This was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Strictly speaking, Peter O’Donnell‘s Modesty Blaise is not a spy, and indeed the book that bears her name isn’t really spy fiction. Much like Ian Fleming’s middle 007 series, this is the stuff of proper adventure stories, with capers and pranks and lots of bloodshed, but little actual espionage. However, it’s got some good secret agent stuff in it and O’Donnell borrows quite a bit from the crosses and double crosses we’ve seen in Dark Wanton and The Great Impersonation.
Modesty Blaise (1965) is the first novelised adventure of Modesty Blaise, which began as a comic strip in 1963. A very visual read, its beginnings are evident. The chases come off with adrenalin, the fight scenes are described vividly, the humour is so physical it’s almost slapstick; it’s a bit like reading a picture, and I suspect that’s just what O’Donnell was striving for. I first came across her in ‘The Giggle-Wrecker’, a short story from O’Donnell’s 1972 collection Pieces of Modesty. The story is pretty implausible, though by far more ‘espionage-y’ than this one, but there was something intriguing about Modesty and the sort of odd buoyancy of dangerous adventure that filters through.
Modesty is a hardened ex-con with a heart of gold and fists of steel, who, against impossible odds, can outwit the most wily criminal and outfox the most deadly killer. In this first book, she and her right-hand man, Willie Garvin, are pulled out of retirement to help the British government ensure the safe passage of a consignment of diamonds. Rumours of plans for a heist have been swilling. The suspected gang is ruthless, and if the rumours are true, they can be sure that the leader will stop at nothing to get at securing his haul.
Most of the book is merely groundwork, introducing Modesty and Willie to the reader, as well as to the other characters. It turns out neither Modesty nor Willie are at all what the reader or the other characters were expecting. It isn’t until we’re three-quarters of the way through that the plot begins to come together, and it’s at this point when Modesty and Willie’s abilities as secret agents begin to take effect, as they set up their entry into the gang as rivals for the diamonds. Although the ending is unsurprising (they win), how they actually run the race is well-played out and engagingly timed.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel (and the comic strips) is the portrayal of the men that surround Modesty. We often see them struggle against the clear strength and intelligence Modesty possesses, and the juxtaposition of a hardened killer encased in a voluptuous female form. She’s stylish and quite feminine, yet once on the job she ceases to be a woman in the sense they understand.
Her ability to operate with strict military unemotionality unsettles them, as does the authority that she assumes. This is particularly true of the men who either want to sleep with her (such as Paul Hagan, whose own feelings of protectiveness towards her nearly gets them both killed) or who don’t believe women can ever really be anything but the stereotype of femininity they expect of all women (such as the Right Honorable Percival Thornton, who heads the department that sends her). Perhaps the thing that they find most discombobulating of all is the fact that, as Lauren Henderson notes, unlike her male counterparts, Modesty has nothing to prove.
In this respect, it’s particularly interesting that bith the comics and the novelisations were written just as the Second Wave of feminism was beginning to gather (The Feminine Mystique was published the same year Modesty was born as a comic; The Female Eunuch came 5 years after this novel). She might have big boobs and she might use her body to get something out of someone, but much to my surprise, Modesty provides a stronger female role model than I think had ever been seen before. The blurb on the back cover my my edition quotes The Observer, which raves, ‘Before Buffy, before Charlie’s Angels, before Purdy and Emma Peel there was Modesty Blaise’, and after reading the story I reckon the likes of The Bride and Æon Flux ought to be added to the list, too. Spy fiction might not owe anything to Modesty Blaise, but iconic female heroes owe plenty.