Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The first of the feisty women – Modesty Blaise (created by Peter O'Donnell)

Modesty Blaise has been a heroine of mine for quite a few years. I first came across her as a young teenager. At that stage in my life most of the books I read came from the Public Library about half a mile from our house down the Oldpark Road. I used to walk there nearly every Saturday with my pile of recently read books under one arm, and return an hour or two later with a fresh batch to keep me going for another week.

On one of these excursions I came across a book called Dragon's Claw, which was about the adventures of a young woman called Modesty Blaise, whom I'd never heard of before. I took it home and read it with great enjoyment, and then searched vainly for more Modesty Blaise books, not only in the Library but in the local bookshops. Belfast was well provided with good bookshops in those days, but none of them stocked Modesty Blaise.

As time went on I gave up trying, although some episodes in the book remained burnt into my brain – Modesty rescuing Luke Fletcher, adrift in a rowing boat,  while sailing a yacht single handed in the Tasman Sea, and keeping him from falling out of his bunk during a fierce storm by lying beside him body to body; and her later escape from an island prison using hang gliders.

These were pictures still in my head years later when I began buying books through the Internet, and it suddenly occurred to me to check if any Modesty Blaise books were available there. I first of all bought one or two second hand, then discovered that they'd been republished not long before and were available at not too high a price. I put them on my wish list, was bought a lot more as presents, and kept adding to my collection. I'm now in the pleasant position of owning about two thirds of them, to read and enjoy re-reading; but with several which I still don't own and which I can look forward to as treats sometime before too long.

Some of them are also on Kindle, but at the usual high price of established publishers – very silly, isn't it?

Modesty Blaise grows as a character as the books continue to flow. Peter O'Donnell, the author, was a very clever man and an excellent writer. Willie Garvin, Modesty's friend and assistant, is an amazing character in himself, and there's a range of minor but recurring characters all interesting and full of life.

Modesty is an expert in unarmed combat. Her feet are particularly strong for kicking, and she and Willie practice together regularly. Willie is very expert with a knife, while Modesty prefers a gun, but more often uses a small hand held wooden weapon called a kongo.

But Willie is much more than a simple minded thug. He has no formal education, but picks up information readily and retains it. He knows the Book of Psalms off by heart and quotes it often. He takes great pleasure in stumping Modesty by using a word he's sure she won't have heard of, such as pandiculation or oenanthic. (Look them up for yourselves – I had to!) The game they play with these words requires Modesty in turn to use the word in conversation without having seemed to look it up in the meantime. If, like me, you love words, this all adds to the enjoyment.

But the main attraction of these books lies in the action. Modesty and Willie are both expert at coming up with ideas for a 'con' (I saw one of their ideas used in an episode of Hustle not long ago!), which adds to the interest, but their cleverness  in action and their physical skill (which gets them out of many a tight corner) are the high notes of the stories.

Modesty began life as a war orphan wandering from one Displaced Persons camp to another at the age of around seven – she can't remember further back, probably mercifully. She doesn't know her name or her accurate age. She befriends an elderly academic who gives her a name and teaches her what he can in lieu of a formal education, while she in turn looks out for him in all the practical ways necessarily for their survival.

She walks barefoot over the Middle East until her teenage years and eventually emerges in Tangiers, after the recent death of her elderly friend. There she works in a Casino, becomes a force to be reckoned with in the gang which runs it, and eventually takes over the gang  when its leader is murdered. Going from strength to strength, she runs a criminal organisation known as the Network; until at the age of twenty-six she retires with a sufficient fortune to live a life of leisure.

 Instead, she and Willie Garvin promptly get sucked into working for the British Secret Service by its chief Sir Gerald Tarrant – and this is where the first book, simply called Modesty Blaise, begins.

As must be clear by now, I love these books. In the eighties I wrote my first grown up book, a thriller written very much in the style of the times. When I got it out recently I decided that it had too much potential to be left mouldering in a drawer for another twenty years, but that it needed a thorough overhaul to bring it up to date.

And one of the main things I did was to change the rather wimpy heroine to someone much more like Modesty Blaise. I tried not to steal anything, but simply to create a strong woman who wouldn't let herself be pushed around and who was prepared to tackle any villains who came along – and the result was Angel in Flight, the first of my series of books about Angeline, or Angel, Murphy, the feisty Belfast girl.

And now the second of the Angel Murphy Thrillers, Angel in Belfast, is out. I can promise at least two more which I've been thinking about – but who knows where it will stop? Thank you, Peter O'Donnell and Modesty Blaise, for your inspiration. Apparently the Modesty Blaise books, which sprang out of a popular strip cartoon, have sold in their millions. Wouldn't it be nice if the same thing happened to Angel Murphy?

You can buy my books at these links:

Belfast Girls 

Danger Danger

Angel in Flight: the First Angel Murphy Thriller

The Seanachie: Tales of Old Seamus

Lady Molly And The Snapper

And finally, my new release, Angel in Belfast: the 2nd Angel Murphy Thriller about the feisty young Belfast girl!

Why not try them?

Goodbye and God Bless! See you soon!


  1. Loved Modesty Blaise, though they made a particularly bad movie out of her character. Also thought Willie was a great foil and partner. So much so that I shamelessly reacreated both Modesty and Willie in my own book "Castle Dark" as I decided it was time the ladies had another kick-ass heroine.

  2. Great to find another fan, Nicholas. I must read your book – bound to be good if it's as you describe!

  3. I was and remain a big fan of Modesty, if you combine her with Buffy and Faith, make her just a little bit more sociopath and you have my sword and sorcery heroine, Jalia.

  4. That's quite true, John – Jalia is a great character. Glad to hear you're a Modesty fan too!

  5. I had no idea there were so many Modesty Blaise books, or that they were still going strong. I wish you tons of success following in her footsteps!

    1. Thanks, Anne! I believe there are thirteen books by Peter O'Donnell – eleven full length and three books of short stories. There are also a number now being issued written by someone else, based on some of the strip cartoon. Personally I'll wait to try those until I've read all the original ones. Continuations of series are seldom successful, in my experience.

    2. Eleven and three actually make fourteen, right? I discovered an extra book of short stories when I checked, added it in to make three instead of two, and forgot to change the total! Duh!

  6. Yes! Yes! Yes! Long may she--and we--wave! Modesty needs a come back. In more ways than one. Go get em!

    1. Ruth, your enthusiasm is great – really heart warming. One of the things I love about writing these blogs is the people who I find out are also fans of some one I love. And thanks for your encouragement – I value it immensely.

  7. Great Post, Gerry! It's always interesting to me which books from childhood have such an impact they stay with us through adulthood. I've never heard of the Modesty Blaise books until reading your blog, but I'm going to have to order one and read it.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Roberta! Yes, books we read as children or young people probably have more impact on our lives than anything read later. I enjoy writing about them – it's like talking to good friends and sharing ideas. But next time, in my normal pattern, I'll be coming up to date again with a new discovery!