Peter O'Donnell

d. May 3, 2010

Peter O'Donnell, the English writer who created one of fiction's great adventure characters in Modesty Blaise, died May 3 in Brighton, England, following a stroke. He was 90.

Modesty and her knife-wielding cockney partner Willie Garvin first appeared in the Modesty Blaise comic strip launched in the London Evening Standard in 1963, and went on to adventures in 11 novels and two short-story collections. The newspaper strip ran for almost 40 years, finally ending in 2001. It was a hit around the world except, notably, in the United States where it never took off, apparently being considered too British, too sophisticated, too sexy or too something for American tastes. Nevertheless, American spy fans and comic collectors have snapped up reprinted collections of the strip for years.

Modesty was a cool, beautiful and dangerous brunette who survived her childhood as a war orphan to rise through the underworld, finally assuming leadership of an international crime syndicate known as The Network. After retiring on a considerable ill-gotten fortune, she and Willie continued to get into scrapes all over the world whenever their pasts caught up with them or Modesty's better nature led her to take down a particularly vicious character. As often as not, their adventures were undertaken at the behest of British Intelligence chief Sir Gerald Tarrant.

O'Donnell was just starting a writing career when World War II broke out. He was called up and served for the duration as a non-commissioned officer in radio units stationed in Persia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Italy. After the war, he became a successful freelance writer of popular comic strips for the leading British newspapers, working on such titles as Garth for the Daily Mirror and Tug Transom for the Daily Sketch. O'Donnell was teamed with an artist named Jim Holdaway when he took over the Mirror's comical private eye strip Romeo Brown. In 1960, he wrote the adaptation of Dr. No for the James Bond strip running in the Daily Express, while regular Bond writer Henry Gammidge took a break.

In 1962, the Daily Express invited O'Donnell to create a new strip. He quickly decided to invent a female adventurer who was the equal of the male characters he'd been writing about, but was surprised when Express editors told him they didn't consider a former criminal to be a proper heroine for their family readership. The Evening Standard had no such qualms and launched the Modesty Blaise strip, illustrated by Holdaway, on May 13, 1963.

The strip was an immediate hit and as the Bond and spy craze took off, offers to put Modesty and Willie on screen poured in. O'Donnell wrote a screenplay that was purchased and subsequently ignored by 20th Century-Fox, producer Joseph Janni and director Joseph Losey, who decided to follow the "camp" craze. Their "Modesty Blaise" film, released in the summer of 1966, was a virtually incomprehensible spoof of secret agents, comic strips, mod fashion, pop art and whatever else was trendy. O'Donnell and his readers understandably detested it. But O'Donnell was able to turn his rejected screenplay into his first novel, also titled Modesty Blaise. Modesty and Willie became even more popular in book form, with 10 novels and two collections of short stories following over the years.

After the 1966 film fiasco, O'Donnell was determined to control any screen adaptations of his characters. Other Modesty Blaise films were occasionally announced but never produced. Somewhat surprisingly, O'Donnell agreed to an American television pilot in 1982, produced at Paramount for ABC. Ann Turkel played Modesty in a script that was faithful to O'Donnell's characters and concepts but still was disappointingly Americanized and toned down for TV. It didn't sell. "My Name Is Modesty," a low-budget 2003 film backed by Miramax and Modesty fan Quentin Tarantino, went straight to video.

When Holdaway died suddenly in 1970, Spanish artist Enrique Romero took over the art for the strip. He took a seven-year break in the 1980s, then returned to illustrate Modesty until the end. The final strip ran in the Daily Express on April 11, 2001, O'Donnell's 81st birthday, but O'Donnell already had written the definitive end to Modesty's and Willie's careers in the Cobra Trap collection of stories published in 1996.

O'Donnell also wrote historical romance novels under the name Madeleine Brent, whose initials were said to be an homage to Modesty Blaise.


Modesty by Jim Holdaway, above; Willie and Modesty by Enrique Romero, below.

O’Donnell in author’s dustjacket photo for one of the Modesty Blaise books.