Long before Nikita made her first kill or Stieg Larsson witnessed the crime that inspired the creation of Lisbeth Salander, Modesty Blaise set the standard for sexy female spies.
Her daily comic strip appeared first in 1963 in The Evening Standard in London, created by Peter O’Donnell, who wrote the strip for almost 40 years with several different artists. Modesty Blaise has been collected in graphic novel form over the years and the latest, Modesty Blaise: Sweet Caroline, is a great way to get to know the distinctively British super-spy.
In case you haven’t met Modesty, here’s an overview: In 1945, a girl around 12 years old escaped from a Greek “displaced person” camp with no name or memory of her past. She roamed around the Middle East, surviving any way she could, until she met a former professor, Lob, who named her Modesty and gave her an education. (She chose her last name in honor of Merlin’s magic teacher.)
She grew up to head an international crime organization, The Network, and made enough money to retire to a London penthouse. Modesty’s partner Willie Garvin, whom she met in The Network, followed suit. (The two were inseparable, but had a strictly platonic relationship.)
They soon got bored with their new lives and agreed to help Modesty’s friend and British secret service official Sir Gerald Tarrant with various jobs — and having a few adventures of their own along the way.
In many ways, Modesty was a female version of James Bond. She was smart, witty, sexy and ruthless. She and Willie avoided deadly force if possible, but didn’t hesitate to kill when they had no other choice. They usually depended on their fighting skills and unusual weapons to deal with their adversaries. Modesty’s weapon of choice was a yawara stick (she called it a “kongo”), but she didn’t need it most of the time.
Sweet Caroline reprints four consecutive stories from the ’80s that typify the international intrigue, sex and glamour throughout the Modesty Blaise series. I’m hesitant to tell you too much, but if you like sharply written spy novels, you’ll love these stories. Several collections are available online. BTW, if your only encounter with Modesty is on film or British TV, pretend these are entirely different characters.
Do you know Modesty Blaise? If so, let us know how she compares to contemporary women spies. If not, give this collection a read and tell us what you think.