Modesty Blaise: From Underworld Youth to Super Sleuth


I have no desire to write to please those who make it their business to comment," said best-selling Western writer Louis L'Amour in this year's summer reading issue of the New York Times Book Review. Rather, he writes "for the people who do the work of the world…for the people who invent, who design, who build, for the people who do."

L'Amour's philosophy of audience is meshed inseparably with his implicit philosophy of story—lone heroes, armed with practical codes for living with honor, invariably pitted against nature and those who attempt to live without honor. His heroes are doers. They have character, skills, careers, purposes, and goals. L'Amour, like Dick Francis, Ian Fleming, Jeffrey Archer, and many other fine popular writers, does not mock productive work. He knows what it takes to earn a dollar. This contributes to an unbeatable author-reader propinquity that must be the envy of such eminent literary bores as Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Add to that roll call of writers for the "people who do" the name of Peter O'Donnell, British author of the action-packed Modesty Blaise novels. If James Bond has had a serious rival, her name is Modesty Blaise. While she has no "00" designation with the secret service, she has unplugged the schemes and lives of as many if not more super-villains as Bond. At one time in her life, she might herself have been a target for Bond to terminate with "extreme prejudice." The assignment would have proven difficult—if not impossible.

Modesty Blaise is a former princess of the underworld. Her "business" included art and jewel thefts, smuggling, currency and gold manipulations, and espionage. Her extra-legal empire focused around the Mediterranean but reached into Europe, the Near and Far East, and Africa to form "The Network." At the age of 26, she broke up The Network to retire with a fortune in sterling and to become a British citizen. She lives in London on her well-invested and presumably untaxed proceeds. Her enemies during her brief career were chiefly other criminals—murderers, narcotics tycoons, white slavers, all the vile and violent criminal element.

She is occasionally recruited by the British government from her life of ease—which includes, among many other hobbies, carving gemstones—to combat vicious criminal conspiracies. Her "M" is Sir Gerald Tarrant, congenial director of a shadowy Foreign Office special service. Her right-hand man is Willie Garvin, a Cockney ex-mercenary who retired with her and now owns a London pub. Created presumably on the premise that it takes a criminal to fight criminals effectively—by capitalizing on an intimate knowledge of criminal motivations, thought processes, and methods—Modesty and Garvin are a unique, formidable team that no gang of extortionists has ever bested.

Modesty has a view of living that is refreshingly unusual not only to our age but also to criminals. Perhaps because it is disparaged (or remains to be discovered) in contemporary "serious" and popular literature, O'Donnell felt obliged to have an ex-criminal exemplify it. She basically views humans as beings capable of independence and self-esteem. She and Garvin have a unique, rational approach to human relationships that is startling in that it requires no sacrifices of anyone. Modesty embarks on her dangerous escapades not from any sense of duty to society or government but as a carefully considered favor or from a heartfelt sense of value for someone or something she cares about.

She is feminine to the core—except when she is in action, and then she is either a blur of motion or a sleek, deadly cat playing lazily with a toy. In her semireclusive retirement she is un-self-consciously benevolent, innocent, generous, and a threat to no one—all the things she could not be when she was clawing to stay alive as an orphan in war-torn North Africa and the Middle East. Her lovers have included a mathematician, an American industrialist, a realist painter, and a physician—men who do.

"She is that highly desirable woman," says Otto Penzler of the Mysterious Press, O'Donnell's American publisher, "a feminist who is not shrill, nor is she anti-male in any way." Penzler had been a fan of hers for years before he began to wage a virtual one-man campaign to expand the market for the Blaise novels in the United States.

Modesty can argue with Garvin the comparative virtues of Sibelius and Mozart, perform with him a tasteful rendition of a ballet scene from Romeo and Juliet (after a vigorous workout with quarter staves), cause the envy of any man escorting her around London, yet be able to say calmly to a gang of killers 48 hours later: "We didn't come after you to mete out justice. We don't have that kind of arrogance.…We came to kill you, that's all."

Garvin calls her "Princess" and is deferential to her, except when they are practicing personal combat techniques in his custom-built gym. A veteran of the French Foreign Legion and some-time mercenary, he was rescued by her from a Saigon prison. Modesty recognized a quality in him and transformed him from an embittered loser into a man. She gave him a purpose for living. Modesty instilled genuine self-respect in Garvin for her own purposes; she needed confidence and expert judgment in her right-hand man, and those things were possible only in a man who had self-respect.

Their relationship excludes romance. Both Modesty and Garvin feel that their unique background has given them a closer and more intimate bond than is possible in any sexual liaison. A romantic bond, both feel, would also endanger their synchromeshed teamwork when they are in action against criminals; both would be fractionally worried about each other when their minds and actions should be focused entirely on a lethal enemy. And that missing fraction of attention might cost either of them his life.

Few bother to pick a fight with the pair. Their enemies know them well enough that they should be approached with caution—or not at all. O'Donnell's action scenes pitting Modesty and Garvin against other professional combat artists are some of the most tautly choreographed ballets de morte ever penned. Not all their encounters involve human opponents. One of the best-narrated features a weaponless Garvin trapped in an arena with a hungry panther. How he subdues the beast without once touching it is just a tad short of ingenious.

Perhaps the most enjoyable, tangible ingredient of the Blaise novels is the premise that cognition is the key to problem solving. It permeates all of the novels. No matter what their dilemma or task, Modesty and Garvin can isolate, integrate, and act. O'Donnell would seem to agree with novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand that emotions are not tools of cognition. His Modesty and Garvin explicitly ban action guided by emotions once they have committed themselves to a long- or short-term campaign against a criminal gang. In those rare instances when they let emotions color their thinking and they just barely live to regret it, Modesty and Garvin acknowledge their error.

By contrast, her enemies are equally fascinating psychological studies of the criminal mind, uncannily familiar because they are compelling mirrors of the average 20th-century criminal, terrorist, or petty dictator. The genuine O'Donnell criminal is a criminal by choice—usually possessed of enough intelligence and raw motive power to live successfully and rationally in a free society—but unwilling to because he has convinced himself that that kind of life is pointless.

If one at first regards O'Donnell's villains as caricatures, then a supplemental reading of clinical psychologist Stanton E. Samenow's Inside the Criminal Mind (Times Books, 1984) should disabuse one of that notion. All criminals "regard the world as a chessboard over which they have total control," writes Samenow, "and they perceive people as pawns to be pushed around at will.…They scorn and exploit most people who are kind, trusting, hardworking, and honest."

O'Donnell's villains match Samenow's psycho-epistemological description of the criminal mentality. In I, Lucifer, Seff, the priggish mastermind of an international blackmail scheme, who with his wife puts on pornographic puppet shows but flares up when someone uses a mild expletive in her presence, derives satisfaction from being an unknown terror to his victims and more clever than the law-enforcement agencies of three continents.

Modesty Blaise originally debuted in 1963 in O'Donnell's popular cartoon strip. She was born from her creator's experiences during World War II, when he was stationed in Persia (now Iran) with the Royal Corps Signals and the Ninth Army in between the oilfields and the advancing Germans. Ahead of the Germans came refugees, among them many grim, ragged children traveling alone. "I remember one little girl of nine or ten, probably from the Balkans.…She radiated an uncrushable will to survive…living off the land or begging or stealing."

O'Donnell, who has been writing successfully since the age of 16, naturally created a similar background for Modesty Blaise, having her come out of a displaced persons camp in the Middle East (she was given her unusual name by an uprooted Jewish scholar whom she defended from thieves and con men, in exchange for which he gave her an education no modern university could offer). Her first and perhaps only job was with the casino of a gang she subsequently took over at the age of 17. She then built "The Network," which she "divested" among her best and most trusted employees and colleagues when she retired.

Most of her enemies in the novels come from the disbanded Network or were rivals she had to beat. From her dealings with both criminals and noncriminals, she acquired a wisdom by the age of 26 that few people acquire in old age. "I had no childhood," says Modesty. Her brutal early years were governed by the necessity for sheer survival.

It took O'Donnell nine months to create Modesty Blaise—whose first name was the result of a typing error, while the second was inspired by Merlin's master in the Arthurian legends—and "nine seconds later I had Willie Garvin, complete in every detail."

Among the more specific issues one could explore at length in the Blaise novels is the intriguing paradox of Modesty's own criminal career and how it clashes with her moral code and overall outlook. But this would be a fruitless essay of speculation, since O'Donnell gives few clues as to how she reconciles the conflict. It can only be inferred that Modesty's nefarious Network "capers" in large part involved such victimless crimes as gambling and circumventing the postwar economic distortions caused by interventionist policies adopted at the time.

Willie Garvin recalls Brunel, a ruthless criminal in The Impossible Virgin: "Brunel was something else. Brunel was an emotional neuter. You could perhaps feel a shred of pity for the man so twisted that he enjoyed cruelty, but not the man who simply used it as a tool."

Modesty is less tolerant, though. In Dragon's Claw, she says of Uriah Crisp, a Bible-thumping, quick-draw murderer: "That turbulent priest there knows exactly what he's doing, and pretends to himself that he doesn't. He likes killing people with a gun, and the Hammer of God bit is pure phony."

Usually an O'Donnell criminal fails because of his vanity—his overweening confidence in the efficacy of his particular method of outwitting people and short-cutting reality. And O'Donnell has created some of the most repellent criminals to be encountered in any literature. None of them differs radically from his real-life ilk, such as Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, Uganda's Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa of the Central Africa Empire, Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Omar Qadaffi of Libya. More than caricatures, they are psychological portraits of megalorecidivists whose excruciating, ostentatious demonstrations of manners, good form, expert skills, and intelligence are but the fig leaves of evil, maintained as guises for the gullible and as shields against the truth about themselves. There is not much psychological difference between Gabriel, one of Modesty's earliest and most cerebral antagonists, whose chief diversion is watching Tom & Jerry cartoons, Idi Amin of Uganda, who maintained a kilted bagpipe band, and the convicted mass murderer who paints pastoral pictures or signs petitions to end world hunger. Writes Samenow: "The criminal's idealism and altruism are genuine and form part of a reservoir of good by which he sustains a belief in his own goodness."

O'Donnell occasionally mars his stories with an excess of technical detail on close combat, weapons, and equipment. Another unfortunate lapse is his sporadic reliance on psychic knowledge to launch or to help resolve a story. One of his finest novels, Last Day in Limbo, which deals with a Central American coffee plantation that uses wealthy people as slaves, starts when a precognition-endowed character "knows" that someone close to Modesty is in trouble. A flash flood of technical information stalls a story, while the intrusion of extrasensory knowledge dilutes the power of Modesty's primary modus operandi.

But the dominant virtues of his work are Modesty's adult sense of life and her commitment to cognition-based reason, coupled with her creator's insights into the psychology of the criminal mind. This potent mixture is so infrequently encountered in any level of literature today that it can be enjoyed in spite of the blemishes.

Fortunately, modern movie makers have not discovered Modesty, otherwise she might have by now been turned into as much an aging buffoon as the cinematic Bond is. There has been only one "Modesty Blaise" movie—which deservedly flopped—and it bears as little resemblance to O'Donnell's novels as the Bond movies do to the likewise finely written Fleming novels. The Blaise novels—11 of them, with another due out in the spring of 1986—are as carefully crafted as the Fleming books, in many respects more so.

"I get more letters about the relationship between Modesty and Willie than about any other element in the stories," says O'Donnell. "The majority from women, who appear to be enchanted by the concept. This gives me great pleasure."

What does O'Donnell, who regards himself simply as a storyteller, read for his own enchantment? "I suppose my favorite writers are the good storytellers rather than the fine writers—though the two are not mutually exclusive by any means."

Ed Cline is a free-lance writer who lives in Palo Alto, California.

Modesty's Library

Modesty Blaise
I, Lucifer
A Taste for Death
The Impossible Virgin
Pieces of Modesty
The Sliver Mistress
Last Day in Limbo
Dragon's Claw
The Xanadu Talisman
The Night of Morningstar
Dead Man's Handle

The Modesty Blaise novels are all currently available or forthcoming from Mysterious Press (129 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019).

Paperback, $3.95 each: Modesty Blaise; Sabre-Tooth; I, Lucifer, A Taste for Death; The Impossible Virgin.

Hardcover, $14.95 each: The Silver Mistress, The Xanadu Talisman; $15.95 each: Last Day in Limbo, Dragon's Claw.

Forthcoming, hardcover, $15.95 each: Dead Man's Handle (Spring 1986), Pieces of Modesty (Fall 1986), The Night of Morningstar (Spring 1987).