The magnificent Modesty Blaise

Modesty 1(Forgetfully and foolishly I seem to have written up this pod twice: here in Sept 2015, and here in January 2015. There are slight differences, but they’re mostly the same. Sorry about that.)

Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book’s podcast scripts catch-up is O, and today’s author is the little-known 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.

Modesty 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. Modesty Blaise 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 its script veered wildly away from the original concept.

In the books, Modesty is a retired criminal mastermind (retired at the age of around her early thirties), who has made the money she wanted 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 the tip-off from British intelligence as a debt of honour that she wants to pay, 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.

Modesty 3
Titan Books reissue

You’ll be thinking 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 knows 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.

Modesty 4
Souvenir Press reissue

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 bashing 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. It’s a good thing airport scanners hadn’t been invented then. This kind of verbal titillation works because the image of a semi-naked Modesty (her name also draws attention to her state of undress) is powerfully countered by her technical skill and impressive foresight in choosing her outfit for the day by how many ways it can kill.

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. Only a little of this is explained, and 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 using a particular trick they know well, or one that worked once and might just work again. The reader is saying ‘Yes? Yes? What?’, gobbling up the narrative to find out what, precisely, they will do to get Willie out of 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, and disables the bomb for Willie, because the blood from his wounds is making his hands a bit sticky. It’s all rather exciting.

Modesty 5Here’s another one: they’re being held in the desert with a group of other people, and Modesty has to get them all out to safety before they’re killed for fun. She induces the evil mastermind’s enforcer, an Austrian fencing champion, to take her on in a duel, and kills him by playing against the rules but also allows herself to take a slight wound. She’s fighting naked, by the way. The leering bad person 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 this to make it seem that the pilot of the hired plane is to be executed, so the pilot 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 evil mastermind, 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.

There 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 word was new, he was using 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, which is a mild term of abuse in British slang that also means stupid, is spelt with a double tt in 1965. O’Donnell spells mac, as in mackintosh raincoat, a mack. These novels are linguistic archaeology because they were written to be indelibly up to the minute.

2013 Swedish cover for the DVD of the film
2013 Swedish cover for the DVD of the film

I don’t remember Ian Fleming using Arabic as a secret language for James Bond as much as O’Donnell does. Modesty and Willie are, of course, fluent in one or more of the Arabic forms, and use it to speak to each other over the radio and in private exchanges, because the criminals they are fighting are not Arabic speakers: this is a Cold War universe. 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 these days.

O’Donnell has a very interesting attitude to Modesty and her sexuality, considering that he was writing her in the unliberated 1960s. The contraceptive pill may have been just about to be made available to British women, but they also wore stockings, hats and gloves every day, and were usually expected to stop working once they married. However, O’Donnell gives Modesty some 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, but also makes her a male fantasy figure, since she is freely available and no strings of responsibility or fidelity are attached.

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

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 craggy and muscular lunk in the cartoon strips. The self-control and steadiness of purpose they must, we infer, be exercising to not leap into bed with each other are simply aspects of their attractiveness. 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, 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.

O’Donnell had some 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 got killed, and a sadistic murderer called Mrs Fothergill. Mrs Fothergill is a close cousin of of Ian Fleming’s Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, and also of C S Lewis’s Fairy Hardcastle from That Hideous Strength, as it happens, since O’Donnell emphasises the sexual pleasure in her motivation for killing. There is an obvious correlation between sexual orientation and morality, since the ugly, lumpish, killer women working with the evil masterminds all appear to have ‘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. Fleming’s Pussy Galore swopped sides in both senses. O’Donnell’s active interest in sexualising his women characters betrays a datedness about sexual stereotypes too.

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. Thirteen novels were published, the last in 1996. There is a massive collected edition of all the comic strips which costs over £200, but if you’re lucky a local library might have it. And there is always the film, but it really is not as good as the books. Souvenir Press have reissued many of the books in new (and not very good) covers, and as ebooks. The covers of the slightly older resissues by Titan Books have much more punch and glamour.

 

John Buchan’s The Three Hostages

Three HostagesThis podcast script was written for a miniseries on Thrillers for Gentlemen. I was looking at the thriller or spy novel that was masculine without being brutal; written about, and possibly also for, men of a certain generation who understood the ethos of the gentleman’s club, and worked within its rules. I’m not saying that way of life would work nowadays, but for its time, these standards are very attractive. These thrillers are tough, but with good manners. I’ll be posting the companion podcasts in future weeks, on Dornford Yates, Geoffrey Household, John Welcome and Ian Fleming.

I’ve been writing about John Buchan since the 1980s. I started reading Buchan as a schoolgirl, and started researching him before I took my first degree, and was given my PhD for my thesis on his fiction. I edited the John Buchan Journal for eleven years, and I’ve published – among many other things –  three books on his writing. I’ll be wittering on about him on a Radio 4 programme sometime in summer 2015 (I was on a Radio 3 programme about him in 2014), and I’ll be giving the Caledonian Club lecture on his writing on September 2015.  I do try to wean myself off researching him, but it’s hard. Buchan’s writing is so rich, intriguing and entertaining, I think I’ll never stop working on him.

Buchan is best known as being the creator of Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The Three Hostages is his fourth Hannay novel, in which the now rather stuffy and middle-aged Sir Richard encounters a modern night club and an Indian guru at Claridges on his quest to rescue three innocent hostages from a ruthless and unknown megalomaniac.

greenmantleThe year is 1923, and Hannay is just beginning to relax. He’s come a long way from being a beat-up engineer from South Africa. Only a few weeks after his arrival in Britain in 1914, he was on the run, wanted by the police for a murder he did not commit, and by a secret gang of spies for a little black book he’d taken off the body of the man they murdered, and left in his flat. Naturally, for he is super-resourceful and a terrific getter-out of trouble, Hannay solves the mystery of the thirty-nine steps, and saves his neck. His next adventure was a year or two later, in the First World War, where he led a daring mission to find out what the Germans were planning in Constantinople, and to stop it. That was in the novel Greenmantle. A year or two after that, in Mr Standfast, Hannay was solving another mystery for the War Office, chasing German spies up and down Scotland and into Switzerland, changing disguise roughly every five pages, and finding the girl of his dreams as well.

actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages
actor David Robb as Hannay, in the 2010 BBC radio version of The Three Hostages

Now its peacetime, and he has a knighthood, a wife, a son, and a country estate. He’s been walking around the woods and fields, checking up on his land, and planning the alterations that need doing before the summer. It’s spring, and all is at peace. Except, that, of course, the world is not at peace. The war may have ended, but mysterious international masterminds who have emerged from the war madder, and badder, than before, are planning to unleash economic chaos onto a war-torn Europe. To keep the authorities off their backs, they’ve taken hostages: a young man, a young woman, and a little boy. These three will be killed unless the gang is left alone, and naturally this can’t be allowed to happen. Hannay has become a bit of a fixer for the government and the police, so his task for this novel is to find the hostages against a ticking clock. He has no idea where to start.

This is a novel set in the heart of 1920s urban civilisation. Very little of the novel’s action happens in the countryside, except for the gripping ending on crags in the Scottish Highlands. I think that was only put in because Buchan wanted a man-hunt to end the novel. In this novel we explore areas of the city with Hannay, as he roams London’s seedy underbelly looking for clues in a landscape he doesn’t really understand: places like Gospel Oak and Fitzrovia, which are now very respectable and rather smart places to live, but in the 1920s were really pretty run-down, haunts of the disaffected and home to those struggling not to drift down any further in the social scale.

borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site
borrowed from the Jazz Age Club site

Buchan creates an atmosphere of London’s sad decay, and war-damaged poverty. In the nightclub scenes, he surpasses himself. This place is so fashionable that it’s positively shabby. Hannay is taken there by Archie, his bright young friend who can’t dance any more due to a war wound, but wants to see the latest fashions and to see again where the beautiful people dance. They’re a bit fish out of water, these pillars of the establishment, as they sit sipping overpriced liqueurs in their dinner jackets, watching bored-looking people jigging around on a tiny dancefloor. Archie spots only one dancer really worth watching, but Hannay is more concerned about her minder, a tough-looking customer whom he recognises, because he’d seen this man only the day before as the butler in the house of a very important and influential politician. Other people also wander about the book in disguise. There’s the Indian guru, who comes to Claridges to hold court, to receive his acolytes, and to grant a private audience with a very important man, which Hannay witnesses, horrified at the evil he can sense seeping out from the guru’s soul. When Hannay sees this guru again, he tries to attack him, but is brought up short when the guru tosses his turban back as a deflecting weapon, and is revealed as … well, I won’t tell you. You’ll have to read the book yourself.

Hannay flies to Norway to track down another hostage, and sees not one but two people he really did not expect to encounter. There’s a man whom he last saw in a Harley St consulting room, giving Hannay medical advice. There’s also a man whom Hannay last saw in Constantinople during the war, a German whom Hannay rather liked, and now finds that he can trust implicitly. This is rather hopeful, that only five years after the end of the war, Buchan can write comfortably about making friends with a former enemy, and trust in the inherent goodness of people.

Hannay’s first ally is his own country neighbour Dr Greenslade, who gives him the first solution to the clues that the criminal mastermind is scattering about. But Greenslade, after this first strong showing, is oddly kept in the background for the rest of the novel. Hannay has another great ally, Sandy Arbuthnot from Greenmantle, aristocrat, clubman, adventurer and scholar. He too is a wasted character in this novel because he spends most of his time off-stage, hunting down references in the Bibliotheque Nationale and avoiding assassination. It’s as if Buchan’s roster of characters was so rich, he could afford to throw inventions capable of carrying a whole novel into a one-chapter walk-one role. Would that all novelists were so bountiful in their invention.

the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan
the well-known Australian cake, the Lamington, probably unknown to Buchan

Hannay’s most important ally is his own wife, Lady Hannay, formerly Mary Lamington of the secret service, and one of the first women secret agents of the 1920s. And she’s a wasted character as well, after The Three Hostages is finished, because, after a tremendous showing in Mr Standfast, and this last burst of professional expertise in The Three Hostages, she is reduced to domestic roles for the remaining Hannay novels; feeding people tea, and being a hostess. She could have been so good, a marvellous role model for women hoping to enter the secret services, for women willing and able to leave Foreign Office desks for a life of subterfuge and disguise. But, of course, all that will not wash. Mary Lamington was created 50 years too early. She would have been a fascinating handler for Modesty Blaise (imagine that: all-female secret service agents in the 1960s), and she would have skewered James Bond with a single glance. She was born to circulate in high society as a secret agent (Lady Penelope!), but Buchan marries her off to the stuffiest traditionalist clubman in his books, and leaves her in country isolation.

At least she gets a terrific final show. In The Three Hostages, Mary makes Hannay take the job on by using emotional blackmail, and she rescues two of the three hostages herself. She play-acts as a foolish and silly mother to prevent the villain even noticing her, and she carefully does not let her husband know what she is doing, because if he did know he would only stop her. Hannay, as a hearty ex-soldier and a fine English gentleman, has rather, shall we say, traditional views about women. I feel sure that Mary Hannay would have used her vote in the 1919 general election. She simply ignores what Hannay might say, returns to her professional training, and just gets the job done.

There is much vigorous masculinity in this novel: the all-male lunches, clubs and dinners; the female-free household of the evil mastermind; the rugged 30-mile walks that Dr Greenslade takes for relaxation; and the classic Buchan Highland stalking and shooting episode that ends the novel. Two of the hostages have undergone demasculinisation, which Hannay and Mary have to try to reverse, and the girl hostage is rescued by her very masculine fiancé, which helps soothe his injured pride. But no-one’s masculinity is more secure than Hannay’s, since he simply never thinks he can be anything other than what he is, unlike the nervy and sensitive Sandy Arbuthnot, or the unexpectedly diffident Archie Roylance, anxious about women now he has a nasty limp from the war. Hannay is a tough old buffalo, and cares not two hoots, especially now that he is married and the father of a son.

Do read this novel: it’s packed with good things, and is wonderful entertainment. I know from experience that even if The Three Hostages is one of only three novels that you have on a two-month archaeological dig, pre-internet and far away from any other sources of reading, it will keep you sane.

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)