Thursday, December 28, 2006

Augustus Mandrell vs. Modesty Blaise

Back in the days when this blog had readers, I posted a comment about Modesty Blaise, Peter O'Donnell's gadget-toting 1960s super spy. More recently, I've been discussing Frank McAuliffe's books about that non-gadget-toting 1960s super hit man, Augustus Mandrell.

At the time of my Modesty Blaise post, a reader commented that Blaise, James Bond and other popular spy/caper heroes of the time were products of pure wish fulfillment. "I think readers were a lot more naive then, and the heroes and plots of these books impossibly suave," my intelligent correspondent wrote. The first Modesty Blaise novel and the first Augustus Mandrell collection appeared the same year, 1965. Each in its own way seems both a reaction to James Bond and an illustration of my reader's point about wish fulfillment. The differences between the two heroes are at least as interesting as the similarities.

Both are projections of fantasy. Modesty Blaise is impossibly rich, impossibly fit, impossibly talented and impossibly accomplished. Her impossible dexterity in martial arts is supplemented by impossibly elaborate, impossibly miniaturized gadgets cooked up by her assistant, Willie Garvin.

Augustus Mandrell, on the other hand, has impossible sang-froid and an improbable skill with disguises (though the running comments he offers on the practice and the psychological effects of disguise render him a more accessible and less remote hero than is Modesty Blaise. He lets the reader in on his thinking). Mandrell gets by on guts and guile; Modesty Blaise's currency is raw skill.

Blaise works for the forces of good; Mandrell, though his sympathies are usually in the right place, works for the forces of money. Blaise has all the luxury goods that an upwardly aspiring reader in the consumer culture of the mid-1960s could wish for. Her apartment is decorated expensively but with taste, and her liquor is the best. At the age of thirty, having made her pile in ways only hinted at, she has risen above the need to work for mere money.

Augustus Mandrell cheerfully embraces the quest for cash, and his difficulty collecting the fees he charges for his "commissions" are a delightful running theme of all the stories. Could these contrasting attitudes toward money be due in part to the authors' nationalities? O'Donnell was British, McAuliffe American.

And then there's sex. Had Modesty Blaise and Augustus Mandrell ever wound up in the same story, they'd likely have been adversaries who eventually wind up cooperating. They also would have wound up in bed, where both would have performed extremely well. For her, the sex would have been a release of tension, fully enjoyed, expertly accomplished, leaving her prepared to resume her work. For him, it would have been a romp. They'd both have derived pleasure from it, but Mandrell would have experiened more joy.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Blogger ShellyS said...

I don't know Mandrell, but I've been a Modesty Blaise fan for decades. I never thought of her as impossibly anything. She was born a refugee, in abject poverty. She had a tough life, joined and took over a crime syndicate, rescued Willie Garvin and earned his devotion for life, and made herself the woman who could do what needed doing. She was a strong, intelligent female character. But what made the comic strip (and the later books) so good for me was the platonic love between Modesty and Willie.

And while they may have used gadgets now and then, Modesty's main weapon was her body (both as a distraction and as a killing machine due to her martial arts skills) and Willie was an expert with knives. Good, old-fashioned knives.

December 29, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, Willie is wonderful with knives, yes. My only exposure to Modesty Blaise is the first novel, so you know her far better than I do. Still, I would disagree with you on one matter, or at least suggest an alternative: I know all about the aspects of Modesty Blaise's origins, skills and attributes that you mention, and I still say that makes her an impossibly romantic figure -- but no more impossible than any other romantic hero.

I mean, she did what she did starting at, what, age 12? Ran the syndicate at 19? Had her half-million pounds by I forget what young age? OK, maybe what she did was not impossible, but she set the bar pretty damned high.

What makes her a hero a reader can identify with? She does everything you wish you could do, only she does it better: retired from a successful business she started herself, lives an independent life, has money, has sex and love on her own terms, etc. Maybe my earlier reader's comment about wish fulfillment was more to the point.

In fact, if I were to expand on my comments (but blog posts are best kept short), I'd have noted all the folklore elements that play into her story: the foundling, the wandering child, etc.

Re gadgets, I'd say they figure into the plot more than now and then, at least in Modesty Blaise. Remember the exploding tie?

But maybe there's a very subtle message in O'Donnell's use of gadgets. Yes, he'll have Modesty and Willie use them, in part, perhaps, to lull an audience accustomed to such things from James Bond. But, in the end, the deciding factors are more down to earth: Modesty's body and Willie's knife, especially when Modesty uses her body, say, to distract a sadistic jailer, then whacks him with a concealed gadget.

I agree with you that the platonic love between Modesty and Willie is fascinating. I had never seen anything like it, as least not in crime fiction.

December 29, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P.S. Willie's knives may be good and old-fashioned (and the speed with which he uses them breathtaking), but those ultra-thin, close-to-the-body sheaths where he keeps them have the whiff of gadgetry about them.

Also, I read your profile. I am a Hitchcock fan in a big way, and I think Trouble in Paradise is the closest thing to a perfect movie I have seen.

December 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Augustus Mandrell is as elusive and disguise-loving as some of the Olympian dilettante detectives, but his need to function in the economy (by collecting fees) keeps him down to earth for the reader.

And skill at disguise lends itself to cleverness and wit more readily than do other kinds of criminal or crime-fighting skills.

December 30, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your comment about fees makes sense. Augustus Mandrell's need to earn his own living probably does as much to keep him down to earth as do the first-person narration and the asides about the disguises. I called Mandrell less remote than Modesty Blaise. It's no coincidence, then, that Modesty Blaise is past the necessity of having to earn her keep.

Mandrell as much as concedes your point about disguises when he holds forth about the necessity to disguise the personality being necessary to the illusion. It takes wit and brains, he is telling us, and not just makeup.

I'm just barely old enough to remember the TV show The Wild, Wild West. That's probably as close as anything I can remember to the Mandrell commissions in spirit, even with the gadgets West used.

December 30, 2006  
Blogger Elizabeth Foxwell said...

At a time where women in spy novels were little more than sex objects, Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise was a trailblazer and a decidedly feminist figure. O'Donnell later created further three-dimensional heroines in the gothic novels he wrote under the pseudonym of Madeleine Brent, which include Tregaron's Daughter, Moonraker's Bride, and Merlin's Keep.

December 30, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. I just took a look at your blog. I hadn't realized Rod Serling was that young when he died.

I also hadn't known anything about Peter O'Donnell's background. It makes sense that the creator of Modesty Blaise would go on to create three-dimensional heroines. Modesty Blaise herself is something more than three-dimensional -- a mysterious and super-herolike figure, easily the equal of any other hero around at the time.

I know what you mean about women in spy stories being subjects. To this day, I'd blush if I had to mention the names of some of Ian Fleming's female characters in a woman's presence. Here's something that you might know: Those names are so outrageous (Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead, and so on) that they must have been spoofs. What tradition were they spoofing? And, for that matter, did the outrageous names occur in Fleming novels, or are they from the post-Fleming Bonds?

If women in spy novels had been sex objects, Modesty Blaise is a sex subject. She rules, as my much younger contemporaries might say.

December 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The James Bond sort of gadgetry can be entertaining; but when I want gadgets I read science fiction. I don't think gadgetry is an unqualified asset in mystery or detection stories because it gives a kind of rabbit-out-of-hat effect which diminishes both the mystery and the detection.

Frank McAuliffe's concentration on cleverness and disguise as attributes for Augustus Mandrell seems much better to me.

January 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Peter posting. Blogger won't even let me sign in to my own blog. The indignity of it!

Thanks for the note, Robert. I'm no expert on Modesty Blaise, having just read the first novel, but I did not find the gadgets a particular strong point. I'll buy a heavy-ended hair ornament being used as an instrument of destructrion, but some of the other gadgets were just weird and implausible. It would be interesting to read one of the later Modesty Blaise novels to see whether Peter O'Donnell cut down on the gimmicky devices.

The way I see it, Modesty Blaise's strengths as a character are her determination, her physical ability, and her sex appeal. I would hope later stories rely more on those than on technological gimcrackery.

January 17, 2007  

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