Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell (1965)

Her mind was a carefully controlled instrument, rejecting all considerations except those which were or could be vital – and to these it was infinitely sensitive. (p.171)

The comic strip

The Modesty Blaise comic strip first appeared in The Evening Standard in May 1963. It was conceived and written by Peter O’Donnell who chose to collaborate with artist Jim Holdaway, who he’d already worked with on the strip Romeo Brown. Over succeeding decades several other artists would draw the strip but O’Donnell was always the writer.

The movie

In 1965 a movie adaptation of the strip went into production, starring starred Monica Vitti as Modesty, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin and Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel. O’Donnell was paid to write the initial screenplay but the final version was substantially rewritten by many hands. Among other things it changed the chaste relationship between Modesty and her side-kick Willie which gives the stories their oddly dignified and principled tone – a change which helped contribute to the movie’s lack of success. But O’Donnell was also commissioned to write a novelisation of the movie – in this he stuck closer to the original spirit of the strip and the book was successful.

Thereafter, O’Donnell continued to write the comic strip and novels in parallel.

There were 11 novels in all, plus two volumes of short stories, the final one appearing as late as 1996. Purists prefer the cartoons, which have been repackaged in a rather confusing variety of formats over the years, and there have also been several graphic novels. All is explained in the comprehensive Wikipedia article.

Modesty Blaise the novel

Background

After World War Two Modesty is a Displaced Person who made her own way across the Balkans to the Middle East where her existence is, for the first time, officially registered. Along the way she is raped twice and becomes a hardened survivor. She works for a small gambling gang in Tangier run by one Henri Louche, till he is bumped off – at which point Modesty takes over and becomes a kind of criminal mastermind, establishing a successful international crime outfit known as The Network, which carries out operations around the world, building up a far-flung web of contacts and helpers.

At some point she meets Willie Garvin, a young cockney criminal, and sees his potential. She makes a man of him and he never forgets, becoming her closest partner and ally. They’re not just criminal brains but extremely fit and acrobatic assassins, each with speciality ways of killing – Modesty with her acrobatics and archery, Willie with his trusted knives, stashed in a special chest holster.

Eventually, Modesty achieves her aim of making half a million pounds and retires, buying a lavish penthouse suite in central London.

The plot

Oil and diamonds. The British government has done a deal to exploit the oil fields of a little sheikhdom on the border of Iraq – Malaurak – but the ruler, Prince Abu-Tahir, does not like money and insists on being paid in kind, in this case, with South African diamonds. Ten million pounds worth of diamonds. Put simply the plot is: British government representative Sir Gerald Tarrant is sent to ask Modesty if she will work on the side of the angels and protect the diamonds. And she says Yes.

First she has to release Willie from a prison he has been foolish enough to be sent to, in Latin America. Then, back in London and the Home Counties, there is a lot of training and fiddling with gadgets, an exploding tie, poison gas lipstick, a bow and arrow made from slender sections which can be smuggled sellotaped to the body then quickly assembled, and so on.

Modesty has a calculating affair with a hunky crim who is also an accomplished artist, named Paul Hagan, who she dumped way back, but they now need again. They move to the south of France and tangle with Pacco, a local boss who controls hoods and assassins, and is an outlier of the larger organisation. Through various violent confrontations (Modesty and Willie kill Pacco and all his henchmen) they confirm that the man behind the plan to rob the diamonds is a cool calculating killer, Gabriel, of the invisible irises and penetrating black pupils. He controls a large gang of henchmen who have taken over a monastery on a minute island close to Cyprus. They use this as the base from which to sail a pleasure cruiser to Port Said, from where they make the daring heist on the diamond ship.

Notable among Gabriel’s crew is a psychopathic woman with the Joe Ortonesque name Mrs Fothergill, who gets her sexual thrills by murdering people by hand.

Gadgets

The focus on improbable gadgets puts it very much in the James Bond universe. The daring heist is made with an undersea diving bell which has been modified to cling to the bottom of the diamond ship while the baddies cut through the hull into the strong-room using an oxy-acetylene cutter. You can almost hear the exciting 1960s thriller music playing during these scenes.

Bond with boobs

Modesty’s character amounts to a kind of pact between O’Donnell and the reader: yes, she is physically sexy, yes, we see various scenes in which she strips off her pullover and bra for action, yes, she makes love once or twice to Hagan. BUT she combines this with not being a victim, a floozy, an air-head or a sex kitten – but being the strongest figure in the book, physically, mentally and intellectually, she is the undisputed leader.

Modesty is very much in control at all moments, from start to finish. Sir Gerald Tarrant is fascinated and intimidated by her; the hoodlums she kills experience her physical prowess and ability to kill at will; the arch-baddy Gabriel underestimates her; Modesty fights and defeats Mrs Fothergill in a girl-on-girl fight which is pulp in concept but described with surprising lack of salaciousness; she saves Willie when he is wounded; and she saves the diamonds. She is a hero.

Sure Modesty has a sexual element, and she sometimes uses her sexuality – but she isn’t defined or constrained by it. Just as Bond is a handsomely attractive man, but also a lot more; in exactly the same way, Modesty is a hot woman whose lacy bras and stockings are frequently registered – but she is a lot more as well.

By the pact between O’Donnell and the reader I mean that we promise not to laugh at Modesty’s preposterous adventures and, for his part, the author maintains her dignity and respects her character; he never lowers the tone or exploits Modesty’s sexuality for cheap effects.

Shallow

Having said all that, I struggled to enjoy most of the book because it is all action, like a novelisation of an episode of The Man From UNCLE or The Avengers. Although references are made to her troubled past and to Willie’s respect for her and to Tarrant’s changing perceptions of her as he sees her in action – there is really very little psychology, little or no interiority to the text. After a while it is just a sequence of bad guys getting killed in a variety of florid and imaginative ways. Because we know both Modesty and Willie will survive whatever happens to them, the element of risk quickly diminishes, until there is little or no real risk or jeopardy. Compared to a novel by Alistair MacLean, the most genuinely nailbiting and physically intense thriller writer I know of, Modesty’s adventures come across as, well, a cartoon strip.

Clichés

And the paper thin psychology, the comic strip origins, are reflected in comic strip style. Whereas Len Deighton can make the English language perform hitherto unheard-of feats, O’Donnell is content to re-use the hyperbolic clichés of pulp. I don’t think there’s an original phrase in the entire novel.

The unintelligent eyes surveyed Modesty with a touch of greediness, like a mastiff scenting a bone. (p.171)

McWhirter looked at her and she saw the cruelty that lay deep in the twinkling blue eyes. (p.177)

Hagan registered every detail in one instant mental snapshot before he felt any emotion at all. Then sickness hit him hard in the stomach, a sickness of rage against himself. (p.90)

She smelt of cordite and sweat, and the sharp blend of it stirred him strangely. (p.231)

That said, the ending is sentimental but effective. After the climactic shootout at the baddy’s lair, our heroes are saved at the last minute by the arrival of the Prince’s men (in a glider!) to round up and disarm the last of the enemy. Hours later, cleaned up and exhausted, Modesty sinks onto the shoulder of her lover-for-the-time-being, Hagan, who is left staring out over the Mediterranean waves sparkling in the sunshine, wondering what adventures the future will bring, wondering how long they will have together…

Seen-it-a-thousand-times scenarios and threadbare clichés can still stir the heart.

Related links

The movie

This is the trailer for the 1966 movie, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Monica Vitti as Modesty, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin, and Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel. Bogarde’s improbable blonde barnet reminds me of Javier Bardem’s equally improbable blonde hairdo in the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall (2012) – plus ça change.

Modesty Blaise novels

  • Modesty Blaise (1965) Introducing Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin, as they protect government diamonds from a fiendish international criminal, Gabriel.
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966) Modesty and Willie get involved with a small army of hardened mercenaries who are planning to overthrow the government of Kuwait.
  • I, Lucifer (1967) An eccentric bunch of crooks have got hold of a mentally ill young man who thinks he is the Devil but has the useful knack of being able to predict natural deaths: they are using this to blackmail VIPs, until Modesty and Willie intervene.
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: