Saturday, 27 September 2014

Modesty Blaise - Peter O'Donnell


I've read a few books in my time and I'm with Kingsley Amis on this one: Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise is "endlessly fascinating", and is indeed "one of the great partnerships in fiction, bearing comparison with that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson". It can be taken that Kingsley Amis was a fan as is also Quentin Tarantino who had John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction reading the graphic novel version throughout the film, right up to the point of him being shot dead by Bruce Willis.

O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise was an innovative and perfectly executed creation that broke the mould and smashed the template of how an action hero should be. The most obvious shift, of course, was in casting a woman in the lead role. Such a good writer was O'Donnell that in a very casual manner he was able to define various aspects of her character as to render her utterly believable. Very easily Modesty Blaise could have turned out to be merely a female version of James Bond but instead he created a fully developed, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted character with a slew of quirks, foibles, weaknesses and strengths that made her unique. In describing the way in which she dressed, played, socialised and fought as well as explaining her history, reasoning and motivation, O'Donnell painted a complete picture yet at the same time wove an air of intrigue around her that teased the reader into wanting to know more.

Though adept with all types of guns Modesty Blaise's weapon of choice was the kongo; essentially a small wooden dumb-bell that fitted neatly into her palm which she used either to knock out or to kill any opponent when fighting hand-to-hand. In addition she might also use a bow and arrow, nerve gas or even a technique called The Nailer; guaranteed even if only momentarily to stop any man in his tracks.
Her partner, Willie Garvin, was also a fully-fledged creation in his own right and could easily have been cast in the lead role in his own adventures. A blonde-haired, blue-eyed, cockney ex-degenerate; he was a weapons master par excellence though his personal preference was knives of which he always carried two. Modesty Blaise had taken him under her wing after sensing an untapped potential within him and had subsequently turned him into the most loyal and most deadly comrade-in-arms.
Together they made a perfect partnership, organising and running a world-wide crime syndicate called The Network before disbanding it to live in luxurious retirement in England. This is the point at which O'Donnell chose to start his story, with Blaise and Garvin being called out of retirement by the British Secret Service to help protect a shipment of diamonds bound for the Middle East.
During their time running The Network, friendly relationships had been maintained with Britain and cemented by the passing of information beneficial to the government. Due to her extensive knowledge of and array of contacts within Continental and Middle Eastern underworlds, Blaise is viewed as the ideal person to establish whether suspicions of a plot to steal the diamonds are true and if so, who might be behind the plot and how and when might it happen? Blaise and Garvin are pitched against a vicious crime lord called Gabriel and the resulting escapade is imaginative, inventive, fast-paced and stylishly violent.

It should be noted that O'Donnell first introduced the Modesty Blaise character as a comic strip in 1963 that was syndicated in newspapers throughout the world. The actual novel was published in 1965, basing itself on a screenplay O'Donnell had written for a film version to be directed by Joseph Losey. The film turned out to be a pop-art kitsch travesty that was so bad it was actually good. Italian actress Monica Vitti played Modesty and Terence Stamp played Garvin but stealing the film was Dirk Bogarde who played an extravagantly camp Gabriel leading a gang of blatantly gay henchmen. Needless to say, it was nothing at all like the vision O'Donnell had presented and he was none too happy with the finished result.

Even though Losey's film was in its own way peculiarly influential, it seems to have been the kiss of death upon all other attempts at getting Modesty Blaise successfully depicted in film again. There have been a couple of valiant attempts but none have come to anything which is really quite strange, particularly when compared to the James Bond franchise or even to Batman which managed to escape the Adam West 1960s version to evolve into the brooding, dark character depicted in films nowadays. Instead, it's in the books, the comic strips and even radio plays that Modesty Blaise has found her most successful homes. That's not to say, however, that O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise character has failed to be an influence upon cinema as it's very easy to recognise her in a wide variety of films from The Avengers, La Femme Nikita, Underworld, Lara Croft, and not least Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Modesty Blaise, though, was always the original and Peter O'Donnell is deserving of much credit and respect for his innovative vision, his hyperbolic imagination, his sound grasp of femininity, and his excellent writing.

Unholy trinity: O'Donnell, Vitti, Losey
John Serpico

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