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8 December 2013

I have seen these books described as fantasy now and again over the years, and as such they fit into this article series. But whether they are genuine fantasy or only borderline, I love them so much they’re here anyhow.

Peter O’Donnell (born 11th April 1920, died 3rd May 2010) was a writer of mysteries and of comic strips who – under his own name – is best known as the creator of Modesty Blaise. In an odd combination he was also an award-winning Gothic historical romance novelist who wrote under the female pseudonym of Madeleine Brent, and in 1978, his novel Merlin’s Keep won the Romantic Novel of the Year, presented by the Romantic Novelists Assn. (“Brent” was noted for her use of strong dynamic female lead characters and “her’ books remain popular.) O’Donnell was born in London and began to write professionally at the age of 16. From 1938 and during the war he served as an NCO. After the war O’Donnell began to script comic strips, including Garth and Romeo Brown, but in 1963 his created his most famous comic strip character – Modesty Blaise (With long time artist collaborator Jim Holdaway.) Two years later the strip sold for a movie, but in a reversal of the usual time line, O’Donnell wrote the book of the movie from his own original script and that was published in 1965, a year before the movie appeared. This was where I came in. I saw the book in my usual bookshop, thought it looked fascinating, bought a copy of it and read it – to become instantly hooked. The blurb that caught me said in part –

A twelve-year-old girl tramping across war-ravaged Europe, through refugee camps, across the Middle East, knowing hunger, rape, despair – this was the making of Modesty Blaise. She wanted the security of money and got it. In every worthwhile place she organised The Network, a crime organisation, efficient, deadly. She took Willie Garvin from the gutter and turned him into her right-hand man – a man as deadly and professional as herself. They made their money and retired. But where was the excitement? Now on the right side of the law for once they pit themselves against a vicious schemer who plays for very high stakes ruthlessly…”

I bought the book, loved it, waited for the movie – and I didn’t have that on my own either – but when that finally made it to New Zealand and I went to a showing I was stunned at the truly awful quality of the work. As the movie progressed one by one many of those attending (presumably fans of the book and of the characters) walked out, some demanding their money back. I followed suit about two thirds of the way thorough – yes, I did get repaid – and a number of us stood around talking about how the movie had been a caricature and who on earth had decided to cast a blonde busty Italian starlet – who couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag or at least was totally unable to depict the character– as Modesty? We were not impressed by Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin either, he didn’t fit the book’s (or the comic strip’s) description and the whole tone of the movie had been high camp, and not in the clever and amusing way of many early TV series but in a clumsy crassness that had turned all of us off totally. (Not to mention that the movie actually included a romance between Modesty and Willie which disgusted all fans since the original book made it crystal clear that this not only didn’t exist, it never would!) At the time the comic strip hadn’t (to my knowledge) reached New Zealand, and whether many of us continued to read the books, since the movie had been so unrelentingly lousy, was up in the air. It was fortunate that the second in the book series came out around then with Sabretooth, followed quickly by I, Lucifer, so that the taste of the movie was washed out of our mouths and we could settle to read happily – while mentally deciding never to go to another movie that purported to be about the characters. (I note that the O’Donnell script for the movie was rewritten and rewritten until it bore no relation to the ultimate result which was so abysmal – and I’d have loved to hear O’Donnell’s own unvarnished opinion of the film, because I’d bet it was unprintable…) 

Over 1965 to 1996 O’Donnell would write eleven full-length books and two short story collections, I have all of them, most in hardcover, having purchased them at the time and I regularly re-read them – all but the last book, Cobra Trap, which I received as a gift only recently. O’Donnell once said that with the kind of people Modesty and Willie were, it was unlikely that they’d survive into old age, and that was true. What we wanted was for them not to grow old, just to continue as they were, Modesty in her late twenties, Willie eight years older, and always a new adventure. But it may be that O’Donnell now knowing that he had Parkinson’s and might not be able to continue writing Modesty and Willie forever, did his final book, Cobra Trap, (which appeared after a gap of eleven years since the previous one) and which was a collection of five short stories, with the final one of the title telling of his characters’ deaths. It was a brilliant short story, embodying everything that they were and relating the final three paragraphs with a poignant lyricism that brings tears to my eyes, but it was still their deaths, and to this day many fans of the characters refuse to read that final story. I refused to buy the book or read the story for 17 years but finally yielded on that. And find that it’s okay, the story is so well-done that it isn’t going to spoil my enjoyment of re-reading the books still – for which I am deeply grateful. I only wish O’Donnell was still alive so that I could write and tell him so.

Films or TV attempts continue however – In 1982, a one-hour pilot (also titled Modesty Blaise) was made for a proposed television series. This aired on the ABC Network to positive reviews, (I have no idea from whom because no one that I know who loves the books would have been at all positive) but no series resulted, (thank heavens) because although the pilot was less crass and treated the characters more seriously, in this attempt the setting was moved from London to Hollywood, and both Willie and Tarrant were portrayed as Americans. (Agghhhh!) In 2001 O’Donnell retired from writing the comic strip but between 2004 and 2009 he wrote the introductions for a series of Modesty Blaise comic strip reprint volumes published by Titan Books. He was also interviewed for a special feature included on the DVD release of the straigh-to-video 2002 film, My Name Is Modesty (telling of earlier times in her life before Willie and The Network,) This movie to my knowledge has not played in New Zealand but I have heard from overseas fans who have seen it and say that it is a reasonably good depiction of the character but still fails to capture her essence.

The writer Kingsley Amis was also a fan of the characters and once said that Blaise and Garvin were “one of the great partnerships in fiction, bearing comparison with that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.”

There is an official web site – Modesty Blaise, Ltd.

O’Donnell’s stated wish was that “no one else should write any future Modesty Blaise stories.” And considering that he wrote her for thirty-eight years, and that every word on all of the strips and books was his and never delegated or collaborated, I can only say that I agree. I don’t think anyone could ever write the characters so “right” again.

The book series is –

  1. Modesty Blaise (1965)
  2. Sabre-Tooth (1966)
  3. I, Lucifer (1967)
  4. A Taste for Death (1969)
  5. The Impossible Virgin (1971)
  6. Pieces of Modesty (1972) (short stories)
  7. The Silver Mistress (1973)
  8. Last Day in Limbo (1976)
  9. Dragon’s Claw (1978)
  10. The Xanadu Talisman (1981)
  11. The Night of Morningstar (1982)
  12. Dead Man’s Handle (1985)
  13. Cobra Trap (1996) (short stories)

However while those were the actual written books, Titan Books (UK) published eight volumes of reprints of strips featuring art by Holdaway and Romero, covering the period 1963 to 1974. These appeared between 1984 and 1988, and starting in March 2004 Titan have also  launched a new series of reprint comic strip volumes. I am told that these new versions use larger images and come from better source material than the earlier editions. As well as an introduction to each story by Peter O’Donnell for books 1 to 16, and by Lawrence Blackmore for books 17 onwards, most books include articles about the series. These appear to be currently available via The Book Depository UK that I know of, (because I looked them up and plan to buy one to evaluate it – and buy the remainder, if the evaluation is favourable) and probably from Amazon as well and other possible outlets as well.

I read the first Modesty book in 1965, and the last in December of 2013. I have currently been a fan for forty-seven years and expect that enthusiasm to continue. If you liked Emma Peel in The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and others of that ilk, you will probably love Modesty, Willie, Sir Gerald, and the works in which they appear. Run, do not walk, to the nearest place you can buy, or let your fingers do the running, and start buying on line. I can only say – recommended.

2 Comments »

  1. I have so enjoyed all (almost) the Modesty Blaise books. I say almost as I was astonished to hear there are 2 books I knew nothing about – Dead Man’s Handle and Cobra Trap. I have collected all (except the last 2) from second hand bookshops and they are scrappy little books that have been read several times over. I have never been interested in the comic strips and have never seen the movie, but have wondered occasionally who I would choose for the characters in 2015. Do agree that Terence Stamp is no Willie Garvin. Thought of Angelina Jolie as Modesty and Chris Hemsworth as Willie. Well, now I have two more books to look for. Happiness!

    Comment by Margaret Leighton — 24 September 2015 @ 17:16

  2. I have one big advantage in this. A fellow author/acquaintance of mine in the UK was a very good friend and long-time neighbour of the author and his wife. She has all the books, all the comic strip books, and many of the foreign editions. Cobra Trap is short stories, with the last one being Modesty and Willie’s deaths. I’m told the author was making darn sure someone else couldn’t take over his characters. Story is sad but it rings like a bell, and feels right. I bought most of my books at the time they appeared, about half in hardcover. Book Depository UK has copies of many, and at reasonable prices compared to others. Here in New Zealand copies occasionally turn up for poennies in charity shops still, and I buy them for an Australian friend.
    As for who would play them, moan. I often saw Cher as Modesty, (too late now of course,) but never Angelina Jolie. For Willie I’d have liked an actor named George Kennedy, turned up as supporting in a lot of 1960-1970 movies. Big, blond, craggy, and Willie to the life. I always wondered why a studio never picked up on the rights again, but then considering the hash they made of the only one (and the mess they also made of the Matt Helm movies, The Avengers, the…) it’s probably just as well. At least we have the books to read and re-read.

    Comment by lyn — 24 September 2015 @ 17:51

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