Some back story, before we begin.
Created by writer Peter O’Donnell (1920 – 2010), Modesty Blaise began life as a strip cartoon in The Evening Standard newspaper in May 1963, the start of a career that was to last over forty years, though of course like all good comic strip hero(in)es Modesty continued to wear her years lightly. The strips have been widely syndicated and there have been paperback collections issued by, among others, Titan. There have also been three films based on the character, the first and IMHO the best being Modesty Blaise (1966) with Monica Vitti in the title role,
As a child Modesty escapes from a displaced persons’ camp in Greece at the end of World War II, travelling through the Mediterranean countries in the company of scholar Lob, who gives her an education and the name Modesty. Hitching up in Tangier she takes control of a criminal gang and over the years turns it into the Network, one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world. Having made her stash, Modesty retires to Britain, a country whose laws she has been careful never to contravene, there to live the good life with her faithful henchman Willie Gavin, only things are never that simple. This is the point at which the comic strip begins, with Modesty having to deal with assorted threats to her continued existence, including enemies from the past out for revenge, and doing the odd off the books favour for Sir Gerald Tarrant of British Intelligence.
O’Donnell diversified into producing books based on the character in 1965 and continued to do so for thirty years, writing eleven novels and two short story collections. I latched onto Modesty at the fag end of the sixties – having devoured all of Fleming’s 007 books, somebody being pitched as the ‘female James Bond’ seemed like an obvious next step – and read the first four novels, before discovering that there was a thing called Science Fiction which was much more to my taste at the time. Then in 1983 in a fit of nostalgia I reread the first four and read the next six, and in the years after that I caught two more.
Which brings us to last year, when doing a random search of Amazon I discovered that there was a thirteenth volume, a collection of short stories titled Cobra Trap (1996), and being a completist of sorts I had to get my hands on the book. Trap contains five stories of novella length. “Bellman” is the name of a dirty drug dealer Modesty put out of business in her Network days. Now released from prison, he is back in business and hell-bent on revenge, with the dynamic duo of Blaise and Gavin abducted and marooned on an isolated island, where they are to be hunted down and executed by three professional killers, with all the odds stacked against them. “The Dark Angels” are a trio of psychopathic killers for hire who delight in staging elaborate stings, with a group of pro-British businessmen their main employers. The canny Tarrant manages to lure Modesty and Willie out of retirement to help bring these vicious thugs down, though his method of doing so is highly irregular. “Old Alex” has Modesty trapped in a cave by her enemies, only to be rescued by the eponymous Alex, who turns out to be somewhat more than he originally appears. Modesty and Willie set out to deal with the people who took out a hit on her, but there are numerous complications and side journeys along the way. Tarrant recruits the help of the dynamic duo to sort out a group of killer monks who are kidnapping scientists for ransom, only to penetrate the stronghold of the bad guys they need some help from “The Girl With the Black Balloon”. And finally, in the titular “Cobra Trap” the pair swing into action to save their friend Stephen Collier and his wife Dinah from a guerilla army when revolution sweeps the Central American country where they are working.
This isn’t great literature by any stretch of the imagination, or even believable on its own terms (O’Donnell isn’t Le Carre, or even Fleming) , but it is slick writing, fast paced and inventive, immense fun with never a dull moment. All the usual Modesty tropes are on display. Larger than life bad guys, often border line super-villains (my repeated use of the term ‘dynamic duo’ was intentional – O’Donnell bad guys remind me of nothing so much as the Rogues Gallery from the Batman TV show, which I was probably watching when I first encountered Modesty). There is complicated and (almost) credible plotting – you have to give O’Donnell the benefit of the doubt on occasion – with plenty of action along the way and the set pieces that O’Donnell delights in, and in the last story a genuine surprise of the kind to have fans demanding a rethink. Saving it all from unsustainable grimness is a certain lightness of touch and broad strokes of humour – Modesty and Willie might operate outside the law, but they don’t take themselves seriously, while the banter between series regular Collier and his wife Dinah is a continual source of delight, with the avuncular Tarrant bringing up the rear. At the heart of it all is the close relationship between our two leads, a bond of mutual respect and support, love of a kind if not the passionate type (one suspects that in their energetic, no holds barred martial arts workouts these two sublimate a fair bit of sexual tension). Regardless of her physical attributes and willingness to pimp out other women through the Network, Modesty Blaise is a feminist at heart, competing in a man’s world and coming out on top, freely taking lovers though never allowing herself to be used, retaining her own values and a keen sense of her self-worth.
Of course this is where the books rub up against reality and the falsity of their world view, in which a young girl turns into the anti-Blofeld without compromising any of her principles, where criminals have honour and prosper while keeping their hands clean, becomes apparent and gives the reader pause. The idea of a criminal organisation where standards are upheld, with no drug trade and theft only from those who can afford to lose what is stolen, where prostitutes have benefit packages, seems like a Columbian pipe dream in our tawdry modern world in which boundaries have become so blurred we can no longer tell the heroes from the villains, and all the cowboys are wearing grey hats. Ultimately Modesty Blaise’s adventures are the product of an earlier and more innocent age. She herself is a (male?) fantasy figure, but if so then it’s a fantasy I choose to buy into on the grounds that, perhaps more than ever now, no matter how ridiculous it might appear when seen through the lens of reality, pure escapism has value. Cobra Trap is a fitting end to Modesty’s career and that of Peter O’Donnell himself. It contains five stories that offer top grade entertainment, and reading them makes me want to go back and revisit all the other books in the series, though logic and time constraints dictate that such a step would be sheer folly.