Modesty Blaise is a newspaper strip character created by British writer Peter O'Donnell. O'Donnell, born 11 April 1920, began contributing to British newspapers and magazines in the 1930's. Following World War II, he continued his career as a writer and eventually moved into nationally syndicated newspaper comic strips. In 1956, he teamed up with artist Jim Holdaway on Romeo Brown, which recounted the adventures of a comic detective. In 1962, O'Donnell was asked by the strip cartoon editor of Beaverbrook Newspapers to develop a new character, and Modesty Blaise was born. The first installment of Modesty Blaise appeared in the London Evening Standard on Monday, 13 May 1963, with art by Holdaway.
In the stories, Modesty Blaise, the former head of an international criminal organization known as The Network, is now living in a penthouse apartment in London. Although ostensibly retired, Modesty and her partner Willie Garvin continually find themselves in a series of adventures which usually involve conflict with some nefarious criminal mastermind. More often than not, their involvement in these capers comes at the request of Sir Gerald Tarrant, who is both a close friend, and a highly placed official in British Intelligence.
Following the initial success of the newspaper strip, O'Donnell was approached in the fall of 1964 with an offer to transfer his characters to the movie screen. O'Donnell wrote an original screenplay, but the motion picture that was ultimately released in 1966 - several rewrites and a couple of changes in production companies later - bore little resemblance to his original creation. Modesty Blaise, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Italian actress Monica Vitti, is today considered to be somewhat of a camp classic. Leonard Maltin's Movie And Video Guide has this to say about it: "Director Losey ate watermelon, pickles, and ice cream, went to sleep, woke up, and made this adaptation of the comic strip about a sexy female spy." For a long time, it was difficult to see the movie, at least in North America, because it simply wasn't available. That situation changed in July 2002 when Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment released the film on DVD in anamorphic widescreen. Unfortunately, as far as most viewers were concerned, the film lived up (or down) to its reputation. While most fans will probably want to see it out of curiosity, few will be willing to repeat the experience.
To tie-in with the theatrical release of the film, O'Donnell was asked to write a novel about Modesty and Willie. He originally planned to write a completely different story, but, with time at a premium, he turned to his completed screenplay and used that as the basis for his manuscript. The novel, also titled Modesty Blaise, was published in hardcover by Souvenir Press in 1965, and in paperback by Pan Books in 1966. As it turned out, the screenplay had been rewritten so many times that the novel and the movie didn't have too much in common after all.
The book was a success in its own right, so O'Donnell began a second career as a novelist, while continuing to write the daily newspaper strip. Sabre-Tooth was published in 1966, I, Lucifer in 1967, and A Taste For Death in 1969.
In 1970, Jim Holdaway died suddenly, so a replacement artist was needed. The job went to Enric Badia Romero, a Spanish artist. Romero spoke no English, so O'Donnell's scripts for the stories had to be translated into Spanish before Romero could produce the drawings. He continued working on the strip until early 1979. Following Romero's departure, Modesty Blaise was drawn by John Burns, Pat Wright and Neville Colvin. In late 1986, Romero took over the artistic duties once again.
Meanwhile, the books continued, with The Impossible Virgin (1971), Pieces Of Modesty (a short story collection, 1972), The Silver Mistress (1973), Last Day In Limbo (1976), Dragon's Claw (1978), The Xanadu Talisman (1981), The Night Of Morningstar (1982) and Dead Man's Handle (1985). All of the books were published first in England in hardcover by Souvenir Press, with paperback editions from Pan Books following a year or two later. The only exception was Pieces Of Modesty, which was only published as a Pan paperback. In the United States, the early books were published in hardcover by Doubleday and in paperback by Fawcett. (John Travolta's character can be seen reading a copy of one of the Doubleday editions in the movie Pulp Fiction.) In 1981, Archival Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts issued a hardcover edition of The Silver Mistress with 20 full page Romero illustrations. In the mid 1980's, The Mysterious Press of New York reprinted the entire series in both hardcover and paperback. There has also been a series of US paperbacks published by Tor Books. In 2001, Souvenir Press in the UK began re-issuing the series in trade paperback editions. These new books make use of the cover art that first appeared on their original hardcover editions.
In 1969, Souvenir Press founder Ernst Hecht suggested that O’Donnell try writing a gothic romance. The result was Tregaron’s Daughter, which Souvenir Press published in 1971. It appeared under the pseudonym Madeleine Brent because both O’Donnell and Hecht felt that a romance by a female author would be more appealing to a predominantly female audience.
Tregaron’s Daughter was a success, so O’Donnell continued to write Madeleine Brent novels, alternating them with Modesty Blaise titles. The next in the series was Moonraker's Bride (1973), followed by Kirkby's Changeling (1975. US title: Stranger at Wildings), Merlin's Keep (1977), The Capricorn Stone (1979), The Long Masquerade (1981), A Heritage of Shadows (1983), Stormswift (1984) and Golden Urchin (1986). All nine Madeleine Brent novels were re-issued by Souvenir Press in 2012 and 2013 in trade paperback editions.
In 1978, the Romantic Novelists Association gave their award for Best Romantic Novel of The Year to Madeleine Brent for Merlin’s Keep. However, despite the success and recognition that Madeleine Brent was achieving, the author’s real identity remained a closely guarded secret until O’Donnell revealed the truth a number of years later in Romantic Times magazine.
Although marketed as romances, the Madeleine Brent books can be described just as accurately as adventure novels. Each features a young and resourceful female protagonist. Typically, she goes from a life of hardship to one of wealth and privilege. Before too long, however, she finds herself in jeopardy, and must overcome seemingly overwhelming odds to save both herself and those around her. Fans of Modesty Blaise will see much that is familiar in these stories, and find much to enjoy.
A second attempt to bring Modesty Blaise to the screen came in 1982, when a made-for-TV movie was produced for American television by Barney Rosenzweig, the man behind Cagney And Lacey. Directed by Reza Badiyi, this movie cast Ann Turkel in the leading role and changed the location from London to California. In the end, this pilot wasn't very successful, and the planned series never materialized.
In 1993, the newspaper strip marked its 30th anniversary. In 1994, DC published Modesty Blaise, a graphic adaptation of the first novel, written by O'Donnell with art by Dick Giordano. 1996 saw the publication of Cobra Trap, a second collection of short stories. The title story in this book represents the end of the series, as it brings the story of Modesty and Willie to a definite, and fitting, conclusion. Following the publication of Cobra Trap, the newpaper strip continued for another five years, finally ending on 11 April 2001, Peter O'Donnell's 81st birthday.
Over the years, there have been a number of reprints of the newspaper strips. In 1978, Star (the paperback division of W.H. Allen & Co. Ltd) issued two paperback collections: In The Beginning and The Black Pearl And The Vikings. Between 1981 and 1986, American publisher Ken Pierce issued eight volumes in his 'First American Edition Series'. Each one reprinted just under a year's worth of stories. In 1984, England's Titan Books began a similar series, under the somewhat optimistic title 'The Complete Adventures Of Modesty Blaise'. Titan's series also ran for eight volumes, ending in 1990. Perhaps inevitably, there was some overlap with the Ken Pierce books, with some stories appearing in both series. The Titan books are especially appealing because each one contains an introduction by O'Donnell, covering the history of Modesty Blaise in all her incarnations, his own writing career, and the inspiration for many of the individual stories. The American magazine Comics Revue, published by Rick Norwood's Manuscript Press, has serialized many of the Modesty Blaise newspaper strips. Eventually, Manuscript Press began publication of Modesty Blaise Quarterly, with one complete story appearing in each issue. After twenty-five issues, that magazine was replaced by a new series of trade paperbacks containing three complete stories in each volume. The first of these books, Live Bait, was published in 2002. Also published in 2002, issue #200 of Comics Revue contained the first English-language publication of 'The Dark Angels', a 46-page comic book adaptation of one of the stories that appeared in the collection Cobra Trap. In 2004, Titan began to issue a new series of collections, with new introductory material. Unlike their original series of twenty years earlier, which jumped around a lot and reprinted stories by both Holdaway and Romero, the new series - which is still going strong - started at the beginning, reprinting the strips in strict chronological sequence.
A third Modesty Blaise movie, My Name Is Modesty, was produced in 2002 by Miramax. This low-budget production directed by Scott Spiegel was made to allow Miramax to retain the film rights to the character. It stars Alexandra Staden in the title role and tells the story of Modesty's early life up until the time she takes over control of Henri Louche's organization. The film remains true to the spirit of O'Donnell's original creation, although most fans will probably still find the results to be a little disappointing. My Name Is Modesty received no theatrical release, going direct to video instead. The film was released on DVD in Europe in October 2003, and in North America in September 2004.
Peter O'Donnell passed away on 3 May 2010, a couple of weeks after celebrating his 90th birthday.
Because I am most familiar with the novels, I have decided to make the books the focus of this website. The bibliography is a detailed list of the Souvenir Press first editions of each book, along with the first Pan Books paperback printing. This section includes reproductions of the cover art for each book. The concordance is a comprehensive guide to people, places and things in the the books. If you want to know just what a kongo is, where The Treadmill is located, or which books Gabriel appears in, this is the place to look. Finally, I have included some links to other sites of interest: other Modesty Blaise sites, where to look for out-of-print books by O'Donnell (or anyone else), and so on.
My thanks, as always, to John Anderson for introducing me to Modesty Blaise in the first place, for loaning me the few books I needed to make my collection of cover images complete, and for reviewing a couple of early versions of the concordance. When he told me that reading it made him want to read all of O'Donnell's books all over again, I knew that I was onto something good. I'd also like to express my appreciation to Rennie Petersen, whose careful reading of the concordance allowed me to correct a number of minor errors and inaccuracies. Comments, questions or suggestions about any part of this site are always welcome. My e-mail address is: .