Do you ever feel bummed out when you finish a really great book?
The better the novel, the more disappointed I am when I'm done. It's over, which means I don't have anything to look forward to reading — and I'm sure the next book won’t be as good.
I most recently got that bummed out feeling after finishing The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. It was a great read and I finished it faster than I would have liked.
Fortunately, I have a solution: revisit a favorite book. Sometimes I reread the whole book, sometimes just my favorite parts. It's like visiting an old friend. Even a short trip -- a couple of pages, here and there -- leaves me in a good mood. You can’t go wrong with Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, The Thin Man, The Princess Bride, The Eyre Affair or The Crocodile on the Sandbank.
But there's one I've been coming back to, over and over again this past year, as I've been thinking about creating this email newsletter for my fellow women travelers: Modesty Blaise. To me, she's the ultimate independent woman – even though she was created by a man, Peter O'Donnell.
Modesty is a sort of female James Bond -- only better. She's the former head of a criminal empire (called The Network) who retires in London at the age of 26 after accumulating enough money to live a life of leisure. (Pronounced LEH-sure.) She has a penthouse off Hyde Park, a Daimler Dart and a Rolls Royce Mulliner-Park Ward coupe (both convertible), and has enough jewels, shoes and designer clothing to give Rachel Zoe's closet an inferiority complex.
Unlike Bond, who works for the British Secret Service, Modesty only takes on crazy, difficult and dangerous jobs for spy chief Sir Gerald Tarrant when she's interested -- basically to keep the boredom at bay.
She's confident, smart, elegant, tough and feminine. She speaks multiple languages, knows how to pick pockets and locks, is a crack shot and is also a martial arts expert proficient in the Japanese yawara stick, or kongo, "a thing of hard smooth wood, shaped like an elongated dumbbell so that the shaft fitted into the palm with the mushroom-shaped ends protruding from the clenched fist."
Oh, and she has a devoted (and platonic) sidekick named Willie Garvin, who has no problem deferring to the boss whenever they're caught up in a new "caper" in some exotic location. He calls her "Princess" and makes all sorts of useful gadgets for her, like lipstick tubes loaded with tear gas.
Brains, beauty and balls. Men are always falling in love with her, only to be left on the sidelines as she jets around the world with Willie to fight the bad guys.
Modesty Blaise is pure escapist fare, which is why when I'm doing the dishes or folding yet another pile of laundry, I like to imagine myself, "in an evening dress of palest apple-green, with an embroidered bodice" and "long white gloves that reached to the elbow," my only jewelry, "a massive amethyst pendant, superbly carved." I head off to enjoy a night at the theatre with my handsome escort only to be interrupted by Sir Gerald, who begs me to save the world. Again.
I was so impressed by Modesty that I wrote to O'Donnell, offering to be his research assistant or coffee fetcher while I was doing an internship in the U.K. after college. To my surprise, he wrote back saying that he was just about to retire, but that he was happy to have me pop around to his Fleet Street office before he packed it up. I did, and I got to hear about how Modesty, who started out as a comic book character, came into being. We laughed, we talked, he signed a book for me. It was great.
O'Donnell died in 2010, but in his last years he worked with 15 young women students at schools in Bromley, England, where he lived, to set up the official Modesty Blaise, Ltd.
I'm not the only Modesty fan. Director Quentin Tarantino had John Travolta carry a copy of Modesty Blaise in Pulp Fiction, and reportedly wants to turn the book into a movie. Tarantino has already lent his name to a direct to DVD film called "My Name is Modesty" that details how Modesty became a crime boss in Tangiers. You can catch bits of it on YouTube. While not really the Modesty film I'd like to see made, it does help erase the memory of a 1966 effort that starred Monica Vitti and Terrence Stamp. That film is campy and awful. O’Donnell told me it "missed the mark, though the Italian girl was very pretty."
You don't have to wait for Modesty on the screen. Read the books. O'Donnell wrote 13 about Modesty and Willie. I guarantee it will keep the bummed out feeling at bay, at least for a little while. —CG