Friday, August 21, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“Modesty Blaise,” by Peter O’Donnell

(Editor’s note: This is the 61st installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Canadian author Vicki Delany, who writes everything from standalone novels of suspense [Burden of Memory] to a traditional village/police procedural series set in British Columbia [In the Shadow of the Glacier, Valley of the Lost] to a light-hearted historical series [Gold Digger] set during the Klondike Gold Rush. Next up: Winter of Secrets, due out in November. Delany blogs with five other crime writers at Type M for Murder. Her Web site can be found here.)

My forgotten book isn’t a single book, but a series, a character really: Modesty Blaise, star of the novels by Peter O’Donnell, popular during the late 1960s and ’70s (the last book, Cobra Trap, was published in 1996).

Like many women who were once girls, I particularly remember being introduced to Nancy Drew, “girl detective.” Nancy was a girl just like us. Just like us, except that she was wealthy, beautiful, popular, and had exciting adventures. Other than that she was just like us.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, girls of my age read all the stories starring Nancy Drew, followed her adventures with enthusiasm, and thought she had a wildly exciting life, but at heart we knew that Nancy was “safe.” Nancy had a good home, a loving father, loyal friends, a stouthearted boyfriend, lots of money, and even a housekeeper to provide the necessities of life so that Nancy could devote her time to sleuthing rather than cooking her father’s dinner.

We knew that eventually Nancy would have to grow up. Her life would then be totally predictable--as predictable as our lives were going to be. She would leave school, marry Ned Nickerson (or some equally suitable boy from her social set), have 2.5 children, acquire a Golden Retriever, do volunteer work, and start popping Valium.

It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s, settled down (like I imagined Nancy Drew was), with a husband, house, children, and dog that I first came across the Modesty Blaise books.

Modesty Blaise was nothing at all like my friends and me. She was exotic, mysterious, and had a shady criminal past. She was all grown up and she still had an exciting life. Modesty had once been the leader of a notorious criminal gang called “The Network,” and now, having given up her life of crime, she and her sidekick, Willie Garvin, traveled the world fighting wrongs.

Reading about Modesty Blaise for the first time was like being hit by a thunderbolt. Those books probably gave me my first realization that adult women could be strong and fearless and independent. Just like men.

The origins of Modesty Blaise were in a comic strip O’Donnell did for a British newspaper, the London Evening Standard. The first strip appeared in May 1963. The first of O’Donnell’s books, titled simply Modesty Blaise, was published in 1965. There was a movie deal in the interim, resulting in a 1966 film starring Monica Vitti as Modesty. I don’t recall seeing the movie, but opinion is generally that it’s for die-hard fans only.

Nevertheless, the books were hugely popular, and more followed. I was living in South Africa in the 1970s: I don’t think the books got as much attention in North America. Please correct me if I’m wrong. There were 13 books in all, I believe, and they are still in print, including U.S. editions. O’Connell continued writing the comic strip until 2001, when he was 81 years old. Two more movies, as unmemorable as the first, were made.

In the crime-writing world today there are plenty of strong women, but Modesty blazed (pardon the pun) the trail.

Her beginnings were in a displaced person’s camp in Greece at the end of World War II. She was simply discovered, a young girl surviving on her own, with no idea of where she came from or who she was. She was taken under the wing of a man named Lob, who educated her and taught her that people could be trusted. Lob gave her the name Modesty because, well, she had none. She chose the last name Blaise herself.

Unlike Nancy Drew, Modesty was a survivor, a woman who knew from the very beginning that she had to look after herself. As an adult, Modesty took over control of a criminal gang called “The Network.” Even when Modesty was a criminal, she was a “good” crook, and she ran The Network like a business, caring for her employees and strictly avoiding anything to do with vice. Modesty would never prey, or allow anyone working for her to prey, on the weak and helpless.

Eventually Modesty Blaise retired, and disbanded The Network. She moved to England and attempted to live the life of the idle rich, her only contact from her criminal days being her ever-loyal right-hand man, Willie Garvin.

It is at that point in his character’s fictional life that Peter O’Donnell’s books begin. Modesty and Willie are constantly called out of retirement by people from their past lives, and on occasion are asked to do off-the-record work for British Intelligence.

The relationship between Modesty and Willie forms the crux of the books. She is, clearly, the boss. He adores her, and respects her, but they are never lovers. In the first book Modesty has to rescue Willie from prison, where he’s been confined after recklessly joining a mercenary group after the disbanding of The Network. Thus their relationship is set--she is in charge and he is the sidekick.

If there is an earlier adult adventure/crime book in which the female is the main character, and the male the sidekick, I don’t know of it.

In retrospect, I can see that Modesty is what she started out as--a cartoon character. Modesty is beautiful, wealthy (no trust-fund babe or rich man’s widow here--she earned all her money herself), the leader of men, a successful businesswoman, multilingual, an expert in unarmed combat, intelligent, fiercely loyal to her friends, and dangerous to her enemies.

She is no more realistic than Nancy Drew, but Modesty provided women with an example of what women can achieve, both in terms of careers and in relationships. Fictionally speaking, Modesty showed us that a woman could be not only the protagonist in an adventure book, but a multidimensional character as well. And she didn’t even have to sleep with anyone!

As a crime writer, and as an independent woman, I owe a lot to Modesty Blaise.


Corey Wilde said...

Great series, an all time classic. Modesty doesn't get nearly the credit she deserves as a great example of a strong female character. One could debate the reasons for a long time.

I love the MB books because the main characters are interesting and sympathetic, the plots are twisty, and the combat scenes are incomparable. Tell me Modesty couldn't kick Jack Reacher's ass in a heartbeat! And make Willie Garvin laugh while she did it, too. I bet she could get Joe Pike to take off his sunglasses without even asking.

The last book, Cobra Trap, broke my heart. But it was the right thing for O'Donnell to do.

Modesty Blaise said...

Great piece, Vicki - although I disagree that "she is no more realistic than Nancy Drew" as the character of Modesty was inspired by a young, orphaned girl that Peter O'Donnell encountered in the Balkans during WWII.
And there are plenty of women who knew how to fight, lead men, forge their own way, even take up a life of crime: from Boudicea to Emily Pankhurst to Phoolan Devi!

But yes, Modesty is inspiring, and I wish I'd encountered her when I was much younger.

Bill Crider said...

I haven't read the entire series, only five or so. But every one of those was a ton of fun.

steve said...

Fantastic series, read them all in the last couple years. I think once again in print" may be ore accurate than "still in print"

Modesty Blaise said...

The entire series was reprinted by Souvenir Press BUT the earlier ones are already out of print again - and selling for high prices on Ebay and Abebooks! My guess is that collectors snapped up the ones with the Holdaway covers...

You can see all the covers at:
(the page takes a while to download, and you might not want to open it at work as some of those Pan covers look a bit risque!)