The great charm of all power is Modesty

By Evangeline Jennings

Long ago in a galaxy just round the corner, I once spoke with the author Lauren Henderson about our mutual affection for the under-appreciated Modesty Blaise.

Without ever becoming a stereotype, Modesty has always been an inspiration and an archetype for a certain class of writer – Carol O’Connell’s brilliant Mallory is an obvious example – and she deserves, we agreed, infinitely more acclaim than she has ever received.

Modesty started in a sixties comic strip, migrated to a very poor movie, and then to novels. Her creator was a man called Peter O’Donnell – who also wrote as Madeleine Brent – and he produced a total of eleven Modesty Blaise novels and two collections of short stories.

O’Donnell began his career by writing for children’s comics. Later he wrote freelance comic strips for the British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror.

The inspiration for Modesty Blaise came from a traumatic incident O’Donnell witnessed during the war. The strip was intended for the Daily Express but it was canceled, the author has said because the chairman of the Express considered that “a woman from the underworld” was unsuitable for his readers.

Instead, she appeared in the London Evening Standard and ran from May 1963 until 2001. A pretty good run by anybody’s measure.

How to describe Modesty?

A war orphan who never knew her parents, nationality, or real name. A survivor who inspired loyalty in a strange assortment of interesting friends. Moriarty in Mary Quant. An international criminal mastermind who was running her own global organization by the time she was nineteen, she retired at the age of twenty-six and became a righter of wrongs and an ad hoc occasional spy.

The obvious analogies are James Bond and Simon Templar. Of course, The Saint and 007 have been infinitely more successful – I wonder why – but Modesty was the superior creation. Sadly, despite the interest and support of people as grand as Quentin Tarantino, Neil Gaiman, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Lopez, not a lot of people seem to know this.

Vincent Vega's Bathroom Reading
Vincent Vega’s Bathroom Reading

Obviously Modesty Blaise was a creation of the sixties. There’s not one word in the books that could be considered politically correct and the plots are comic-book ludicrous – but no more so than James Bond – yet still she was an empowered and capable woman and a thoroughly devastatingly kick-ass heroine. And as no less a man than Kingsley Amis once said, the stories are “endlessly fascinating”.

There are things we can learn from Modesty Blaise beyond the art of creating a timeless heroine. Each comic strip story ran for 18 to 20 weeks. O’Donnell was typically telling a story with three hundred pictures and very few words. Today we often hear authors advised to write with the camera in mind. Perhaps the comic strip model is a better version of this.

Every scene has to be visualized – and visually stunning. Backstory is impossible in a strip. Character development is drip fed through the plot. And, most importantly, you can’t afford to lose your reader’s attention for a moment. Cliff-hangers are essential – especially on a Friday when you risk losing your audience over the weekend.

As the e-publishing model throws new light on serialization, O’Donnell’s skills may be coming back into vogue. And I don’t think the best of Modesty’s cover art ever went out of fashion.

I couldn’t find a good picture of the Lichenstein knock-off covers

The Modesty Blaise books are all available via Amazon:

•    Modesty Blaise (1965)

•    Sabre-Tooth (1966)

•    I, Lucifer (1967)

•    A Taste for Death (1969)

•    The Impossible Virgin (1971)

•    Pieces of Modesty (1972) (6 short stories)

•    The Silver Mistress (1973)

•    Last Day in Limbo (1976)

•    Dragon’s Claw (1978)

•    The Xanadu Talisman (1981)

•    The Night of Morningstar (1982)

•    Dead Man’s Handle (1985)

•    Cobra Trap (1996) (5 short stories)

Martin Amis’ father recommends them whole-heartedly.

And now some further reading.

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