50 Years of Modesty Blaise
Thrilling, humorous and timeless adventures, the Modesty Blaise series are seminal British crime novels by Peter O'Donnell.
The legendary Modesty Blaise first appeared in a bestselling series of novels in May 1965, and we are now celebrating their fiftieth anniversary.
"One of the great partnerships in fiction, bearing comparison with that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson."
- Kingsley Amis
Peter O'Donnell (1920-2010)
Born in Lewisham, London, in 1920, Peter O'Donnell started as a professional writer in 1937, aged just 16. After a period serving the British Army during the Second World War, O’Donnell returned to civilian life and began writing comic strips for the national press, including an adaption for the James Bond novel, Dr. No, in the Daily Express and for the Garth cartoon strip in the Daily Mirror.
"In 1962, I had a call from Bill Aitken, the Strip Cartoon Editor of the Daily Express, another UK national daily newspaper which, like the Mirror, is still going today. He said he wanted me to write a strip for him. I asked what kind of strip, and he said --- “The kind of strip you want to write." I said it would be months before I could deliver the first few weeks of script, and he said --- “OK, take your time.”
- Peter O'Donnell
(Source: Modesty Blaise Ltd)
His most successful creation, Modesty Blaise, began life as a comic strip, first published in the Evening Standard on Monday 13th May 1963. A sexy, resourceful action hero, "who could do all the things the males had been doing", she was inspired by a young girl O'Donnell had met whilst on duty in Persia (now Iran) with the British Army.
"She was a skinny little thing, and I thought she would wolf the food down, but she ate very slowly, seeming to focus on each mouthful, and when she had eaten most of the solids, she crumbled the biscuits into the gravy to soak up the last of it. She put down the mess tin and sat gazing at us, at our truck and at our camp (two two-man bivouacs) in that odd, very focused and appraising way….It was then that she stood up and did something that surprised us, taking the mess tin, spoon and mug to the stream to wash them up. Wet sand is great for washing-up, even with cold water; it absorbs all the grease. When this was done, she put the things back on the rock, repeated her “thank you" gesture, moved back to the strip of shade and sat down with her back to the bluff.”
- Peter O'Donnell
(Source: Crime Time)
Following the success of the newspaper strip, O'Donnell was invited to write a screenplay.
"When I wrote the screenplay for the original film in 1964/5 I had in mind Julie Christie and Michael Caine. Julie Christie looked good, moved beautifully, and was a fine actress. And I still think that Michael Caine, in his day, would have made the ideal Willie Garvin."
- Peter O'Donnell
(Source: Exclusive Interview with Kent Hudlundh)
After several re-writes and changes in production companies, the 1966 motion picture that was released, starring Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin and Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel, bore little resemblance to his original creation. It was this initial screenplay that was developed into the first Modesty Blaise novel, published by Souvenir Press in 1965. Previously ignored by those who did not read comics, the first book was incredibly successful and led to O'Donnell becoming a novelist. O’Donnell wrote 11 Modesty Blaise novels, and two collections of short stories involving Modesty, all published by Souvenir Press. They are all constantly reprinted, and to date, have been translated into twenty different languages.
On creating the books…
"Had the internet been the force which it is today it would have saved me many hours, but it wouldn't have been as much fun. I once spent the best part of a day at the Amateur Fencing Association in order to describe sword fights in one of the books. Two sword masters created the battles for me. I also remember being a passenger in a demolition crane in order to describe a scene in another of the books.”
O'Donnell’s last Modesty Blaise adventures, Cobra Trap, came in 1996. The title story in this book represented the end of the series, bringing the story of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin to a definite, and fitting, conclusion. Peter O’Donnell continued to write the comic strip for another five years, finally ending on 11th April 2001 – his 81st birthday.
Peter O’Donnell passed away in 2010, aged 90.
THE MODESTY BLAISE NOVELS (1965-1996)
Modesty Blaise (1965)
In her first adventure for British Intelligence, Modesty Blaise and her loyal lieutenant, Willie Garvin, attempt to foil a multi-million pound diamond heist. They travel from London to the South of France, across the Mediterranean to Cairo before battling, against impossible odds, a private army of professional killers.
"O'Donnell is one of those rare popular writers, like Josephine Tey or P.G. Wodehouse, who inspire not just fandom but love."
- New York Times Book Review
Karz, a modern day Genghis Khan with an army of ruthless mercenaries, plans to take over oil-rich Kuwait. It is left to Modesty Blaise and her loyal lieutenant, Willie Garvin, to investigate Karz before an epic battle takes place in the Hindu Kush Mountains. Modesty must fight alone to prevent an invasion that will change the world.
I, Lucifer (1967)
When the first threats appear, they are assumed to be a hoax.
But when a hundred and twenty people are threatened with death, and only a few live because they pay the ransom, it is no hoax.
A paranoid young man, Lucifer, believes that he is Satan. He also believes that he has this remarkable psychic ability to predict death by natural causes. Lucifer's ability is used by Seff’s gang to extract ransom from their rich victims. Seff selects the victims and warns them of their impending death; any who do not pay the ransom seemingly dies from natural causes, helped on their way by Seff’s executioner, Jack Wish.
By what means are the victims being killed? How is the ransom money being collected without trace from under the sea? Modesty’s friend, Steve Collier, the renowned psychic researcher, is kidnapped to help Seff but he accidentally blows Modesty’s cover as she investigates this mystery. Taken prisoner, Modesty and her faithful lieutenant, Willie Garvin, must escape Seff’s island stronghold.
"These books are the finest escapist thrillers ever written."
- The Times'
A Taste for Death (1969)
The rugged team of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin take on impossible odds, pitted against Simon Delicta, the man with a taste for death, and Swordmaster Wenczel in a duel to the death. As the adventure unfolds, travelling from London to Panama before reaching the depths of the Sahara desert, the pair will need all their skills to survive.
The Impossible Virgin (1971)
Accompanied as always, by her ever-faithful henchman Willie Garvin, Modesty's skills and resilience are tested to the full against Brunel. Having been outwitted and brought the most shattering reverse she has ever suffered, it takes all her expertise in combat to overcome and outwit the enemy. How she fights back and learns the secret of The Impossible Virgin brings this classic saga of Modesty Blaise to an astonishing climax.
"Before Buffy, before Charlie's Angels, before Purdy and Emma Peel there was Modesty Blaise. For almost 40 years, Peter O’Donnell’s iconic heroine drop-kicked her way through a swath of villains and into a unique place in popular culture."
- 'The Observer’
Pieces of Modesty (1972)
Peter O'Donnell’s first collection of short stories, Pieces of Modesty sees Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin travel and fight their way around the world. From South America to Berlin and Finland to London, they use everything that comes to hand, from a circus cannon to human kite-flying, to survive against the odds.
The Silver Mistress (1973)
While rescuing Tarrant of British Intelligence from the criminal tycoon, Colonel Jim, Modesty and Willie Garvin meet their match in Mrs McTurk, the lady assassin, and Mr Sexton, the world's greatest exponent of unarmed combat. To escape, Modesty must defeat the invincible Mr Sexton in a final confrontation deep underground in the Lancieux caves. Can she survive?
"Modesty Blaise was the comic-strip criminal genius, turned occasional secret service operative, who managed to combine timeless beauty and elegance with the ability to break every bone in your body… there's never been a better time to become acquainted."
- 'The Crack’
Last Day in Limbo (1976)
The men and women in Limbo have no hope of escape or rescue; they are dead to the outside world.
They know that when the old and failing Mistress of Limbo dies, their death will become a reality, for they will be destroyed. Of all the slaves in Limbo, only Danny Chavasse nourishes a slender thread of hope – that outside he has a friend who can save him, Modesty Blaise. Modesty, too, has been chosen as a candidate for Limbo. Only after an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap her does she and her incomparable henchman Willie Garvin find themselves alerted to Danny's plight.
And so the hunt begins.
Travelling from London to Switzerland and New York to the jungles of Guatemala, Modesty takes the only road to Limbo; the road of the captive, becoming a slave herself. Willie Garvin strikes from another direction with a surprising partner – Maude Tiller of British Intelligence. But Willie and Modesty are together when the crisis breaks and the battle begins – the seemingly hopeless battle for survival on the Last Day in Limbo.
Dragon's Claw (1978)
Whilst sailing in the Tasman Sea, Modesty Blaise discovers Luke Fletcher, one of Britain's greatest artists, alone on a raft with a strange gap in his memory.
On the island of Dragon’s Claw, Sam Solon, an Australian newspaper tycoon with an inferiority complex about his lack of knowledge of art, has kidnapped the world’s leading art experts, keeping them prisoner to admire his collection of stolen art treasures. Modesty and her loyal lieutenant, Willie Gavin, become involved in a complex series of murder mysteries that takes them to the island as prisoners. To escape, they must defeat Solon’s hired killers: the Reverend Uriah Crisp, an ordained minister with the greatest handgun shot in the world, and Beauregard Browne, who kills his victims using the famous handkerchief trick.
"The continuing renaissance of the immortal heroine: thrilling, humorous and timeless adventures"
- 'Crime Time'
The Xanadu Talisman (1981)
El Mico, the power behind every crime along the Mediterranean coast, is watching Modesty Blaise.
Can she and Willie Garvin solve the mystery of the Xanadu Talisman and lead him to a prize of infinite value? As the action moves from Tangiers to Corsica and the Atlas Mountains, Modesty and Willie find themselves locked in a gladiatorial death-duel of wits against guns.
The Night of Morningstar (1982)
Modesty Blaise is about to retire from her criminal empire, the Network. But there is one final, astounding mission before she can leave.
Years later, she faces the consequences of this final mission when she is drawn into conflict with a mysterious group called 'The Watchmen'. Is the plan to destroy the Western world being orchestrated by 'The Watchmen'?
Dead Man's Handle (1985)
On a Greek island Dr Thaddeus Pilgrim, once a devout man of God but now devoted to the pursuit of murder, terrorism and acts of sadism, plans his most sinister project yet: the Hallelujah Scenario.
Modesty Blaise's loyal lieutenant, Willie Garvin, is kidnapped and brainwashed into believing that Modesty is dead and that he must kill her murderer – a woman who looks exactly like Modesty herself. Pawns in a deadly game, Modesty and Willie must fight against the diabolical ingenuity of Pilgrim’s plan.
The stories of Modesty… are better than James Bond and funnier."
Cobra Trap (1996)
Charting the final adventures of Modesty Blaise, Cobra Trap is a selection of stories from Modesty's life running her criminal empire, the Network, to working for British Intelligence.
In the title story, Modesty faces her greatest challenge when she must rescue a group of her friends who are being held prisoner by rebels in the jungles of Central America. With only Willie Garvin to help her, can Modesty survive?
And finally, a word from founder and Managing Director of Souvenir Press, Ernest Hecht, OBE
We have been publishing Peter O'Donnell books now for 50 years, so I’m delighted to be in touch with you to celebrate his unique achievement of creating a worldwide bestseller in continuing the adventures for 13 books, all of which we have published.
We have therefore now reissued the first Modesty Blaise title, with a special 50 year commemoration flash to make it a collectable edition and of course we continue to publish the other titles in the series.
It is actually 51 years since I first met the young Peter O’Donnell (I guess he was 10 years older than myself at the time), who came to see me as the creator of a hugely successful strip cartoon of Modesty Blaise in the Evening Standard, London’s top evening newspaper, with the news that he had just sold the film rights and he thought that this would be a very good time for him to start novels about Modesty and Willie Garvin. He had brought along a film script he had written and proposed that if I liked it he would write a different Modesty novel along the same lines to coincide with the eventual release of the film. It was such a good read that I immediately gave him a contract for his first novel. Then of course neither he nor no one else had quite appreciated how the film business was going to play its part. His first script was very good indeed but was rejected by the producers. They then commissioned Launder and Gilliat to write a new screenplay, based on these writer-director hits with the Ealing Studios, which they did. It was pretty good, not as good as Peter’s but not that far away but then that was also rejected. Eventually the producer went for yet another script whose treatment was so far away from the original that Peter and I decided that we would actually go with a novel based on his original unproduced screenplay, which is what the first book was. It became an immediate hit, we sold translation rights in some 20 countries, licensed the paperback rights with Pan Books and entered into a multiple book contract with the American publishing giants Doubleday. Then came the film, and unlike any other experience I’ve had in the 64 years I’ve been publishing, sales stopped totally dead once the film came out. There are frequently debates as to whether the book or film are better with the same story, but whatever one’s opinion of which version is preferred, the sales go up. Certainly I’ve never known them to stop as they did in this case. It took us two years to recover sales and then we never looked back thereafter. It just shows that the problem was caused by the miscasting of Modesty, an Italian actress, Monica Vitti, known as a muse for Antonioni’s cerebral films and a great director not suitable for this material. Though Peter would have liked Michael Caine to play Willie Garvin, his then-flatmate Terence Stamp did a credible job and Dirk Bogarde hovered in the background of some beautiful photographic shots of Amsterdam but Modesty and Willie it wasn’t. It’s a classic case of writers perhaps knowing what makes their characters tick when the film people don’t. Having recovered, we continued to publish 12 in all by 1985 and then after a long hiatus Peter produced Cobra Trap in 1996, four novellas, one of which culminated the Modesty – Willie adventures in a fitting manner.
All our editions have artwork supervised by Peter and of his choice, including those of Jim Holdaway and Enrique Badía Romero, his well-known collaborators on the strips. In the case of Pieces of Modesty, which we had originally licensed to Pan in order not to break the series up as there were stories, when we ourselves reprinted them we compiled a suitable cover from artwork that Peter had approved.
The books constantly reprint but sometimes there is a fair amount of time before they come back again with the next reprint. The timing of reprints is dictated by the quantity of orders we hold, as it is uneconomic to print a small number so we have to consolidate the orders until printing is viable. What’s in print or not can easily be checked with us on our website or on Amazon and we list below our current situation of titles. Some quantities are getting low so this table may not be forever, but it shows we will never let a book go out of print forever in the series.
What was so wonderful working with Peter was his total integrity and concern for everything that appeared under his name and especially anything that related to the characters of Modesty and Willie. He would listen to editorial suggestions but make up his own mind, he would choose the artwork for the jackets and go to extreme lengths to research some of the more strange set pieces in the books.
It’s likely that his total professionalism has masked just how good a writer he was and in so many different fields. It’s not surprising that other authors praised him so highly – Kingsley Amis said 'one of the greatest partnerships in fiction, bearing comparison with that of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson', Simon Barnes in The Times has said that ‘these books are the finest escapist thrillers ever written, The New York Times said ‘O’Donnell is one of those rare popular writers like Josephine Tey or P.G. Wodehouse who inspire not just fandom, but love’. One of his early admirers was Mary Stewart, the bestselling romance author. It was his great writing skill that enabled him to be so successful in so many very different styles. He started as a scriptwriter for strip cartoons, he’d already worked on James Bond, Dr No and the bestselling Garth strips for the Daily Mirror before even creating in 1963 the Modesty Blaise strip.
After success with Modesty Blaise, one day I suggested to him that he try his hand writing a gothic romance adventure under the pen name of Madeleine Brent. It would have strong female protagonists and have worldwide locations. These immediately became hugely successful and in 1978 Madeleine Brent won the Romantic Novelists’ Award. The fact that she was in reality Peter O’Donnell was one of the best-kept secrets of publishing (she had previously been shortlisted for this award) and it was only much later that finally Peter outed himself after some 20 years in the USA Romantic Times magazine, who were amongst his most fervent admirers. There were nine Madeleine Brent novels, all bestsellers and with his earning stream that even bigger than that from the Modesty books.
And still he was up for another challenge. I suggested would he like write a mystery play. He promptly did. We premiered it at Theatre Royal Windsor very successfully under the title of Mr Fothergill’s Murder, and subsequently it was performed widely on tour and overseas under the title of Murder Most Logical, especially popular in Germany.
Though he could easily afford to rest on his laurels he was always up for a new challenge with a ‘can do’ mind-set. It is the devotion to his craft that shines so strongly throughout the adventures of Modesty and Willie, and which so endears them to their fans, the number of which continues to grow as the books are rediscovered. A great memorial for a great writer who brought great pleasure.
Ernest Hecht OBE, Managing Director and founder, Souvenir Press