Before I get on to talking about the second book I read for the 1965 Club hosted by Simon and Karen, I thought I’d look back and see which other books I’ve read published that year – there are only a handful, and they are (title links will take you to my reviews):
- Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster – her third novel with a wonderful protagonist exploring adult life.
- August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien – packed with earthy romance and darkness.
- Ramage by Dudley Pope – first in a long-running naval series this was an enjoyable read.
- Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö – the first Martin Beck book from the Swedish police procedural masters.
Now to my second 1965 read:
Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell
Forget Lara Croft, Modesty Blaise is the original kickass action heroine! A riposte to James Bond, she made her debut in the cartoon strips O’Donnell wrote illustrated by Jim Holdaway from 1963, initially published in the London Evening Standard, then syndicated worldwide, they ran for 38 years. The first novel, from 1965, is really a novelisation of the Modesty Blaise film that came out in 1966 (above), the first of three adaptations over the years. O’Donnell continued to write both the strips, with several illustrators, and a string of novels and short stories.
Titan books have been reprinting the strips in anthologies steadily since 2004, and I read one of the later volumes Ripper Jax back in 2016 (which I reviewed for Shiny here). Having read some of the strips, and loved them, I’ve been keen ever since to read more of them and the novels.
We don’t learn much about Modesty’s growing up in the novel, just little hints here and there, including some on the first page, as Sir Gerald Tarrant and his assistant Fraser in the British Secret Service discuss how they can get Modesty to help them out of a bind…
‘I would suppose, sir,’ he said cautiously, ‘that Modesty Blaise might be a person awfully difficult for us – er – actually to get.’ He blinked towards the big, grey-haired man who stood by the window, looking down at the night traffic hurrying along Whitehall.
‘For a moment,’ Tarrant said, turning from the window, ‘I hoped you might split that infinitive, Fraser.’ …
‘A remarkable woman, Fraser,’ he said, watching the heavy smoke coiling up in the warm fluorescent light. ‘If you had been a child, on your own, in a Middle East D.P. [displaced persons] camp in ’45, do you think you could have managed to retire at twenty-six with well over half a million sterling? A small female child, of course.’
Unlikely perhaps, but true, Modesty is a refugee who lived on her wits, taught how to handle herself by a series of mentors, who ran the criminal ‘Network’ at the age of 22, then retired a few years later. She couldn’t have done all this without the help of Willie Garvin, her right-hand man. Willie is the key for persuading Modesty to help out the Government on a difficult mission, for Willie is currently languishing in a cell awaiting certain execution in South America. Tarrant freely gives her the information, and Modesty agrees to pay the debt – Tarrant correctly surmising that blackmailing her into it wouldn’t work.
So off she goes to rescue Willie, armed to the teeth with gadgets, but including her indispensable ‘kongo’ – a stick which forms part of the hair-clip holding up her chignon (she nearly always wears her hair in a ‘chignon’!). Arriving at the prison she reviews the set-up:
For a moment she hesitated over whether to use The Nailer. This meant taking off her sweater and bra, and going into the room stripped to the waist. She felt no reticence about the idea, for it was a highly practical one, first improvised on a life-and-death occasion with Willie Garvin in Agrigento five years ago, and she had proved it twice since. The technique was guaranteed to nail a roomful of men, holding them frozen for at least two or three vital seconds.
She doesn’t need it this time. She rescues Willie and returns to London to pay her debt to Tarrant. It turns out that the British Government is paying a sheikh in diamonds for his oil. His Highness Sheikh Abu-Tazir, unknown to Tarrant, knows Modesty of old. The diamonds are being shipped from South Africa to Istanbul, and Modesty will ensure the transition from sea to land goes as planned. Intelligence tells that the gangster Gabriel has set his sights on them. Off they go to the South of France where Gabriel is normally based, picking up Modesty’s occasional lover and henchman, the artist Paul Hagan on the way. But the trail goes cold – Gabriel is nowhere to be found. Modesty must attract his attention and find out what’s happening from inside his organisation using herself and Willie as bait.
The plot becomes increasingly convoluted as we meet Gabriel and his team (including Mrs Fothergill – cross Bond villain Jaws with Rosa Klebb!) in their secret hideaway, the diamonds get stolen from the ship en route, and Modesty and Willie put their lives in mortal danger. Can they survive to live (or die) another day? Course they can!
Modesty is an amazing woman: cosmopolitan, resourceful, resilient, in peak physical shape, yet graceful and feminine, and she has a superb brain! Men adore her – and she adores them too having lovers aplenty, but women also love her – somehow she’s not a threat. She couldn’t possibly fully retire at the age of 26. Willie, despite buying a country pub, couldn’t do it either. I loved his habit of having a bible quote for every situation (he was imprisoned with only a bible to read once, and memorised the psalms), always related in his pure cockney accent. While Modesty lacks Bond’s sardonic humour, she makes up that for by making us love her, leaving the humour to all the baddies, although Gabriel never came to life on the page for me – but his team did! However, Tarrant is not just the stuffed suit that M is either, he is allowed to have a little fun.
I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, which is all the build-up to the final operation and heist – always the most enjoyable part of the Bond books too. As pure escapist thriller fun, Modesty Blaise is equal to James Bond. Modesty’s Mediterranean heritage gives her a welcome exoticism which, combined with her moral code and lack of snobbery, makes her an unusual and attractive heroine. (9/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR, Souvenir press paperback 224 pages.