Article by David Craggs
In October 2016, this sexagenarian espionage aficionado waxed lyrical about Fleming’s legacy and the door he opened for realistic spy fiction. A literary furrow that was initially plowed with great aplomb by Len Deighton and Le Carre and which has been studiously followed ever since.
Although Fleming can be credited for creating the spring-board for their success, the reality was their world had little in common with Bond’s adventures. They were writing realistic espionage fiction. A big contrast to Ian’s spy fantasy world.
Indeed, it is this ‘fantasy’ world that is more Fleming’s direct legacy. It was this school of writing that also took additional inspiration from ‘Dr. No’ the movie and the plethora of TV spy series that populated our screens in the early 1960s.
Shows like ‘Danger Man’, ‘I Spy’, ‘The Avengers’ and the Fleming inspired ‘The Man From Uncle’ all combined to add grist to the escapist espionage mill.
It was that combination of Bond mania together with on-screen successes that motivated a slew of would be contenders to want a piece of the action and join the competition for 007’s true literary throne.
It was particularly in 1964, the year of Fleming’s death, that a deluge of fantasy spies launched. Many with gushing Bond comparisons:
‘How like Bond and just as good’ enthused the Daily Express about John Michael Brett’s 1964 entry ‘Diecast’. A title that launched the unbelievable Hugo Baron. A Cambridge educated barrister, journalist and gambler who worked for DIECAST (Disorganisation of International Espionage and Counter Activities for Stability and Trust). The book itself was an absolute turkey that deserved to be at the bottom of everybody’s Christmas list. However, like everything else with a Bond mention, it sold like the proverbial hot cakes.
‘Far and away the toughest of post-Bond thrillers’ boasted The Spectator when reviewing James Mayo’s ‘Hammerhead’.
This epistle introduced Charles Hood, a sort of freelance 007. A man who was an expert in everything and who worked for a mystery organisation called ‘The Circle’. This crack at the Bond market was qualitatively as close to Fleming as a fish is to a dog and relied heavily on heaps of gratuitous violence and loads of sex. It was conspicuously devoid of taste, let alone the originality, creativity and descriptive prowess that characterised Fleming’s work. In short, it was just a bad book.
And so it went, with launch after launch having all the artistic merit of a Freddie & The Dreamers single. New, different and better was not the action standard for most and the majority were consigned to the discerning book lover’s read and laugh file.
Of course, not all of the class of 1964 were clunkers. Some had significant merit:
When established author James Leasor converted to the genre, his debut, ‘Passport to Oblivion’, re-introduced the gifted amateur to the fray and brought us a hero that The Sunday Times immediately declared ‘Heir apparent to the golden throne of Bond’.
Leasor’s novel was well written and demonstrated a good level of originality. He combined the Flemingesque with the Buchanesque to give us, Dr Jason Love, not only a country GP but a part-time spy and bon viveur !
Love was a man of the world. He had seen action in the military and had a brown belt in judo. Action man attributes that allowed him to help out British Intelligence whilst indulging his love of Cord cars, cocktails and the fair sex.
The books, particularly the first two, were solidly plotted and well received. There was considerable critical acclaim and commercial success ensued . That said, Love was more a sexually active interpretation of Buchan’s Richard Hannay than a successor to 007. Bond’s throne remained vacant.
(The Liquidator cover visual)
Another welcome newcomer to the spy fantasy world came when John Gardner’s creation, Brian Ian ‘Boysie’ Oakes hit the shelves towards the end of ’64 in ‘The Liquidator’.
His creation was highly original. Although his ‘Boysie’ books featured Bond’s life de-luxe and were populated with more brand mentions than you could throw an e-type at, his hero was different to 007 in a very important way. Oakes was actually a born coward who was mistakenly recruited to a secret department of British Intelligence to carry out deniable assassinations!
This monumental act of mis-recruitment was carried out by the deputy head of Mi6, the deliciously despicable and duplicitous James George Mostyn. A character so greasy that he didn’t open doors, he slipped right under them.
Mostyn mistakenly thought that Oakes had saved his life in a Paris back alley. During the closing stages of the second world war he had found himself embroiled in mortal combat with a Gestapo officer when Boysie intervened, tripped and inadvertently discharged his sidearm – killing the assailant.
Mostyn mistook his clumsiness as the highly skilled action of a stone cold killer and the ensuing look of horror on Boysie’s face as one of glee.
Years latter, when he was looking to fill the new role of assassin in chief he immediately thought of Oakes who, attracted by the salary, perks and life style on offer, accepts the role. He does so with a cunning plan in mind – if the time comes when he actually has to kill somebody – he will subcontract it to a real assassin – an undertaker named Griffin.
Gardner pulled off an extremely difficult trick with ‘The Liquidator’. He delivered a thriller that truly thrilled whilst simultaneously being achingly funny. The characters were well drawn and some of the comedic moments left this scribe in need of oxygen. Sadly much of the humour wouldn’t pass muster with today’s PC brigade whom seem to prefer stories about female psychotic alcoholics on trains. That said, for the well-balanced amongst us, Gardner’s Oakes books read well. He was to write eight in total. The best amongst them was probably the third in the series, ‘Amber Nine’.
Although The Evening Standard hailed ‘The Liquidator’ as ‘in the best James Bond tradition’, the reviewer had clearly been drinking. Oakes was a complete piss take of 007. The Bond throne remained empty.
Another worthy member of the class of ’64 was a Geordie called John Craig. He made his debut in ‘The Man Who Sold Death’ by James Munro ( a pseudonym for James Mitchell).
With his hero, Mitchell adopted a tougher approach to the whole thing. His emphasis was on amping up the violence and sex and wrapping it all in a damn fine story. It was the Bond cocktail but on steroids.
‘The Man Who Sold Death’ was exceptionally well received and for good reason. It was and remains a great book. Yours truly remembers buying the Corgi edition with its particularly gory cover and being well impressed. It was probably the best 2/6 spent that year.
Craig could have been Bond’s successor had Mitchell lived up to his early promise.
As it was, although he produced another three Craig adventures, they weren’t as good as the first and ultimately Mitchell chose to back another horse in the spy game, a certain Mister David Callan. Not a bad horse to back as far as TV was concerned but certainly no literary replacement for James Bond.
At the end of it all, aficionados found themselves entering 1965 with Ian Fleming sadly deceased and with only one Bond novel remaining to be published. There seemed to be no obvious successor to 007.
For many the thought of life without their annual fix was akin to contemplating music without The Beatles. People were waking up to the fact that peak spy fantasy may have passed and that Bond’s literary throne may remain permanently vacant. Perhaps 007’s boots were just too big to fill ?
It could have been a depressing state of affairs but happily, whilst many spy authors were imitating, one was innovating. Savvy Londoners knew that James Bond’s true successor was already amongst us and was hiding undercover in a different medium. Those living outside of our capital were initially blissfully ignorant.
This was the sixties, Carnaby Street and The Kings Road were on fire and we needed a new type of secret agent. There was a clear demand for somebody who was hip and cool. Somebody who could wear the latest clothes with consummate ease. Somebody who was a shining example of social mobility. Somebody who could save the world in style and who could combine the attributes of literary Bond with the emerging pace and glamour of the movies.
When, in 1965 007’s true successor arrived, all of those boxes were ticked but not in the way that many people expected.
Bond’s replacement was not a member of the boy’s own spy club. Nor were they the product of a public school education. Furthermore, they certainly weren’t a knuckle dragging chauvinist.
In fact, it proved to be a case of the ‘Spy King’ is dead, long live the ‘Spy Queen’ !
Her name was Blaise, Modesty Blaise and her literary arrival in the book of the same name was to drop kicked the spy business into a whole different direction. Everything Bond could do, she could do better and she did it in a way that totally captured the zeitgeist of the time. She didn’t just break the glass ceiling for female spy progression, she completely shattered it. What’s more, equal pay with Bond wasn’t even a consideration. She was a self-made millionaire who had earned her riches in a slightly unusual fashion, and had more money than ‘M’could shake a stick at.
Her debut took Sunday Times critic, Raymond Mortimer’s appreciation of Bond as being ‘What every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets’ and turned it completely on its head. Here we had a heroine that every woman would like to be, and that every man would like to have between the sheets.
Behind the development of Modesty Blaise, lies one of the most fascinating stories in the history of publishing :
Her creator, Peter O’Donnell, was born the son of a Fleet Street crime correspondent on April 11 1920. By the time he’d reached the tender age of 17, he’d already joined the writing profession with Amalgamated Press. He was employed to write 20,000 words a week in the form of western, detective and comic stories. It was to prove to be the hard school of knocks.
Years later, O’Donnell used to recount the time when he approached one editor for guidance. Evidently the man in question was sitting with his feet on his desk reading a newspaper, when asked for advice, he looked up and said ; ‘look, your supposed to be an author so fuck off and auth’. So ‘auth’ he did and to very good effect.
After pausing to fight in WWII, O’Donnell returned to his writing career and in 1962, whilst writing the ‘Garth’ strip for The Daily Mirror, he was approached by the then editor of The Daily Express and asked if he could create a heroine suitable for the new decade.
It took O’Donnell nine months of painstaking work to respond to the request. During this time, his thoughts turned to a young refugee girl whom he had encountered in Persia during the war and whom he’d never forgot.
Inspired by that girl’s courage and by imagining what might have happened to her, he fantasised that she had risen from refugee status to become head of a criminal syndicate. He named her ‘Modesty’ when one day he mistyped modestly and ‘Blaise’ after Merlin’s tutor.
He fleshed out the scenario by giving her a partner in crime, a cockney named Willie Garvin. A man whom had been a French Legionnaire and who Blaise takes out of the gutter and grooms to be a sophisticated man of the world.
Garvin has a special relationship with Blaise. Although platonic in nature, theirs is a unique partnership of equals based on total loyalty and respect. Willie is closer to her than anybody else. He calls her ‘Princess’ and is the only one permitted to do so. To everybody else she is ‘Mademoiselle’ or ‘Ms.Blaise’.
Having retired to the UK from their Tangiers based crime syndicate, ‘The Network’, they are living the life de-luxe. And although young, extremely wealthy and with a multiplicity of interests, they are bored and miss the action. This is when they start to freelance for the head of Mi6, a certain Sir Gerald Tarrant.
This is the concept that O’Donnell presented to The Daily Express at their behest and this is the concept that was promptly turned down. Evidently the Express found the idea of ex-criminals as heroes too morally ambiguous for their righteous readers and thought Blaise altogether too racy.
Happily, the editor of The London Evening Standard, Charles Winter, had better sense. He went straight ahead and commissioned it.
Superbly drawn by Jim Holdaway, the strip made its debut on May 13 1963. It was an immediate success. Blaise was on her way.
The comic strip was quickly syndicated internationally and British Lion Films, the UK’s biggest production company, bought the movie rights. Their idea was that O’Donnell would write the script and would produce a novelisation to support its launch.
The initial talk was of Julie Christie playing Blaise and Michael Caine being cast as Willie Garvin. Exciting ideas that more than had O’Donnell’s enthusiastic support.
What could possibly go wrong? Fleming’s Bond franchise had benefited enormously from ‘Dr. No’ the movie, and Deighton’s ‘Ipcress File’ was in production. This was definitely the way to go.
For O’Donnell and spy fans, the result was both good and bad.
The positive was that O’Donnell’s novel simply titled ‘Modesty Blaise’, was truly excellent. Published in 1965 it proceeded the movie.
The negative concerned the screen adaptation. After making the rights deal, British Lion Films had fallen on hard times and sold them on to Joseph Janni. The result, released in 1966, bore no similarity whatsoever to O’Donnell’s script or characters. It proved to be one of the greatest missed opportunities in cinematic history and can best be described as a complete travesty of the original concept.
Directed by Joseph Losey, it was a camp spoof starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp. Not only did it fail to raise a laugh, it had Blaise fans storming out of cinemas in disgust.
Had the sequencing been different and had the movie arrived before the book, Losey’s abomination could well have dashed O’Donnell’s dreams of turning Blaise into a literary franchise.
Imagine the situation if 1967’s spoof ‘Casino Royale’ had appeared before Fleming’s novel. Bond would have been strangled at birth.
Happily this was not the case, the novel ‘Modesty Blaise’ was an immediate success in hardback and when PAN published the paperback in ’66, it became one of the biggest sellers of that year. The critical acclaim was unanimous :
“One of the great partnerships in crime fiction, bearing comparison with that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” opined Kingsley Amis.
“These books are the finest escapist thrillers ever written.” ‘The Times’
“Modesty Blaise….licensed to thrill.” ‘The Sun’
“O’Donnell’s iconic heroine has drop-kicked her way through a swath of villains and into a unique place in popular culture.” ‘The Observer’.
Over the next thirty years, Peter O’Donnell was to bring us a total of 11 splendid full length novels and two collections of short stories before bringing things to a heart breaking close in 1996’s ‘Cobra Trap’.
Among the best books in the series were ‘Sabre-Tooth’ (1966), ‘A Taste for Death’ (1969), ‘The Silver Mistress’ (1973) and ‘The Night of the Morningstar (1982)
Comparisons with Ian Fleming’s work were many and varied :
Clearly they both shared the same subject matter and O’Donnell’s novels featured the same restless changing of scenes, the same pre-occupation with exotic locations and an even greater focus on a branded life de-luxe.
There was also some very deft plotting featuring an ingenious array of sinister criminal masterminds that more than equaled anything from Fleming. From a pair of mail – fisted killer Siamese twins to the nymphomaniac Clarrisa Courtney-Scott – she of the sharpened bicycle spoke – O’Donnell delivered barking mad villains that shivered your timbers.
But there were significant differences. 1965 was the year of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ and O’Donnell’s debut was bang on for those times:
Whilst Modesty’s charms attracted male readers, her independence and sexual autonomy rapidly made her a role model for young women. Especially those looking to have careers of their own. This was real feminism 1960’s style.
O’Donnell’s capacity to get inside the female psyche was unrivalled and was demonstrated by the way he expressed every dimension of their characters. Right down to the care he took in dressing and accessorising them. Indeed, he was so good at portraying women, when he wasn’t writing Blaise books, he was moonlighting as Madelaine Brent and writing gothic historical romance novels in the first person !
The fact that the two principle protagonists were also shining examples of social mobility also represented a stark contrast to the Eton educated Bond and his clubland cohorts. Blaise and Garvin were more likely to be found in Annabel’s than Blades!
O’Donnell’s novels also featured action at a cinematic level. An oft-heard comment from readers of the Fleming novels was that they lacked the pace of the movies. By comparison, the Blaise novels were relentless. They featured some of the most exciting, bone crunching, hand to hand combat scenes ever written. O’Donnell’s fascination with unusual weaponry also made for great reading. Wether it was Modesty’s preference for using the kongo, Willie’s penchant for throwing knives or the gadgets they fashioned in their workshop at the back of Garvin’s ‘Treadmill’ pub, their expertise with armaments made 007’s PPK and ‘Q’ branch look a little dad’s army.
Another difference with Fleming was also O’Donnell’s depth of characterisation. The books were ensemble pieces featuring a cast of recurring characters that readers learned to love. There was a real warmth to them that served to heightened the sense of jeopardy when he put them in danger.
Over and above all of this, many thriller aficionados consider that Peter O’Donnell was just a better writer than Fleming. These things are always highly subjective but few who have read both sets of work would suggest that he was anything less than his equal.
Unfortunately, Blaise’s stellar literary and comic strip success was never translated to the screen.
During the seventies, Diana Rigg offered to develop Blaise as a UK TV franchise, with her in the lead. The proposal was met with initial enthusiasm by O’Donnell but he cooled on the idea when Adam Faith was proposed as Garvin. This may have been the missed opportunity. Rigg is and was a fine actor who had already proved her action chops in ‘The Avengers’. That said, proposing the 5’ 5” ex-pop star as Willie was always going to require a leap of faith.
Other than that, there was a dismal American ‘80s TV pilot that went nowhere followed by a hiatus in the early noughties, when O’Donnell sold the screen rights to Miramax for a limited period. Evidently this was on the strength of interest by Quentin Tarantino. Despite two scripts being developed – one based on ‘Modesty Blaise’ the other on ‘I Lucifer’ – it too came to nothing with the exception of a low-budget straight to DVD piece, ‘My Name Is Modesty’, that was rushed out to stop the rights lapsing.
The influence Modesty Blaise is to be found in a multiplicity of Hollywood projects. The likes of ‘Nikita’, ‘Kill Bill’, ’Hanna’, ‘Haywire’ and even last year’s ‘Atomic Blonde’ all have pieces of O’Donnell’s creation scattered throughout. Yet, some of the most cinematic books ever written and the film franchise that could truly challenge Bond remains unexploited.
Peter O’Donnell passed away in 2010 at his home in Brighton, at the ripe old age of 90. He affection for Blaise, Garvin and their band of brothers stayed with him to the end. His wish was that nobody else should write about them.
Frankly, nobody could. He was the complete master and his wish should be respected. He once said in an interview, “It’s simple, I write from the gut about characters I love.” He certainly did and should be remembered as a great story-teller who was the true master of the spy fantasy genre.
With the exception of Adam Diment’s creation, Philip McAlpine, little of literary consequence has happened in the spy fantasy arena since Blaise.
Perhaps the whole thing was a function of a more glamorous carefree age when people just wanted to have fun and let their imagination run riot. If so, this scribe says bring it on again – it could be just what we need post Brexit.