O’Donnell was invited to write a novelization of the 1966 film. The novel, released a year before the film itself, and based on his original screenplay for the movie, fared considerably better than the film. During the following decades he would write a total of eleven Modesty Blaise novels and two collections of short stories. Several of the short stories either adapt comic strip stories, or would later be adapted into comic strip stories themselves. Characters cross over between the two media. Except for „Pieces of Modesty“, the books were originally issued in hardback and have subsequently gone through numerous paperback editions.
Some books are disparagingly described as “escapist”, so easy to read that they will provide an escape from present troubles or boring routine. There is an implication that “good” books must demand a more committed response from readers than merely letting themselves be distracted. Can an escapist piece of writing also be good writing? The thrillers and gothic romances of Peter O’Donnell (1920 – 2010) provide interesting matter for such a discussion.
A recurrent element of both the books and the strips is escape. Modesty and Willie do not in general go looking for trouble, but they or their friends are often subjected to assault or capture. The books are „escapist“ in the sense that they deal overwhelmingly with methods of escape from imprisonment, drowning or marooning. Sometimes the circumstances are implausible, and it is hard to believe in the villains‘ reasons for keeping them alive, thereby providing the second chance that they manage to take.
1965 Modesty Blaise
1967 I, Lucifer
1969 A Taste for Death
1971 The Impossible Virgin
1972 Pieces of Modesty (Short stories)
1973 The Silver Mistress1
1976 Last Day in Limbo
1978 Dragon’s Claw
1981 The Xanadu Talisman
1982 The Night of Morningstar
1985 Dead Man’s Handle
1996 Cobra Trap (Short stories)
The first book, called simply Modesty Blaise, has a relatively conventional criminal enterprise at its centre, the theft of a large quantity of diamonds from a vessel at sea. Modesty and Willie find the only way to frustrate the plan is to pretend to be on the same pursuit themselves, thus getting close to the mastermind Gabriel. A set-piece fight with the villainous and muscular Mrs. Fothergill is the first of many such encounters pitting Modesty against a skilled assassin employed by the chief villain, including in later books psychopathic Siamese twins, a fencing master, a martial arts expert, a fast-draw gunslinger, and a gorilla. O’Donnell claimed that the only sentence that survived from his first draft of the film script into the finished film was “I wonder what happened to Mr. Fothergill.” He played on this line more than a dozen years later by writing a successful West End play called Mr. Fothergill’s Murder, which had no connection with Modesty Blaise. The Mr. Fothergill in the play is a blow-up puppet.
The novels’ settings and plots become progressively more exotic and far-fetched. In Sabre-Tooth Modesty and Willie have to prevent a mercenary army’s takeover of Kuwait. In I Lucifer the setting ranges from Paris via Yugoslavia and the Frisian Islands to the Philippines. In that book we have the first suggestion of something supernatural, a deranged young man with an ability to predict accidental deaths, together with dolphins trained to deliver ransoms untraceably. The second supernatural strand enters with the next book, A Taste for Death, which introduces Dinah Pilgrim who has extraordinary dowsing abilities with which she can locate not only water, but mineral deposits and buried treasure. Rescued by Willie from an attempted abduction in Guatemala, she is kidnapped again to help villains locate Roman treasure in the Sahara.
The Impossible Virgin begins in East Africa, diverts to London and France, and then returns for a climax in East Africa, where Modesty is rescued from a gorilla’s cage by the fact that her companion, Dr. Pennyfeather, has read books about gorilla communication. The Silver Mistress is set mainly in France and involves a good deal of pot-holing. Here the chief villain is engaged in blackmail on an industrial scale, to which end he kidnaps Modesty’s friend Sir Gerald Tarrant in order to extract secrets of security vetting interviews.
Last Day in Limbo, one of the best of the series, starts with a failed attempt to abduct Modesty and her millionaire boyfriend John Dall, and ends on a plantation set up deep in South American forests to provide a former plantation slave with a way of avenging herself by enslaving a host of plutocrats and film stars. Dragon’s Claw has an Australian newspaper tycoon who steals works of art and kidnaps artists and art critics to spite aesthetes who have sneered at him, with the action covering London, Amsterdam, Greece and the tycoon’s private island in the Tasman Sea. The Xanadu Talisman begins with an earthquake in which Modesty is buried under a collapsed hotel. A later episode in the south of France embodies “escapism” in its most literal sense. A crime boss, convinced that Modesty has killed one of his associates, has Willie chained to a cement block and dropped to the bottom of a flooded quarry. Somehow Modesty has to get air to him and unbolt the shackle that holds him down. She manages, of course, in a very well-written account that has one suspending disbelief. The rest of the action is set mainly in North Africa, and surrounds the theft of the crown jewels of the Shah of Iran at around the time of his deposition.
The Night of Morningstar gives us a terrorist organisation to rival James Bond’s SPECTRE, but Modesty’s quarrel with it is not from any sense of patriotic duty, merely that one of her own friends has been damaged. Modesty is often described in publicity materials and reviews as a “female James Bond”, but this is completely inappropriate. In her own words, she “doesn’t go looking for trouble”, and will usually intervene only if she or her friends are threatened. The last of the novels, Dead Man’s Handle, was badly received by the critics and is by common consent one of the weakest. It has Willie being kidnapped and brainwashed to persuade him that Modesty is his enemy and he must kill her. That part of the action is vivid, but the main plot concerning a shipping hi-jack is rather unconvincing.
O’Donnell’s final book, Cobra Trap, is a short story collection. Intended by O’Donnell to be his literary finale, the final story depicts the deaths of Modesty and Willie (with an implied afterlife). O’Donnell, however, would continue to write the comic strip for several more years, and chose to end it on a more optimistic note, though the comic strip’s finale does not contradict the prose version.
Inevitably the books contain some stereotyping, both of gender and of race, though less than was present in a great deal of the fiction of the time. The written style is efficiently unobtrusive, and largely free of cliché. What is remarkable is how O’Donnell manages to pace his plots. The stories consist of sets of episodes, self-contained but coherently linked, each of which is memorable in the way a good short story is memorable. One gets the sense that O’Donnell is writing for the kind of reader who does not sit down to read a book at a sitting but one who reads for a few minutes before going to sleep or on a commuter train. It is something he may have learned from scripting the strips, and it is a valuable talent in a novelist.
Another thing that makes these books remarkable is the range of topics, settings and characters. O’Donnell does not swamp you with technicalities, but he introduces many subjects in a way that shows he knows them himself and encourages the reader’s interest too. As well as the combat skills the principals command and the practical details about conducting or foiling a robbery, there is flying, amateur radio, fishing, a circus, various countryside pursuits, bridge and chess, literature and music. The style makes the books readable, but the diversity of the subject matter is what makes them superbly re-readable. If a friend lends you a Modesty Blaise title and you fail to return it, you may find you have lost a friend.
Beginning in the early 2000s (decade), Souvenir Press began a series of paperback reprints of the Modesty Blaise book series, using the first edition hardback covers, and originally concluding with a reprint of Cobra Trap in 2006. Souvenir subsequently gained the rights to the short story collection Pieces of Modesty and issued their reprint of that book in March 2010, with a new cover design based on the original hardback cover from the first Modesty novel, at which point all the Blaise books fell under the same UK publisher for the first time.
In 2008, Penguin Books of India reprinted the full series.
The 2012 Charles Stross book The Apocalypse Codex is, according to the author, a tribute to Modesty Blaise.
Text on this page in italics was written by and taken from John Higgins‘ Modesty Blaise site by permission.