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.