Modesty Blaise (novel)

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"The most complex, sophisticated, skilled and intelligent of all action heroines."
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Series of novels and short stories by Peter O'Donnell, spun off from his long-running adventure comic of the same name.

Modesty Blaise is an orphan with a Dark and Troubled Past who was head of a criminal syndicate before she was 20, and retired wealthy before she was 30. Willie Garvin is a multi-talented Cockney former street kid who became Modesty's trusted right-hand man and followed her into wealthy retirement. Retirement was boring, so now They Fight Crime.

(Only crime that's unusual enough to attract their interest, though -- or nasty or personal enough to attract their anger.)

The first novel was published as a tie-in with the 1966 film adaptation, and is based on the screenplay O'Donnell wrote for the film (which was altered substantially by the filmmakers, so the film didn't end up much like the novel). The film was not a success, but the novel was, and more followed.

The books are not in continuity with the comic strip: the first novel begins with a significantly different version of the opening sequence of the comic strip, then goes its own way. Incidents and characters from the strip appear in the books revised, tweaked, and in completely different contexts. It's essentially the Ultimate Universe version of Modesty Blaise, only not in the same medium. Despite this, characters from the novels later began to appear in the comic strip, and the strip also adapted several short stories.

The short story "I Had a Date with Lady Janet" is narrated in the first person by Willie Garvin, and was once released as an audio book read by John Thaw.

The books in the series are:

  • Modesty Blaise (1965)
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966)
  • I, Lucifer (1967)
  • A Taste for Death (1969)
  • The Impossible Virgin (1971)
  • Pieces of Modesty (1972) (6 short stories [1])
  • The Silver Mistress (1973)
  • Last Day in Limbo (1976)
  • Dragon's Claw (1978)
  • The Xanadu Talisman (1981)
  • The Night of Morningstar (1982)
  • Dead Man's Handle (1985)
  • Cobra Trap (1996) (5 short stories [2])

The last of the short stories, "Cobra Trap", is a Distant Finale, which some fans have announced their intention never to read.

Tropes used in Modesty Blaise (novel) include:

  • Action Dress Rip: Modesty's skirts are designed to tear away, leaving her legs free for action.
  • Action Girl
  • Adaptation Distillation
  • Alternate Continuity: The books from the comic strip.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Willie can supply a quotation from the Book of Psalms to fit any situation. He once spent a year in an Indian prison with nothing to read except a psalter and so has all of the psalms memorised.
  • Bash Brothers
  • Battle Strip
  • Berserk Button: Go ahead and hurt Modesty if you don't mind having Willie Garvin rip you to pieces. The reverse also applies.
    • Lampshaded in one of the books when Willie has a fit after someone disses his favorite singer, Petula Clark.
  • Black Bra and Panties
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: All the time. They often have good reason to, though; they know that if they kill Modesty, Willie will hunt them down and kill them (or vice versa). Because of this, villains tend to want to kill them both at the same time. (This trope is also dominant in the comic strip.)
  • The Caper
  • Checkpoint Charlie: In "The Giggle Wrecker", Modesty and Willie have to sneak a Soviet detector across the Berlin Wall.[3]
  • Code Emergency: See Something They Would Never Say.
  • Combat Pragmatist: If Modesty and Willie have a religion, it is this. One of the crowning examples is her final martial-arts battle vs. Mr. Sexton in The Silver Mistress. Sexton being a world-class karate master who has equal speed with Modesty despite being immensely larger and stronger, Modesty loses her first match to him in a Curb Stomp Battle. In her rematch, she makes sure to fight Sexton while nude and greased up (so that he can't grapple), in a dimly lit cave (Modesty has superior night vision and, being the lead party in a stern chase, has had more chance to have her vision adjust) with an uneven, rocky floor (Sexton has spent the majority of his career fighting in dojos or tournaments, on exercise mats, and so isn't used to uneven surfaces), and after having swum a long way through icy-cold water to reach the cave in the first place (so Sexton's muscles are still stiff from cold, while Modesty has had several minutes to perform warm-up exercises as she reached the cave first). Having stacked every advantage in her favor possible vs. a proven superior opponent, Modesty then pulls out a narrow victory and kills him.
    • Modesty applies a similar principle, only with guns, vs. Reverend Crisp in Dragon's Claw. Crisp is perhaps the greatest quick-draw expert in the world, over a full tenth of a second faster than Modesty, and so she has absolutely no chance vs. him in the quickdraw match that the villain is forcing her to fight him in and knows it. Modesty's solution? To start shooting at Crisp while still walking towards the duel arena, at a distance of approximately 50-plus meters... a distance she is far more likely to hit Crisp at than vice versa, as he is a close-quarters quickdraw specialist while Modesty is a long-range competition markswoman. Sure enough, despite firing five shots to her three he misses with all five[4], while she puts two out of three right into his torso.
  • The Con
  • Contemptible Cover: During the 1970s and '80s, most of the books got stuck with covers featuring an array of headless photos of women in Stripperiffic black leather outfits decorated with metal studs. Over multiple editions, each more contemptible than the last, and none bearing any connection to the books' actual contents. You know it's bad when a male reader would rather be seen in public with the first novel's original cover, which is bright pink.
  • Criminal Amnesiac: Willie in the novel Dead Man's Handle.
    • Played with in that the bad guys did not find Willie in this state, but instead deliberately kidnapped and brainwashed him.
  • Danger Takes a Backseat: Somebody tries this on Modesty and Willie in the first novel.
  • Deadly Distant Finale: In the books
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Gabriel
  • Disability Superpower: Recurring character Dinah Collier is blind and psychic.
    • She wasn't born blind (she went blind as a young girl due to a bout of meningitis), so its arguable that her superpowers and blindness are just a coincidence because she was born with the latter.
    • Psychic powers are also routinely seen on non-blind people in this universe; Lucifer is perhaps the most powerful psychic known and is entirely physically[5] healthy, Willie has danger sense that is outright precognitive (at one point receiving a warning of a car-bomb attempt on Modesty over half an hour ahead in time and while he was across town), and Modesty's old yoga instructor Sivajii is never seen on-screen but is referred to in backstory as having been clairvoyant.
    • However, Dinah does have one of the classic Disability Superpowers of blind people -- her hearing is ridiculously acute. As in 'Dinah, please tell me exactly where the sniper firing a crossbow at us in this pitch-dark urban environment is standing.' 'I can hear him rewinding the bow, he's about thirty feet that way.'
  • Distant Finale: "Cobra Trap" is set at least a decade, possibly more, after the events of the novels and comic strip.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Personified by a trick Modesty uses on occasion called "The Nailer" in which she'll strip to the waist and enter a room topless. The momentary distraction caused by seeing a sexy female enter suddenly is often enough for Willie or Modesty to get the upper hand (lampooned in a mid-1970s comic strip when the Nailer is noted as being less effective because men in the 1970s have been exposed to increasingly amounts of sexually explicit films and magazines).
  • Double Standard: Averted; both protagonists routinely take lovers. Willie more than Modesty, admitted. By the last arcs in the strip, Modesty has several old flames who she routinely cycles between, with all parties involved aware of the others. Willie, on the other hand, has a lot of flings and one-night stands, with Maude Tiller (and in the book version, Lady Janet Gillam) as the recurring love interest.
    • Willie is routinely asked why he is indifferent to Modesty's taking lovers. Willie's invariable reply is that since Modesty is not in an exclusive (or, indeed, any) romantic relationship with him then it's none of his business who she sleeps with. Modesty is less often asked the same question about Willie, but whenever asked she has given the same answer.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While she was running her crime syndicate, Modesty refused to deal in drugs. Or prostitution. Or anything that would require killing innocent people or police. Or even killing other criminals, except in self-defense or defense of another. Although they did a rather large amount of killing re: that last.
    • This continues into the post-Network era. On countless occasions in literature and comic strip, Willie and Modesty make a conscious effort to go for "sleeps, not keeps" whenever possible, but at the same time will make a deliberate decision to kill if they deem it appropriate.
  • Fake Defector: One of the short stories features a Soviet defector who turns out to be actually a Soviet agent pretending to defect as a way of flushing out and identifying the West's undercover assets as they helped him on his way.
  • Finger Gun: In a lighter moment in the first novel, Modesty gets in a finger-gun battle with a pair of small boys.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: In The Silver Mistress Modesty fights nude, and greased-up, to keep the much-stronger bad guy from being able to grab her. In addition, one of Modesty's favorite tactics when entering a room full of hostiles is "The Nailer"--she strips to the waist and walks in bare-breasted, counting on the moment of startlement she generates to give her the time she needs to do what she must.
  • Funetik Aksent: Willie Garvin's Cockney
  • Funny Foreigner: Caspar in "A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck" is a Funny Foreigner everywhere he goes, speaking in an unidentifiable accent with Poirot Speak interjections from multiple languages.

"Modesty, my old!" Caspar snatched up her hand and kissed it. "I am possessed by a brilliant idea. Let us get married tout de suite, old bean. Heiut! Oggi! As captain of the Delphine, I will perform the ceremony. Tovarich Garvin shall be best man."

    • Subverted in that Caspar is a con man using Obfuscating Stupidity and when not 'in character' he speaks in plain English.
  • Genius Ditz: Dr Giles Pennyfeather needs specific prompting to realize that professional hit men with guns are actually trying to kill him, sets up appointments with people without bothering to mention things like what time of day the appointment is at or exactly which Friday in the month the rendezvous is intended for, routinely fails basic social interaction, can't grasp the concept of 'indoor voice', is an epic klutz, and occasionally forgets that the laws of physics actually exist. He is also an unbelievably talented diagnostician and field surgeon, who can do things like accurately measure a human pulse without a stopwatch, talk an unskilled civilian through how to perform an emergency appendectomy on the floor of a cave using only a fighting knife, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, two clamps, and a needle and thread, recognize when someone is on a subtle dose of brainwashing drugs without a blood test (or any diagnostic equipment at all beyond simply talking to them and noting skin color, pupil dilation, and general behavior), and hypnotize a patient so well that it can substitute for surgical anesthesia.
  • Grenade Hot Potato: "A Better Day to Die" in Pieces of Modesty
  • Hearing Voices: The Impossible Virgin; it's the "fake voices from hidden radio" variation.
  • Heroic Neutral
  • If You're So Evil Eat This Kitten: The Night of Morningstar has a tragic version where Ben Christie actually goes through with it, because he had just found out that the villains were going to execute a terrorist bombing later that night killing tens of thousands and he absolutely could not die or blow his cover before he had a chance to warn someone. Then, after he murders an innocent teenaged girl to prove that he's not an infiltrator, the villains laugh at him and inform him that they already knew he was CIA even before the test started, and they just wanted to have fun with him. Ben doesn't really survive the revelation.
  • I Know Madden Kombat: Cricketing skills allow a missionary to play Grenade Hot Potato in "A Better Day to Die".
  • Impossible Mission: Any time Sir Gerald Tarrant asks Modesty for help, it is only because all remotely sane solutions have either no hope of working or have already failed. The only exceptions are when he asks her for an inconsequential favor as a friend, not business, and it invariably blows up into one of these anyway.
  • Improvised Weapon: At least Once an Episode
  • Ironic Nickname: Her mentor started calling her "Modesty" as a joke (she doesn't know her real name).
  • Knife Nut: Willie Garvin
  • Knife-Throwing Act: Willie Garvin occasionally goes and does one of these at a circus somewhere when he feels like a holiday; Modesty sometimes plays the target's role.
  • Lady of War: Modesty
  • Lock and Load Montage
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: In one novel, Modesty and Willie are captured by a villain who wants to see if their reputation for inventiveness is deserved before recruiting them. He locks them in a cell but deliberately leaves a means of escape to see if they will discover it. They do, then decide that is too obvious and must be a trap, and proceed to invent their own means of escape. The bad guy is very impressed.
  • Moral Dissonance: Lampshaded in the short story "I Had a Date with Lady Janet" when Willie (narrating the story in first person) defends accusations of Modesty being a cold-blooded killer.
  • More Expendable Than You: Whenever a caper requires Modesty to put her life on the line, Willie asks if he can't do it instead.
    • Most if not all stories that have Modesty taking the larger risk go to some lengths to setup why its physically not possible for Willie to do it instead, because nothing less will dissuade him. For one example, in "A Perfect Night To Break Your Neck" Modesty is the person who has to single-handedly take on an entire yacht full of armed pirates because the insertion method (surface-towed hang glider) would only work for someone Modesty's size; the necessary tow speed to keep someone of Willie's mass airborne would have him moving too fast to match speeds with the yacht.
  • Murder, Inc.: Salamander Four, amongst others
  • Mythology Gag: In "Cobra Trap", a character remarks how great Modesty looks for her age, a Lampshade Hanging on her lack of apparent aging in the decades the comic strip had been running.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • Willie, sometimes.
    • Jack Fraser, star secret agent wolf in the clothing of a meek and pedantic Desk Jockey. The first sentence of the first novel:

Fraser adjusted his spectacles to the angle which he knew would produce the effect of prim stupidity he favoured most.

  • Pin-Pulling Teeth: During the climactic battle in the first novel.
  • Platonic Life Partners: Modesty and Willie, obviously
    • "Cobra Trap" has a scene where Modesty kisses Willie on the lips before telling him that she's dying. It's the only time in any of O'Donnell's stories in which she does this.
  • Qurac: The Sheikdom of Malaurak in the first novel.
  • Red Scare
  • Secretly Dying: In the Distant Finale "Cobra Trap", Modesty is killed in action shortly after revealing to Willie that she's already dying, from an inoperable brain tumor.
  • Show Some Leg
  • Something They Would Never Say: The name "Jacqueline" inserted into any conversation is Modesty & Willie's private signal for 'I'm in trouble and can't talk openly.'
  • Tricked-Out Shoes
  • Trying to Catch Me Fighting Dirty
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee
  • Why Don't Ya Just Shoot Him:
    • In almost any instance where the villain has captured only Modesty or Willie, they will deliberately hold off on trying to kill their captive until they've successfully found and captured the other one too -- because they're intimately aware that the survivor would go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge the likes of which the world had never seen and that the only safe course of action is to make sure both of the duo die within a minute of each other.
    • A fourth-wall-friendly version in A Taste For Death: the second banana villain--who has been defeated by them before--practically jumps up and down shouting, "Kill them now!" or (later) "They're up to something, kill them now!" But he's overruled. It goes poorly for him.
    • Major the Earl St. Maur, in Night of Morningstar, argues for dropping Modesty & Willie over the side the instant the Watchmen finish determining whether or not our heroes managed to send a message before being captured. (They hadn't.) He is overruled by his superior Colonel Golitsyn, who wishes to keep Modesty & Willie alive for use in an elaborate disinformation plot. Karmically, Golitsyn was one of the first of the Watchmen's senior leaders to die in Modesty & Willie's inevitable escape; St. Maur was the last.
    • Modesty and Willie are occasionally asked this in both the novels and comic strip. In the first novel, Modesty also basically asks Willie this during a fight with a pair of thugs.
      • Willie's response is to quite reasonably point out that its difficult to interrogate dead people, and that he didn't know if Modesty wanted to make the effort to gather information from them. Upon being informed that in Modesty's opinion they wouldn't know anything useful, Willie quickly dispatches his opponents.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Delicata kills Gabriel for this reason in A Taste For Death.
    • Also arguably for shits and grins, Delicata being a psychopath. Gabriel did still have a potential use or two left in the future to Delicata's employer, but Delicata freely indulges himself in these little amusements whenever not specifically under orders not to.
  1. A Better Day to Die, The Giggle-wrecker, I Had a Date with Lady Janet, A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck, Salamander Four, The Soo Girl Charity
  2. Bellman, The Dark Angels, Old Alex, The Girl With the Black Balloon, Cobra Trap
  3. After a conventional attempt at smuggling him across in the trunk of a car not likely to be searched due to diplomatic plates fails, they go for Refuge In Audacity and shoot the defector over the Berlin Wall using a Human Cannonball rig salvaged from a bankrupt circus.
  4. In fairness, 150+ feet is a long way to hit anything with a handgun, even for a good marksman.
  5. Emphasis on 'physically', as he's hopelessly insane.