An immodest proposal

Action heroine - Rachel Cooke celebrates the return of the mistress of high kicks and high jinks

Souvenir Press has just published two new editions of Modesty Blaise adventures, The Silver Mistress and The Xanadu Talisman. Modesty, you may recall, died six years ago while fleeing gunfire in a remote South American valley in The Cobra Trap; five years later, her creator, Peter O'Donnell, also put an end to her long-running comic strip adventures in the Evening Standard. But now, the mistress of the high kick is back, with these novels aimed at surfing a fresh wave of interest in her.

In Los Angeles, plans are again under way for a Modesty Blaise movie (Joseph Losey's 1966 film, starring Monica Vitti as Modesty and Terence Stamp as her sidekick, Willie Garvin, was a travesty and a flop).mmm Quentin Tarantino still longs to direct an epic about his favourite heroine - it is no coincidence that Modesty Blaise is the book Vincent Vega reads on the throne in Pulp Fiction - but has never been satisfied with the scripts that have come his way. So it is left to Miramax to await a completed screenplay from Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler; their film, if the rumours circulating on the internet are to be believed, will be called My Name Is Modesty.

For my own part, until the new editions arrived on my desk - complete with original 1970s dust-jackets - I had not delved into Modesty's daring deeds for a very long time. So I devoured both books, and then set to wondering why the celluloid Miss Blaise has been frozen in development hell for so long. Frankly, it's inexplicable. In recent years, Hollywood has given us a quiver full of action heroines, from Uma Thurman's snake-hipped Mrs Peel in its risible remake of The Avengers, to Angelina Jolie's pillow-lipped, hot pant-wearing Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Yet they have singularly failed to seduce. At the box office, Modesty could take them all on and win - the same way she could in a bare-knuckle fight.

Peter O'Donnell, who is now in his eighties, began his career before the war, the old-fashioned way, writing for comics like Tiger Tim and Chips. Later on, he took an office above El Vino's in Fleet Street and worked on newspaper strips. In 1962, he and the artist Jim Holdaway were asked to come up with a female adventurer for the Daily Express: the result was Modesty Blaise, a rootless orphan who first ran a criminal gang known as The Network and then, once she had made stacks of money, retired and worked as an unpaid operative for the British Secret Service. The Express, however, baulked at the idea of a female criminal, and the strip was picked up by the Standard, where it ran for 38 years. O'Donnell wrote the first novel as a movie tie-in, but it did so well that, between 1966 and 1996, he wrote a dozen more.

As Lauren Henderson points out on the feisty girl website tartcity.com, O'Donnell's creation is "cooler than James Bond, tougher than Mike Hammer". Not just a hard man in a girl's body - and what a body it is, legs up to her armpits, skin as smooth and tanned as butter toffee - Modesty makes quiche by day and breaks her enemies' necks by night. One minute, she's in black tie and pearls; the next, a string vest and denims. A sophisticate with homes in Montmartre and Tangier and a manservant, she likes nothing better than to clamber down the Gorge du Tarn in bare feet, only a hip flask and a glucose tablet for company.

Best of all, though, is her attitude to sex - pragmatic, unreflective, even a little testosterone charged. Modesty and her cockney sidekick Willie (Kingsley Amis, who called them "one of the great partnerships in fiction", likened them to Holmes and Watson) are psychically connected, but nothing more; when it comes to lovers, she prefers tycoons to reformed criminals, and Willie, who runs a pub called the Treadmill, likes to keep company with a one-legged aristocrat called Lady Janet. But this is not to say that sex and work don't occasionally collide. Naturally, Modesty will sleep with a man if she needs to get information out of him and, in one of her favourite moves, "the Nailer", strips to the waist so she can mesmerise the baddies with her fabulous breasts while Willie sets to work with his fists. Go, girl!

The Silver Mistress, in which our heroine takes on a violent ape called Mr Sexton, climaxes with the most stunningly sexy scene I have ever come across in popular fiction. Deep in the great stalactite chamber of the Lancieux Caves in France, Modesty decides to fight Sexton to the end. Without so much as a blush or a shiver, she strips off her clothes and asks Sir Gerald Tarrant of British Intelligence if he will cover her body in grease. This, he does (what man would refuse, even were the situation not one of life or death?). In the battle ahead, Modesty's shiny skin means that she constantly slips from Sexton's grasp and, when they finally drop into the cold pool below, it protects her from the freezing water. An ingenious escape and, thankfully, not a macho gadget in sight.

Needless to say, there have already been plenty of suggestions as to who should play Modesty when the movie is finally cast, including Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays Trinity in The Matrix. Personally, I'd like to see Catherine Keener, who can currently be seen in the all-girl flick Lovely & Amazing, in the role. Keener can do tough and sexy, and, more to the point, she has great calves. Then again, I'm not going to hold my breath. As Ang Lee puts the finishing touches to his remake of The Incredible Hulk and Sam Raimi gets stuck into the second of his Spider-Man movies, something tells me Modesty may be stuck where she is a while longer. Some girls, you see, just attract trouble - wherever they go.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer

12 issues for £12