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.
May 29
1914—RMS Empress Sinks
Canadian Pacific Steamships' 570 foot ocean liner Empress of Ireland is struck amidships by a Norwegian coal freighter and sinks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the loss of 1,024 lives. Submerged in 130 feet of water, the ship is so easily accessible to treasure hunters who removed valuables and bodies from the wreck that the Canadian government finally passes a law in 1998 restricting access.
May 28
1937—Chamberlain Becomes Prime Minister
Arthur Neville Chamberlain, who is known today mainly for his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938 which conceded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany and was supposed to appease Adolf Hitler's imperial ambitions, becomes prime minister of Great Britain. At the time Chamberlain is the second oldest man, at age sixty-eight, to ascend to the office. Three years later he would give way to Winston Churchill.
May 27
1930—Chrysler Building Opens
In New York City, after a mere eighteen months of construction, the Chrysler Building opens to the public. At 1,046 feet, 319 meters, it is the tallest building in the world at the time, but more significantly, William Van Alen's design is a landmark in art deco that is celebrated to this day as an example of skyscraper architecture at its most elegant.
1969—Jeffrey Hunter Dies
American actor Jeffrey Hunter dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a skull fracture, a mishap precipitated by his suffering a stroke seconds earlier. Hunter played many roles, including Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings, but is perhaps best known for portraying Captain Christopher Pike in the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage".
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