In fact, almost too late. I started with Cobra Trap, a collection of short stories and literally the last of Modesty. I was so moved by the events of the last story in the collection, I needed several years' space before going back and picking up Modesty Blaise, the first of her novel adventures. When I did, however, I fell in love with Modesty with an emotion that still exists to today – I still want to be Willie Garvin.

Although I've chosen to post the cool McGinnis paperback cover above, the cover copy in my British first edition of Modesty Blaise is cringe inducing in its flat delivery, but this was typical of so many books in the mid-sixties.


Intelligence Chief Tarrant said: “You can take a girl from University or the typing pool; if she’s got the right potential you can put her through Intelligence and combat training, and produce a damn good agent. But you won’t produce a Modesty Blaise. It took a rare potential and twenty-odd years of hard conditioning to do that.”

Modesty Blaise was unique – and uniquely fitted for the task of bringing down the unknowns who planned a fantastic coup to steal diamonds worth ten million pounds which the Government was paying Sheik Abu-Tahir for a vital oil concession.

But Modesty Blaise and her right arm, Willie Garvin, had dissolved The Network, the international crime organization which had made both immensely rich. Getting them to work for Tarrant’s vaguely-defined Department of the Foreign Office would be a tricky business.

Tarrant found a way to solve that problem, and the battle was on. Soon Paul Hagen was in the ring – Hagan, a first class agent who until now had known Modesty Blaise only as the woman he could not forget. And soon murder and death were also in the ring.

The unknowns were powerful, with huge resources. There came a time when Tarrant believed that the mission must fail. It was then that Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin put themselves at desperate hazard with ‘the live bait caper.’

The story moves with increasing pace and tension from London to the South of France, across the Mediterranean to Cairo as the unknowns are located. The diamonds are stolen through a fantastically ingenious plan. The excitement rises to a tremendous climax with the final vicious battle, when Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin fight alone against a private army of killers on the tiny monastery-island of Kalithos.

One of the delights of Modesty Blaise comes from O’Donnell already being so comfortable with the character.

In 1962, three years prior to the 1965 publication of Modesty Blaise the novel, O’Donnell was asked to create a new daily strip character for Britain’s Daily Express newspaper. He was already writing a daily strip featuring a macho male hero, so decided on a female character who would have the confidence and combat skills of male comic strip stars without losing her femininity.


The strip was snatched up by the Evening Standard and Modesty Blaise began appearing on 13 May 1963. The strip survived the death of artist Jim Holdaway in 1970 and continued to appear until O'Donnell's retirement in 2001, with Enrique Romero (1970-79, 1986-2001), John M. Burns (1978-79), Pat Wright (1979-80) and Neville Colvin (1980-86) providing the artwork

O’Donnell had also previously completed a screenplay for a movie based on the Modesty Blaise daily strip. He was furious when Hollywood completely abandon his script, and instead produced a film O’Donnell disowned. Despite O’Donnell’s disapproval, the film – which was considered a major flop at the time – has become something of a cult pop-art favorite.

However, angry at the direction Hollywood took with his work, O’Donnell took his original Modesty Blaise script and used it as the basis for the first of eleven Modesty novels and two short story collections.

O'Donnell despised the inevitable Modesty Blaise/James Bond comparisons, yet they are unavoidable – and, quite frankly, Modesty measures up with no problem at all.


While it's true that reducing a character as dynamic and original as Modesty Blaise to "a female James Bond" does her a disservice, disowning that connection entirely actually does O'Donnell a disservice. He should not be overlooked by any students of spy fiction; Peter O'Donnell should be long remembered for making a crucial contribution to the genre: he created the first female superspy to permeate popular culture.

Even if she wasn't technically on the government payroll, Modesty Blaise frequently used her unique skills to aid Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of the British Secret Service. That alone would qualify her as a spy in my book, but beyond that fact, the qualifications for spydom in the Sixties had more to do with the image a character projected and the lifestyle he or she embodied than with semantics. There was more to James Bond's popularity than just his profession; he was the embodiment of cool as defined by the consumerist Jet Age.

And such is true of Modesty Blaise – from her iconic name, to her sophisticated, kick-butt image, she is one hell of a woman. Read her now!

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Those sixties covers and women are so distinctive.