Monday, December 27, 2010

Modesty Blaise and Lisbeth Salander

One of my most propitious discoveries this holiday season was Modesty Blaise, the character created by Peter O'Donnell. She appears in novels (eleven, I think) and comic strips. I can't image why I haven't read them before.

Actually, I can. I suspect I encountered one of the novels as a tween or early teen, and found them a bit girly. Lots of jabber about what style of furniture, what kind of food, what hairstyle, what clothes all that stuff. But now, this attention to detail is one of the reasons I liked this first novel so much. Modesty Blaise is a woman who kicks arse. She's not a man with a woman's name. She's not a woman who whines and complains and fusses about gender inequality. She's a woman in a man's world who kills people, wears great clothes, has fabulous sex, and leaves. She wins.

Earlier this month I read all three Stieg Larsson books about Lisbeth Salander. It's fascinating tracing his influences (I'll have more to say on that subject another time), among them Modesty Blaise.

Salander and Blaise both grew up feral in hostile environments. They are both now rich and their gains are ill-gotten. They're both precise, both lovers of technology, both in charge of their corner of the world. They were both abused sexually, but both now have uncomplicated and relatively affectionate sex. They both smoke endlessly.

Blaise, however, is beautiful and knows it. She likes to be looked at. Salander not so much.

In other ways, too, Salander is a kind of anti-Blaise, particularly in terms of material culture. Salander and Blaise both have large and beautiful apartments. Blaise customises hers with gorgeous artifacts and unique objets and which mysteriously forms a whole even more vibrant and gorgeous than the sum of its parts. She cooks. She luxuriates in the bath. She has a house boy (not my term but O'Donnell's) and she drives--is driven--in a Rolls Royce. She has other cars when she feels like it. Salander, on the other hand, lives in one room of her huge space, hunched over her computer, and eats Billy's Pan Pizza. Salander's notion of haute couture is denim jeans and jacket. She drives a used maroon Honda.

Both have criminal organisations to tap into--the Hacker Republic and the Network--and both have male sidekick/partners. Blaise, though, doesn't have sex with hers.

Both are women written by men. As a teen I wouldn't have been able to cope with the casual sexism of the Blaise novels. (I wouldn't have been able to handle the Travis McGee books, either, so I'm glad I didn't encounter them until I was a grown up.) They are products of their time. Given that, they are remarkable. Modesty Blaise wins: she out-fights and out-thinks all her opponents. She also has a beautifully delineated platonic relationship with her sidekick, Willie Garvin. Yep, it's the sixties; she's a girl; she cries. But only after she's killed people.

Before there was Buffy, before there was Emma Peel, before there was Aud or Lisbeth Salander, there was Modesty Blaise. I'm going to read every single book in the series. I am smiling.

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