I, Lucifer by Peter O’Donnell (1967)

There was no hint of doubt on the faces of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. They were absorbed and speculative. Tarrant knew he could not have called them off the scent now anyway. The caper was real, no matter how baffling its operation, and they were fascinated by it. (p.102)

Having read some short, punchy spy novels recently makes me realise how these Modesty Blaise novels, by contrast, are rather leisurely in style and pacing – this one is 286 pages long. The time is spent in a slow build-up to the eventual plot or ‘caper’, dwelling at length on scenes which establish character rather than forwarding the story. This explains why, although it is of course a novelisation of a comic strip, I feel I’ve got to know and like the characters, especially the old world courtesy of Modesty’s ‘control’ at British Intelligence, the elderly, fatherly and eminently polite Sir Gerald Tarrant.

Plot

As with Sabre-Tooth, the novel opens by pitching us straight into the enemy camp. We are introduced to the bizarre menagerie of Dr Bowker the discredited psychiatrist, wizened old Seff the marionette-maker, his creepy wife Regina, Mr Wish the ex-Mafia killer, and Lucifer.

Lucifer

‘Lucifer’ is a young man with remarkable psychic skills: he can predict when people are going to die. Seff has latched onto this and turned it into a scam: they give Lucifer the profiles of a number of VIPs and he selects those he knows will die of natural causes. Then they add in half a dozen figures Lucifer hasn’t predicted; these are the targets for extortion. They write to both groups, warning them that they will die if they don’t pay the money demanded (around £60,000), and include in the letter the list of everyone who’s been threatened.

Invariably, most don’t pay, but keep an eye on everyone mentioned in the letter and are terrified to see a large number of them dying in the three months or so after receiving the letter. The survivors quickly cough up. Thus, over the previous year or so, an increasing number of high-profile government targets, in the UK and abroad, have been paying large sums to Seff and his colleagues.

It was the psychiatrist Dr Bowker who first identified ‘Lucifer’ as a man with very special and genuine psychic powers, but why the name? Because, after suffering a catastrophic breakdown brought on by a failed love affair, ‘Lucifer’ developed the psychotic delusion that he is in fact the Prince of Darkness and those around him are his slaves and that periodically he descends into Hades to glory in his Kingdom.
The narrative gives us sporadic descriptions of these terrifying delusions seen from Lucifer’s point of view, as he flies over the Lake of Fire watching the Damned in their torments, another example of O’Donnell’s highly enjoyable and vivid way with words.

Seff, Bowker and Regina and Mr Wish all encourage ‘Lucifer’ in his delusions because his paranormal power of ‘precognition’ – ie his money-making talent – seems to be somehow linked to them, although even Bowker can’t explain why.

It is, in other words, a straightforward criminal scam – extortion, or demanding money with menaces – but with a bizarre and way-out twist, well suited to a psychedelic episode of The Avengers or… a Modesty Blaise novel.

Saving Vaubois

Into this strange scenario come Modesty and Willie, at first asked to help by Sir Gerald Tarrant, their contact in British Intelligence, who fills them in on the story of the threatening letters and the mysterious deaths. Then they become directly involved in saving the life of their friend, head of France’s Deuxième Bureau, René Vaubois, after he receives one of the gang’s letters. Because, it turns out, Lucifer isn’t always correct: about twenty percent of the people Lucifer predicts will die, don’t, and so Seff has to send in assassins to kill them anyway, to keep up the fear on the others. This is what happens to Vaubois and we see Modesty and Willie save him from these assassins twice in one action-packed night.

Steve Collier

There is a whole sub-plot which consists of Modesty sleeping with a guy named Steve Collier, who claims to be a metallurgist. He witnesses her and Willie sorting out the assassins and asks Modesty, not unreasonably, ‘Who the hell are you?’ But now that the ‘caper’ is in full swing, she is a woman on a mission – they have one last night of passion before she bids him adieu and disappears from his life… (Is it empowering that it is a woman taking the lead in initiating and ending affairs to suit herself?)

Denmark

After saving Vaubois’s life, M and W use their former underworld contacts to track down the gang to the house they’re renting in Denmark, and Modesty goes in to investigate… but as she walks in, pretending to be the landlord’s agent, who should walk into the hallway at just the wrong moment? Steve Collier! Turns out he’s not a metallurgist at all, he is expert in precognition! Bowker and Seff had begun to worry that Lucifer’s powers are failing so they had invited world-famous psychologist Dr Collier as an expert in the field to fly out to their house and interview and assess Lucifer.

Collier blurts out ‘Modesty!’, blowing her cover in front of the gang. She manages to take out Mr Wish but then has a gripping unarmed fight with Lucifer who beats her because he effortlessly predicts what her next move will be and anticipates it.

Cyanide shackles

Modesty and Collier are removed at gunpoint to a yacht, then by charter plane, then another plane to a remote island on the Philippines. Here Seff demonstrates what a callous baddie he is by getting Bowker to make incisions in their shoulders and inserting tiny radio-controlled cyanide capsules, which he can detonate from a hand-held device if either of them steps out of line. Creepy Regina has a spare. No way out!

It is here – while an anxious Willie and Sir Gerald are trying to track her down – that Modesty has to come up with a plan of escape. Part of which involves her seducing … Lucifer, which she successfully does, thus achieving a sort of security in the house of crooks (and giving rise to some odd scenes and droll dialogue – ‘Don’t wait for me, Lucifer, I just want to fix my hair.’)

John Dall

Meanwhile, Sir G reports that the latest recipient of a Lucifer Letter is none other than John Dall, the brash American multi-millionaire we met in the last adventure, Sabre-Tooth. They let him in on the whole caper, and inform him that the baddies have got Modesty. He agrees to help out with his own private battleship and army!

It’s Willie who does the clever stuff, deducing the gang’s location from the nature of the sea-borne pick-ups and the latest drop zone specified in the letters. He has spent a long time trying to figure out the peculiar method by which the buoys containing the ransoms are collected and now comes to the far-out conclusion that they are collected by a pair of trained dolphins with a belt stretched between them; the dolphins swim up to the floating buoy, the belt tugs it free of its moorings, and then the dolphins return to the dolphin pen and their trainer towing the treasure behind them. And so John Dall’s rescue ship anchors off the tiny Philippines island where we know the baddies are based.

In commando kit with blacked-up face, Willie sails ashore in a small dinghy to evade the radar. He sneaks up to the house, finds Modesty’s room, breaks in, removes the cycanide from her shoulder and patches her up. But then she insists on staying so she can help Steve and even Lucifer who, after all, is a seriously sick young man.

Willie and she argue about it and Modesty wins and Willie claimbs back out the window and sneaks off to cover. Unfortunately, as he slips his bag over a mound, it sets off an old Japanese mine which blows him up, concussing him, and he wakes up a prisoner in the house, tied up and surrounded by the villainous local pirates Seff has hired to guard them.

Clifftop duel

Seff concocts the sadistic idea of making Modesty and Willie fight a duel – if she refuses he’ll detonate the cyanide or just have them both shot. So the scene shifts to a dramatic cliff-top location where they choose their weapons, Modesty a revolver, Willie his knives. As Seff counts the seconds out, they draw and Modesty shoots Willie in the guts. Blood spurts from his guts and his last words are a curse on her as he plummets to the rocks below and then is washed out to sea by the tide…

… Whereupon he starts swimming for the dinghy he’s stashed a few miles along the shore. It was all a set up between him and Modesty, using their trusted secret signals, and Willie – Mr Knife – deliberately cut himself as he threw his knife wide, so that blood spurted from the cut as if from a bullet wound.

From the dinghy Willie sends a radio signal to Dall’s American forces waiting offshore to come in at dawn. And then Willie sets off back to the house to rescue Modesty and Steve, breaking in, giving Modesty time to remove Steve’s cyanide device and dope Lucifer, and all four of them retreat to the rooftop of this old colonial mansion, and commence the long shootout with the gang and also the 30 or so pirates they’ve recruited, which constitutes the climax of the story.

After hours of shooting have deteriorated into a standoff, Seff and Mr Wish decide to set the whole house on fire, which makes the rooftop no longer defendable. So our heroes toss gas grenades over the parapets and leg it down a rope ladder.

Seff has already killed Bowker in familiar mad psycho fashion. As the fire gets going he sends Regina down to the dolphin pen to (rather horribly) kill their nice native trainer. But in doing so, she tangles her foot in some rope and, at the sound of the shots, the terrified dolphins swim off across their pen and drag the screaming Regina into the water after them where she drowns.

Confident that Modesty and Willie are being burned to a crisp on the roof top, Seff and Mr Wish arrive at the dolphin pen looking for Regina only for there to be a quick draw of guns between Modesty and Mr Wish and – well, guess who wins — at which point the dazed and confused Lucifer emerges from the shadows, strides over to wizened old Seff, picks him up and dashes him to pieces on the rocks below.

The surviving pirates are making their way to their ships in a panic, and it is not long before Dall’s Americans arrive. Willie and Steve join them by the dolphin pen and the last scene in the novel is Willie struggling to undo the belt tying the two dolphins, before liberating them to swim free out to the ocean. Caper over.

Bizarreries

Half way between camp and kitsch and silly and intriguing, pulp thrillers often feature some grotesque angle and this one sports several humdingers:

  • Lucifer the whole concept of a young man whose mental breakdown is so drastic that he thinks he’s the Devil
  • ESP the once-fashionable notion of clairvoyance and ‘advanced precognition’
  • the dolphins turns out the money the blackmailees cough up has to be packed into buoys. These are to be found in crates at warehouses where the blackmailees are told to collect them. Then they are instructed to fill them with the loot (diamonds, gold) before sailing to specified locations and dropping them overboard. To be, as Willie the clever engineer works out, collected by a pair of trained dolphins, named Belial and Pluto!

Clothes

O’Donnell always describes the furnishings and fixtures of the many rooms the characters find themselves in and is also very precise about what they’re wearing.

Modesty Blaise lay on her back, a hand shielding her eyes. She wore a pale blue silk summer dress, sleeveless, and flat shoes. A blue suede handbag stood beside her. (p.81)

The bald man in the white coat was talking with quiet enthusiasm to an audience of two, a dark and very striking girl in a wine-coloured cashmere dress with three-quarter-length sleeves, and a big fair man with a cockney accent. (p.102)

She wore a cream linen suit with camel shoes and handbag. Her only jewellery was a pair of deep amethyst drop earrings. (p.133)

Modesty lay on a towelling-covered mattress of foam rubber, a beachbag beside her. She wore a black one-piece swimsuit. Her hair was loose and clipped back at the nape of the neck. Willie dropped down beside her. He wore tailored slacks and an expensive shirt with a cravat at the throat. (p.145)

She wore dark slacks and a cream tunic with a round collar. The tunic was loose and fell to a few inches below her hips. Beneath it, belted higher than usual, she wore the Colt .32. (p.146)

In the darkness, John Dall and Willie Garvin stood by the rail. Dall wore a navy blue shirt and wrinkled slacks, with a peaked cap pushed back on his head. Willie Garvin was in black. (p.192)

The easy confidence with which O’Donnell describes the clothes and with which the two good-looking lead characters wear them, reinforces the swinging London vibe, beautiful people wearing beautifully-made, stylishly casual clothes – Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp.

Related links

US paperback cover of I, Lucifer

US paperback cover of I, Lucifer

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.

Sabre-Tooth by Peter O’Donnell (1966)

‘You’ve arranged fine weather,’ she said, and handed him the glass. ‘I didn’t realise the Foreign Office had such influence.’
‘We sacrificed two Civil Servant maidens under a full moon last night,’ said Tarrant. ‘It seems to have worked better than some of our other operations recently,’ he added in a dry tone. (p.25)

Why shouldn’t a thriller be fun? I mean really enjoyable, full of amusing characters and preposterous plots and wacky gadgets and dastardly baddies and urbane toffs? Why shouldn’t it keep a smile on the reader’s lips for hours at a stretch? Why shouldn’t books, in other words, be as childishly pleasurable as James Bond movies?

In 1966 the Beatles released RevolverTime magazine announced that London was ‘swinging’, and Peter O’Donnell published the second novel based on his successful comic strip character, the stunningly beautiful secret agent and crime-fighter, Modesty Blaise.

The first hundred pages

The opening scenes reintroduce us to Modesty, the splendidly sexy but awesomely intelligent and competent master criminal-turned-agent, and her sidekick, Willie Garvin, expert killer, schemer, babe magnet and creator of Bond-ish gadgets; and their contact with ‘The Department’, Sir Gerald Tarrant.

Sir Gerald meets them in Modesty’s penthouse flat overlooking Hyde Park, where he also meets the little girl, Lucille, rescued by Willie after her entire family were killed in some foreign hell hole, and who he has been funding through school. The servant, Weng, looks after little Lucille while the three adults drive in their Rolls Royce to enjoy an afternoon’s fishing on the Thames near Maidenhead, before repairing to Willie’s waterside pub, The Treadmill, where Sir Gerald watches Modesty and Willie work out, practicing armed and unarmed combat in the special ‘workhouse’ behind the pub. All the time Sir G is wondering when’s the best moment to present his proposition…

Meanwhile, in a secret valley somewhere in the Arab world, we are introduced to a small mercenary army recruited from the roughest, toughest, meanest freelance killers the world can offer. They are being assembled by the fearsome Karz, and whipped into shape by his lieutenant, Liebmann, watched by a clutch of new and old recruits – Hamid, Sarrat, Carter – through whose eyes we are introduced to aspects of the tough training and harsh discipline of the camp.

The Twins

Every spy romp has its evil genius but is not complete without a psycho sidekick (Goldfinger and Oddjob). O’Donnell gets top marks for creating Chu and Lok, two enormous killers who were born Siamese twins and only separated well on in life, and who now choose to go around joined by a leather strap joining their chests. Tied together psychologically and physically for life, the twist is that they loathe and hate each other. But not as much as they hate anyone in the mercenary camp who is found out to be ‘Unsound’ ie questions Karz’s orders: any such fool is thrown to the Twins to be torn to pieces in the camp’s amphitheatre, before the drooling audience of hired killers.

***

Back in Berkshire Sir Gerald slips into conversation with Modesty and Willie how he’s been keeping an eye on a political figure of fun, Es-Sabah Solon, leader of the so-called ‘Free Government of Kuwait’, who is doing the rounds of social events, speaking at fringe meetings, popping up on TV. And finally, Sir Gerald begins to outline his problem to them. Word has it there might be a coup against the government of Kuwait. Rumours there’s a mercenary army assembling somewhere. Would Modesty and Willie mind infiltrating it?

After some thought, they agree and begin to concoct a plan. Willie will put it about that Modesty is bored in retirement. Modesty will pretend to have a gambling problem, on a massive scale, enough to bankrupt her, enough to put her on the lookout for a money-making proposition…

The next hundred pages

Modesty fixes it with a friendly casino owner to lose an astronomical sum of money in a well-publicised card game against an American millionaire. Very Casino Royale.

There is then a detailed account of a complicated heist they mount to steal a priceless Watteau painting from a French art gallery; they are smuggling it out of the country when, whoops, the truck crashes and the painting is recovered. As in the previous novel Modesty has a tactical affair with an old flame – the cartoonishly named Mike Delgado – and lets him just close enough to witness her desperation at losing all that money and then, alas and alack, the Watteau caper being foiled.

Of course, it is a cover story, all fabricated to make the mercenaries think she and Willie are available and looking for paid work. And a few days later, they are indeed lifted from the beach by some thugs and locked up in an abandoned villa. Turns out this incarceration has been carefully arranged by the abductors to contain an obvious escape route – cleverly arranged as a test, like something from The Prisoner (1967).

But Modesty and Willie excel expectations by making a hammer and weapons out of the lead piping to the sink, breaking through the roof, knocking out their guard with a lead attached to a strip of blanket, and then taking out the restroom full of armed guards. This is the scene where Modesty deploys ‘The Nailer’ ie appears topless to a room of astonished goons, thus giving herself and Willie a vital 2 to 3 seconds to move into optimum positions to take out the baddies, him with his leaded weights, her with her trusty kongo, before grabbing guns, knives etc to finish them off.

In a scene typical of the broad humour of the whole book, there is no car to escape from the villa but there is an old Victorian carriage rotting in the stables. So, at gunpoint, Willie harnesses the surviving baddies to bridles and traces and gets them to pull them back into town.

A few days later they are relaxing by the pool at Modesty’s house in Tangiers when a phone call tells them the Baddies have seized Lucille and will kill her unless they join the mercenaries. Aha. That changes the tone. They expected to be offered the job for money, that had been their plan. The abduction of Lucille means the army are much more ruthless than they expected – now they’re playing for real stakes. And a qualm enters the reader’s mind: threatening children – even in fiction – leaves a sour taste…

The last 80 pages

So Modesty and Willie are kidnapped and taken to the secret base of the mercenary army, high in the Hindu Kush, north of Afghanistan.

Here they put on another act, pretending to have fallen out as a result of their imprisonment and Modesty’s gambling ‘addiction’. A tad implausibly, they are both allotted squadrons to command. We’d been warmed up for this since it was in conversations about the lack of intelligent captains in his army, that the Evil Genius Karz and his lieutenant, Liebmann, had first mentioned Modesty and Willie as possible recruits.

There’s a great scene where Modesty has to confront her group of 20 or so murdering psychopaths and assert her authority. She does this quickly by identifying the alpha male in the pack and knocking six bells out of him; and then, shrewdly, picking him up and dusting him off and appointing him her second in command.

But when Modesty and Willie grab some time together they assess the scenarios: jointly break out – Lucille dies; alert Britain – Lucille dies; go along with the military coup, in which case a lot of innocent children die and maybe Lucille dies anyway, given how ruthless Karz has shown himself to be. Modesty comes up with a self-sacrificing plan.

She breaks into the radio shack, knocks out the operator and sends a coded radio message to Britain with details of the planned assault on Kuwait. Then arranges for the operator to come round to witness Willie and Modesty fighting, making it look like Modesty is the traitor and Willie caught her at it. They stage manage it that Willie and the operator overcome Modesty (as if!) and then haul her before Karz who, inevitably, condemns her to death.

Which sets up a great scene in the amphitheatre the next day, as the crowd of cheering thugs watch an epic fight between Modesty and the Twins. Guess who wins? But, like all the fight scenes in these books, it is described clinically and precisely and persuasively. Willie pleads for Modesty’s life, using the grim reason that Modesty can be used in the seraglio, the comfort rooms, as one of the army’s sex slaves.

Hmm. In my review of the first MB novel I mentioned the unspoken pact between O’Donnell and the reader: we promise not to burst out laughing at the preposterous plots and cartoon characters, and he promises not to be cheap, vulgar or degrading about his heroine. This pushes the agreement right up to the brink. But I think it works and the novel emerges the stronger for it and even gains a measure of depth and true dignity.

For three hard nights Modesty is made a sex slave in the harem, and Willie has to put up with the taunts and boasts of the men who’ve had her. I think it’s well and persuasively done that Willie suffers most. When his allotted evening comes round, and he goes into her cell/bedroom, the pair keep up the pretence of animosity between them until they’ve disabled the inevitable bug, and then he quickly releases her.

But it is Willie who has suffered. Modesty was raped and abused as a child and is still able to turn it off, to leave her body, making it happening to someone else. It is Willie’s mental torment at knowing what was being done to his ‘princess’, the woman he has pledged to protect with his life, that is dwelt on at length. It isn’t exactly ‘literature’ – but it isn’t pulp played just for exploitation, either. And this new tone lasts to the end of the book, adding a measure of depth to Modesty and Willie’s characters and really bringing to life the special bond they enjoy – much deeper than love or sex or friendship.

Long story short, they find Lucille is being held in the same building as the sex slaves, rescue her, go under dark to the airfield, kill the guards (who just happen to be the ones who boasted about ‘having’ Modesty – ah justice is done).

They mine the huge arms cache hidden in a cave by the side of the dam (yes, dam!) holding back the enormous lake (enormous lake!), set the fuses – oh and there’s just time for them to be caught and held at gunpoint by Modesty’s lover from the early stages of the book, big Mike Dalgado, and some goons – before they take them out, run to the plane, and just manage to take off as the rest of the army comes running up with machine guns. Phew.

As the plane circles over the valley they see the arms dump explode big time, demolishing one wing of the dam and letting the vast lake of water flood through the camp, drowning half the army and wrecking their base.

They crash land in Afghanistan among American contractors building a road, are treated for their wounds and then flown back to Europe. In the final scene Sir Gerald meets them at Modesty’s home in Algiers. She is being courted by the American millionaire to whom she lost at cards in the rigged game at the casino. And now Sir Gerald arrives to apologise for putting her through such a horrendous ordeal.

Dignity

On the drive up the hill Sir Gerald tells Willie that he doesn’t know if he can even face Modesty, knowing what his initial suggestion ended up putting her through. Willie stops the car and explains there is no guilt: he and Modesty went into the ‘caper’ with eyes wide open and it was her plan all along. They’re professionals and they’ve put it behind them and so should Sir G.

O’Donnell conveys real delicacy and sensitivity in both the characters in that scene, and then builds up Sir G’s nervousness and embarrassment as he finally arrives at Modesty’s house – so that there is a real sense of relief and release when she welcomes him in the old polite and civilised way, going out of her way to reassure him and put him at his ease. It is a psychologically important moment in the story, which Modesty, and her author, meet with panache.

Tarrant stood very still, watching the dimly seen figure in white moving down the broad stairs which led up from one side of the living-room. He heard a series of clicks, and wall-lights sprang up in different parts of the room. She was just turning at the angle of the staircase, moving quickly and lightly down the last few steps into the room.

She wore a very simple sleeveless dress in white nylon. It was short, with the hem just above the knees. Her brown legs were bare and she wore open pale-blue sandals with small heels. Her hair was loose and gathered back at the nape of her neck by a jet clip.

She was smiling at him, moving towards him with both hands extended.

‘Sir Gerald.’ Her eyes were warm with welcome. (p.281)

In a number of scenes throughout the book, O’Donnell’s characterisation achieves a kind of dignity and depth which lift it far above its comic-strip origins. I really like these characters. Crisply written, with a good steady pace, a comprehensible plot, and a warm feeling throughout, this is a hugely enjoyable and uplifting novel.

Related links

Paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

US paperback cover of Sabre-Tooth

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.

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.
%d bloggers like this: