Friday, January 22, 2010

A Taste For Death

Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise novels were my favourite teenage reading and I last revisited them in my early 20s. It would therefore be around 30 years since I read this book.

For several years I have been looking for Modesty Blaise novels in every second-hand bookshop I've come across. My own copies disappeared long ago. A shop in my home town has had a hardcover first edition of one of the series for a couple of years - but $70.00 is much more than I am willing to pay.

This was the very first affordable Modesty Blaise book I've seen for years* and, allowing myself to be overcome by nostalgic urges, I bought it.

In reading this book I quickly recognised why O’Donnell’s stories had so much appeal especially to a teenage boy. It is the same kind of appeal that can be found in the Indiana Jones films, the appeal of the rollercoaster ride that lifts you to a peak of suspense and then lets you accelerate to a brief resolution before building up to the next peak. O’Donnell continually drops his heroes into impossibly desperate situations and then lets them work their own way out.

This kind of story could easily leave readers shaking their heads at the improbability of the plot but with skill a writer can suspend the reader’s sense of unbelief to hide the improbability from the readers mind. I can see two aspects of this skill in the Blaise books. Firstly O’Donnell creates very likeable heroes with backgrounds that equip them for the dangers they will face. Secondly he adds humour showing his tongue is very much at home in his cheek. And then there is no pretence that his villains are anything other than villainous – no attempt to justify their behaviour through questionable psychology. They are the baddies because they are evil, not because they are misunderstood or misguided.

Modesty Blaise is a former organized crime boss who made her fortune through illegal but not entirely immoral means, her crimes allegedly having no really innocent victims. Living in retirement, she retains an extraordinarily close bond with a former associate, Willie Garvin. It is a retirement that is regularly interrupted by their ability to attract – or be attracted to – trouble. In A Taste For Death, a holidaying Willie Garvin witnesses the murder of a young woman, after which he is able to rescue the victim’s companion from the murderers. In doing so he disrupts the plans of an old adversary and further confrontation becomes inevitable.

The books exotic settings, from the Caribbean to the deserts of North Africa are matched by the exotic and inventive challenges faced by Blaise and Garvin. In this book they are rejoined by Stephen Collier, a survivor from former adventures. Collier’s self-deprecating humour not only provides some of the books lighter moments, it becomes an important part of the plot with Collier being adopted as “court jester” by the book’s major villain Delicata, extending his life and also giving him access to vital intelligence.
Another recurring character is also introduced in this book. The girl rescued by Garvin at the beginning of the book, Dinah Pilgrim. She is the focal point of the villains’ plans, possessing a talent essential for their success. Garvin’s intervention ensures that he and Blaise will complicate those plans and be drawn into a deadly confrontation with a collection of adversaries from their past.

Some would call stories like this “comic book” and that criticism would not be entirely unjustified. Modesty Blaise started out as a comic strip character in the 1960s. The strip’s success led to a film adaptation with the original screenplay being written by O’Donnell. Unfortunately, the film business being as it can be, there were several rewrites and the result was far from satisfactory. At the time O’Donnell vowed never to allow his characters to be portrayed on film again unless he had personal control, a sentimnet he made known to me in a reply to a fan letter I wrote in the early 1980s.

After the disastrous film, O’Donnell salvaged the reputation of his characters by converting his screenplay into a novel, the first of a series which continued for 20 years. The Modesty Blaise books ended with a collection of short stories The Cobra Trap, published in 1996, 10 years after the last of the novels. However the comic strip continued until 2001.

Despite O’Donnell’s intentions regarding film adaptations of his characters, he relented to a degree and two other films were made. The first in 1982 was a telemovie, the pilot of a proposed TV series that never eventuated and the most recent being a prequel to the published Modesty Blaise stories. The latter made little impact and went straight to DVD. Maybe the most significant aspect of the DVD release was the bonus features, which include a lengthy interview with Peter O’Donnell who talks about his career and his relationship with the Modesty Blaise stories.


* Some of the series are available as new books but to me the old Pan paperback editions are an important part of the nostalgic experience.

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