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Literature / Modesty Blaise

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"The most complex, sophisticated, skilled and intelligent of all action heroines."
Jennifer K. Stuller, author of Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology

Series of novels and short stories by Peter O'Donnell, spun off from his long-running adventure comic of the same name.

Modesty Blaise is an orphan with a Dark and Troubled Past who was head of a criminal syndicate before she was 20, and retired wealthy before she was 30. Willie Garvin is a multi-talented Cockney former street kid who became Modesty's trusted right-hand man and followed her into wealthy retirement. Retirement was boring, so now They Fight Crime!.


(Only crime that's unusual enough to attract their interest, though — or nasty or personal enough to attract their anger.)

The first novel was published as a tie-in with the 1966 film adaptation, and is based on the screenplay O'Donnell wrote for the film (which was altered substantially by the filmmakers, so the film didn't end up much like the novel). The film was not a success, but the novel was, and more followed.

The books are not in continuity with the comic strip: the first novel begins with a significantly different version of the opening sequence of the comic strip, then goes its own way. Incidents and characters from the strip appear in the books revised, tweaked, and in completely different contexts. It's essentially the Ultimate Universe version of Modesty Blaise, only not in the same medium. Despite this, characters from the novels later began to appear in the comic strip, and the strip also adapted several short stories.


The short story "I Had a Date with Lady Janet" is narrated in the first person by Willie Garvin, and was once released as an audio book read by John Thaw.

The books in the series are:

  • Modesty Blaise (1965)
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966)
  • I, Lucifer (1967)
  • A Taste for Death (1969)
  • The Impossible Virgin (1971)
  • Pieces of Modesty (1972) (6 short stories note )
  • The Silver Mistress (1973)
  • Last Day in Limbo (1976)
  • Dragon's Claw (1978)
  • The Xanadu Talisman (1981)
  • The Night of Morningstar (1982)
  • Dead Man's Handle (1985)
  • Cobra Trap (1996) (5 short stories note )

The last of the short stories, "Cobra Trap", is a Distant Finale, which some fans have announced their intention never to read.


This series provides examples of:

  • Abuse Mistake: The punchline of "The Soo Girl Charity" - Modesty and Willy decide to inflict some karmic burglary on an unpleasant, sexist millionaire who sexually assaulted Modesty, and end up preventing his wife from killing herself and witnessing her killing him. After seeing various marks of violence on her body they assume that she was a battered wife doing the only things she could imagine that would free herself... until she finally confesses that the marks were from BDSM and the suicide attempt and murder were because he cheated on her and boasted about it. They still end up deciding to help her get away.
  • Action Dress Rip: Modesty's skirts are designed to tear away, leaving her legs free for action.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: Sheikh Abu-Tahir in the first novel is the leader of a small Arabic tribe who recently hit oil and the big time in that order. Definitely a Funny Foreigner. He mixes elements of the wealthy lifestyle with elements of the traditional life of his tribe; for instance, when he comes to England to negotiate an oil deal with the British government, he and his retinue take a suite at the Ritz and then set up a traditional encampment inside it, complete with tents and goats.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Mr. Sexton in The Silver Mistress is a particularly unpleasant example of this, considering himself to be the greatest fighter in the world (possibly correctly) while being also a Psycho for Hire and Torture Technician. Unfortunately for him, he wasn't as good at swimming.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Willie can supply a quotation from the Book of Psalms to fit any situation. He once spent a year in an Indian prison with nothing to read except a psalter and so has all of the psalms memorised.
  • Battle Strip: Modesty often strips down before fighting.
  • Berserk Button: Go ahead and hurt Modesty if you don't mind having Willie Garvin rip you to pieces. The reverse also applies.
    • Lampshaded in one of the books when Willie has a fit after someone disses his favorite singer, Petula Clark.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: All the time. They often have good reason to, though; they know that if they kill Modesty, Willie will hunt them down and kill them (or vice versa). Because of this, villains tend to want to kill them both at the same time. (This trope is also dominant in the comic strip.)
  • Checkpoint Charlie: In "The Giggle Wrecker", Modesty and Willie have to sneak a Soviet detector across the Berlin Wall.
  • Contemptible Cover: During the 1970s and '80s, most of the books got stuck with covers featuring an array of headless photos of women in stripperiffic black leather outfits decorated with metal studs. Over multiple editions, each more contemptible than the last, and none bearing any connection to the books' actual contents. You know it's bad when a male reader would rather be seen in public with the first novel's original cover, which is bright pink. Also, Modesty never wears that kind of leather Spy Catsuit in the books because of its impracticality - when she's in stealth mode she wears black denim, cotton, or wool.
  • Defector from Commie Land: In "The Giggle-Wrecker", Modesty and Willie help smuggle a Soviet defector across the Berlin Wall.
  • Disability Superpower: Recurring character Dinah Collier is blind and psychic.
  • Distant Finale: "Cobra Trap" is set at least a decade, possibly more, after the events of the novels and comic strip.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Personified by a trick Modesty uses on occasion called "The Nailer" in which she'll strip to the waist and enter a room topless. The momentary distraction caused by seeing a sexy female enter suddenly is often enough for Willie or Modesty to get the upper hand (lampooned in a mid-1970s comic strip when the Nailer is noted as being less effective because men in the 1970s have been exposed to increasingly amounts of sexually explicit films and magazines).
  • Double Standard: Averted; both protagonists routinely take lovers. Willie more than Modesty, admitted. By the last arcs in the strip, Modesty has several old flames who she routinely cycles between, with all parties involved aware of the others. Willie, on the other hand, has a lot of flings and one-night stands, with Maude Tiller (and in the book version, Lady Janet Gillam) as the recurring love interest.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While she was running her crime syndicate, Modesty refused to deal in drugs. Or prostitution. Or anything that would require killing innocent people or police. Or even killing other criminals, except in self-defense or defense of another. Although they did a rather large amount of killing re: that last. This continues into the post-Network era. On countless occasions in literature and comic strip, Willie and Modesty make a conscious effort to go for "sleeps, not keeps" whenever possible, but at the same time will make a deliberate decision to kill if they deem it appropriate.
  • Fake Defector: One of the short stories features a Soviet defector who turns out to be actually a Soviet agent pretending to defect as a way of flushing out and identifying the West's undercover assets as they helped him on his way.
  • Finger Gun: In a lighter moment in the first novel, Modesty gets in a finger-gun battle with a pair of small boys.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: In The Silver Mistress Modesty fights nude, and greased-up, to keep the much-stronger bad guy from being able to grab her. In addition, one of Modesty's favorite tactics when entering a room full of hostiles is "The Nailer"—she strips to the waist and walks in bare-breasted, counting on the moment of startlement she generates to give her the time she needs to do what she must.
  • Funny Foreigner: Caspar in "A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck" is a Funny Foreigner everywhere he goes, speaking in an unidentifiable accent with Poirot Speak interjections from multiple languages.
    "Modesty, my old!" Caspar snatched up her hand and kissed it. "I am possessed by a brilliant idea. Let us get married tout de suite, old bean. Heiut! Oggi! As captain of the Delphine, I will perform the ceremony. Tovarich Garvin shall be best man."
  • A God Am I: The young man known as "Lucifer" in I, Lucifer, is under the delusion that he is Satan. Yes, the Satan. Despite this, he's still the Token Good Teammate among the bad guys, for a very weird version of "good".
  • I Don't Know Mortal Kombat: One novel establishes that although Modesty is extremely dangerous in a real sword-fight, she keeps losing fencing matches because she can't adapt to the sport's Acceptable Breaks from Reality.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten: The Night of Morningstar has a tragic version where Ben Christie actually goes through with it, because he had just found out that the villains were going to execute a terrorist bombing later that night killing tens of thousands and he absolutely could not die or blow his cover before he had a chance to warn someone. Then, after he murders an innocent teenaged girl to prove that he's not an infiltrator, the villains laugh at him and inform him that they already knew he was CIA even before the test started, and they just wanted to have fun with him. Ben doesn't really survive the revelation.
  • I Know Madden Kombat: Cricketing skills allow a missionary to play Grenade Hot Potato in "A Better Day to Die".
  • Ironic Nickname: Her mentor started calling her "Modesty" as a joke (she doesn't know her real name).
  • Knife-Throwing Act: Willie Garvin occasionally goes and does one of these at a circus somewhere when he feels like a holiday; Modesty sometimes plays the target's role.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: In Sabre-Tooth, Modesty and Willie are captured by a villain who wants to see if their reputation for inventiveness is deserved before recruiting them. He locks them in a cell but deliberately leaves a means of escape to see if they will discover it. They do, then decide that is too obvious and must be a trap, and proceed to invent their own means of escape. The bad guy is very impressed.
  • Moral Dissonance: Lampshaded in the short story "I Had a Date with Lady Janet" when Willie (narrating the story in first person) defends accusations of Modesty being a cold-blooded killer.
  • More Expendable Than You: Whenever a caper requires Modesty to put her life on the line, Willie asks if he can't do it instead.
  • Mythology Gag: In "Cobra Trap", a character remarks how great Modesty looks for her age, a Lampshade Hanging on her lack of apparent aging in the decades the comic strip had been running.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Jack Fraser, star secret agent wolf in the clothing of a meek and pedantic Desk Jockey. The first sentence of the first novel:
    Fraser adjusted his spectacles to the angle which he knew would produce the effect of prim stupidity he favoured most.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: The name "Jacqueline" inserted into any conversation is Modesty & Willie's private signal for 'I'm in trouble and can't talk openly.'
  • Secretly Dying: In the Distant Finale "Cobra Trap", Modesty is killed in action shortly after revealing to Willie that she's already dying, from an inoperable brain tumor.
  • Shout-Out: In "The Soo Girl Charity", Modesty cautions Willie against engaging in vigilantism for the sake of it by saying that they aren't "the Four Just Men", a reference to the thriller of the same name by Edgar Wallace.
  • Sissy Villain: Distaff Counterpart: Mrs. Fothergill in Modesty Blaise has a lot of Butch Lesbian signifiers, but she doesn't seem to show any sexual interest in anyone, and doesn't enjoy many things other than killing people.
  • Stating the Simple Solution:
    • In A Taste For Death, the second banana villain—who has been defeated by them before—practically jumps up and down shouting, "Kill them now!" or (later) "They're up to something, kill them now!" But he's overruled. It goes poorly for him.
    • Major the Earl St. Maur, in Night of Morningstar, argues for dropping Modesty & Willie over the side the instant the Watchmen finish determining whether or not our heroes managed to send a message before being captured. (They hadn't.) He is overruled by his superior Colonel Golitsyn, who wishes to keep Modesty & Willie alive for use in an elaborate disinformation plot. Karmically, Golitsyn was one of the first of the Watchmen's senior leaders to die in Modesty & Willie's inevitable escape; St. Maur was the last.
    • Modesty and Willie are occasionally asked this in both the novels and comic strip. In the first novel, Modesty also basically asks Willie this during a fight with a pair of thugs.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Averted. Modesty and Willie frequently decide whether to kill or spare enemies based on moral judgements of them as individuals rather than their importance to the plot, often killing depraved Big Bads while sparing minions who might not have been aware of how bad their employer was. Shown off in the French Riviera section of the very first book, where Willie slightly injures and humiliates a mook assigned to spy on him via a comedy Groin Attack, but shortly afterwards Modesty deliberately kills one who had cold-bloodedly murdered a vulnerable young woman for informing.


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