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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