In the beginning there was Modesty. Cooler than the pretentious James Bond, tougher than the brain-dead Mike Hammer, and with one of the cutest sidekicks in fiction, the drop-dead gorgeous Willie Garvin, Modesty was literally a revelation to me when, as a teenager, I first stumbled across one of the books. Modesty, unlike all the male heroes of the genre, had nothing to prove. The Hammers and Bonds and assorted other action heroes all seemed to be struggling incessantly to show us how macho they were, their frenzied beddings of exotic brunettes and haughty blondes like some endless, testosterone-crazed quest to prove they weren't gay (which would actually make an awful lot of sense. When a guy's that desperate to demonstrate his heterosexuality, you really have to wonder about it).
Modesty simply... was. An orphan from God knows where, she grew up in a refugee camp and wandered all across the Middle East as a child, picking up super-developed survival skills on the way. By her late teens she was running an international crime syndicate, The Network (no drugs and prostitution, natch) and we meet her in the first book, 'Modesty Blaise', when she and Willie have retired, still only in their early thirties, if that, with too much time on their hands and a constant thirst for adventure. Not to mention all those finely-honed fighting skills to test out. Modesty and Willie charge around the world, drawn in reluctantly to a series of caper/adventures with improbably nasty villains and ruthless opponents. All plotted to perfection.
The wonderful thing about Modesty is that she isn't just a tough guy in a woman's body. Despite being written by a man (Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote historical mystery/adventures under the name of Madeleine Brent, with a series of strong resourceful heroines, recommended to those who like that kind of thing), Modesty's never a stereotype. She has a series of lovers (John Dall, the American tycoon with the face of a Native American and a hard brown body, just happens to be my favourite) but is also capable of sleeping with someone to get information, just like Willie does, without making a big deal about it. She's not as strong as some of the guys she fights but she is infinitely more resourceful and sneaky and she has tactical skills and a will to win which makes her Willie's boss. Modesty's Tartiest moment comes with her move, The Nailer, which involves her stripping to the waist and entering a room full of bad guys so the sight will paralyse them for a few seconds, long enough for Willie to come in through the back door and take some of them out with his knives. (Then she starts shooting too, of course. She's the fastest draw in the West.) It's a nice piece of observation and plays on the fact that Modesty really is a woman, confident enough about her body to come up with an idea like that and with no scruples about using it to confound the enemy. All credit to O'Donnell for thinking it up - it's something any Tart would be proud of.
The Modesty books are better written, better plotted and much funnier than any other action books I've ever read. Because she's a woman, they've only made one film of them, and then they cast Monica Vitti, who sucked. Typical - the ghastly Bond books are a franchise, Spillane got a TV series and Modesty is still languishing, waiting for the right movie. I vote for Carrie Anne Moss, Trinity in 'The Matrix'; she looks right, she's got that cool bearing Modesty has and she can kick up a storm. And for Willie Garvin, the Cockney sidekick - six feet two of lean muscle, fair hair, blue eyes, and a demon with the ladies - well, I'd be happy to audition the hopefuls personally. I hope everyone's impressed with the sacrifices I am prepared to make in the pursuit of Art...
For more: The Modesty Blaise Dossier.