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Amanda Theunissen on Peter O'Donnell, Modesty Blaise

Escape Routes

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I once interviewed a well-known poet on the radio and asked him what he read when he had ’flu. He looked at me with astonishment – and some contempt – and said ‘Tolstoy, of course’. But when I have ’flu I don’t reach for the classics, I reach for Modesty Blaise.

She and her lethal associate and friend, Willie Garvin, started life in 1963 as a strip cartoon in London’s Evening Standard, and went on to star in a series of inventive thrillers by Peter O’Donnell, who created the original cartoon with the artist Jim Holdaway. I started to read them at least thirty years ago and I was hooked straight away. Modesty Blaise was the first of the strong, feisty women – Emma Peel’s elder sister or Charlie’s Angel’s aunt. Unlike them, however, she’s not working for any male mastermind. She only does what she wants, and if that involves going outside the law, that’s fine.

As a young mother in the ’60s who’d been brought up in English boarding schools and was trying hard to escape their clammy embrace, I felt she was everything I wanted to be: a retired criminal who ran an international gang from the age of 17, and incredibly rich – she and Willie are only tempted out of retirement to do dangerous and secret jobs for the British government, involving colourful villains who want to take over the world or make a lot of money.

She is very beautiful, of course, with long legs, a long neck and ‘skin a matt brown that would make a fortune for the man who could bottle it’. She also has big midnight-blue eyes that go black when she’s fighting for her life. Which happens all the time.

She can shoot with deadly accuracy and fight to win in all kinds of unarmed combat (never beaten except when her opponent cheats by using ESP). She can swim, fence, dive, hang-glide, dance, speak many languages, and she’s a mistress of disguise. She has an internal compass and clock that tell her where she is and what the time is

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I once interviewed a well-known poet on the radio and asked him what he read when he had ’flu. He looked at me with astonishment – and some contempt – and said ‘Tolstoy, of course’. But when I have ’flu I don’t reach for the classics, I reach for Modesty Blaise.

She and her lethal associate and friend, Willie Garvin, started life in 1963 as a strip cartoon in London’s Evening Standard, and went on to star in a series of inventive thrillers by Peter O’Donnell, who created the original cartoon with the artist Jim Holdaway. I started to read them at least thirty years ago and I was hooked straight away. Modesty Blaise was the first of the strong, feisty women – Emma Peel’s elder sister or Charlie’s Angel’s aunt. Unlike them, however, she’s not working for any male mastermind. She only does what she wants, and if that involves going outside the law, that’s fine. As a young mother in the ’60s who’d been brought up in English boarding schools and was trying hard to escape their clammy embrace, I felt she was everything I wanted to be: a retired criminal who ran an international gang from the age of 17, and incredibly rich – she and Willie are only tempted out of retirement to do dangerous and secret jobs for the British government, involving colourful villains who want to take over the world or make a lot of money. She is very beautiful, of course, with long legs, a long neck and ‘skin a matt brown that would make a fortune for the man who could bottle it’. She also has big midnight-blue eyes that go black when she’s fighting for her life. Which happens all the time. She can shoot with deadly accuracy and fight to win in all kinds of unarmed combat (never beaten except when her opponent cheats by using ESP). She can swim, fence, dive, hang-glide, dance, speak many languages, and she’s a mistress of disguise. She has an internal compass and clock that tell her where she is and what the time is anywhere in the world, and she can live off the land. She has total muscle control. She can put herself into a trance at will (as a young mother I longed to be able to do that). She can run backwards as fast as forwards, fighting at the same time. Oh, and go to the lavatory while in handcuffs – definitely an unusual social skill. And another great thing about her is that although she’s very feminine she doesn’t do the dreary domestic stuff. A bit of cooking, yes; washing up, cleaning, shopping, ironing, laundry, putting the bins out, definitely no. Not surprisingly, given all that, men adore her but she has only two women friends – one a blind psychic Canadian and the other a Scottish earl’s daughter with one leg. Not a lot of competition there. She doesn’t work for men, they work for her. She sleeps with whoever she likes, but never the incomparable Cockney charmer, Willie Garvin. Who wouldn’t want a Willie Garvin by their side? He’s her best friend and he’s not even gay. Tall, strong, brave and good-looking, raised in an orphanage and an approved school, he spent a lot of time in prison before being found by Modesty in a Thai jail and released to a new life. ‘They tell me you are a dangerous rat, Willie Garvin. I’ve no use for rats but I’ve got a hunch there’s some sort of man inside you trying to get out. If you work for me, he might get a chance.’ Willie worships the ground his Princess (as he calls her) walks on, and their relationship is based on total understanding and trust. They do everything together – except have sex. As Modesty explains to one baffled lover, ‘“We’ve got stronger bonds than that. We’ve worked together, fought together, saved each other’s lives. We’ve had a fair taste of hell together, we’ve been hurt, we’ve nursed each other and we’ve won together. Everything but this.” She laid her hand on the bed.’ It’s a perfect friendship that binds all the books together until the very end. You can tell they first appeared as a strip cartoon. It’s a two-dimensional world and – it’s got to be said – a bit silly. I think that’s fine, in fact the sillier the better. That’s what escapism’s about. Perhaps because of a cartoon’s need for action and a cliff-hanger in four frames every day, six days a week, things move extremely fast. Every page brings new action – most of it gloriously beyond the edge of probability. It’s difficult to choose a favourite scene. I’m very fond of the one in Dragon’s Claw where Modesty, sailing alone across the Tasman Sea, runs into a storm, a great white shark and an unconscious man in a rubber dingy simultaneously. And manages to swim out to the dingy, hoist the man on board and fight off the shark with a broom handle. All single-handed. Or maybe when, in Xanadu Talisman, Willie saves them both by lassoing a black panther with just the nylon thread from his trousers. But what about Modesty’s escape from the gorilla’s cage or Willie surviving being thrown out of an aeroplane at 18,000 feet strapped to his seat (The Impossible Virgin), or the battle with the murderous Siamese twins in a remote Himalayan valley (Sabre Tooth)? In a piece he wrote for the Crime Time website, Peter O’Donnell says he based Modesty on a strange meeting he had in 1942 with a refugee in the Iranian desert. One day ‘a small figure appeared wearing a thin unbleached shirt that fell to just below her knees. On her head she carried a small bundle wrapped in a piece of blanket, and something hung on her chest from a cord looped about her neck.’ The ‘something’ turned out to be a crude weapon – ‘I felt chilled as I wondered what might have brought home to her the need for some way of defending herself.’ He and his companions gave her food and a tin opener: ‘That was when she smiled, and to me it seemed you could’ve lit up a small village with that smile. We watched as she put the bundle on her head and walked away. To this day I can see in my mind’s eye the smile she had given us and the sight of that upright little figure walking like a princess on those brave skinny legs.’ To fill in Modesty’s background, O’Donnell gave her a childhood companion, a brilliant, highly educated, 50-year-old Jewish professor called Lob who spoke five languages and taught her everything he knew as they wandered around the Middle East. When he died she went off to run a criminal gang, The Network, in Tangier. That was her education. Even now it seems to me to be more fun than boarding school. The Modesty Blaise books belong firmly to the cultural context of the ’60s and early ’70s. There are no computers or mobiles. Instead we get terrible music and nylon clothes, and everyone smokes all the time. When Modesty retires from crime she has amassed £500,000, which in those days was real money, enough to live on for ever, allowing her to concentrate on doing what she likes best – fighting villains with Willie. Often she gets sent off on these capers by the slightly creepy Sir Gerard Talent, who runs some shadowy security department. He’s clearly meant to be Modesty’s father figure but he seems to spend a lot of time admiring the curves of her bosom under her thin silk shirt. Not to mention greasing her naked body with engine oil in some underground cave before a fight with yet another villain – that never sounded very fatherly to me. However criminal they may appear, Modesty and Willie are always on the side of the angels. They have their own code, which they never break. They kill a lot of people but only those who deserve it. The rich cast of baddies kill, trap, torture and generally show total disregard for the finer things in life. And the conclusions are just as they should be: the bad guys lose in the end and the good guys pay enough of a price for their victories to keep the tension going. This lack of moral uncertainty makes for good escapism. After all, who wants to be troubled with difficult ethical issues in fantasy land? I can quite see that the poet would never even pick up one of these books, which is a shame. It’s impossible to live on the high ground all the time, and energetic, action-packed, nylon-clad romps like these are hard to find. There are thirteen in the series – all but one currently in print – starting with Modesty Blaise and ending, in every sense, with Cobra Trap. Just think, ’flu need never be boring again. In fact, I think I may have to lie down and do some rereading.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Amanda Theunissen 2006


About the contributor

Amanda Theunissen is a television producer who worked for the BBC for 20 years, making high-minded and intellectually testing programmes at a time when that was acceptable. She was often a guest on BBC Radio book programmes but, in spite of that, is badly read in the classics – though she can bluff her way through most occasions. She has an insatiable appetite for schlock.

The cartoons themselves, from which the featured image is taken, are published by Triton Books.

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