Peter O’Donnell: Modesty Blaise

Modesty BlaiseModesty Blaise
Peter O’Donnell
First published in the UK 1965, Souvenir Press
This edition 2012, Souvenir Press
ISBN: 9780285637283
224 pages
Score 4/5

I recently reviewed A Taste for Death, the fourth Modesty Blaise title by cartoonist-turned-novelist Peter O’Donnell, and enjoyed it so much I made it my pick of the month for November. The publisher Souvenir Press has now been kind enough to send me the first two in the series.

The first, Modesty Blaise, sets the scene for the series. Modesty, a recently-retired master-criminal, supported by her ultra-competent sidekick Willie Garvin, is called in by the British government to tackle a job that their own agents can’t handle.

The government has agreed to pay the Sheikh Abu-Tahir ten million pounds in diamonds in return for valuable oil concessions. The jewels are scheduled to be taken from Cape Town to a bank in Beirut by The Tiboria, but British Intelligence has been hearing rumours of a planned theft. Unable to pin down the rumours, Sir Gerald Tarrant calls on the services of Modesty Blaise.

‘A remarkable woman. If you had been a child, on your own, in  a Middle East D.P. camp in ’45, do you think you could have managed to retire at twenty-six with well over half a million sterling?’

Modesty is a criminal mastermind on the side of the angels. She’s a far-sighted strategist, a lethal opponent in combat, and devastatingly beautiful. In this adventure she is ably assisted by the loyal Garvin, and her current lover, the artist-turned-British-agent Hagan. With a team like this, the ending comes as no surprise, even when they are pitted against the coldly logical (but Tom and Jerry obsessed) Gabriel and his deadly henchmen.

Reading #4 in the series first, I did have questions about the back-story for Modesty and her right-hand man Garvin, the knife-throwing martial artist with a talent for engineering.

Modesty herself doesn’t know who she is or where she comes from. She has vague childhood memories of being on the run in the Balkans, then a camp in Greece during the War, then a series of camps across the Middle East where she was taught by an old philosopher she decided to protect. Even as a child she was a fighter. By her early twenties she was running The Network, an international crime syndicate.

Garvin’s background is simpler. He was a petty criminal unaware of his own great potential until Modesty bought him out of a Saigon gaol and gave him the chance to shine.

The obvious question about Willie and Modesty is why aren’t they an item? They share an almost empathic understanding, a long and exciting history, and they both have – ahem – a healthy interest in the opposite sex. This isn’t a will-they-won’t-they situation designed to add a bit of sexual tension, but something far simpler.

Hagan drew on his cigarette, frowning. ‘Look,’ he said slowly, ‘you have to feel something about each other.’
Willie rubbed the back  of his neck and looked baffled. ‘Well, ‘course you ‘ave,’ he said. ‘But, I mean – well, ‘ow d’you feel about someone who’s got all that Modesty’s got, and who picks you out of the gutter and makes you so different you walk like a bloody king?’
‘I guess you’d feel at least halfway crazy about someone like that.’
‘All the way. But not your way, matey. That’s something else. It’d be a liberty.’
‘That’s what I don’t get. Why not my way?’
Willie moved uneasily. Suddenly Hagan saw that he was deeply embarrassed, as a devout believer might be embarrassed by a friend’s unwitting sacrilege.
‘Sorry,’ Hagan said. ‘that’s a mighty tall pedestal you’ve got her on, Willie boy.’
‘She’s never fell off.’

Modesty Blaise is a great start to what I think is a great series. Well worth looking out for.

Final destination: A keeper

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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3 Responses to Peter O’Donnell: Modesty Blaise

  1. Rich – A fine review for which thanks. I’ve always liked her strength of character and the fact that she’s innovative. You’ve reminded me (and thanks for that too) that I need to go back and re-read that one.

  2. Pingback: Peter O’Donnell: Cobra Trap | Past Offences

  3. Pingback: Pick of the month: December 2012 | Past Offences

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