Friday, November 03, 2006

What's a crime novel? (Modesty Blaise)

Among my haul at Murder One was Modesty Blaise (the novel, not the comic strip). The book is full of evil villains, 1960s-style sex (You know, lots of it, but no dirty words), fiendishly clever secret weapons, and humor. But what made it interesting was a blurb on the back cover.

No, the blurb does not compare author Peter O'Donnell to Ian Rankin. But it does call the Modesty Blaise series "seminal British crime novels." And the blurb comes from Crime Time, so it was not written by some know-nothing reviewer.

I'd have considered Modesty Blaise a thriller rather than a crime novel, so let's call this one more of those salutary reminders that one should not be a stickler for categories. Besides, I am not the only crime/detective-fiction reader who regards Modesty Blaise as a guilty pleasure. A reviewer in Mystery Guide writes: "It's a good thing I don't belong to any mystery fans' associations, because they'd probably kick me out for admitting that I have a secret weakness for Modesty Blaise."

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of James Bond and that other series about a spy called Boysie Oakes (can't remember author). They were all written at a time when the world (readers) were more innocent. Air travel was the preserve of the rich and sophisticated. Bourbon on the rocks had never been asked for in a British pub. Birth control, schmirth control. Young married couples started out living in the mother in law's spare bedroom. I think readers were a lot more naive then, and the heroes and plots of these books impossibly suave. Pure wish fulfillment.

Authors have to work a lot harder today to create a similar suspension of belief.

November 04, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a thoughtful and plausible explanation. I especially like your observation that these books were written when air travel was the preserve of the rich and sophisticated. Modesty Blaise is young and rich, and her apartment sounds like a photo layout in Architectural Digest. She and Willie Garvin are forever turning up in exotic locales that most of the books' readers could probably only dream about back then.

The heroes of Modesty Blaise are less impossibly suave than impossibly talented -- weapons experts, martial-arts mavens, skilled jewelers, energetic lovers, sly wits, inventive inventors, and good cooks. They are also intimate friends with the rich and famous. The only thing any of the book's main figures is less than good at is a quintessential quotidian British occupation. Willie Garvin ruefully admits that the manager of the pub he has bought with earnings from his and Modesty's criminal past is a far better bartender than he, Garvin, could ever be.

November 04, 2006  

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