I've thought about 1976 a fair bit over the last few years. You might remember I wrote a novella and mentioned it here. (And in this post about log lines, where I even shared a mocked-up cover.) I've come to realise that it was a formative year for me.
Hardly surprising. I was 11, tentatively dipping a little pink toe into the encroaching tides of puberty and adulthood. How? Well, here's an example. My father actually used to come home from London more often than he does in 76. Like any other commuter (although of course he was anything but) he would bring with him his half-read Evening Standard. And I, starved of what I never even imagined would one day be termed 'content', would pore over it that night or next morning.
Despite the massively different media environment, I don't think kids have changed that much. At 11, I instinctively avoided current affairs, as well as most of the sport my father was interested in. Star Wars may have been shooting nearby but it was still far, far away for all of us and 'Cod Wars!' didn't have quite the same ring to it. Everything else seemed to be to do with the IRA, which even the adults didn't understand.
So instead, and with that little pink puberty-toe (!) tingling, I flicked through the fingertip-smudging newsprint in search of fresh imagery. Cinema ads! Tiny photographs in magic-eye halftones with mystical titles bespeaking a higher level of adult understanding that was to prove illusory. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. What even was that? An Oedipal-Nietzschean drama set in the world of merchant shipping, starring Kris Kristofferson and adapted from the novel by Yukio Mishima. I'd love to see an elevator pitch for that now, in these days of Chris Hemsworth in tactical gear on Netflix...
Then (because we're coming to it), a page or two later and probably after dipping into the completely unintelligible horoscopes in search of pre-toe-tingling promises of true romance, the comic strips. (I told you we were coming to it!)
MODESTY BLAISE by Peter O'Donnell, illustrated by Romero. Black and white. Three frames a day, no more. None of the subtlety and charm that I was to discover had predated Romero in the original art of Jim Holdaway. But I was hooked.
The daily strips were painfully brief but the stories were long-form, often lasting several months, with complex plots and great scrapes. The set piece captures and escapes were thoughtfully put together. Most of all, the characters were compelling and the relationship between Modesty and her sidekick Willie Garvin completely unique and intriguing.
Soon I was clipping out the strips and collecting them as graphic novels in mismatched binders. In time, O'Donnell's actual Modesty Blaise novels would follow. And although their quality would fall off somewhat as I brought myself up to date with the classics from the 60s and began waiting for new releases in the 80s, these more sophisticated and substantial versions of the stories – and their influence, which is what this is about – would stay with me all my life.
Was it just me? I was able to pick up those earlier titles because every secondhand bookstall was full of them back then, usually with embarrassingly unrepresentative sexploitation covers courtesy of the unscrupulous Pan Books. But then there were the quotes from the superfans, of course. Like Kingsley Amis calling Modesty and Willie "one of the great partnerships in fiction, bearing comparisons with that of Holmes and Watson". Quentin Tarantino would later join in too and in fact you see O'Donnell's peril/resolution set pieces influencing thriller writers and filmmakers up to the present day, more often than not unacknowledged.
Much more importantly, there were girls who liked Modesty and who saw her as a progenitor for female characters from Buffy to Lisbeth Salander, not just as a bit of ill-cast cleavage on a Pan cover. Yes, she was written by a male author, but somehow (even if in other respects Modesty is admittedly a product of her time) he had gone far beyond the Male Gaze and won plaudits for it. Anyway, it was a female-male partnership he was writing, so there was justification aplenty.
So there you are. The seeds were sown. One day, I would create a series of action adventures that would be inspired by (or reflect, or reimagine...) the Modesty Blaise comic strips and novels. And because I first came to them not as contemporary thrillers but as period pieces (the mid 60s is literally a lifetime away when you're an 11-year-old in 1976), I would set them in a historical context. Which would let me throw in other influences from my content consumption as a young man, from Bond and Le Carré to Where Eagles Dare.
That's how the Chasing Mercury series was born. I thought it might be useful to describe it in terms of its inspirations rather than purely as a reaction to a perceived market opportunity – as I began to do when I asked recently Why are my novel's influences not the same as its comps? And I wrote this follow-up post, too, because I have been thinking about how to address the issue of comparison titles for a blurb, if I decide to self-publish – and because I have to say something that means something to me as well as to the Amazon algorithms...
So thank you for bearing with me, if you have. Now you know where it all started.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.