Vintage Pulp Feb 17 2019
MODESTY BECOMES HER
O'Donnell shows how sex, violence, and style are supposed to be done.


First of all, we recognize that Peter O'Donnell set down his comic strip character Modesty Blaise in book form almost a decade after the Ficklings created Honey West, but we don't think O'Donnell had any advantages. We don't think his way was paved by earlier sexy heroines, or that he was working under fewer constraints because the permissive ’60s were underway. He simply had a better feel for how to titillate readers. But while his 1965 Blaise debut, entitled simply Modesty Blaise, was erotic, it was also carefully plotted, scenically enthralling, and technically convincing. For example, Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin discuss calibres of weapons, preferred approaches to combat, and the logistics of dealing with adversaries in a way that not only feels natural, but lends credibility to what is at its core a preposterous premise.

The premise: Modesty Blaise is an orphan who, abandoned somewhere in the near east, rises from the life of a street urchin to become the biggest crime kingpin in the Mediterranean. She has help along the way, learning how to fight, shoot, organize, roleplay, meditate, dominate men, and generally survive in a brutal world. There's an edge of harsh realism to this fantasy. Her backstory contains two rapes, a gunshot wound, and beatings, but she perseveres to become a feared, almost mythical figure of the criminal underworld, known by name to many but personally only to Garvin, her partner, protector, sounding board, and trainer, who like her is a former street crook.

Modesty Blaise picks up after Blaise and Garvin have retired with a pile of money but are bored. The British government comes calling with a proposal: work for them under minimal management and return to the life that thrilled them, this time on the side of law and order. The government wants Blaise to stop the theft of a pile of diamonds and
prevent a potential international incident. They know a man named Gabriel plans to steal them but they don't know how, where, or when. Blaise and Garvin first work preventatively at a distance, but soon realize the only chance they have is to infiltrate Gabriel's deadly organization and be on hand when the theft is carried out.

In the tradition of James Bond, each Blaise villain tends to employ a particularly unusual henchman, and in this case it's a woman, speculated to be hermaphroditic, definitely sadistic, named Mrs. Fothergill, a martial arts expert and slavering loon. The eventual showdown between Blaise, with her analytical mentality, and Fothergill, who's dense but animalistically clever, doesn't disappoint thanks to O'Donnell's descriptive skills, which allow him paint the action in a step by step way that makes it cinematically easy to picture. He may have picked up this ability from visualizing and writing the Modesty Blaise comic strip, or he may have had it all along. In any case, more writers need the gift.


O'Donnell would write twelve more Blaise books, several of which are—within the constraints of the erotic adventure genre—excellent. When we say erotic we don't mean sex defines the narratives. Blaise is merely a red-blooded beauty in the bloom of youth who happens to be free of inhibitions and possessed of strong appetites. Some of the eroticism is wrapped in action. In The Silver Mistress there's a great climax set beside an underground lake where she evens the odds against a physically superior opponent by stripping and coating herself in slippery cave mud. O'Donnell describes her as he might a creature made of mercury, in constant, fluid motion and silvery in color.

And speaking of visuals, the art on this 1966 Fawcett paperback was painted by Robert McGinnis and was a tie-in to a Twentieth Century Fox film adaptation starring Monica Vitti, whose stylized likeness McGinnis placed on the cover. There's also extra Vitti on the rear. As always, this is great work from McGinnis, a master of his craft. As for O'Donnell's craft, now that we've revisited Blaise and Garvin's debut we'll probably take another look at a few of their other adventurous forays. But this one we can strongly recommend, both on its own and as a superior alternative to Honey West. 
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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
July 21
1925—Jury Decides the Teaching of Evolution Is a Crime
In the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, American schoolteacher John Scopes is found guilty of violating the Butler Act, which forbids the teaching of evolution in schools. The sensational trial pits two great legal minds—William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow—against each other. Ultimately, Scopes and Darrow are destined to lose because the case rests on whether Scopes had violated the Act, not whether evolution is fact.
1969—First Humans Reach the Moon
Neil Armstrong and Eugene 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. become the first humans to walk on the moon. The third member of the mission, command module Pilot Michael Collins, remains in orbit in Apollo 11.
1972—Chaos in the Big Apple
In New York City, within a span of twenty-four hours, fifty-seven murders are committed.
July 20
1944—Hitler Survives Third Assassination Attempt
Adolf Hitler escapes death after a bomb explodes at his headquarters in Rastenberg, East Prussia. A senior officer, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, is blamed for planting the device at a meeting between Hitler and other senior staff members. Hitler sustains minor burns and a concussion but manages to keep an appointment later in the day with Italian leader Benito Mussolini.
July 19
1966—Sinatra Marries Farrow
Superstar singer and actor Frank Sinatra marries 21-year-old actress Mia Farrow, who is 30 years younger than him. The marriage lasts two years.
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