Modesty Blaise may be my favorite fictional character ever. The plot of this book is fun, complete with evil masterminds and reclusive monks. The prose is precise; O’Donnell describes everything from weapons to interior design in clear detail, omitting needless words. But it is the main characters who ignited my imagination.
Modesty Blaise started in 1963 as a comic strip collaboration between author Peter O’Donnell and illustrator Jim Holdaway. O’Donnell published the first novel in 1965. Blaise’s earliest memories are of refugee camps post World War II. Alone among rapists and thieves, and constantly on the verge of starvation, Blaise becomes as dangerous as her situation.
Her circumstances, though dreadful, provide a unique advantage over a more conventional upbringing. Early on in life, Blaise sees past the gild of tradition; she perceives that the societal norms so often crammed down people’s throats rarely deliver on their feeblest promises. So, she blazes her own path.
By the age of seventeen, Blaise laid the foundation for The Network, a sophisticated crime organization with hubs in major cities around the world. Shunning drugs and vice in favor of larceny, Blaise grows increasingly efficient. Her goal is to make a cool half million pounds (equivalent to 10 million pounds or 12.8 million dollars in 2017) and then retire. At 25, she reaches her goal.
But, retirement is dull when you’ve already conquered the world. This is where Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of a secret service department in the British government, sees his opportunity. Great Britain apparently needs a professional to protect a shipment of diamonds worth 10 million pounds (214 million pounds today). Tarrant believes Blaise, with her connections, experience, and right-hand man Willie Garvin, is perfect for the job.
Blaise is young, lovely, intelligent. Outside of these predictable qualities, though, she is a refreshing blend of contradictions. Her weapon of choice is a yawara stick. Impeccable manners enhance her grace and poise. Dangerous situations make her feel alive. She adores fine dresses and jewels and relentless training. She takes lovers whenever she desires. Taking her for granted may be the one sin she won’t forgive, which explains her bond with Garvin.
Willie Garvin is lethal with a throwing knife, and with just about any other weapon. He cuts the breathy hs out of his speech. Mozart trumps most other composers, in his humble opinion. He calls Modesty ‘Princess,’ but when they’re on a job, he forgets that she is a woman. Then, she is simply an extraordinary accomplice who he trusts with his life. Unlike the lovers Blaise takes and drops, Garvin respect her fully; he never assumes he can control or influence her.
Blaise and Garvin’s relationship is unlike any other relationship I’ve ever seen. They are entirely platonic. Other men consider Garvin a dog at Blaise’s feet because he never romances her. When asked whether it hurts to see her with other men, Willie is confused. “Why should that ‘urt?” he says, “She’s entitled, isn’t she?” Those same men who mock Willie also envy him. They see Blaise as young, lovely, intelligent, but Willie sees her as a human. Thus, he alone sees Modesty when she is most vulnerable, or clever, or herself. He alone has her never ending loyalty.
I found Blaise just after I finished Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. The movie inspired my love for action flicks and came to define my standards for the genre. But, while in the book Bourne still wields impossible skills perfectly tailored to his impossible situation, he whines so much more. Every new setback seems another opportunity for him to wallow in self-pity.
What bothered me most were the discrepancies between the two versions of Marie. With a Ph.D. and a relentless will, Marie is the true star of the novel. Her stomach is stronger than Bourne’s, her spine stiffer. Yet the movie portrays her as helpless, rather stupid, and most likely suffering from Stockholm syndrome. In both the movie and the book, Marie is only around because she has fallen for Bourne. In these fictional worlds, her existence can only be justified by his.
So I searched the world wide web for a book about an action heroine like Bourne or Bond. I wanted to read about a woman who was a badass simply because she chose to be one. Modesty Blaise was just about all that came up, and she satisfied my ego and my super ego and everything that makes up my id.
Blaise is who she is because she decides to be. She has no agenda – moral, or feminist, or otherwise. She never feels a need to prove herself. Blaise is just a creature who has figured out how to thrive in a hostile environment, and in doing so, has transcended the world.