By Verity Burns
There are hundreds of books on my bookshelves. And on the floor. In the bathroom. Piled up by my bed… It’s a collection built up over forty years and most have been read more than once – some many, many times. They are old friends.
But if I had to pick one author… Just a single set of books to take with me on some mythical trip…
That author would be Peter O’Donnell. Those tales would be of Modesty Blaise.
It’s hard to say exactly why. The stories are action adventures. They’re exciting, often exotic, with colourful characters and weird and wonderful villains. Originally a comic-strip which ran for over thirty years, there are also eleven full novels and two short story collections.
The ’verse is not perfect. The character was created in 1963 and they are books of their time – there are occasional phrases / attitudes that cause a nose-wrinkle in the politically correct modern reader. But Modesty Blaise is a strong female lead in an era when such things were four-leaf clovers. She has lovers, but they neither own nor define her. She has an intriguing past and an absolutely kick-ass present.
And at the heart of every story is her relationship with Willie Garvin. A pairing which dodges clichés as deftly as the characters dodge bullets. As the author himself says, ‘It would be impossible to write a character profile of Modesty or Willie. Our characters are made up of hundreds of little things which, in themselves, are not significant but, taken together, make us who we are… The same goes for the things which make their relationship unique, as it would for any of us.’
Their devotion to each other is absolute, but devoid of any sexual or romantic component. There is no pining. No lusting. No love triangles, octagons, or any other angst-contriving shapes. They simply are. And they give me hope.
As for the writer, Peter O’Donnell has a voice. When reading one of the comics, I was struck that a particular line of dialogue didn’t ‘sound’ like Willie. In the next edition it was noted that the panel had been changed because the original line referenced a president who was no longer in power. Mr O’Donnell’s characterisation is so perfect that the change stuck out like a sour raspberry in an otherwise perfect pavlova. He’s that good.
To prove the point, only one other set of my oft-read novels are unique in their genre, with the fields of historical and romantic fiction covered by a single author: Madeleine Brent. A chance encounter hooked me on her works and I had almost every book by the time I discovered she didn’t exist.
Turns out Peter O’Donnell wrote those books under a pseudonym. Madeleine Brent got her name from initials: She was named for Modesty Blaise.