Christmas reads in brief

As I may have mentioned once or thrice, most of our spare time lately has been spent chivvying builders/cleaning up after builders/redecorating. While I have managed to squeeze in some reading, I think I’m going to skip writing full reviews for this holiday and get back in the swing next week. That’s a good way to start the new year, right?

Modesty Blaise: the Black Pearl

Modesty Blaise: the Black Pearl
by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Jim Holdaway (art)

Modesty Blaise: the Green-Eyed Monster
by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Enric Badia Romero (art)

I punctuated my holiday with two volumes of the long-running comic strip about the very British super-capable heroine Modesty Blaise. As I’ve written about her before, there is little new to say. O’Donnell puts her in a variety of locations and intrigues but tries not to make his stories Bond-like, so although she has a good friend high up in the British secret service, she is not a spy. She is a gun for hire, but most of the time she finds her own work, happening, like a young sexy martial-arts-trained Miss Marple, upon crimes and capers wherever she goes. Some stories impressed me with their nuanced political intrigue but then there was the occasional racism that reminded me that this was popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

First published in the London Evening Standard and the Glasgow Evening Citizen 1966–1971.
These collections published 2004 and 2005 by Titan Books.

The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett

This tiny book is a novella about a middle-aged couple whose fancy flat is burgled while they’re out at the opera. Everything has been taken, even the carpets, light fittings, toilet rolls and telephones. It’s almost a farce, with the well-to-do middle class slowly picked apart as they try to navigate public telephones and immigrant-run corner shops. Bennett is of course spot-on with his observations and had me laughing out loud from page one. But it’s also moving, sad even, to see how unhappy marriage can be and how far apart people who live together and love one another can become. Highly recommended.

First published in the London Review of Books in 1996. This edition published in 1998 by Profile Books.

Wild Girls: the Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks
by Diana Souhami

On the back of the excellent Mitfords book I thought I’d try another biography. Unfortunately, this one was not as good. It felt a little rushed although perhaps they were really only interesting by virtue of the circles they moved in? Barney was a poet and Brooks an artist. Barney surrounded herself by the elite of Paris culture, particularly the gay section of that crowd, and had affairs with everyone (or rather every woman who would have her). Brooks started out in this crowd but became a recluse. Souhami tells of the wonderful long life of Barney versus the painful slow decline of Brooks and it’s sad but I never felt I had got to know either of them. Extracts from their passionate love letters are repetitive and overblown. Souhami’s intensive research has led to strange chaotic annotations/references in several different formats, which were near impossible to navigate when I actually wanted to. Interesting, but felt like it could have been more than it was.

First published in 2004 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

So that’s what I read over the holidays. What about you?

Action hero with an immaculate beehive

Modesty Blaise: Top Traitor
by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Jim Holdaway (art)

Modesty Blaise is proper pulp fiction. Her adventures were told over 40 years in newspaper comic strips, novels and a graphic novel. Creator Peter O’Donnell lovingly crafted this magnificent heroine scenario after scenario in which to show off her…particular skills.

This collection, recently re-released, gathers together the strips of three stories – about a missing spy, a robbers ring and some deadly secretaries. They are from early in the character’s run and, while dribs and drabs about her past are revealed, there’s still a lot of mystery.

So who is Modesty Blaise? She is the former head of a criminal gang, now putting her talents to better use as a sort-of independent crime solver. Imagine Charlie’s Angels if all the angels and Charlie were one character with absolutely no affiliation to any government or government agency.

Modesty is wealthy (now), well spoken, well dressed and knows a lot of important people. She’s also smart, skilled with an array of weapons (including her body) and fearless. In these particular stories she’s a very 1960s heroine, with a beehive, unnaturally long eyelashes and an endless supply of turtleneck sweaters.

This collection includes an interview with Peter O’Donnell in which he is at great pains to point out that she is not a spy (despite what the film posters said in 1967) and that she’s not a feminist. She’s a fantastically strong female lead who does usually save the day herself, by leading her team, but she doesn’t spout any political or socialist morals and she’s certainly not afraid to use her body to get what she wants. And that is one of the things that makes this series so very pulpy. Modesty gets naked or near-naked a lot. She sometimes has a man in her bed. She answers to no-one.

She doesn’t do it all alone, though. Her faithful right-hand man and best friend is Willie Garvin. He is the muscle – and the artwork really emphasises that – and has a particular skill at throwing knives. He’s rougher than Modesty, with a broader accent and a little difficulty blending in at the smarter places they attend. He’s not as clever as she is but he knows her so well that he can predict her every move and vice versa. It’s a fantastic relationship made all the more sweet by the complete lack of sex. They frequently undress – or find themselves in a state of undress – around each other and do not bat an eyelid. Willie has his girls and Modesty has her men and that’s separate.

So Modesty Blaise is a great character, but are they great stories? I think “great” might be too far. They’re good fun. More realistic and single-purpose than Bond but predictable enough that you’re not on the edge of your seat when Modesty and/or Willie are in trouble. The dialogue isn’t particularly realistic and I think if I only had access to these stories as one strip per week I’d have lost interest. However, it was and still is hugely successful, in syndication all over the world. The artwork is very good but the reproduction lets it down, with some strips having the appearance of a bad photocopy.

There has been talk for years of Tarantino making a Modesty Blaise film, possibly even using the screenplay Peter O’Donnell wrote in 2002. It would be a perfect mix and I hope that it eventually happens.

These strips first published 1965–66 in the London Evening Standard.
This collection published 2004 by Titan Books.

UPDATE: I just watched the 2003 film My Name is Modesty, which Tarantino appears to have stuck his name on at the last minute (“presented by”) in lieu of making a Modesty film himself. It’s US produced, filmed in Romania, with British lead actors and not using O’Donnell’s script. It’s an origin story and I actually quite enjoyed it, after expecting an extremely cheesy affair based on the cover of the DVD that we picked up cheap as an ex-rental from an off-license.