Friday, August 7, 2015

FFB: Modesty Blaise - Peter O'Donnell

I don't think this really should be considered a forgotten book, but I'm going to write about it all the same. Surely the character cannot be totally forgotten. Peter O'Donnell created Modesty Blaise as a comic strip back in 1963 and the blurb on the back of my reprint edition tells me the strip ran for 38 year and was syndicated in over 40 countries. The first novel didn't appear until 1965 making this year her half century anniversary. And she still looks fabulous! Always will.

I've never read any of the books until a few days ago nor had I even seen the comic strip until I went trolling the internet looking for images to help illustrate this post. But for anyone well versed in spy fiction, adventure novels and, of course, comic strip history, Modesty Blaise will never be forgotten. Truly the first successful and extremely popular female super spy (though that is a very loose term as you will soon learn) Modesty served as the template for all other super heroines of her type. There have been plenty of Modesty Blaise knock-offs in genre fiction, but none come close to capturing the best of her qualities.

She seems to me to be the female equivalent of Simon Templar since she actually began her life as a thief, engaging in capers with her lieutenant Willie Garvin and together amassing a huge fortune that allowed them to live in luxury. Only when the British Secret Service learn of her enclave known as "the Network" does she become a spy of sorts. Sir Gerald Tennant becomes her liaison with the British government and she and Garvin are called upon to help foil a slew of sadistic and ruthless international criminals in a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories, as well as the comic strip adventures.

At the start of this introductory novel Garvin is in prison in an undisclosed South American country. Modesty infiltrates the compound, single handedly dispatches the guards and sets him free along with the rest of the prisoners. They join forces in Tennant's plan to prevent the theft of a multi-million British pound shipment of diamonds intended as payment for a Middle Eastern sheikh, one of the UK's most respected allies.

Garvin is the gadget expert of the books and he has invented several lethal weapons like an exploding tie tack and a lipstick that releases lethal nerve gas. The scene in which he puts the infernal device hidden in his diamond tie tack is one of the most gruesome in the book. I literally gasped and groaned at what happens to the poor vain sap who is given the tie as a gift. The action scenes are more graphic than I expected. Modesty and Willie are both very adept at martial arts and hand to hand combat. Neither will use a gun unless absolutely necessary. The book is nothing more than set piece after set piece as they do battle with the numerous thugs and villains. Revenge is the motivating factor in many of these violent sequences with the villains intent on killing either Modesty or Willie or both. Our heroine and hero suffer more than their fair share of cuts, stabbings and near broken bones, but the villains get what's coming to them...and then some!

Modesty Blaise was turned into t what I think was a very dull parody of spy movie. Italian actress Monica Vitti wearing a ridiculous number of wigs played the lead impassively alongside Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Some excellent casting in his part at least. The book shows Modesty to be tough, smart, sexy and oddly compassionate in her battle against nefarious master criminals and their army of thugs. But you'd never know that from the movie where she comes off as nothing more than 60s pop culture fashion plate who kicks a lot. For a parody movie Vitti was thoroughly unhumorous in the role. No comedy chops whatsoever. Best stick to the books in order to get to know the real Modesty. I plan to go through the whole series in the coming months. And I'll do it in much more detail next time.

12 comments:

  1. Oh, so not for me, John. But I'm glad to read a bit more about Modesty Blaise, a character I'd only vaguely ever heard of over the years. Never saw the movie, never wanted to. I know I shouldn't say this, but I'm not big on women as the leads in these sorts of books. I never for one moment believe anything that's going on. I just don't get carried away as I do with other books in which suspension of disbelief is required. That's probably why I don't bother to read books featuring women as tough private eyes. Does that make me NOT a feminist? I hope not.

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    1. I recently listened to a speech that stressed the idea of feminism being about equality for *both* sexes. And that is it still OK to think of oneself as a feminist, that is someone who is striving for fair treatment for both women and men, while honoring traditional female and male roles.

      Occasionally, I like to read about these fantasy figures of nearly superhuman heroines who can toss the bad guys around like a sack of feathers. Goes back, I think, to my own revenge fantasies when I was a bullied and tortured teen. To me there's nothing more satisfying than seeing the perceived underdog come out on top.

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    2. I know I shouldn't say this, but I'm not big on women as the leads in these sorts of books. I never for one moment believe anything that's going on.

      It is a problem. The whole kickass action heroine thing isn't very convincing. A woman might have all sorts of martial arts training but as soon as she runs into a man with the same sort of training she'll get the stuffing knocked out of her.

      Reality isn't very politically correct.

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    3. Occasionally there will be a woman who has enough upper body strength and guile and technique to defeat a man in hand to hand, but that is very rare. I'm trying to think if I've ever come across one. Perhaps it would work if the man was not a fighting sort and the woman had a black belt. I don't know, I'd rather read about a heroine who uses her smarts to defeat her enemies. There are plenty of those around in very good books.

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    4. Of course, there's one woman you don't want to mess with - that's the mother whose child is threatened. Then all bets are off.

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  2. Hi John, I read a lot of Modesty Blaise comic strips but none of her novels. In fact, I'd forgotten about the books. Thanks for reminding me. I read Blaise around the same time I read comic strips based on Axa, the female Conan.

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  3. John, the box arrived!!! THANK YOU! I sent an email.

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  4. I have read just a little about Modesty Blaise (and none of the books) so this is welcome background. I don't know if I would like the books, but I do want to at least check them out. Thanks for the review, John.

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  5. So glad to hear these stand up - I have only seen the so-so spoof movie and seen a few of the strips and that's it - cool!

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  6. There is another film also out on DVD: "My Name is Modesty". Filmed in Eastern Europe for probably less than the cost of the latest 007 trailer, it does not convince anyone that the books are worth seeking out. Personally I really like what little I've seen of the comic strip. Thanks for the very interesting review :)

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    1. I saw that short film. It seems like a pilot for a failed TV series. Not exactly the best movie to inspire anyone to seek out the books I agree. But it tries its best to capture the spirit of O'Donnell's character and as an action movie it's far better than Losey's pop-art spy movie parody/failure. The story of the making My Name Is Modesty is ridiculous. It was intended as a full length feature and Quentin Tarnation was supposed to direct it, but it suffered the fate of numerous "artistic differences" disagreements. You can read all about it the fiasco of the script rewrites, the casting mess, and other woes at imdb.com and other websites.

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