Alongside Thunderbirds, the most formative TV show of my childhood years would have to be The Avengers (the British incarnation, that is, not the Transatlantic pretenders), in particular the halcyon years in which John Steed (Patrick Macnee) was partnered with Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). So you’ll perhaps understand why these two books caught my eye …
I chanced upon these novels — originally published in 1965 and 1966, and written by the recently-departed ‘Steed’ himself — a few months ago, in Glenbrook’s excellent Blue Dragon bookshop. (Macnee credits Peter Leslie for help in writing the first book, Deadline; there’s no such acknowledgement in the second book, but Leslie is bylined with Macnee in the copyright attribution of each book, so it’s probably fair to treat both books as collaborations of some degree or another.) Of course, it’s only Macnee’s name that appears on the covers.
And while we’re on the covers: lest these come across as tacky tie-ins (and the editions I bought are mid-90s re-releases; I will concede that, purely from a design perspective, there is a certain degree of ‘could do better’ about them), I’ll clarify that these are, unambiguously, Steed-and-Peel-era-Avengers novels, describing adventures significantly different (as far as I can establish) from any which featured during the run of Steed-and-Peel Avengers TV episodes. And for what they are, they’re not bad. There are, perhaps, some allowances which must be made: a degree of casual, mid-sixties sexism is nowadays very difficult to excuse (women described as ‘girls’ or otherwise objectified); there is, across both books, a very heavy focus upon Steed, and though Emma Peel does get some airtime (and is recognisably herself), she’s arguably upstaged in the first book by Steed’s Bentley, which all seems rather unfair; and, of course, the pacing of a full-length novel (even a slim one) does make the going a little more ponderous than is the case in a tightly-scripted 50-minute TV episode. But that last isn’t really a drawback, in the right hands, because it allows the opportunity for character development — or at least backstory — to be teased out in a way not possible within the confines of a TV script. (Or, at least, not as scriptwriting was done back in the 1960s.)
Of the two books, the first, Deadline, is the more classically suspenseful, in that it poses a mystery, the solution of which remains unsolved up until the last chapter or two; it’s ingeniously constructed, well-researched, and actually describes what could almost have been a credible threat at the time, always assuming some individual or group was crazy-brave enough to try it on. The storyline involves a fictitious British newspaper, the Courier, in which key news articles in its Continental editions are being substituted out with offensively jingoistic (and entirely false) stories designed, it seems, to stir up trouble between the UK and its European neighbours … but to what end? The Ministry is baffled, not only to motive but as to means, and Steed and Peel are called in to investigate. As they do, they take it on themselves to infiltrate the Courier, to track down the plotters. There’s a lot of authentic-seeming detail in the newspaper workday background (which I’m guessing might show the hand of Peter Leslie … but this is just intuition on my part), and a lot of Steed. It is, as noted above, a pity Mrs Peel doesn’t get more airtime, but it is what it is. (Maybe, in an alternative universe somewhere, Diana Rigg has written a couple of Avengers novels in which Steed features only sparsely …)
Dead Duck has less of a mystery, even though it starts out with a wonderfully creepy scenario typical of the TV show — a random, unrelated set of people suddenly drop dead for no immediately-apparent reason, within a ten-mile radius of a quaint little English coastal village. It happens that one of the people is at the table next to Steed and Peel, who are dining at the restaurant run by Steed’s friend. Autopsies subsequently reveal that the common factor in all the deaths is that the victims had all recently eaten duck … The culprits in this one are revealed relatively early on (by about halfway through), and the latter half of the book is concerned with unpicking why they’re weaponising ducks with poison. It’s an interesting enough excursion, though a little (pardon me here) daffy; it perhaps reflects the shift in storylines that the TV show went through, from directly suspenseful in the early Peel episodes to suspenseful/zany as the seasons progressed. And there are matters touched on in the second book which the TV show itself would never dare to broach: a quite surprisingly direct degree of innuendo between two supporting characters; an overt drug reference; and a ‘Doctor Who’ name-drop.
It’s not the same as being able to watch the action unfold on the small screen, of course, which is the natural habital of the John Steed and the Emma Peel. But if you’ve watched all the episodes, and wish there were more, these do, at least, hint quite strongly at the ‘more’.