Comic strip writer Peter O' Donnell, who died earlier this month, was best known for his ageless creation Modesty Blaise.
She could be the poster girl for new-age feminism. Perhaps her most appealing aspect is the way she can do a powerful drop-kick wearing an exquisite designer gown and priceless pearls, fight and kill the bad guys, find and save the good guys and then have a little weep, just to show that she is, after all, only human.
And perhaps Peter O'Donnell, her creator, should take the credit for knowing what a woman is all about; embodied in the sleek, strong almost super woman he called Modesty Blaise.
Finding his heroine
Born in London on April 11, 1920, O'Donnell's inspiration for his heroine came from a chance ‘meeting' with a young girl he came across when he was in the army. During the war in 1942, when he was a sergeant in northern Iran, he and his men had just finished eating when they saw a child of about 12 years of age, dressed in rags, warily watching them. She seemed to be a refugee, perhaps from the Balkan region, and on her own, but somehow not a pathetic figure. The soldiers offered her food, which she ate, and then gave her all the supplies that they could spare. She packed up the tins they had left for her, smiled her thanks and walked off into the desert, going southwards.
O'Donnell recalled in interviews and in his introduction to the series, “She walked like a little princess.” And when he was looking for a frame to fit Modesty Blaise into, “I knew that child was the story.”
The impression was indeed strong. O'Donnell's heroine featured in the comic strips that he drew (with collaborators) for The London Evening Standard for almost 40 years, ending in 2001 and syndicated internationally.
In the books, of which there are at least 12, starting with Modesty Blaise and ending with Cobra Trap, he gradually reveals tiny bytes of information about his leading lady, building up a personality that was honed by hardship and a life of crime in northern Africa, the Middle East and parts beyond, a woman who ‘retired' in her 20s and never settled into happy domesticity, as women of that time would have been expected to do. Instead, she used her well-earned money, her skills and her contacts to fight crime in ways more complex and unexpected than the conventional, often for the British government via a gentleman called Sir Gerald Tarrant.
In I Lucifer, she came across a delusional young man who could ‘predict' death; in The Impossible Virgin, she believed for a while her partner Willie Garvin, who called her ‘Princess', was dead, but managed to stay strong enough to win the nastily fierce battle against the villains of that particular piece. In Pieces of Modesty, the action is quicker, the stories shorter, O'Donnell proving that, to tell a story of the kind that he specialised in, an entire novel was not necessary. And in Cobra Trap, Modesty Blaise is killed but leaves behind a tiny hint of a possible rebirth in some form. Along the way, she meets people, often men she has love affairs with, some good and some…well…who don't find her good side.
The comic strips showed her as a curvy woman flaunting a deep cleavage, clad in clinging clothes, high heels and lots of eye-black. The books give her a more sophisticated image, with a svelte body, long-legged elegance and refined taste. The story - that The Daily Express in England commissioned and then rejected because it did not want a heroine who started her career as a significant member of the underworld as she ‘lacked propriety' - became so popular that though it went out of print, Penguin published a ‘retro' edition a couple of years ago. Movies have also been made, none of note.
It is known that, like writer Kingsley Amis, director Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan and wants to use one of the stories for a film; in fact, a character in his “Pulp Fiction” is shown reading a Modesty Blaise novel! And there was a less diabolic side to creativity as well; the man who wrote of the most horrendous ways to kill also wrote 19th century romance novels, under the pseudonym Madeleine Brent.
O'Donnell died on May 3, at the age of 90, leaving behind not just his wife of 70 years, two daughters, three grandchildren, four great-grandchildren but also a character who is, in her own way, ageless: Modesty Blaise.