The Avengers #5: "The Afrit Affair" by Keith Laumer (1968)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 55.)
There's really only one way to start this column, especially since there's a good chance a lot of you reading this column have never seen it. It's with this clip:
That's the opening credits to the British spy series The Avengers at the height of its powers. The Avengers ran from 1961 to 1969 and kept the same star, Patrick Macnee, at the center throughout. Macnee played John Steed, a secret agent loyal to Britain, even if his particular organizational loyalty was never revealed. In The Avengers’ stage-bound (and, frankly, fairly dull) early seasons, Steed began as a gritty character but changed as the times around him changed. As the '60s started to swing, so did the show, shifting from Cold War spy games to an imaginative hybrid of espionage and science fiction later dubbed "spy-fi." Meanwhile, Steed's partners went from the staid Ian Hendry to the catsuit-clad Honor Blackman (later to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger) to Diana Rigg, an almost supernaturally attractive actress who, after debuting as Mrs. Emma Peel in 1965, quickly developed chemistry with Macnee that nobody could have scripted.
He was dapper and round, quick with a wry grin and dressed with Saville Row-sharpness. She was slender and mod, outfitted in the finest Carnaby Street-inspired fashions. They offered two different, even conflicting, interpretations of England, but they got along beautifully as they took on Cybernauts, dubious porcelain manufacturers, and other threats to national security. Maybe really beautifully: The show let viewers fill in the blanks as to whether their professional, cross-generational camaraderie and obvious chumminess ever translated into anything more. She was Mrs. Peel after all, though, unless I’m misremembering, we never learned a thing about Mr. Peel until the last moments of Rigg's bittersweet final episode. (After this, the acceptable-but-unexceptional Linda Thorson took over duties as Steed's partner as the show sputtered its way to the end of the decade.)
I'm assuming at least a portion of those reading this haven't had much experience with The Avengers not because you don't have wonderful taste—you're here, after all—but because the show has always been a cult item in the U.S. and in recent years something of a tough-to-come-by cult item. I saw it mostly during its late-'80s/early'-90s run on A&E, which later put it out on video and DVD, but the dire 1998 movie version starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman didn't do much to fan the fandom flames over here, which have, if anything, flcikered in the decade since. Which is too bad: It's a fantastic show, even if the cleverness of the production design, the outrageous ideas, and the wit of the performances all sometimes have to overcome sluggish-by-today's-standards pacing. (Of course, that's largely a matter of changing expectations; I watched shows like The Incredible Hulk breathlessly as a kid and trying to watch it now I wonder how I had the patience. Television used to be a much… slower… medium.)
Like Doctor Who, what was a fringe taste over here became iconic in the U.K., necessitating ancillary products like The Afrit Affair, an original novel spun off from the series. Whoever commissioned it didn't skimp on the talent. American science fiction writer/model airplane enthusiast Keith Laumer was already a Hugo nominee by 1968. Did he take the job because he loved the show or needed the money? It's an interesting question, albeit one that I doubt Laumer took long to consider. The Afrit Affiar reads like a professional job done in a professional manner. There's nothing here that would make me eager to seek out more Laumer but he does capture the voices of the characters quite well. If I were an Avengers fan in a pre-DVD, pre-Hulu era this would probably seem like an adequate stopgap. (It’s breezy, too. I think I got through its 127 pages in a couple of commutes.)
But, read simply as a novel, it’s nothing special. Steed and Mrs. Peel have to get from Point A—a threatening note found inside a herring—to Point B—saving the world. Laumer takes them there by way of Points C through Z before circling back again, with each chapter providing a digression in the way of what turns out to be a series of wild goose chases. That the first clue arrives in a herring is no accident, either, and points to Laumer’s cleverest conceit: A villain whose MO is to throw his adversaries off his trail through a series of ridiculous fake clues, like oversized footprints.
What pleasure there is here comes largely from memories of the show and, apart from a few sequences that would be too expensive for the TV show to film, nothing Laumer does here really expands the Avengers universe. Maybe that’s why the novel series only lasted a dozen or so volumes unlike, say, Star Trek. But could Laumer have pushed the boundaries more? Star Trek lends itself to all sorts of stories where The Avengers offers multiple variations on the same sort of story, a clever formula that’s, to say the least, only enhanced by watching two charming, attractive people play it out.
Finally, I can’t leave without sharing one of my favorite Avengers-inspired things: XTC’s 1989 video for “Mayor Of Simpleton”:
A Life For The Stars, by James Blish
"From the emankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off, and sucked meditatively upon the red and white clover around him.
The Mad King, By Edgar Rice Burroughs
"All Lustadt was in an uproar"