The character of Modesty Blaise was conceived as a comic strip in 1963 by British writer Peter O’Donnell. The success of the strip landed O’Donnell a film deal, and he wrote an early draft of the screenplay starring his sexy, female spy for a movie that was eventually released in 1966. A year before the movie’s release, O’Donnell adapted his unproduced screenplay into the first of 11 Modesty Blaise paperback novels in this highly-regarded series.
Unlike a lot of action series paperbacks that join the fully-formed main character in progress, “Modesty Blaise” is a true origin story of the female gang leader turned spy. Modesty grew up an orphan in a Baltic refugee camp and worked her way into the position of a wealthy, international organized crime leader before retiring to Great Britain at age 26. Modesty’s unusual skill set, gained from running a clandestine network, comes to the attention of the British Special Intelligence Service (SIS) who want to recruit her as an operative.
At the paperback’s opening, SIS bosses travel to Modesty’s opulent London penthouse on a recruiting mission, and the reader is treated to a run down of her remarkable biographic history. The government guys have an ace-in-the-hole: her long-time friend and former sidekick, Willie Garvin, is being held in a prison in a far-flung banana republic and will likely be hanged in a week. They provide Modesty with the details on Willie’s confinement in exchange for a favor to be named later. This is the perfect tactic to use on Modesty - as opposed to, say, blackmail - because of her sense of loyalty and honor.
Modesty’s first order of business is to plan and execute a prison break to free Willie (the sidekick, not the whale). It’s important to note that Modesty is a badass similar to Scarlett Johansson’s version of Black Widow from the Marvel movies. Once reunited, Modesty and Willie share that they are both bored-as-hell with retired life and want to get back into the action. Maybe the favor that the British clandestine service wanted can liven up their lives?
The government’s assignment for Modesty involves a massive shipment of diamonds to a middle-eastern Sheik in trade for a sizable shipment of oil. The Brit intel chief is worried that there are plans afoot to hijack the diamonds and wants Modesty to use her middle-eastern underworld connections to determine if such a plot exists and to thwart it before the diamonds are stolen. It’s this storyline that provides the core of the novel.
Quite ignorantly, I always lumped the ‘Modesty Blaise’ series in with the slew of moronic, female James Bond parodies - like ‘The Baroness’ or ‘Cherry Delight: Agent of N.Y.M.P.H.O.’ However, it’s clear that O’Donnell had a real vision for his character that went beyond a T&A spy lampoon, and his writing is superb. Without question,Modesty is a sexy operative, but her debut adventure is never cartoonish (oddly, considering the character’s comic strip origin), pandering, or stupid.
I don’t want to spoil much else, but I will say that the villain of this Modesty Blaise prose debut was extremely well-drawn, sadistic, and violently unhinged. This debut really does everything right, and I’m excited to read the next installment.
Based solely on the debut, here’s where the series stands in the larger spectrum of 20th Century spy-adventure series:
Modesty Blaise is...
- Way better than ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’
- One notch better than the ‘Sam Durrell Assignment’ books by Edward S. Aarons
- Slightly better than ‘Malko’ by Gerard de Villiers
- Solidly better than Don Smith’s ‘Secret Mission’ series
- Light years better than ‘The Baroness’ by Paul Kenyon
- A good deal better than the ‘Joe Gall’ books by Philip Atlee
- A little bit better than The Man from U.N.C.L.E. novels
- Not as good as the first 10 ‘Matt Helm’ books by Donald Hamilton
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