The first Modesty Blaise book based on the comic strip heroine.
Publication year: 1965
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1997
Page count: 311
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Otava
Finnish translator: Seppo Harjulehto
I’m a fan of the comic strip. I started to read it when I was an impressionable teenager and I collected the strips from the local (Finnish) newspapers. Modesty is a female equivalent of James Bond and Simon Templar, so she’s not a realistic hero. Neither is her sidekick Willie Garvin who calls Modesty ”Princess”. They’re both superhuman and that’s why they’re so much fun to read about. Also, they’re both amazing fighters and have a lot of other skills, too. For example, Modesty has jeweler’s skills and Garvin builds new weapons.
Modesty grew up desperately poor and without a family. She had to fend for herself for as long as she can remember and that left her an independent and hardened woman. She ran a criminal organization called the Network until she and Willie were rich enough that they could retire before they turned 30. She also rescued Willie from a life a violent criminal and put him to work in her service. This gave Willie a purpose in his life for the first time and makes him unshaking loyal to her. However, when they retired, they were both quite addicted to danger and when Sir Gerald Tarrant from British Intelligence wanted them to work for him, they weren’t hard to convince. However, they’re not regular agents but choose their own jobs and often enough adventure finds them. They’re not lovers, in fact they each have their own lovers who often also get mixed up in the adventures.
Both Modesty and Willie are ethical criminals; they didn’t deal with prostitution or drugs and in fact sometimes punish others who abuse humans that way. I love them to bits!
That said, I have to admit that I like the comics better than this book.
In this book, Modesty and Willie meet Sir Gerald for the first time. Both have been in retirement for a year and both have been getting bored. In fact, Willie’s so bored that he got mixed up with a dangerous situation and is not sitting in jail, waiting to be executed. Sir Gerald gives this information to Modesty and in exchange Modesty and Willie agree to do a job for him. After rescuing Willie, the duo are ready for a far harder work.
Sheik Abu-Tahir has sold oil to Britain and was paid in diamonds. The ship carrying the diamonds worth 10 million leaves from Cape Town and sails to Beirut. Until then, Tarrant is responsible for them. According to intel his has received, a criminal mastermind is going to steal them and so he wants Modesty to guard them.
Modesty uses her old contacts and agrees with Tarrant that the man aiming for the diamonds is Gabriel, a cruel and very wealthy criminal whom Modesty avoided during her criminal career. However, now she has to outwit him.
The book moves at a good pace and Modesty has to use both her wits and combat skills. However, their success rests on their forward planning which isn’t shown to the reader but comes as a surprise, much like in the comics. But somehow it almost feels like a cheat in a book. The main POV of the book is Modesty herself with sometimes abrupt changes to other characters, such as Sir Gerald, Paul Hagan, and one of the criminals.
One of the things which I really enjoy about Modesty is her large circle of friends and allies. The sheik is one of them. He and his men practically worship Modesty and call her the Princess. She also uses her old contacts from the Network but some of them resent that and want to make sure that she isn’t returning and thinking control away from them. Another old friend is Paul Hagan, British Intelligence agent in France. Hagan is both a painter and a spy, and he’s crazy about Modesty. Unfortunately, this means that he has a huge problem with working under her. O’Donnell describes this as a male ego problem; he just wants her in bed and not to follow her orders, especially when actual danger is involved. Fortunately, Modesty realized this.
If you’re interested in reading Modesty Blaise, I’d recommend starting with the comics and not this book. And if you value your sanity, stay away from the movie.