Due Modesty | Newberry

Due Modesty

I am still putting together the maps of the rooms for next month’s Book Binge, so I am not quite ready to tell you what is going to be where. Some big categories are huge this year, but others have shrunk, and things must shift. Art and Cooking are massive, so they will probably fill the walls their one room, with the center still reserved for Collectibles. This MIGHT mean that Chicago will move out into the Children’s Books room, while Games will journey the other direction, and wind up near Graphic Novels in the Mystery and Science Fiction room (what a late, lamented volunteer used to call the Cheap and Easy Room.)

Romance is nowhere near as massive as last year, when we got that amazing (and apparently unpopular) collection of historical romances. So Romance will still be in the Cheap and Easy Room, though it won’t be as obvious. It is here that you will find the novels of the person I wanted to tell you about, award-winning writer of Gothic romances Madeleine Brent.

Madeleine was a major hit during the surge of the Gothic romance in the 1970s. She was good at her work, producing narratives of suspense which won her the Romance Novel of the Year Award for 1975. She did not make the trip from England to the United States to pick up the award. This is because Madeleine Brent did not appear in public. Her American publisher never knew that the letters addressed to “Dear Madeleine” were going to a man who had his wife sign the replying letters so they would appear to be coming from a woman.

It is not uncommon to change sex behind a pen name. Dan Ross wrote some 300 novels under 23 pen names, 19 of which were female (as Marilyn Ross, he wrote all the Dark Shadows novels.) But Madeleine Brent wrote under only two names. The thing is that under her real name, she was a very busy and fairly famous author. The paperback novels of Peter O’Donnell are now worth five to ten times the novels he wrote as Madeleine Brent.

His main career was as a scripter of comic strips for some of the many comic magazines which formed a major part of British culture. These included an adaptation of the James Bond book Dr. No. What that had to do with his most famous creation is not known to me (he claimed she was based on a woman he met during his World War II service.) But not too long after that, he began to write up the adventures of Modesty Blaise, who moved from comic strips to novels to movies with aplomb.

Possibly the most successful female counterpart to James Bond, Modesty was a retired thief who started working for British Intelligence and had adventures which ran to over ten thousand comic strip installments (O’Donnell numbered them consecutively.) These ran occasionally in the United States, but with limited success because American editors felt the need to censor the content (Modesty would occasionally take off her top long enough to distract enemies so her partner, Willie Garvin, could kill them.)

This constituted a pretty full-time job, but O’Donnell also wrote scripts and short stories not related to Modesty. When a publisher asked if he’d like to write a Gothic romance, he did some opening chapters, sent them off, and then forgot about them.So did the publisher. But the manuscript moved around until an American publisher saw it, liked it, and asked to see the rest of the book. By this time, O’Donnell had completely forgotten how the story was supposed to continue, so he started over, finished it up, and the result, Tregaron’s Daughter, sold tens of thousands of copies and started the career of Madeleine Brent.

Madeleine produced nine novels, and Peter wrote eight about Modesty, plus those comic strips, the radio adaptations, one of the movies, and so on. He did NOT like to have anyone else writing about Modesty Blaise, and in his will requested that no one take over the series. (Just before he died he gave another writer permission to write the introductions to reprints of the novels.) He did not say anything about sequels to the Madeleine Brent novels (I hope you noticed the significance of Madeleine’s initials.)

In any case, you will find both Madeleine and Modesty in Room 1, though for the original Modesty paperbacks, you’ll need to step over to Collectibles in Room 2. I’ll keep you posted on navigation and charting.

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