Sunday, December 18, 2022

Peter O’Donnell’s Sabre-Tooth (Modesty Blaise 2)

Sabre-Tooth, published in 1966, is the second of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels. Modesty Blaise started out as a comic strip created by O’Donnell in 1963. Its immense popularity led to the making of the Modesty Blaise movie which was released in 1966. O’Donnell was hired to write the screenplay. The producers didn’t like his screenplay and made so many drastic changes that the movie bore little resemblance to O’Donnell’s script and the character in the film bore little resemblance to O’Donnell’s creation. Before the script was totally rewritten O’Donnell had been commissioned to write a novelisation. His novelisation was based on his original script and has little to do with the film.

The film was only moderately successful and was poorly received by critics. O’Donnell’s novelisation on the other hand was a bestseller and everybody loved it. It was so successful that O’Donnell went on to write a total of eleven Modesty Blaise novels plus two short story collections.

Sabre-Tooth gives us a brief recap of Modesty’s backstory. She was a wartime refugee who was looking for an escape from poverty and misery. She chose a life of crime and ended up as head a vast criminal syndicate. Having made her fortune she retired from crime. She is now semi-respectable and is more likely to be fighting crime than committing it, and she helps out the Secret Service from time to time.

Modesty is sometimes described as a female James Bond but that is inaccurate and misleading. Bond is a professional with a background in military intelligence. He is part of the Establishment and his loyalty is to the Establishment. Modesty is a freelancer and an amateur and her background is entirely criminal. She is definitely not part of the Establishment.

In fact it would be more accurate to describe her as a female Simon Templar, the Saint. The Saint has a veneer of sophistication and charm and can just about pass as a gentleman but he is not one. Being a gentleman is a matter of Breeding and the Right Schools. The Saint did not enjoy those advantages. Modesty Blaise has the same surface poise and sophistication and can just about pass as a lady, but she will never truly be a lady. And like Simon Templar she will never truly be accepted as respectable.

Modesty Blaise was not quite the first sexy kickass action heroine (Cathy Gale beat her to the punch) but she remains one of the most memorable. She’s a bit more complicated than Cathy Gale but there are obvious similarities. The 60s was a decade in which sooner or later such female characters were going to emerge. Modesty Blaise, like The Avengers, was very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s.

Modesty has a partner, Willie Garvin. He has a similar criminal background. Willie is the most important man in Modesty’s life and she is the most important woman in his life but they are not lovers. That was quite a good idea on O’Donnell’s part. It leaves him free to allow both Modesty and Willie to have romantic adventures. And indeed they each have plenty of romantic and sexual adventures in this tale.

Sabre-Tooth concerns a mercenary army led by the ruthless Karz. Karz needs leaders for his army. He thinks Willie Garvin and Modesty Blaise might be suitable. Modesty did after all run a vast criminal organisation. She knows how to persuade men to obey her.

Tarrant, who runs a top-secret intelligence department at the Foreign Office, knows something is going on because an enormous number of mercenaries have suddenly dropped out of sight. His instincts tell him they’re being recruited for something big and unpleasant. Modesty and Willie have done jobs for him before and it occurs to him that it would be useful if they could get themselves recruited.

Most of the novel is concerned with the devious manoeuvrings of Karz on the one side and Modesty and Willie on the other, with plenty of action along the way. They do finally get recruited and that’s when the tension starts to build. They have to find a way to foil Karz’s scheme but they’re totally on their own. And Karz has an emotional lever with which to control them.

O’Donnell certainly knew what he was doing when it came to providing thrills, action and suspense and he made sure these ingredients were available in quantity. There are some memorable fights. When it comes to a fight Modesty has a secret weapon which she calls The Nailer. I won’t spoil things by telling you how it works.

There’s also plenty of sex. There’s nothing remotely graphic about the sex but it isn’t there purely for titillation. Modesty’s attitude towards sex tells us quite a bit about a woman with a troubled past. Sex is also used at times in an emotionally shocking way. Modesty ends up working in a brothel, very much against her will. That was a common enough trope in crime/spy thrillers but authors often pulled their punches. O’Donnell doesn’t. Modesty really is forced to have sex with a lot of unsavoury characters and she doesn’t escape entirely unscathed emotionally.

There is in fact a surprising amount of emotional depth. Both Modesty and Willie Garvin have emotional vulnerabilities with they have to deal with. Being an amateur secret agent isn’t a harmless game. You can get hurt and you can get psychologically damaged. Modesty Blaise might be a super-woman when it comes to unarmed combat and gunplay but she is a woman and she has a woman’s emotional responses. She has chosen a life of adventure and danger but it’s a life that comes at an emotional price.

Sabre-Tooth is definitely a superior spy thriller with a bit of depth and plenty of high excitement. I think this novel is even better than the first first Modesty Blaise novel. Very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed both the first novel, Modesty Blaise, and one of the later books in the series, Last Day In Limbo.


  1. I read this book in the 70s. The first Modesty novel I bought was the hardcover Impossible Virgin, after getting the comic strip books from Ken Pierce and Pan. At the time I thought they were better written than the comics. After reading your review, I will have to go back and revisit these! Also the movie, as I found the dvd for $1.00 at our local library sale (I may have overpaid!). I like this blog, by the way. Thanks for all your hard work.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      Opinions are wildly divided on the movie. It's not quite Modesty Blaise but it's fun in its own way.

      I think Modesty is better in novel form because she really is a rather complex character and the novels explore her character a bit more.

  2. Replies
    1. I'm only just discovering the Modesty Blaise comics, and I'm liking them.