Sunday, August 26, 2007

Modesty Blaise: Peter O’Donnell

As with James Bond, I decided to get started on Modesty Blaise with the first in the series. And the first book is evidence that Peter O’Donnell was clearly building Modesty up as a serial star. The myth-building is very evident, the characterization is so larger-than-life it would have been a shame if it had been a one-book character. Of course, a three-year run as a successful comic strip would have encouraged O’Donnell into thinking that a series of novels with Modesty Blaise is bound to be successful.

While the comparison with James Bond is inevitable, let me just point out one key difference between the two in terms of characterization, and get out of the comparison game. James Bond’s character is based on the narrated successes from his past, even in the first book, Casino Royale. In the case of Modesty Blaise, her character and the aura around her have been shaped by her upbringing, the travails she had faced as a child, and the experiences she had had in her growing years, be it the fact that she had been raped twice (and therefore learns the art of becoming unconscious at will) or that that she worked in as an assistant in a barber’s shop. (An essay titled Girl Walking, written by Peter O’Donnell in 2006 throws light on the genesis of the Modesty Blaise character.)

Back to the book itself.

Modesty Blaise is a regulation super-thriller, with an invincible protagonist (and a loyal second lieutenant), a seemingly formidable set of enemies, a task that is beyond a country’s conventional crime-busters, multiple locales, a grueling climax, and it-all-ends-happily-for-the-good finale. I admit that is a bit of an oversimplification, but at a broad level that is what it is. It can be argued that a bulk of superhero thriller fiction pans out that way, with variations in some of the elements, and so it is. But the difference in Modesty Blaise is Modesty Blaise. And her approach in perfecting herself in everything she does or needs to do to succeed.

I wasn’t good with a gun, like you. I spent two hours a day for two years, making myself good. It might not seem worth it. How often do you really need to use a gun—I mean, to shoot with it? Once in three, four, five years? All right, I spent fifteen hundred hours making myself ready for that one time. Because I’m a professional, Paul.

As tends to be the case with super-heroes, the thrill is not really on whether they will succeed, but how. And in Modesty Blaise’s case, she seems to do it rather effortlessly, thanks to her invincible multi-dimensional skills, her history of successful endeavors (a touch tall, considering how young she is), and her reliable assistant, Willie Garvin. That perhaps is a bit of a letdown in the book. I didn’t quite sweat in any part of it. Even when Modesty puts herself up as live bait to the enemy and exposes herself to the brutalities of Mrs. Fothergill.

When I finished reading Modesty Blaise, it left me with a strange melancholic feeling for Modesty. Even though she succeeds, she still seems to be seeking something elusive and unattainable. Is it happiness? Is it peace? Is it acceptance? Is it love? I wonder whether the later books answer this question. Or is she the statue of the perfect woman, the real one hidden, never to come out?

4 comments:

Peter said...

She is also unafraid to use her sex appeal, those this is teasingly referred to rather than portrayed in Modesty Blaise. I once wondered how the Modesty Blaise comic strip, which presumably appeared in "family" newspapers, dealt with such questions.

Perhaps some of the melancholy comes from the platonic (or unresolved) love between WIlly and Modesty. Of course, she also blows off another lover in Modesty Blaise.

I posted a few discussions on the subject last year, if you'd care for a look: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/search/label/Modesty%20Blaise
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

De Scribe said...

Yes, Peter, the relationship between Modesty and Willy does seem to be a source of melancholy.

The Crime Time link you have referred to in your post features Girl Walking - the preface essay in the edition I read.

Peter said...

I just rented Joseph Losey's 1966 movie version of Modesty Blaise (and posted a comment on my blog, if you'd care to take a look).

God, was it awful -- dated, pretentious, campy without being amusing. There were some nice shots of Amsterdam, though, including one or two unexpected ones.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

De Scribe said...

I am not much of a movie person, Peter. So I am spared from going through what you went through. :-)
Though I must add that I did happen to see the movie version of John Ball's "In the Heat of the Night" and it was as good as the book version. I had commented on that in my review of that book - http://codexpression.blogspot.com/2007/07/in-heat-of-night-john-ball.html