With there now being an abundance of formidable female characters, each as “badass” as their male counterparts, it may be difficult to believe that the “realistic” action genre of popular literature was once largely a patriarchal preserve. One capable woman set the path for her ilk.
But Peter O’Donnell’s sultry, stunning and superlatively intelligent Modesty Blaise is not only the original action heroine, but also exemplifies profound literary imagination.
Inspired from a brief encounter the author had with an unnamed, nearly feral, refugee girl in Persia during his World War II service and his conceptualisation — two decades hence — of how her future might have unfolded, Modesty has had an enviable cross-media stint.
Apart from the long-running (1963-2002), worldwide syndicated comic strip, spanning 99 storylines, she starred in 13 books — including two short story collections — at least two films, many radio dramas and a number of pop songs. A planned TV series, however, didn’t materialise and Quentin Tarrantino, who planned to make a film on her, only ended up showing his “Pulp Fiction” assassin Vincent Vega (John Travolta) reading one of the Modesty novels.
But what makes the black-haired, high-cheekboned and buxom but fighting fit Modesty stand out from the other Action Girls — which are not a modern phenomenon but occur right from classical and ancient religious literature?
Apart from goddesses — the Greek pantheon’s Athena and Artemis, and their demon-killing counterparts in Hinduism, there are the Amazons — who also inspired female “knights” in chivalric literature: Bradamante and Marfisa in Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” to Belphoebe, Britomart, and Palladine in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene”.
But then, for quite long, the norm was an action hero, and action heroines were rare — Red Sonya or others by Robert E. “Conan the Barbarian” Howard, or say, Eowyn, Galadriel, Haleth from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or “Silmarillion” besides comic book stars from Wonder Woman to Batgirl — even well into the 20th century.
Though now there’s Hermione (‘Harry Potter’), Annabeth Chase, Reyna, her elder sister Hyalla and others (the Percy Jackson cycle), Thursday Next (Jasper Fforde) and, of course, Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, all these are either comic book superheroines or from the mythology, fantasy or science fiction genres, save Salander. And while in the “real” world, she is unconventional and anti-social, and according to her creator, “an unusual kind of sociopath”.
Against this, we have Modesty, who is an orphan with an unknown but rather dark and traumatic past, joined a criminal syndicate in her teenage years — and grew to head it before she was 20. But she scrupulously kept it away from the vice and drug segments, and abjured violence unless absolutely unavoidable.
Having collected half a million pounds before she was 26, she wound up her network, and “retired” to Britain, but comes back to active status to do an odd job or two for British intelligence, or when her close friends are threatened, or some criminal mastermind drags them into his nefarious schemes.
Revealing her genesis, O’Donnell said, in a 2006 preface for a 21st century reprint of the first novel “Modesty Blaise” (1965), that he had been asked to create a new strip and decided to combine his existing work, featuring action characters Garth and Tug Transom and serials for women’s magazines.
“I had been intrigued by the idea of bringing these two genres together by creating a woman who, though fully feminine, would be as good at combat as any male, if not better.” Recalling that fleeting meeting, he fleshed out a possible future — as his essay tells — and the character was born and soon became so popular that a movie followed. Though it flopped, O’ Donnell transformed his unused script into the first novel.
It sees Modesty, aided by her trusty aide and friend, the rough-hewn-turned sophisticated (when needed) Willie Garvin, foil an attempt to hijack a large and valuable diamond consignment being shipped to an Arabian sheikh by the British government.
“Sabre-Tooth” (1966), “I, Lucifer” (1967), “A Taste for Death” (1969), “The Impossible Virgin” (1971), “The Silver Mistress” (1973), “Last Day in Limbo” (1976), “Dragon’s Claw” (1977), “The Xanadu Talisman” (1981), “The Night of Morningstar” (1982), and “Dead Man’s Handle” (1986) followed, as well as story collections, “Pieces of Modesty” (1972) and “Cobra Trap” (1996) — in whose last eponymous story, set far into her future, we bid her goodbye. The comic strip ended on a more optimistic note.
And then what sets Modesty’s adventures apart? There is plenty of action and sex (Modesty’s charms are lovingly described and she is uninhibited — even having a distracting combat gambit called “The Nailer” of entering a room of enemies topless), vivid characters, including thoroughly dastardly villains, and intricate plots — but so do many others of the genre.
The key difference is her close, platonic relationship with Willie, based on complete openness, understanding and trust — and so devoted that threatening one will draw the other’s unflinching wrath (as many villains learn).
It is this that gives this spell-binding series its special allure — and holds a lesson for both sexes.