Forty-two years before Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, became this decade’s princess of crime fiction, Peter O’Donnell created the original Princess.
As Stieg Larsson’s millennium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) became a posthumous, worldwide success, many of the readers who loved Lisbeth Salander remarked on the similarities between her and Modesty Blaise.
By the time of Peter O’Donnell’s death, earlier this month, at the age of 90, Modesty’s day was over. The Blaise-Garvin books sell as retro, nostalgic fiction, the comic strips are fondly remembered but have been overtaken by today’s action heroes, and mercifully, none of the films made about Ms Blaise have survived. And yet, the connection between the two fictional women remains stronger than the bond between most “action heroines”, and is harder to explain.
Modesty Blaise, when we meet her in the first book in the series, is a poised, successful woman of the world, leader of an international crime ring called The Network, sleekly athletic, an expert at various martial arts and at the move known as “the nailer”, where stripping down to the essentials allows her to surprise her opponents long enough to make deadly use of her kongo. She was, in other words, definitely not from the Barbie school of womanhood.
Lisbeth Salander is a teenager of her times, given to emo-Goth-punk fashion, a formidable mathematician, chess player and computer hacker who replaces Modesty Blaise’s 1960s voluptuousness with the androgynous bisexuality of the 2000s. She uses her photographic memory and her street-fighter’s skills to compensate for her Asperger’s Syndrome, and instead of battling assorted villains and sinister crime mavens, is locked in a permanent battle with the state, and with psychotics whose family histories are as dark as hers.
The most obvious link between these two crime heroines is their childhood history of abuse. Peter O’Donnell wrote often, and movingly, of the young refugee child he met while on duty in the Middle East. The girl was about 11 years old, alone, self-possessed despite her hunger and her rags; he and his troops fed her, and watched as she left. He would never forget her smile, and “the sight of that upright, little figure walking like a princess as she moved away from us on those brave skinny legs”. He gave Modesty Blaise that kind of childhood; Blaise would be a refugee from Hungary whose parents had been killed on the long flight from home, would grow up in a camp for displaced persons, and as an adult, would survive more directly physical dangers — torture, incarceration, violence, rape.
Lisbeth Salander’s past was an updated version of Blaise’s survivor’s childhood. Her father is an abusive man who rapes and batters her mother repeatedly; at the age of 12, Lisbeth sets him on fire, and her life will be marked by the declaration of legal incompetence that follows and by battles with the authorities. In the first book, she survives and extracts revenge for an especially vicious rape; by the third, Salander makes her appearance with a bullet lodged in her head — alive, but barely so. Both women had one close friendship with a man — Willie Garvin, Modesty’s partner but not her lover, and Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist who forms an often edgy, wary but loyal alliance with Salander.
Larsson’s longtime partner and English translator Eva Gabrielsson has talked about a memory that haunted the author: at the age of 14, he witnessed but was unable to prevent the gang rape of a woman. Other sources have speculated that the inspiration for Salander came closer to home, and Larsson’s work as a journalist who often faced death threats brought him face-to-face with the more unpleasant, brutal aspects of Scandinavian life.
Modesty Blaise and Lisbeth Salander, reaching across the generations, imagined into life by two very different men, are uncomfortable heroines for women readers. They are avengers, not victims; they fight back; and they survive as businesswomen or as players of the system. But they are also subjected, repeatedly, to violence and abuse, and in both sets of books, you shift from being a horrified or sympathetic reader to being an active voyeur.
These are not women superheroines who’re easy to claim; for all their fighting skills, their ease with kongos or keyboards, they don’t inhabit the safe, sanitised world of Wonder Woman. Perhaps that’s why we can’t get enough of them — Modesty is still an icon, in a manner that book or comic book sales don’t explain, and Salander is shaping the imagination of the next generation. I wish Larsson and O’Donnell had had the chance to meet, to discuss their two complex, unforgettable characters — one a queen of crime, the other known simply as the Princess.