Born in Lewisham, London, in 1920, Peter O’Donnell started as a professional writer in 1937, aged just 16. After a period serving the British Army during the Second World War, O’Donnell returned to civilian life and began writing comic strips for the national press, including an adaption for the James Bond novel, Dr. No, in the Daily Express and for the Garth cartoon strip in the Daily Mirror.
His most successful creation, Modesty Blaise, began life as a comic strip, first published in the Evening Standard on Monday 13thMay 1963. A sexy, resourceful action hero, “who could do all the things the males had been doing”, she was inspired by a young girl O’Donnell had met whilst on duty in Persia (now Iran) with the British Army.
“She was a skinny little thing, and I thought she would wolf the food down, but she ate very slowly, seeming to focus on each mouthful, and when she had eaten most of the solids, she crumbled the biscuits into the gravy to soak up the last of it. She put down the mess tin and sat gazing at us, at our truck and at our camp (two two-man bivouacs) in that odd, very focused and appraising way….It was then that she stood up and did something that surprised us, taking the mess tin, spoon and mug to the stream to wash them up. Wet sand is great for washing-up, even with cold water; it absorbs all the grease. When this was done, she put the things back on the rock, repeated her “thank you” gesture, moved back to the strip of shade and sat down with her back to the bluff.” (Crime Time)
Following the success of the newspaper strip, O’Donnell was invited to write a screenplay. After several re-writes and changes in production companies, the 1966 motion picture that was released, starring Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin and Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel, bore little resemblance to his original creation. It was this initial screenplay that was developed into the first Modesty Blaise novel, published by Souvenir Press in 1965. Previously ignored by those who did not read comics, the first book was incredibly successful and led to O’Donnell becoming a novelist. O’Donnell wrote 11 Modesty Blaise novels, and two collections of short stories involving Modesty, all published by Souvenir Press. They are all constantly reprinted, and to date, have been translated into twenty different languages.
Ever open to new challenges, O’Donnell welcomed his publisher’s suggestion that he write romantic adventures with strong, feminine characters. Nine novels subsequently followed, penned under the pseudonym Madeleine Brent. One of publishing’s best kept secrets, it wasn’t until many years after O’Donnell won the Romantic Novelist’s Association Award for Merlin’s Keep in 1978, (the first male author to win the award) that Madeleine Brent’s real identity was revealed.
O’Donnell also wrote the play, Mr Fothergill’s Murder (Murder Most Logical), which has been widely produced around the world.
O’Donnell’s last Modesty Blaise adventures, Cobra Trap, came in 1996. The title story in this book represented the end of the series, bringing the story of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin to a definite, and fitting, conclusion. Peter O’Donnell continued to write the comic strip for another five years, finally ending on 11th April 2001 – his 81st birthday.
Peter O’Donnell passed away in 2010, aged 90.
In 2015, Souvenir Press are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Modesty Blaise novel.
The Modesty Blaise Books:
The Madeleine Brent Books: