When the lockdown started—the first one—there was a funny kind of pause. I remember glancing around my house, noticing things that I’d walked past for months without really seeing them. On the entryway table I’d stashed a few books I hadn’t gotten around to reading. One was a Modesty Blaise novel. I think it was (don’t laugh) The Impossible Virgin.
I’d ordered it months before because I had a vague memory of Modesty Blaise from my childhood. I’d probably seen the dreadful ‘60s movie with Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp. Modesty Blaise was billed as the female James Bond and my entire family was fanatical about Bond, James Bond. I have a friend from Kenya now, and her name is Catherine Bond. Every time I write her an email I chortle silently, thinking, Bond, Catherine Bond. She’s British so the accent is right.
For the next two months I lived in Modesty Blaise’s world. Her backstory was strangely resonant in our own time of mass migration and fractured nation-states. In 1945, a war orphan escaped from a displaced person camp in Greece. Remembering nothing from her past, she wanders through the ruins of a post-World War II landscape: the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa. An older man, a Jewish-Hungarian refugee, befriends her and educates her.
At nineteen, Modesty Blaise becomes the head of a criminal gang in Tangier. She meets a mentally broken but handy Cockney named Willie Garvin and gives him the recognition for his character and talents denied him by his upbringing. The two become rich and retire from crime. The series begins when a British secret service officer recruits them for a special mission.
What’s not to love? Spies, international intrigue, exotic locales. But what seduced me into these books was the template for female strength assembled by the author, a Brit named Peter O’Donnell. Blaise is a martial arts expert; she practices for hours daily with Garvin, and both acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. Garvin can throw a knife with uncanny accuracy; Modesty is aces at martial arts, superb at sussing out her opponents’ next move.
Modesty, by the way, is always, incontrovertibly, the boss, and Willie Garvin her loyal lieutenant. She is the strategist; Willie the tactician. In every one of the 13 books, they find themselves in impossible situations—part of the fun is not believing that O’Donnell can get them out of trouble—and it’s invariably Modesty who thinks her way out.
Not that there isn’t damage. On at least one occasion, Modesty lets herself be raped (or in one case, sleeps with an egotistical thief who’s holding her captive) because it’s the only way to get out of a bad situation. One of her many talents is using an obscure Eastern mediation technique to leave her body (also handy when one has been shot) but she’s aware of everything,. And justice will eventually be served.
Now they call this resilience. Modesty Blaise is the antithesis of a whiny @metoo girl. I mean, there is genuine sexual harassment and there is certainly rape. Neither are going away. Without downplaying the damage, author Peter O’Donnell gives the reader a template for reassembling one’s sense of self and coming out stronger for it.
It’s not that Modesty doesn’t have, as we say, mileage. She has lovers, but she’s able to take each one for their true nature. Seeing them so clearly, she understands that none are quite a fit. Unlike me, or most women, she accepts that. Perhaps there’s the damage: her unwillingness to, er, commit. Or maybe it’s clear-sightedness.
Modesty’s long-term relationship is with Willie Garvin. Modesty and Willie aren’t lovers. They’re closer than that. Perhaps this is the most a strong, intelligent woman who’s “used herself hard” as a friend of mine once described it, can hope for: a comrade-in-arms who knows her more intimately than any lover and still calls her Princess.
Modesty Blaise understands that living means getting wounded. It’s a matter of healing the wounds, maybe not completely, but as best one can.
And driving a Jaguar, if one can manage it.
When I read these books, I felt invulnerable, and, God, I needed that. I don’t want to inflict a spoiler on anyone. I’ll only say that for those first days when we were still shocked by the pandemic, when death was there every day, and the immediacy of it was new to me, as it was to any American born in the middle of the century when we were kids protected from smallpox and TB and war within the shores of our isolated country, that’s when I needed Modesty Blaise.
Susan Zakin is an editor of Journal of the Plague Year.
Editor's Note: Many of the Modesty Blaise books are out of print, but the comic strips have been turned into graphic novels. I like the books better but the graphic novels will do in a pinch.
Modesty Blaise Theme ::: John Dankworth
Little Jaguar, County Line ::: Bunky & Jake
Secret Agent Man/Woman ::: The Ventures
I Spy ::: Jamo Thomas
Jaguar ::: Muzical Doctorz