A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 70.
I’m somewhat at a loss as to what to write about The Avengers: “The Passing Of Gloria Munday,” a novel spun off the long-running, popular (in Britain) and cultishly adored (in the United States) spy series now best known for an extraordinary three-season stretch co-starring Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee as, respectively, Emma Peel and John Steed. The Avengers found fertile common ground between James Bond movies, science fiction, and pop art. The credit belongs as much to the lead characters as the writers: Macnee played Steed as the epitome of conservative cool, sporting dapper suits and a stiff upper lip that could harden into cruelty when he was crossed. Rigg made Mrs. Peel the embodiment of the swinging-’60s styles of the time with a chipper, deadly intensity. Together, they generated a never-spoken-of will-they-or-won’t-they—or are-they-or-aren’t-they—chemistry.
But I covered a lot of that the last time this column landed on an Avengers novelization. I may not have adequately conveyed how tough it is to translate all that to the page, even if you do find ways to echo the show’s snappy dialogue. John Garforth doesn’t have much more luck than Keith Laumer, but the book still has its points of interest. Published in 1967, it’s very much a product of the changing times, much like the series that inspired it.
We open with Steed participating, as it’s easy to imagine him doing, in a vintage-car race. He comes in second after stopping to help a damsel in distress, the titular Gloria Munday. Who’s Gloria Munday? Only the biggest pop star in Britain at the time. (Maybe Garforth had Lulu in mind?) She’s scared, too; she seeks protection from Steed, then reluctantly agrees to leave his side to be with her manager. The next day, she’s dead, knifed amid a mob of fans. (The “passing” of the title isn’t just by chance a play on sic transit gloria mundi.)
Is there a conspiracy afoot? You bet. And fast as you can say “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed,” Steed and Mrs. Peel are on the case with the brilliant (and actually plausible) plan of turning Mrs. Peel into a pop star, thus infiltrating the ranks of the conspiracy that brought poor Gloria Munday low.
We can jump to the end without missing too much: It’s all tied to an offshore pirate radio station—a real thing at the time, and not just the invention of Richard Curtis movies—that’s controlling the teenage population via subliminal messages. But lest you think the novel veers off in a direction at odds with the swinging youth-pro (or at least swinging youth-neutral) TV series, it turns out that the force behind the pirate radio station is an anti-communist American evangelist using rock ’n’ roll to breed a generation of right-leaning peaceniks. Groovy? Not at all. And the book ends with the bad guys getting their comeuppance and our Mrs. Peel still atop the charts.
Garforth—who wrote three other Avengers novels and is otherwise best known, sort of, for the 1974 book A Day In The Life Of A Victorian Policeman—mostly contents himself with delivering a serviceable product. The Steed and Peel here aren’t greatly at odds with their TV counterparts, and nothing outright contradicts the world of the series. He also conveys the discomfort of the changing times, and the coming-up of a generation that didn’t seem to have that much in common with the generation that had come before. Is there a place for bowler hats in a new world of beads and paisley?
But the most interesting material is in the margins. I was sorry to see Gloria Munday bow out so quickly, since she quickly establishes herself as a more multi-dimensional character than nearly anyone else in the book, an icon of coolness who wants to be square:
“I was voted top girl singer last year in the Melody Maker polls.” She laughed with that completely open innocence that Steed knew would be described in the popular press as natural. “Everything a pop singer says in public is corny, like I want to be an all-around entertainer, I want to be an ordinary housewife and fall in love with an ordinary man. But by God it’s true, if I could just meet some nice young mechanic and get away from the publicity boys, the A&R men and the press… I’m so tired!”
The era valued authenticity as it discarded the phony old ways, but how’s an audience supposed to find the authentic stuff without a publicity push? And what authenticity couldn’t be improved with, you know, a little tinkering here and there?
Her best line, before exiting stage knifepoint, nicely sums up what separates a mechanical singer from one who connects to an audience. Asked by Steed whether she’s good, she replies, “I’m all right—I enjoy it and that communicates.”
Alas, she leaves the book before communicating much more, but another supporting character drops in for some intriguing moments: George Washington. No, not that George Washington, but a Jamaican immigrant lawyer and recording engineer doing some work for the good of Britain’s spy community. Washington more or less takes over the book for a good chunk about two-thirds of the way in, and Garforth doesn’t seem to miss his TV heroes too much. Washington’s section of Gloria Munday is lighter and more engaging than the book around it.
When Washington is charged with distracting a white, fortysomething record executive, his adventures and his caustic internal monologue double as a barometer for the social and sexual niceties between black men and white women in 1967 Britain:
“Have you ever thought of becoming a singer? You seem to have the glamour and the authority you’d need.”
Yes ma’am and I have that coloured sound as well.
“The American Negro singers don’t make sufficient impact in this country because they look middle-aged and they use too much hair oil. But a superb young man like you…”
Twenty-two ma’am, and I’ve never used hair oil in my life.
“I think Donyale Luna has started a big colour trend.”
Yea, like the Sunday Times supplement and Cassius Clay. Take your hand off my left. It wouldn’t be so bad if she’d use a different gambit, preferably not the one about how you must find it cold in this country.
The line she uses to seal the deal and bring Washington to bed? “You must find it cold in this country.”
It feels like Garforth would really rather write a book about George Washington, sharp-witted visitor to a land he understands far better than it understands itself, and better than Steed or Peel. But alas, we eventually have to return to the merely serviceable simulation of the TV show surrounding his adventures. At least for a few pages, he and Garforth get to have a little more fun than their circumstances ordinarily allow.
The Man With The Golden Gun by Ian Fleming
“The Secret Service holds much that is kept secret even from very senior officers in the organization.”
The Prism by Emil Petaja and Crown Of Infinity by John M. Faucette (Ace Double)
“Back to back, Kor and Atlan of the Forests fought the Green Ones.”
“The ship was ready.”