The quick and the dead

Thursday, May 1st, 2003

Emotion is funny stuff, and I don’t even pretend to understand it.

I just received a monster order from Amazon, and it included a book called Cobra Trap by Peter O’Donnell. Now, if you ever bother looking at the ‘current book’ setting of these entries you’ll have noticed that up to Easter I read (re-read, actually) a whole load of his books. O’Donnell created a character called Modesty Blaise for a newspaper strip in the Evening Standard in 1963 and continued with it until the 1990s. There were something like 11 novels (Vincent Vega is reading one when Bruce Willis kills him in Pulp Fiction) and one awful movie that everyone pretends didn’t happen.

I own volumes of newspaper reprints and I tracked down all the novels in secondhand bookshops. Took me years. But when the last novel came out seven years ago – Cobra Trap – I didn’t buy it. I couldn’t. I had heard it was a collection of short stories and in the last one O’Donnell jumps ahead to when Modesty and her loyal right hand man Willie Garvin are in their 50s, and he kills them off. I didn’t want to read that.

Well, now I have. And I cried doing it. Not just a couple of tears but great noisy gulping sobs, as solid as if two real-life friends of mine had died, right from the sentence where you realise Modesty is on her way out to the very last word of the book.

I don’t know about anyone else but with me, if I really enjoy some particular work of fiction I like to quietly pretend to myself it’s real, that the characters are out there in the real world doing their thing and I just haven’t happened to meet them. I was like that with the Swallows and Amazons as a child. I was like that during Northern Exposure ten, maybe 12 years ago. And I’ve been very much like that with Modesty and Willie for some 20 years now. Of course I’ll re-read the books and the strips, but now I’ve read their deaths something’s changed in exactly the way it did when I read the synopsis of the the final NX episode and downloaded a video of the song that closed it. In some very painful way they’re not there any more.

I know this is damn stupid but sorry, there you are.

Anyway, if you’ve stuck with this to the end I want to ask a question: do you have a similar response to a handful of very favourite TV / book / film characters? The wishing-against-wish they’re real response I mean, not the tears-before-bedtime one. And if so, which ones? (And had you even heard of Modesty Blaise before now?)

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.