Pulp Fiction is a film for trivia buffs, geeks and obsessives, made by the über-geek himself, Quentin Tarantino. There is a moment in the film when John Travolta’s character is sitting on the toilet reading a book. Just seconds before he is blown to pieces by a pump action shot gun at point-blank range, you get a glimpse of the cover. And if you, like me, are a closet pulp fiction groupie, this is the point where you “aaah!” in recognition. For the book he has chosen for his final crap on earth is the apotheosis of genre ‘pulp fiction’: Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell.
Modesty Blaise has been referred to (delicate shudder) as “a female James Bond.” This is akin to calling Arundhati Roy a female Chetan Bhagat. Whilst Blaise and Bond both take on nasty villains and jump up and down on ’em in a variety of ingenious ways, here the comparison stops. Modesty is a far, far more interesting character than that bland smoothie 007. And whilst it would take a very brave or very foolish person to champion Ian Fleming’s books over the corpus of Bond movies, there is no doubt that Modesty is at her best in the books – the three attempts at translating her into celluloid have fallen spectacularly flat.
I used to spend much of my time trawling the secondhand booksellers searching out the dusty paperbacks with their tacky covers of thigh-booted dominatrixes promising oodles of sex and violence. And it was with considerable pride that I slowly amassed the entire corpus of Blaise books – thirteen in all. So when I found out that Penguin India was planning to reprint all of them, I felt a mixture of delight and regret: regret that no more would there be the pleasure of knowing that the dog-eared copy you had rescued from the pavements of Daryaganj was a rare and precious find, and pleasure at the thought that now I can actually buy copies to gift, instead of lending mine to the low-life bunch of chors who claim to be my friends.
Modesty Blaise started life as a cartoon strip character in The Evening Standard in 1963. Her creator, Peter O’Donnell, was then commissioned to use her character to write a novel, and in 1965, the first Blaise book was published. Over the next twenty years, O’Donnell published another ten novels and one collection of short stories, alongside (and often overlapping with) nearly 100 Modesty Blaise comic strips. Then, after a gap of eleven years, he published the thirteenth, and final, book, Cobra Trap – a collection of stories, in the last of which Modesty and her constant companion, the incomparable Willie Garvin, die.
The nasties that Willie and Modesty tangle with over the course of their careers tend to be either unfeeling sociopaths or sexually perverse sadists, or some combination of the two. The warped Satanist, Dr Thaddeus Pilgrim, in Dead Man’s Handle is paired with the excitable and sexually repressed Mrs Ram. The unfeeling killer, Colonel Jim Straik in Silver Mistress has the combat master, Mr Sexton, at his beck and call. With penchant for orchids and lilac nail varnish, the psycho-poofter Beauregard Browne and his nymphomaniac consort Clarissa employ the evangelical sharp-shooting skills of the Reverend Uriah Crisp to perform their executions in Dragon’s Claw. Some of the killers stretch the limits of credibility well beyond twanging point (I have never been convinced by Jeremy and Dominic Silk, in The Xanadu Talisman, cold-blooded assassins by day, nanny-fiddling dweebs by night), but there are others who brilliantly crafted. Who can forget the implacable and seemingly invincible Simon Delicata, or the fencing supremo Wenczel in A Taste for Death? But be prepared to put your twenty-first century sensibilities on hold as far as the sexual politics go. These books reflect their times, not only in the décor and fashion, but their attitude to what used to be considered ‘deviant’ sexuality. Any hint of homosexuality goes hand-in-hand with being a psychotically deranged serial killer. Once you’ve swallowed that, you’ll be fine.
Modesty is no Bond in drag. She’s all woman – deadly, fascinating, tender, ruthless, with a will of iron and buns of steel. A mediumly competent cook blessed with an almost supernaturally fast combat brain, a lateral thinker, a yogic adept, a woman with a strict code of conduct, a loyal friend to her friends, and a deadly foe to crooks and criminals the world over. The real life encounter that sparked off the ‘back story’ for Modesty is reprinted here in a rare essay in the preface to book one, in which O’Donnell describes his character having had “a childhood of unrelenting struggle, in which she had been tempered to the very core by danger, loneliness, fear and every kind of hardship, a child with a diamond-hard will to survive.”
In Willie Garvin, Peter O’Donnell practically defined the phrase “diamond in the rough”. Modesty discovers Willie in a jail and buys his freedom, saying “They tell me you’re a dangerous rat, Willie Garvin. I’ve no use for rats, but I’ve got a hunch there’s some sort of man inside you trying to get out. If you work for me, he might get a chance.” In Willie, Modesty discovers the kind of companionship that no money can buy: theirs is a true meeting of minds, a matching of talents. His gift to her are the laughter lines around the corners of her eyes. To Willie, Modesty is the “Princess” and walking at her heels sets him head-and-shoulders above any other.
Two things you need to know about Modesty. One: she overcame her fear of male sexuality (the result of two childhood rapes) due to the tender ministrations of Danny Chavasse – a self-confessed ‘bedroom warrior’, and one of her trusted employees during her Network days. He introduced her to the Joy of Sex and she never looked back. Two: she and Willie never “do it”. Their special equation would be unbalanced if they slept together. Who needs sex when your relationship is forged with “bonds of steel”, when when you’ve saved each others’ lives so often, when you’ve been to death and back together?
To Death and Back
Apart from trying to avoid being killed in various ingenious ways by groups of psychotic killers – Modesty and Willie have been up at the sharp end, and in some pretty tight corners, facing certain death from all manner of quarters. Modesty is struck by lightning, hit by earthquake, and caged with an enraged gorilla. Willie is manacled to a concrete block and suspended in a pit of muddy water, is brainwashed into wanting to kill Modesty, pushed out of a plane, still strapped to his chair, and does battle with a panther. Given all the impossible situations which they have managed by hook or by crook to survive, the final end when it comes – in Cobra Trap – is a bit of a damp squib.
Penguin India are smart cookies. There’s a fine line between tacky and cool, and they have managed, with their snazzy metallic covers and raised type, to navigate between the two. These books are dear to my heart, so I cannot help but wince at the more than occasional typographical mistake, and the variable printing quality. But such minor considerations are more than outweighed by the sheer pleasure of having all thirteen volumes lined up on the bookshelf, their spines revealing the seductive silhouette of a reclining female figure, eight-parts leg to five-parts body. Here’s hoping that these pulp classics will win over a new generation of readers with the thrills and spills, laughs and gasps, that have won Modesty and Willie a loyal band of die-hard fans in the past.
Hindustan Times, 2 June 2007