Peter O’Donnell: A Taste for Death (Modesty Blaise)

A Taste for Death
Peter O’Donnell
First published in the UK 1969, Souvenir Press
This edition 2012, Souvenir Press
ISBN: 9780285637658
288 pages
Score 4/5

I’d heard of Modesty Blaise but knew very little about her. If pushed, I would have said she was like a 60s female James Bond with no clothes on. So I jumped at the chance to review A Taste for Death when Souvenir Press got in touch.

I knew there were comics and a film, but had no idea there were 13 novels featuring Modesty and her band of adventurers. It turns out that Souvenir, who I had down as a non-fiction publisher, were the original publishers, and are now re-releasing the series in its original jackets (more of this please, publishers).

These 1960s action romps suffered badly at the hands of Austin Powers and might be doomed to be read forever through a pair of ironically ‘swinging’ glasses. And in fact most of the elements of the genre are present and correct.

1. Delightfully retro high technology.

‘The gubbins under the dash is a KW 2000A transceiver, powered from the battery through transistorised circuits.’
She drew up at the traffic lights at Grosvenor Gate and clipped on a small, lightweight attachment which presented a mike close to her mouth.
‘Say more cryptic things,’ Collier encouraged.
‘All right. This is a vox-operated transmission, which means the set automatically switches to send when you start speaking … I’ve driven through London talking to Willie in Hong Kong, India, Brazil, New Zealand – you name it.’

2. Stylised action:

There is a mystery in the higher grades of combat. The movements of a judoka seem unhurried, his victim will appear to co-operate submissively in the performance of the throw. It is a strange illusion. By the same strange illusion the movement of Modesty’s right hand seemed unhurried, yet suddenly it held a small black object which yapped viciously, once, and she was falling sideways, and Reilly was standing up dead, with a round black spot just above the bridge of his nose.’

3. Comic opera bad guys (led by the gorilla-like Delicata – the man with a taste for death, no sense of pain, and superhuman strength):

The man stood over six and a half feet tall. His shoulders were almost as wide as the door, and very square, with a huge round head perched upon them. There seemed to be no neck.

4. Globe-trotting plot: Modesty Blaise’s partner-in-crime Willie Garvin is pearl-diving off a remote island in Panama when he witnesses the murder of one young woman and the kidnap of another. He is too late to prevent the murder, but foils the kidnap with brutal finality before escaping with the girl. Garvin also sees the man in charge of the operation, an old enemy named Gabriel.The girl, Dinah Pilgrim, is brave, beautiful – and blind. Gabriel wants her alive, but she has no idea why. Trapped in Panama, Garvin calls in Blaise to get him and the girl out in one piece, which she does in fine style. Improbably, the action then moves to the Sahara Desert…

So, it’s all good fun. But there’s more here. First, there is the wit. Here, Modesty prepares her boyfriend Collier for a flight.

Modesty looked at Collier. ‘I’ll hold your hand and quote statistics during the flight.’
‘You may do so,’ Collier agreed, ‘whenever you have a moment to spare from carrying advice, exhortations and urgent technical questions from me to the pilot.’

Second, a  surprising, but very winning feature of the book (and presumably the series) is the strong sense of family. Cockney action-man Willie Garvin is basically Blaise’s soul-mate, despite the fact that he hooks up with Dinah Pilgrim and she is with the elegant mathematician Collier. Blaise’s boss Sir Gerald Tarrant, who seems to work in British Intelligence, is the father-figure. Genuine bonds of affection, loyalty and occasionally poignant humour exist between them all. O’Donnell clearly loved his characters and that really comes across.

Souvenir of course mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the back cover, and I think this is a fair comparison – not just for the strong female lead, but also because of this deft handling of a team/family of adventurers.

A Taste for Death is the fourth Blaise,  so I had to play catch-up a little bit, but not enough to spoil the story. Recommended.

Final destination: A keeper

Finally, some links. Modesty Blaise is a genuine cult and has a little corner of the web devoted to her over at the Modesty Blaise News blog.

A Taste for Death is to be aired as a BBC radio play scripted by Stef Penney, with Daphne Alexander as Modesty Blaise, Carl Prekopp as Willie Garvin, Alun Armstrong as Sir Gerald Tarrant, Sam Dale as Simon Delicata, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Steve Collier and Samantha Dakin as Dinah Pilgrim.

Creative Commons License

Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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6 Responses to Peter O’Donnell: A Taste for Death (Modesty Blaise)

  1. I seem to remember Modesty Blaise had a life as a comic strip too – always entertaining!

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