Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise

Peter O'Donnell (photo: The Guardian)
Peter O’Donnell (photo: The Guardian)

(Forgetfully and foolishly I wrote this pod script up twice: here in January 2015, and here in Sept 2015. They’re mostly the same, but there will be slight differences. Sorry about that.)

This podcast was written for the letter O, the classic 1960s cartoon strip writer, Peter O’Donnell. He is most famous for his creation of the glorious Modesty Blaise: action heroine, secret agent, assassin, and all-round perfect thriller feminist. For years – really, YEARS – this podcast was the most often downloaded from Why I Really Like This Book, so I’m putting it up here in case the O’Donnell fans want to read what I say instead of hunt down what is now a rather old pod.

ModestyModesty Blaise first appeared in a cartoon strip in 1963, and was a permanent presence in British newspapers until 2001, largely unaltered in style. She was drawn by a series of different artists, but O’Donnell wrote all the stories. In 1965 his first Modesty Blaise book appeared, and came about because when O’Donnell was a soldier during the Second World War, he had noticed a girl in a displaced persons camp. The memory of how this refugee looked, how she held herself, and her confidence, and what her story might have been, stayed with him, emerging 20 years later as a character for an action story. A rather decorative film was made shortly after the first book appeared, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp, but the script for that veered wildly away from the original concept.

In the books, Modesty is a retired criminal mastermind (retired in her early thirties), who made the money she wanted to through non-vice crimes, but now she is bored. Her sidekick, not her lover, Willie Garvin, is also bored, which is why he loses his touch, and gets caught by a gang in Latin America. MI5 want Modesty to help them with a sticky problem of their own, so they offer her Willie as a favour, and she rescues him from captivity. She accepts that tip-off from British intelligence as a debt of honour that she wants to repay, in sorting out a little problem for them. And so the relationship develops: Modesty and Willie become the go-to team for the really dangerous jobs that British Intelligence can’t handle alone. And they win, every time. Casual deaths with no repercussions are standard. The police rarely interfere, and when they do, they do what Modesty wants. There are a lot of set-piece impossible escapes from impossible situations, and many, many single combats, lovingly described.

Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise
Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise

You’ll probably have spotted that Modesty is pretty much like a female James Bond, except that she’s independent. This independence is crucial for her character: she will not be tied, and she operates following her own judgement rather than following orders. She’s also an armed and unarmed combat expert, a jeweller, a diver and goodness what else. She has a compass in her head that never fails, she has yoga meditation skills that enable her to ignore pain and exhaustion etc, etc. She is effectively a superhero without supernatural powers: she just has an impossible number of phenomenal powers and skills that normal people would be glad to have only one of. It’s a very attractive combination. Did I also mention that she’s drop-dead gorgeous? It should go without saying. Modesty would be a good match for Emma Peel of The Avengers. Remember Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and as Mrs Smith from Mr and Mrs Smith? Modesty preceded her by about 40 years, and she’s better at the job because she does it all without computers or cell phones.

All this would be wasted material were it not for Peter O’Donnell’s writing. He is not quite as good as Ian Fleming for insouciant style, or as good as Geoffrey Household in cranking up the tension, but he comes very close. O’Donnell borrows heavily from Fleming and James Bond in his attention to detail: we hear a lot about the style and colour of clothes, even the kinds of fabrics, and of course we hear a lot about the make of drink, the way of cooking the meat, the colour of the car. On weaponry Fleming is outclassed by O’Donnell, I think, because both Modesty and Willie Garvin are expert in every kind of combat invented by humans, and probably some that O’Donnell invented himself. We hear a lot about throwing knives and a special kind of throwing and whacking weapon that lurks in the back of Modesty’s hairdo. O’Donnell is really good on ingenious places for hiding weapons: time and again Modesty strips off her clothes so she can extract the components of a bomb, or a radio transmitter, or a bow and arrows, from her underwear or her skirt. They’re kept in the seams and under false linings, for verbal titillation. It’s a good thing airport scanners hadn’t been invented then.

Peter O'Donnell in the 1960s
Peter O’Donnell in the 1960s

Modesty is not just a brilliant fighter, marksman, fencer, what have you: she’s also a strategic genius. She computes situations in her brain and produces a solution for every sticky situation. This is where O’Donnell outclasses Household. Modesty and Willie have a very long back history, and so whenever she or he is about to attack an enemy, they can throw words at each other to suggest that this is a particular trick they know well, or one that worked once and might just work again, and all this time the reader is going ‘Yes? Yes? What?’, hurtling through the narrative to find out what, precisely, they will do to free Willie from being chained to a radiator by one hand while holding a bomb at full arm’s length in the other, knowing that when Modesty bursts into the room to rescue him she will be mown down by a machine gun. Naturally he gets out of the chain by breaking it one-handed, as you do, and then she drops through the window from the floor above, having shot the machine gunner faster than he can draw. She disables the bomb for Willie, because the blood from his wounds is making his hands a bit sticky. It’s all rather exciting.

Here’s another one: they’re being held in the desert with a group of other people, and Modesty has to get them all out before they’re killed for fun. She induces the Austrian fencing champion guard to a duel, kills him by playing against the rules but also allows herself to take a slight wound. She’s fighting naked, by the way. One of the leering bad guys comes over to fondle her bloody body in her apparent exhaustion, during which time she picks his pocket of the secret notebook. Willie forges an entry in the secret notebook to make it seem that the pilot of the hired plane is to be executed, so that he will come over to their side, and get the rest of the captives away to Tangier, leaving Modesty and Willie to build an emergency sand-yacht to get across the desert to a Foreign Legion fort where Willie has the final showdown with the big boss, after performing emergency surgery on Modesty’s shoulder wound, which is now impendingly gangrenous. That caper is particularly complicated, but it is deeply, deeply satisfying. O’Donnell’s plotting is superb.

Modesty 3There is a certain forcedness in O’Donnell’s dialogue, and in his namedropping of brand names and new products. He spells Crimplene with a capital C, because when he was writing, this was an up-to-the-minute social reference. Now, of course, this dates the books quite strongly, but this is part of their attraction: they’re a repository for social history. We can see which words were new to the language in the 1960s by the difference that common usage has made in them now. Initial capitals are a common sign of this, for brand names and for things that are now generic names. We also see different, earlier spellings: ‘git’, for instance, now a mild term of abuse in British slang that also means ‘stupid idiot’, is spelt with a double tt in 1965. O’Donnell spells mac, as in mackintosh raincoat, mack. It’s linguistic archaeology.

I don’t remember Ian Fleming using Arabic as a secret language for James Bond as often as O’Donnell does. Modesty and Willie are, of course, fluent in it, and speak to each other in Arabic over the radio and in private exchanges, because the criminals they are fighting are not Arabic speakers: this is a Cold War world. The Arabic nations were not yet political powers that the west took much notice of. Arabic is also used as a language of civilised values: several times Modesty discusses Arabic poetry as a coded cover for her real intent: I don’t think you’d get that kind of respect in thrillers of a later date.

no-one knows why Monica Vitti kept her natural blonde hair in the film's publicity
no-one knows why Monica Vitti kept her natural blonde hair in the film’s publicity

O’Donnell has a very interesting attitude to Modesty, considering that he was writing her in the unliberated 1960s. The contraceptive pill was just about to be made available to British women, but ladies had to wear stockings, hats and gloves as a matter of course, and were expected to stop working once they married. Modesty preceded the swinging sixties. However, O’Donnell gives her remarkable freedoms. She is a woman, but she is also the best secret agent around. She’s sexualised, in that she has sex with whichever man she wants, but also when she wants and on her terms. This makes her a truly liberated woman, in that she controls her own sex life. It also makes her a male fantasy figure, since she is freely available and no strings of responsibility or fidelity are attached. She has a very loyal and strictly non-sexual relationship with Willie Garvin: he’s played by the breathtakingly beautiful Terence Stamp in the film, but is always drawn as a very craggy and muscular lunk in the cartoon strips. Modesty requires respect for her authority, and is treated throughout as the most powerful and skilful operator in the book. She is never a victim, but is often presented a sexual object, and O’Donnell frequently describes her as wearing her nakedness as if she wore clothes, which helps the imaginations of her readers nicely. One of her techniques for gaining a few seconds while confronting a room of guards or other male antagonists is to walk in on them, stripped to the waist. This moment of leering amazement of course allows to her to shoot them all, while they gawp. It’s a good use of that character’s power, but it’s also a predictable use of sexuality by a male writer.

Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.
Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.

O’Donnell had some very predictable opinions about women and sexuality in general. In the first book, Modesty is the focus of attention because she is the only active woman in a cast of men. There are two other women in that story, a dancer called Nicole who asked too many questions on Willie’s behalf, and a sadistic murderer called Mrs Fothergill. Mrs Fothergill is a close relation of of Ian Fleming’s Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, and also of C S Lewis’s Fairy Hardcastle, from That Hideous Strength, all of whom share a taste for sexual pleasure from torture or killing. In addition to not fulfilling conventional ideas of physical beauty, these ugly, lumpish, killer women who work with bad guys all appear to have the ‘wrong’, that is, non-heterosexual proclivities, whereas the other women who are killers in the action thriller genre, Modesty herself, and even Emma Peel, are definitely into men, and thus have the ‘right’ proclivities. I have never been able to work out exactly how Fleming’s Pussy Galore swung, so let’s leave that analogy there, and accept that O’Donnell’s sexualising of his women characters is dated about orientation too. It would have been astonishing if he had written in any other way, so let’s stop forcing anachronisms on the past.

After all this, you may wish to start reading Modesty Blaise for yourself. There are some really excellent websites and blogs out there with all the bibliographical information you need: see below. Thirteen novels were published, the last in 1996. There is a massive collected edition of all the comic strips which costs over £200. And there is always the film, but it really is not as good as the books.

The official site for the Modesty Blaise character and Peter O’Donnell’s books.

A fan site from Scandinavia

Another fan site, with the best home page image

Titan Books, where you can buy the books

A vintage book covers fan site

And finally, ‘The Complete Modesty Blaise Dossier’ (that’s what it says)

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