Washed gently by the lapping waves of time

high-windowThe High Window
by Raymond Chandler

Tim and I have both been working our way gradually through the Philip Marlowe books since I picked one up in 2011. He’s now a couple ahead of me and assures me there are no duds.

While Chandler may not have invented pulp fiction or purple prose, he really and truly mastered the art. From the first page, the language is exquisite. In the wrong hands this would be overwritten, or artificial, but Chandler uses it as the perfect reflection of his hero’s highly coloured view of the world.

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is really growing on me as a character. Deeply cynical and ever-so-aware of the worst of humanity, he is somehow not a morose pessimist who has given up on the world. Instead, he is ever hopeful, ever the gentleman, in his quiet take-no-notice-of-me way. Plus, he’s funny.

“I looked into the reception-room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond…a framed licence bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hat-rack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out like the lips of a toothless old man sleeping. The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.”

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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.