The excitement in the Long Island theater where I first saw Pulp Fiction was unlike anything I’d previously experienced at the movies: Everything people were saying about Quentin Tarantino, the boy-genius director, was true. But the picture stirred me most profoundly—alerting me that there was an intelligence behind it that was in some small way in sync with my own—when I caught sight of the book John Travolta reads on the crapper, first at Butch’s apartment and then in the diner bathroom: Modesty Blaise.
Modesty Blaise was my secret self the year I was 15, the subject of ardent daydreams and the first female character I encountered who was truly in charge of something other than a hospital ward, or a school, or a household. She ran an organization full of dangerous men, and they all obeyed and revered her. She would know exactly what to do with a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer, and it would be a pleasure to see her do it. Half a century before Beyoncé, Modesty wasn’t bossy; she was the boss.
Modesty is the invention of an English comic-strip writer named Peter O’Donnell. In the early 1960s, an editor asked him to create a new character, and he decided that “it was about time that somebody woke up and produced a female who would be able to do all the hero stuff as well as—or perhaps better than—most men.” Modesty is a secret agent who works on special assignments for British intelligence, so (to O’Donnell’s great frustration) she is most often compared to James Bond. They’re really nothing alike. Bond’s life begins and ends with each mission. Modesty, by contrast, exists in a fully realized world, with homes—in particular, her sumptuous penthouse overlooking Hyde Park—friends, lovers, and a range of interests. She enjoys attending country fairs, going to the theater, dressing up, riding horses, cutting gems, rescuing animals. She never enters a scene without an exact description of what she’s wearing, right down to her shoes. O’Donnell maintained that the key to her character is that while she is incredibly brave, capable, and—when the situation demands it—lethal, she is also exceedingly feminine. “She doesn’t just kick people in the head,” O’Donnell once said of Modesty. “She’s very tender and vulnerable.”
The strip—which Titan Books finished reissuing in book form late last year—debuted in 1963, and it was so successful that O’Donnell soon sold the movie rights. To coincide with the release of the film—a massive bomb, alas—O’Donnell was asked to write a novel about Modesty. It was through the subsequent series that I came to fall in love with her. Her origin story emanated from one of O’Donnell’s experiences in World War II. Working in a small radio detachment near the Caucasus, on the border of Iran and Iraq, he had come across a young girl, 11 or 12 years old, walking along the banks of a stream. She was completely alone, dressed in rags, and carrying a small homemade weapon: a piece of wood with a nail driven through it. O’Donnell gave her tins of food, a can opener, and a cup of tea. She smiled in gratitude and then resumed her solo, dangerous wanderings. He remembered the young girl when he created Modesty, because he realized that the kind of character he wanted to invent could not have sprung from any of the girl-shaping institutions of mid-century Britain. She couldn’t come “from a shop or an office or school or nunnery,” he said, and “be what I wanted this girl to be.”
He thought of the refugee child—a displaced person, a girl like many millions of girls around the world today—and wrote a story for her. Orphaned, nameless, and stateless, she wandered for years through the Middle East and North Africa, where she would “steal in the city’s bazaars or live with nomads.” She became the protector of a brilliant but defenseless old man, Lob, a European who knew five languages. He taught her, she defended him, and they loved each other. After his death, she wound up in Tangier, where, at 19 or 20, she took over a crime syndicate, renaming it the Network and becoming the unflinching boss of very hard men, who called her “Mam’selle.” She excelled in hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, criminal strategy, general fearlessness, and a certain kind of crime: jewel heists and bank robberies—never drugs or vice, never anything that could hurt women.
And so—our story begins—we find Modesty retired from her life of crime in her mid-20s, hugely wealthy, powerful, and sexually liberated. (She has an erotic inclination toward men she has rescued from danger.) She is saved from a life of comfortable boredom by the intercession of Sir Gerald Tarrant of British intelligence, who regularly enlists her help in foiling various types of espionage and plots against the empire. Sometimes these duties require her to fight crime while naked; other times she must temporarily succumb to the sexual sadism of some villain or another—something James Bond was never required to do in the name of Queen and country—but she always triumphs in the end. There isn’t a man in the whole world who can take her down.
What has made the series so deeply loved by so many different kinds of people (Kingsley Amis called it “endlessly fascinating”) isn’t just Modesty’s badass fighting capabilities; on their own, they would make her no more appealing than Charlize Theron’s character in Atomic Blonde—a beautiful cyborg. At the heart of the series is a love story, the best one I encountered as a girl. Modesty’s second in command in the Network was a man named Willie Garvin, a small-time cockney criminal she’d discovered in a fighting pit in Saigon. He’d looked up before the fight to see a “dark haired girl in a white linen dress watching him.” Since that day, Willie—a master brawler and knife-thrower, a man who can sleep with any woman he wants—has devoted his life to Modesty. She transformed him, offering him an education, a career, and a purpose. He doesn’t just join her on the secret missions, and he isn’t just the one person in the world who knows everything about her. Sometimes, after an especially dangerous episode, Modesty will weep in Willie’s arms for a few minutes before pulling herself together and giving him his marching orders. Both have lovers, but they never, ever sleep together. I read book after book, hoping that—at last—they would, but it never happens. Theirs is a partnership so romantic that it would crumble if it became carnal. The delicate balance between the deadly action sequences of their many capers, their deep love for each other, and the infinite sexual restraint of their romance was heady stuff for a 15-year-old girl.
Modesty Blaise was merely a cartoon character turned into a bit of pulp fiction, but in the midst of my unhappy adolescence, she changed the way I thought about myself and my future. I wasn’t considering robbing banks. But for the first time, I imagined what it would be like to be physically unafraid in the world, to walk down any city street I wanted, at any time of night, and not give a second’s thought to the special care a girl has to take. I thought about what it would be like to be deeply loved by a man, deeply known, but still be the main character in my life story, the only one with her name in the title. Time passed, and I learned in a hundred hard ways how careful you have to be if you’re born female, how many places hold dangers—even just an ordinary office with a respected male boss. I have a couple of the old paperbacks in my house, and when I see them, they remind me of a time when I still thought it was possible for a girl to do anything.
This article appears in the March 2018 print edition with the headline “A Heroine for Our Time.”
*Illustration by WG600; Modesty Blaise: The Killing Game (Titan Books), © Associated Newspapers LTD / Solo Syndication
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