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.
November 13
1971—Mariner Orbits Mars
The NASA space probe Mariner 9 becomes the first spacecraft to orbit another planet successfully when it begins circling Mars. Among the images it transmits back to Earth are photos of Olympus Mons, a volcano three times taller than Mount Everest and so wide at its base that, due to curvature of the planet, its peak would be below the horizon to a person standing on its outer slope.
November 12
1912—Missing Explorer Robert Scott Found
British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his men are found frozen to death on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, where they had been pinned down and immobilized by bad weather, hunger and fatigue. Scott's expedition, known as the Terra Nova expedition, had attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole only to be devastated upon finding that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them there by five weeks. Scott wrote in his diary: "The worst has happened. All the day dreams must go. Great God! This is an awful place."
1933—Nessie Spotted for First Time
Hugh Gray takes the first known photos of the Loch Ness Monster while walking back from church along the shore of the Loch near the town of Foyers. Only one photo came out, but of all the images of the monster, this one is considered the most authentic.
1969—My Lai Massacre Revealed
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh breaks the story of the My Lai massacre, which had occurred in Vietnam more than a year-and-a-half earlier but been covered up by military officials. That day, U.S. soldiers killed between 350 and 500 unarmed civilians, including women, the elderly, and infants. The event devastated America's image internationally and galvanized the U.S. anti-war effort. For Hersh's efforts he received a Pulitzer Prize.
November 11
1918—The Great War Ends
Germany signs an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside of Compi├Ęgne in France, ending The Great War, later to be called World War I. About ten million people died, and many millions more were wounded. The conflict officially stops at 11:00 a.m., and today the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is annually honored in some European nations with two minutes of silence.
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