Rich Westwood's Favourite Discovery of 2012
My greatest discovery of 2012 was the greatest discovery of 1965 to a lot of people.
I've read a lot of fantastic crime fiction this year, but until November I'd yet to find a new series I could wolf down the way I do Bryant and May or Montalbano. That requires a mix of readability, likeability and personality. I found all three in the Modesty Blaise books by Peter O'Donnell.
I knew there were Modesty Blaise comics and a film, but had no idea there were 13 novels by her creator Peter O'Donnell. So far I've read just three - Modesty Blaise (1965), the fourth title A Taste for Death (1969), and a story collection, Cobra Trap (1996; I'm not sure when the stories were first published). All are being reissued by their original publisher Souvenir Press in their classic covers.
Modesty Blaise was born on the run, and did most of her growing up in prison camps across the Balkans and the Middle East during WWII. Aged 17, she took over a small gang and turned it into The Network, a phenomenally successful criminal organisation based in Tangier (criminal, but principled: The Network stood against drugs and prostitution). She retired at 26 with half a million pounds and a penthouse flat in Hyde Park - until tempted back into a life of action by Sir Gerald Tarrant of British Intelligence.
Where Modesty goes, Willie Garvin follows. Willie speaks four languages fluently (but prefers his native Cockney accent), has a photographic memory, is a master of several martial arts, and is 'machine-accurate' with the two throwing knives he keeps under his shirt. Modesty bought Willie out of a Saigon gaol and he's been a constant and eternally grateful companion ever since.
"That's a mighty tall pedestal you've got her on."
"She's never fell off."
I'm going to be upfront about the plots: they don't make a lot of sense. Modesty and Willie go after a bad guy in a glamorous location. Bad guy catches them. Bad guy says, 'No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.' Modesty and Willie make an ingenious escape involving undressing or a gadget. There's a set-piece single combat with another martial artist. Then there's a slightly romantic coda. I put in the bit about Mr Bond, but you get the idea.
There's a lot of humour too. Here's Weng: "Certainly I am worried, Sir Gerald, but I am also inscrutable. I do not allow my manner or my expression to reveal that I believe you have dropped them in it again". And here is Modesty comforting her mathematician boyfriend Collier before a trip to North Africa:
"I’ll hold your hand and quote statistics during the flight."
"You may do so," Collier agreed, "whenever you have a moment to spare from carrying advice, exhortations and urgent technical questions from me to the pilot."
So these are light and amusing stories, but I've stuck around for the characterisation. Take Modesty and Willie. O'Donnell could easily have turned their relationship into a will-they-won't-they story. Instead he makes them best friends - soulmates even - 'a strange and rich companionship incomprehensible to many'. They're happiest in each other's company, and are long past jeopardising that by pushing things any further.
The wider Blaise circle acts as a family group. Sir Gerald is the father figure, perpetually tormented by guilt for putting Modesty in danger. Weng, 'possibly the richest houseboy in the world', takes care of Modesty's domestic arrangements. A multitude of friends drift in and out, and are cared for. Genuine bonds of affection, loyalty and occasionally poignant humour exist between them all. O’Donnell clearly loved his characters and that really comes across.
So Modesty Blaise is in many ways exactly what you'd expect, but also much, much better.
A Taste for Death has been serialised on Radio 4 this week.
Rich blogs at Past Offences where you can read his posts on Modesty Blaise/Peter O'Donnell, and you can read his reviews for Euro Crime here.
The Euro Crime review (by Susan) of A Taste for Death is here.