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Modesty Blaise: The Double Agent

1/07/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Modesty Blaise: The Double Agent in the USA - or Buy Modesty Blaise: The Double Agent in the UK

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Modesty Blaise: The Double Agent by Peter O'Donnell and Neville Colvin. pub: Titan Books. 104 page graphic novel softcover. Price: GBP 11.99 (UK), $19.95 (US), $22.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-85768-108-9.

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It’s mid-year and time for another leisurely and enjoyable read of the ‘Evening Standard’s newspaper strip and volume of ‘Modesty Blaise’. It is also the last three stories drawn by Neville Colvin before the switch back to Romero. I think the oddest thing with the first story is seeing Modesty without her customary hair up and looks like she had a shorter hair-cut.

But before that, the opening section of the book devotes itself to a memorial to writer Peter O’Donnell himself, who died last year. I think the biggest revelation from his grandson was O’Donnell was from a family of magicians and that he created his own tricks. That brings a lot of things into perspective for the ingenious gadgets Willie Garvin equipped himself and Modesty with on occasion and more so in the novels. He also indicates that O’Donnell’s first book was an uncredited ‘The Boys’ Book Of Magic’. I had a scout around but couldn’t spot a copy on the Net but I hope Titan can locate a copy and do a reprint as I’d love to see his approach to the topic.

On a side note, can someone ask artist John Burns why he’s had two pictures that I’ve seen, one of them here, with Willie Garvin with a pistol instead of his customary knives. As Willie has often commented, he couldn’t hit a barn down from inside the barn, this seems a serious mistake on what would be an otherwise superb piece of art.

There is also an article about artist Neville Colvin and some of his pencil designs and photographs which also indicates the size of the originals, at least two-thirds larger than seen print here. I love these insights as, like with many of the work in the publishing world, we only see the end result than the earlier stages.

Onto the stories. The first, ‘The Wild Boar’, has Rene Vaubois, the head of the French Intelligence service, called the Deuxième Bureau in the books, has been kidnapped. After a dinner date with Giles Pennyfeather, Modesty is almost mugged, although the only thing damaged is a gold broach, given to her by Vaubois. Bringing in a man to repair it, he also is psychic and gives clues about Vaubois’ kidnapping that sets Modesty and Willie off to the rescue. This is also the first time that Blaise’ Law is shown: solve the easy bits first and it can make the tougher bits a little easier to solve. After being cold-shouldered by Vaubois’ replacement, they track the Frenchman to Corsica and are routed by Le Sanglier aka The Wild Boar and his men when taken by surprise. They escape but Modesty is injured with a broken collarbone and after being strapped up by Pennyfeather has literally got to fight one-handed.

Apart from bringing in Giles Pennyfeather, one of the rare cross-over characters from the book version, what makes this strip a brilliant display of artwork from Colvin is the symmetry of a conversation between Willie and Modesty while the latter is dressing. For those who want to do illustration for a living, the real skill is in bringing the mundane to life far more than the action and this is an invaluable lesson in how to do it well, more so as when it was originally shown, took a week.

The second story, ‘Kali’s Disciples’, has Modesty and Willie in India as guests of the family of a son she once rescued from a street mugging. Later that night, thuggees, the name for Kali’s assassins, break into the house to steal valuables and in the process encounter the two and come off second-best. Modesty and Willie have a date to make with the holy man Sivaji to do a promised task for him. Again, those of you familiar with the novels are aware that Sivaji taught them both mental disciplines a few years ago and it’s great to see him surface here and fill in the gap in their history again. They have to deliver a large emerald to the grave of Sivaji’s own teacher and find that the thuggees are also after it and them as well and with a surprise that is definitely spoiler. Again, this is a cleverly set up story with a good build-up that delivers at the end.

The titular story, ‘The Double Agent’, has a sinister plot to replace Modesty with a Russian lookalike to kill Sir Gerald Tarrant. As even her replacement is aware that she isn’t likely to fool Willie Garvin, who has been mountaineering in the Alps, plans are made to kill him first.

I’m having to be very careful what I say about this plot and my simplification here is to avoid giving away all the complexities that are used. I always say all of Peter O’Donnell’s stories are extremely good. Well, this one surpasses that with only one flaw in that you wouldn’t give a diabetic recovering from a coma insulin but that might have been what Willie spotted but not given in the plot. I’ll be generous and let that pass because it is used to good effect.

‘Modesty Blaise’ is favoured by a lot of my generation of SF fans who want the occasional break from our favoured genre and if you’re new to her then this one will make you want to track down the earlier volumes if you buy this book for your first fix of Modesty and Willie.

GF Willmetts

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