As another splendid Peter O’Donnell Modesty Blaise collection (Sweet Caroline and other Stories) appears from Titan, Barry Forshaw regrets missing his last chance to talk to the late Peter O’Donnell
Why didn’t I do it? I was planning – I really was — to phone Peter O’Donnell to congratulate him on his 90th birthday. But I kept putting it off – putting it off, in fact, for a whole week. And a week or so was all Peter had left after that 90th birthday — so now it’s too late. The creator of Modesty Blaise – and one of the ablest thriller writers this country has ever produced, a man whose beautifully-turned plotting has few peers – has died, shortly after the May Bank Holiday weekend. So why did I put off that phone call?
There were reasons. I have to say (with some shame) that I’d found the last few conversations challenging – no excuse, I know. Peter sounded ever more frail, his thought processes harder to follow, and the stories of his deteriorating health were longer (although always delivered with characteristically sardonic humour: ‘I have problems with standing straight and have to creep around. But, on balance, it’s better than the alternative…’).
His stories, too, I’d heard before: ‘Do you know Quentin Tarantino wants to make a new version of Modesty Blaise? He rang me, you know…’ But, let’s face it, we’re often obliged to hear the same stories repeatedly from people we know (I’m sure it’s true of me). And even though my occasional meals with Peter were, regrettably, a thing of the past (he’d get a train from Brighton to Victoria, we’d eat near the station – and he’d get the first available train back), he was still wonderfully entertaining during our staggered phone calls. Apart from being the very finest writer of an adult-oriented comic strip this country has ever known, he was a crime/espionage novelist of considerable distinction – and a seasoned Fleet Street professional, with a million pithy anecdotes of a lost era.
Speaking to Peter O’Donnell was invariably a diverting experience. He was always honest, and would never be one to put the best possible gloss on any film adaptation of his work, such as the most recent incarnation. ‘My Name is Modesty has its virtues. It’s made on a very low budget, of course, but the scriptwriters were in tune with how I would have Modesty behave – conspicuously unlike the camp Joseph Losey movie. And although Alexandra Staden is too thin and youthful for Modesty, it is, after all, a prequel. But you couldn’t put that actress into a black catsuit, could you?’
Why no appearance for Modesty’s sidekick Willie Garvin in the film? ‘Because of the restrictions of a virtually one-set movie – and the fact that we see Modesty being “educated” – her education of Willie after she meets him would have seemed repetitive.’
And the little-seen US telemovie with Ann Turkel? ‘Terrible. Just terrible. And they made Willie Garvin an American, for God’s sake!’
O’Donnell was as bemused by the continuing success of his character as ever. ‘Penguin India is reissuing all the novels,’ he said to me, ‘as is Souvenir Press over here. A massive new Modesty companion has just been published. And there are the Titan reissues of the strips with the wonderful art by Jim Holdaway and his successors…’
Born in South London in 1920, Peter O’Donnell had written hundreds of ‘juveniles’ (as he called them) for British children’s annuals before writing his immensely sophisticated, complex scripts for such strips as Garth and the hapless detective Romeo Brown, his first collaboration with illustrator Jim Holdaway. (‘The idea was to get the clothes off Romeo’s girls as frequently as possible,’ he ruefully told me – before I’d mentioned that as a twelve-year-old I remembered having no problem with this commercial imperative – and, semi-nudity notwithstanding, his later trademark piloting was already confidently in place). Then, of course, came his magnum opus, Modesty Blaise, an ex-criminal now (largely) on the side of the angels; capable, abused as a child, ace strategist, the equal of any violent male opponents (sound like any current female character in crime fiction?).
The comic strip (exquisitely drawn by Holdaway) ran in the Evening Standard during the 1960s and well beyond. Then came the books – and O’Donnell (unsurprisingly) turned out to be as accomplished a novelist as he was a strip writer. In the celebrated series of narratives he created for his formidable protagonist and her male companion Willy Garvin, O’Donnell was careful never to allow his hero and heroine to sleep together, considering that this would alter the dynamics of the relationship. He stopped writing in 2001 (having decisively ended Modesty’s career), but continued to participate in Titan’s release of multiple Modesty Blaise collections, writing fascinating introductions and commentaries.
It’s salutary when one’s contemporaries die, and always jolting. Another Peter of my acquaintance in the crime fiction fraternity, Peter Haining (a key contributor to the British Crime Writing Encyclopedia I’d done), died in middle age and in seemingly good health; after a companionable meal in Soho, we’d arranged our next one. But when a man whose health is poor dies at 90, it’s less of a surprise. So why didn’t I make that congratulatory phone call to Peter on his birthday? Who cared how often I’d heard the stories?
Sweet Caroline is published by Titan