Modesty’s and Willie’s skills and hobbys

Some of the hobbies, skills and interests that Modesty and Willie display


Chapter 1 of Modesty Blaise contains a full description of the lapidary’s workshop that Modesty has in the penthouse in which she makes cameos on gemstones.

The only jewellery she wore was a heavy bracelet of exquisitely carved jet. Tarrant knew that she had carved it herself in the fully-equipped lapidary workshop established in one of the smaller rooms of the penthouse.
(Sabre-Tooth, chapter 5)

There he would be meeting Calvanti, to sell three sculptured rubies for Modesty, magnificent stones carved by her own hands in the lapidary’s workshop set up in her pent house.
(Sabre-Tooth, chapter 6)

She ran a finger across the pearls on each side of the magnificent centre pearl. ‘These are Orientals, from the Persian Gulf; these, with the touch of fiery steel, are Madras; then Ceylon, Panama, Shark Bay I think, and the Philippines, with a few in between that I couldn’t be sure of. The two small blacks by the clasp are from Tahiti.’
There was a long silence.
‘About nine months’ work spread over seven years,’ Collier said.
(A Taste for Death, chapter 9. The same necklace of pearls that Willie has dived for features in the short story, A Perfect Night to Break your Neck.)

Gold, silver, ivory, slaves … jewels? Yes. Now he remembered a line from Strabo, something about ‘the carbuncles of the Garamantes’. He felt brief surprise that Modesty and Willie should know anything of ancient jewels which were possibly mythical and scarcely mentioned in historical records. Then he remembered the library of books in Modesty’s lapidary workshop at her penthouse, and his surprise passed.
(A Taste for Death, chapter 14)

‘Thank you, Giles. Now listen, I want you out of the way while Brunel’s here. You can pop into my workroom and amuse yourself with the lapidary equipment there if you like. Just don’t touch that emerald I’m setting.’
… When Tarrant had gone, Modesty went to her workroom and set the emerald she was polishing in a dop-stick. With the jeweller’s glass screwed in her eye she examined it carefully. The tiny flaw had been eliminated by the cutting. It was a smallish stone, but the quality was superb. Sitting at her bench, she sprinkled emery flour on the wooden wheel and set it in motion.
(The Impossible Virgin, chapter 6)

I’ve been amusing myself carving semi-precious stones. I’m quite a good lapidary, and I used to do a lot of work with precious stones when I was a wicked criminal. … Well, an American I happened across in those days is a rock hound, and through him I’ve cottoned on to the idea of carving more everyday gemstones. You can go at it with more panache when you haven’t got something worth a fortune on your dopstick. Therapeutic, like building a wall.
(The Night of Morningstar, chapter 6)


‘I see why you’ve been busy and elusive,’ Tarrant said. He looked at the screen. It showed a small blue flower in close-up. ‘That’s very pretty. You once told me you didn’t like horticulture.’
‘Not quite. I said flowers and plants won’t grow for me. I don’t think they like my aura. These are slides of Maltese wildflowers. That’s a blue pimpernel, and very common, but Malta has hundreds of different wildflowers, and some of them are rare.’

(On getting a parcel from Willie) ‘It’s Purple Viper’s Bugloss!’ she said. ‘Classified as Very Rare in Malta. We spent a whole week hunting for it last year.’
(The Impossible Virgin, chapter 14)

Modesty went down on one knee and touched the little flower gently. “There. I’m sure it’s a Frog Orchid.”
“Or a very unusual hollyhock,” said Collier.
(Dead Man’s Handle, chapter 15)


Occasionally Modesty or Willie will use an obscure word in conversation as a challenge to the other. Steve Collier sometimes joins in.

‘The whole effect is …’ she shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Nacreous,’ said Willie, and she laughed. He had a habit of producing the occasional surprising word.
‘You’ve been reading good books again,’ she said. ‘But you’re right. It shimmers like mother-of-pearl.’
‘I pick up a lot reading the music critics in the papers,’ said Willie, and grinned. ‘They slay me.’
‘How do you mean?’
Willie closed his eyes, concentrated for a moment, and began to quote: ‘The content of these passages is opaque rather than glassy in this hermetic little work, with laconic solo interludes, spare in texture yet with a nacreous veneer. To say that the performance of such a work demands no small degree of incisive brilliance would be an absurd litotes—’
‘Ah no, Willie. You’re making it up. Not litotes!’
(Sabre-Tooth, chapter 9)

‘Good.’ Willie drank again. ‘This wine’s a bit of all right. Real supernacular I’d call it.’ He got up and walked away to the car to put his jumpsuit and parachute in the boot.
Tarrant shot a glance at Modesty and murmured, ‘What on earth’s supernacular?’
‘I don’t know.’ Her voice was low. ‘And I’m not going to ask. It’s one of those words he digs up now and again from God knows where. I always pretend to understand and look it up later—but he’s tried this one on me twice already and I can’t find it in the Oxford or anywhere. It’s maddening.’
(I, Lucifer, chapter 7)

“I once knew a girl who was a dactyliomancist,” said Willie Garvin. He sat on a high stool in the big kitchen of the penthouse, eating raisins from a jar at his elbow.
“A what?”
“A dactyliomancist. This girl I knew.”
She gave a casual nod. “Oh, was she?”
“M’mm.” Willie ate some more raisins. “She used a ring about two inches across, made of iron, with a little ’ole on one edge and a spike opposite.”
… She went out of the kitchen. Willie pricked up his ears, listening for her footsteps and the opening and closing of doors. Yes, she had gone into the little study adjoining her lapidary workshop, to have a quick look at the dictionary. He grinned. She wouldn’t find the word in the Concise Oxford Dictionary there.
She came back into the kitchen, frowning a little, and began measuring flour on the scales. Willie chuckled inwardly. He’d got her with dactyliomancist all right.
She said idly, “How did this girl make out with her predictions? I wouldn’t have thought a suspended ring could tell you much.”
He stared indignantly. “You’ve got a new dictionary!”
She turned her head and grinned at him with urchin triumph. “The complete OED. You’ll have to sweat for obscure words now, Willie love.
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 4)

“That’s all right, Princess. Anyway, it wasn’t the sort of story to induce pandiculation.”
She said softly to herself, “Pandiculation?” Slipping out of the robe, she got into bed, pulled the sheet up to her waist, then turned face down and lay with her head pillowed on a forearm. Pandiculation. One of Willie’s obscure words. But he hadn’t quite caught her out with it, even though she had been off guard. It was deliberate, of course. A neat distraction to haul her out of the past and into the present. Pandiculation. She wondered if it might be possible to find a good English dictionary in Porto Vecchio.
(The Xanadu Talisman, chapter 8)

“Don’t call her names,” said Dinah. “And that reminds me, what’s a toxophilite?”
“Reminds you? What reminds you? No, don’t tell me, your logic destroys me. It’s an archer, a bow and arrow chap. Oh God, now you’ve made me uncertain. Perhaps it’s a chap who clips hedges in the shape of peacocks.”
(The Night of Morningstar, chapter 3)

“Well … here it is, Princess. I once knew a girl called Genevieve who suffered from arachibutyrophobia.”
“You’ll just have to tell me, Willie.”
“It means an obsessive fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. I thought everybody knew that.”
(Dead Man’s Handle, chapter 10)


‘He’s [Willie] a voracious reader, and he’s got a good mind. With a different start, he could have gone anywhere.’
‘What does he read?’
‘Biography, military history, technical books, science-fiction—almost anything but general fiction and travel. And he has total recall.’
(Modesty Blaise, chapter 11)

Willie turned on his side to face her and said: ‘Princess, I been meaning to ask. How you getting on with Alice in Wonderland?’
‘I can’t quite make up my mind.’ She frowned at the ceiling. ‘If I’d read it when I was small I’d probably see it quite differently. But reading it now, knowing it’s a classic, knowing Carroll was a bit of a weirdie, I keep looking out for the symbolism and psychology of the thing.’ She paused, reflecting. ‘I think I like the verses best, but I don’t like Alice. Why doesn’t she get frightened more?’
‘Well, it’s like a dream, I suppose. You know, not real for the kid.’
‘At her age I got more scared by dreams than anything else.’
(Sabre-Tooth, chapter 10)

“Willie calls it the flux,” said Modesty. “He doesn’t believe that coincidences are coincidences. He says there’s a magnetic flux about the earth which causes like events to occur simultaneously or in sequence. Open The Times Literary Supplement and you find three different people have written books about Queen Victoria’s third cousin twice removed who was Governor of Honduras or somewhere. All published in the same month. And nobody ever heard of him before. It’s the flux.”
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 6)

‘It’s laughable, isn’t it? I’m exactly three years older than she is. Well, seven if you’re going to split hairs.’
Willie said, ‘And you always look so young. I sometimes wonder if you ’aven’t got a portrait up in the attic, getting old and grey and wrinkled, like Dorian Gray.’
Collier sighed and looked at Modesty. ‘You’ve been letting him read books again. It’s a mistake, you know. He’ll only get ideas above his station.’
(Last Day in Limbo, chapter 10)

“Oscar Wilde said they’re old-fashioned, and to admire ’em [sunsets] was a sign of provincialism of temperament.”
“Silly bugger,” Pennyfeather remarked.
“You’re at least half right, Giles,” Modesty said. “I don’t know if Oscar was silly, but he always seems much too pleased with himself for my liking. Willie? How do you know clever things like what Oscar Wilde said?”
“Ah, that was Veronica. Remember the girl I brought along to the Newmarket races last year? She was at Cambridge, doing a thesis on Wilde, and most nights I ’ad to spend hours listening while she ’eld forth—”
(The Xanadu Talisman, Chapter 5)

Talisman. Had the famous lamp been a talisman for Aladdin? A strained association, surely, but leave it without going too deep. Peacock … shadow. What was the Tennyson line? Now sleeps the crimson petal etcetera, then the next bit … now droops the milk-white peacock like a shadow. Yes? No, no, no, the word in the poem wasn’t shadow, but ghostlike a ghost. No association there.
(The Xanadu Talisman, Chapter 5)


She moved to another chair and picked up some embroidery on a tambour-frame from a small table at her elbow, studying it for a moment with a frown before taking the threaded needle from where it had been lodged in the canvas. … After a while she sighed, held her embroidery out at arm’s length to study it, and said, ‘I try. I really do try, but it looks awful. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.’
Willie moved from the window, took the embroidery she held out for him, and examined it carefully. ‘It’s the stitches,’ he announced at last. ‘You do the stitches wrong.’
‘Oh well, if that’s all …’
(The Girl with the Black Balloon)


She [Modesty] was standing by an easel, oils and brushes set out, trying to put on the small canvas an arrangement of fruit in a bowl. She had no talent whatsoever for painting, and always destroyed a picture as soon as she had gone as far as she could go with it, but she found the constant striving and constant failure oddly therapeutic.
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 3)

[Modesty and Luke Fletcher are in Malta.]
“When you’ve had a bath, go and work on the balcony. You’ll find everything you need in that room I showed you last night.”
“Your studio?”
“Hardly that.” She began carrying some dirty dishes to the sink. “But it’s well equipped.”
“You said you sometimes paint. Why didn’t I see any pictures there?”
She looked over her shoulder at him with a wincing grin. “Not even Willie Garvin sees what I paint. It’s genuinely appalling. As soon as I’ve gone as far as I can bear to go on a picture, I scrape it all off. But I find it restful.”
“I could help, you know.”
“Thank you, but we’ll leave it the way it is.”
(Dragon’s Claw, Chapter 6)


When he congratulated her on the meal she gave her sudden sparkling smile in acknowledgment of the compliment, and shook her head. ‘I’m rather limited, really. You should be here when Paul presides in the kitchen. He’s quite a master.’
‘Don’t come when Willie presides,’ Hagan said.
‘Bangers and mash.’ Modesty wrinkled her nose. ‘And usually burnt.’
(Modesty Blaise, chapter 11)

Willie to Steve Collier: ‘Look, are you any good at cooking? I got a diabolical blindspot for it. Everything burns. I was ’oping the Princess was in, so she could fix me a meal.’
(I, Lucifer, chapter 2)

It was a curious fact that if you gave Willie a larder full of food, an array of kitchen equipment and a modern cooker, he would produce an unrecognisable mess. But turn him loose in the woods with nothing, and he would contrive an appetising meal.
(A Taste for Death, chapter 21)

Modesty, in a white blouse and tartan skirt, was making a batch of quiche lorraine for the deep-freeze, with constant reference to a cookery book. Her moderate-to-good culinary results were gained more by application than flair.
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 4)

His voice changed, taking on a note of alarm. “Princess! Quick, it’s moving!”
“He’s only watching some soup,” said Modesty, and went through into the kitchen.
Pennyfeather chuckled. “It’s funny with Willie, you know. Modesty says he’s marvellous on a Robinson Crusoe basis. Plonk him down in the middle of nowhere and he’ll come up with a tasty meal, but he’s hopeless in a kitchen. Mind you,” Pennyfeather added handsomely, “I’m not all that great myself.”
(The Xanadu Talisman, chapter 5)

At the studio Willie said, “Into bed, Princess. You promised Kim.” He looked at his watch. It was six o’clock. “You ’ave a couple of hours sleep, then I’ll slip out and get a take-away meal for us. Better than me setting fire to the kitchen.”
(The Night of Morningstar, chapter 9)

“I didn’t know you made bread,” said Tarrant. He sat on a tall stool in the kitchen, a tankard of beer at his elbow, watching her.
She lifted a big lump of dough from her mixing bowl, set it down on a board, and began to knead. “I bake okay wholemeal bread,” she said, “not marvellous bread, just okay. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that bread’s the oldest and most primitive of foods made by man, and there’s a sort of earth magic about making it. You get your soul cleansed a bit.”
(The Night of Morningstar, chapter 17)

Card games and card-sharping

‘Fine. I could bottom deal a poker hand.’
(I, Lucifer, chapter 18)

He put the pack down for her to cut. She eyed it, felt it carefully as she cut, and decided that it was intact now, the ten-card hold-out stacked on top ready for the deal. Willie picked up the upper half of the cut pack, and said as he slapped the lower half on top of it, ‘Dangerous, it was. I nearly got stabbed in the throat once. Still got the scar.’ He tilted his head, pointing under his chin.
Involuntarily she glanced up, then immediately down again. The pack lay on his palm as before, but she knew that during the moment of misdirection he had made a one-handed shift to restore the cut. She laughed and said, ‘Damn. Never mind the deal. What do I get?’
‘Three Queens. I get a full ’ouse.’
(Last Day in Limbo, chapter 3)

“‘Quinn’s Benefit,’ they called it. A going-away present. Started with a tenner and worked the blackjack table as a syndicate.” He laughed. “It was an eye-opener, wasn’t it, Jan?”
She smiled. “We came away with three hundred and eighty-seven pounds, and Willie says they weren’t cheating, you just have to understand about the odds.”
“You can’t cheat at blackjack, Lady Janet,” Tarrant observed, “so we must credit him with telling the truth for once.”
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 15)

Modesty, Dinah, Steve and Weng play bridge while waiting for Willie to come back from Bernie Chan’s home. Weng is the best player, since he regularly plays at a top London club and earns £7,000 a year from it.
(The Night of Morningstar, chapter 12)

Practice with locks kept one of her old criminal skills up to date, and so did the session with Mr. Erdnase, an American gambler long dead now, whose illustrated book The Expert at the Card Table, impossible to find these days, was the definitive work on the subtle art of card-sharping. Danny had once spent a fascinating half hour watching Modesty and Willie duel with each other at the card table as they practised to keep their skills in good repair.
(Dead Man’s Handle, chapter 5)
The book is no longer impossible to find, having been reprinted in 1995.


Thamar, the Georgian, moved his knight and said: ‘Check.’ Modesty studied the board. She was a pawn up, but Thamar’s sacrifice had gained him the attack. Either she would be checkmated in four, or she would lose a rook.
‘Your game,’ she said. This was one of the many she had played against Thamar over the past ten days, and she had yet to win. Thamar was a master.
(Sabre-Tooth, chapter 15)

She focused her attention on the road and held it there as if setting automatic controls. Then part of her mind visualised the chessboard. Eight moves had been made by each side. She was white, to move, and had played a Queen’s Pawn opening to which Willie had replied with an Indian defence.
‘Knight takes knight, my last move,’ said Willie.
‘Yes. I’ve got it.’ Once she had found it difficult to get beyond four moves. Now she could usually finish a game without losing track of the position. For a minute she sat in thought, then said, ‘Queen takes knight.’
(I, Lucifer, chapter 8)

He [Sagasta] smiled. ‘I am sure you are. But we will not explore that subject again. Do you play chess?’
She [Modesty] nodded. He opened a drawer and took out a board and a box of chessmen. He said, ‘I think we shall find Gabriel by dawn. Earlier, if we have good fortune. But not soon.’ He held out two closed hands towards her. She tapped the right hand and he opened it to reveal a white pawn. He turned the board round and she began to set up the white pieces as he arranged the black.
(A Taste for Death, chapter 7. Later, in chapoter 9, Collier and Dinah play.)

“I’m glad of something to do.” She got up, went to the sideboard, and returned with a board and chess set. “Let’s play for a while, Willie.”
“Sure. You got any ideas?”
“It’s my turn for white, and if you play your usual Indian Defence against a Queen’s Pawn opening I’ve thought of a variation on the seventh move that’s going to devastate you.”
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 4)

[Quinn to Lady Janet]: “I’ve got a pocket chess set. Do you play?”
“Badly. Willie murders me.” She looked at the sleeping figures. “You know what those two do? Play chess in their heads.”
“Pair of bastards. You sound as if you’re in my league though. How about it?”
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 8)

“That won’t do. You’ll get adrenalin fatigue. We’ll play a little therapeutic chess to damp you down. How far can you go in your head?”
Tarrant said apologetically. “About two moves, I imagine. It’s something I haven’t tried.”
“Never mind. We’ll start by using the flag-stones as a board, and set up an end-game with two or three pawns and … say a rook and bishop each.”
(The Silver Mistress, chapter 10)

[Waiting for news of Luke Fletcher] At five o’clock when the telephone rang in the penthouse Modesty and Willie were playing three simultaneous games of chess.
(Dragon’s Claw, chapter 9)


In I, Lucifer Sir Gerald and Willie are playing snooker at Rand’s Club against two unpopular members. Alhough they seem to be losing Willie offers to double the stake and then makes a closing break of 27 potting all the colours.
(Chapter 7)

Amateur radio

‘Are you talking about radio?’ asked Collier. ‘Is that what all that gubbins under the dash is about?’
‘That gubbins under the dash is a KW 2000A transceiver, powered from the battery through transistorised circuits. Willie has one at The Treadmill and one mobile to take around with him on long trips.’
‘I didn’t know you were a ham operator,’ said Tarrant.
‘Licensed radio amateur. Ham isn’t a popular word among hams.’
(A Taste for Death, chapter 4, and amateur radio also features in Dragon’s Claw, chapter 2.)


“The whole bit. Barre work, exercises, routines, chorus work. I know a couple of choreographers, and they let me join in with any group they’re rehearsing.”
“Good God. You actually do this top-hat, tights and silver-knobbed cane stuff?”
“Why not? There’s nothing better for balance and timing, and nobody in the world more generally fit than your professional dancer.”
(The Night of Morningstar, chapter 12)

Diverse interests

‘But I still hold that this is an excellent meal, Modesty. Is there anything you don’t excel at?’
‘Many things. Let’s see now … I can’t sew and I haven’t green fingers; whatever I plant is doomed. I daren’t sing, even in the bath, because my range is about half an octave. I can’t play any instrument. I’ve no palate for wine—I prefer a rough red Algerian to a vintage claret. I can’t do crossword puzzles. I don’t understand modern sculpture—’
(Modesty Blaise, chapter 11)

‘Horses; a girl in Santiago; poems of C. S. Lewis; fixing a quartz-iodine headlamp on her car; Bourbon Street, New Orleans, and Al Hirt’s jazz combo; some piece o’ de Lamerie silver she bought at a Christie sale; Harold Pinter—Blaise thinks he’s great, Garvin thinks he’s a theatrical conman; some electronic rubbish about a square-wave generator he was trying to explain to her; Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven’s Ninth; a girl in Singapore …’
(Modesty Blaise, Chapter 17) At these times, waiting for a caper to begin, they spoke of ordinary things. Of the Ptolemaic blue glass lion’s-head finial Modesty had bought at Christie’s; of installing an infra-red cooker in her penthouse kitchen; of the anti listening-bug device Willie was making in his workshop; of a play seen, a book read, a disc bought.
(I, Lucifer,chapter 9)

‘She’ll go some place with Willie Garvin. She’ll take it easy, and she’ll sleep alone. Maybe they’ll do things, like swim or ride, or sail … or other things, like go on the town, dance, play roulette. And maybe they won’t. They know how to do things, those two. But they know how to be completely idle, and that’s a rare art.’
(I, Lucifer, chapter 25)

‘… You go to the ballet with her, or walk down Portobello Road—’
‘What’s that?’
‘A street market for antiques and junk. You take a boat trip up the river, or sit in the smithy at Benildon while one of her horses is shod. Anything. It somehow has an extra zing because she’s enjoying it so much.’
(A Taste for Death, chapter 8)

Maude sighed. ‚If I didn’t like her, I’d bloody well hate her. Tell me what she does badly.‘
A ghostly chuckle came out of the darkness. ‚Sing, sew, paint, deal with salesmen, socialise, suffer fools, make meringues, write letters, grow plants, forget favours, stay out of trouble … you name it.‘
(Last Day inLimbo, chapter 10)

“Aye, Willie, I know. I take it she’s a good sailor?”
“Sure. And a first-class navigator.”
“Sometimes you make me sick, the two of you. You’re good at too many things, Willie.”
“Not really, but I suppose we’re lucky ’aving loads of time to spend on whatever it is. Modesty’s always setting ’erself something new to learn, and I picked it up from ’er. Hire the best teacher and then go at it pretty well full time for a month, or two months, or a year, or ’owever long it takes, whether it’s sailing or gliding or scuba-diving, or maybe learning a new language—”
(Dragon’s Claw, chapter 2)

… he always revelled in the pleasure of idling the hours away with her, talking, reflecting, never discussing operations directly, letting the subconscious work on problems, taking the hour-long swim in the pool with her, fifty-two lengths to the mile, relaxing, perhaps having a light combat workout, playing a game of chess or backgammon, listening to some music, talking, watching her move about the kitchen as she prepared a meal …
“Come Saturday morning,” she said. “I’ll make a paiella for dinner.”
(The Night of Morningstar, chapter 1)


I list only the girls from the books and short stories. My source, John Higgins‘ Modesty Blaise site, also lists their skills and hobbies from the comic strips.