R.I.P. Emma Peel…and a Wolfpack Spy Revealed

September 15th, 2020 by Max Allan Collins

I am, obviously, at that age when the icons of my youth are going on ahead of me into whatever lies ahead. Emma Peel is gone. Not at all forgotten.

Still, losing Diana Rigg at 82 sounds much too soon – she was still displaying her considerable acting skills and powers of personality in Victoria and the forthcoming Black Narcissus.

The British Invasion was the Big Thing when I was in high school, and that of course immediately brings to mind the Beatles and their fellow rock ‘n’ roll invaders. But the British Invasion was also James Bond, and the Spy Craze – even The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was an Ian Fleming brainchild (thought that fact has been lost in the shuffle a bit). Sometimes the rock aspect collided with the spy craze, as when Johnny Rivers did the theme song for Secret Agent (as the Brit Danger Man was retitled for USA consumption). And would Michael Caine’s career have gotten its jump start if Harry Palmer hadn’t brought John Lennon to mind in The Ipcress File (1965)?

From the UK came the greatest of Spy Craze TV series, The Avengers (well, let’s call it a tie with The Prisoner). Emma Peel’s predecessor – as the black catsuit-clad partner of bowler-and-bumbershoot-sporting John Steed, portrayed by urbane Patrick Macnee – was Cathy Gale. The original distaff martial-arts Avenger (to “boys” my age, those Marvel Avengers should be called the Pretenders) was Honor Blackman, whose final curtain call preceded Diana Rigg’s by just a few months.

The Bond connections are many. Honor Blackman was (could anyone reading this really not know) Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964); and Patrick Macnee was James Bond’s Lordly sidekick in the Roger Moore entry, View to a Kill (1985). Macnee was not, as some would have, the cousin of (sort of) James Bond, David Niven (Casino Royale, 1965), though the two actors did appear together in The Elusive Pimpernel (1950).

Most significantly, Diana Rigg portrayed Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and became not just the love of Bond’s life but his wife, albeit briefly. The former Emma Peel was, not surprisingly, appealing in the role and her presence shored up the place-holder presence of George Lazenby as Bond in what was the greatest James Bond movie Sean Connery never made.

Diana Rigg was an accomplished and much-lauded screen actress, and I won’t go into all of her remarkable list of credits here. I’ll mention only my favorite performance by her, after Emma Peel and Tracy di Vicenzo, which is Arlena Stuart Marshall in Evil Under the Sun (1982), the best of the big screen Poirot movies (feel free to disagree, but do so knowing I’m not listening).

What is significant about Diana Rigg, it seems to me, is how she managed to be an actress of incredible sex appeal and at the same time convey an undeniable, even intimidating intelligence, at a time (the first Bond era, remember) when “birds” were mostly mini-skirts, eye make-up, and lots of teased hair. She could even smirk with intelligence, and the way she and The Avengers spoofed the inherently absurd spy fad gave the series its special zing. Her range as an actress is astonishing. I always had a sense that she wanted to give the audience her best, but if they didn’t like it, that was their problem.

So it is with a bittersweet smile, and a gathering sense of my own mortality, that I blow a kiss goodbye to Emma Peel, knowing that she and Diana Rigg will live forever.

Now, hoping it’s not a display of bad taste, I will segue into finally announcing the series that Matt Clemens and I are doing for Wolfpack. You’ll see the connection in a moment, or perhaps as soon as you hear the title of the first novel: Come Spy With Me.

Matt and I created the lead characters and developed the premise for the series twenty years ago in a couple of little seen short stories. John Sand is a recently retired British secret agent whose cover was blown world-wide when a famous series of novels by an ex-spy colleague of his became best sellers. The stories – at least the trilogy we have agreed to produce – take place in the, shall we say, Swinging Sixties.

John Sand has married a wealthy young woman named Stacey and, in Come Spy With Me, we join them on their honeymoon, where if we had any sense of propriety we wouldn’t witness their carnal conduct. I’ll leave it to you to decide how much propriety Matt Clemens and I have.

But not to worry. The mushy stuff is temporary – carnal gives way to carnage soon enough, and John Sand is as hard-edged a man of action as, well, the famous fictional spy that was based on him.

The name “Sand,” by the way, is a very much conscious tip of the jaunty ‘60s cap to the mono-named lead of Ennis Willie’s series of novels written in that era, which influenced me almost as much as Mickey Spillane, Richard Stark, and Ian Fleming.

You will hear more about this series as the weeks progress – the first book will, as I’ve indicated, be out well before the end of the year. We’ll have a cover to show you before too very long.

When Matt and I discussed getting an advance blurb from an appropriate author, only one name came to mind: Raymond Benson, author of officially licensed James Bond novels (and short stories and video games) and the landmark The James Bond Bedside Companion. Raymond is also the author of the Black Stiletto novels and Hotel Destiny – A Ghost Noir.

Raymond was gracious enough to look at Come Spy With Me in manuscript, and this is what he says:

Come Spy With Me is a heck of a ride! The characters are smooth, the real-world cameos are fun, the action is electric, and the sex is rightly retro. This homage to Mr. Fleming, Mr. Bond, and all the other pulp spy thrillers of the 1960s will leave you craving for the next installment!”

* * *

This is a lovely review of the forthcoming second Ms. Tree collection from Titan – Skeleton in the Closet.

Here is a compendium of reviews of Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher, mostly very good.

My co-author, A. Brad Schwartz and I, will be discussing Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher next Sunday, September 20, at 1 pm Central. Join us with your own questions.


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16 Responses to “R.I.P. Emma Peel…and a Wolfpack Spy Revealed”

  1. Tim Field says:

    Wow! The John Sand series sounds like a natural for you. Can’t wait for what promises to be a fun series.

  2. Russell Fish says:

    I had such a crush on Diana Rigg as Emma Peel that I named one of my daughters Emma. I told her it was from the Jane Austen novel, but I suspect she has figured it out. Can’t wait for the John Sand series. Sounds cool and right up my alley, and a dark alley it is.

  3. JohnJ says:

    Sounds like fun. Looking forward to it.
    As Bond/Avengers mash-ups go, I hope you’ve run into Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries. Peregrine Fisher is the niece of Phyrne Fisher and her adventures take place in the Sixties so it’s only fitting that the police detective she meets is named James Steed.

    So many great performances by Diana Rigg, up to recent years in Doctor Who and Game of Thrones. Emma Peel was one of my first tv crushes.

  4. Fred Blosser says:

    And Joanna Lumley, later drolly funny in AB FAB, was another connective thread (if more tenuously so) between the Avengers and 007. She was the Emma Peel fill-in on the later NEW AVENGERS series, and one of the “patients” in Blofeld’s “clinic” in OHMSS, identified on IMDB as “English Girl.” I don’t recall whether she and Diana Rigg had any scenes together. I’ll add to the chorus of voices welcoming the announcement about COME SPY WITH ME.

  5. Thanks for these votes of confidence.

    Fred, I’d forgotten Lumley was in Blofeld’s clinic in OHMSS.

    John, Barb and I have long been Miss Fisher fans. We watched the Ms. Fisher series, too, and thought it was good but not great. We tried Frankie Drake (same production company) and bailed a few episodes in.

  6. Adi says:

    The Avengers what a wonderful show ,one of the best one ever made.
    I got myself a DVD of a previously lost episode called “Tunnel of Fear” ,very recommended .The episode looks great on my 48″ HD TV ,despite not being a blu-ray release.its from their first season pre- Diana Rigg .

    She was a Great actress ,visited Israel a couple of times ,there are some Hebrew press clips with articles and pictures of her.I loved her in the Avengers and in “The Mrs Bradley mysteries” .I would to see her old American sitcom .she will be missed.

    Max I love your books ,can’t wait for the new spy series .

  7. John Hocking says:

    While I would have bought Come Spy With Me in any case, your tip of the hat to Ennis Willie’s Sand ensures I will read it as soon as I get my hands upon it.

    Back in the 1980’s I read your rave review of Ennis Willie’s And Some Were Evil in Bill Pronzini’s monolithic review collection, 1001 Midnights.
    There and then I knew I had to have every one of Willie’s books.

    But all these years later, I still don’t have them all.

  8. Gary Bush says:

    One of the great women spies/thieves was Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell. I enjoyed her adventures with her partner Willie Garvin. Mysterious Press published a whole series back in the 80’s. It was also a comic strip before that. Monica Vitti as Modesty and Terence Stamp as Willie starred in a 1966 film, that was highly regarded and was nominated for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A 1982 TV movie made Modesty and Willie Americans, which ruined it for me. I never saw the 2004 Movie, “My name is Modesty.”
    Finally, there was the late, great Anne Francis as Honey West, which was sort of an American version of the Avengers. By the way, like all guys of my age, I was nuts about Diana Rigg.

  9. JohnJ says:

    Gary, if you can find it, I recommend “My Name is Modesty”. Quentin Tarantino has his name attached to this movie as an after-the-fact kind of producer and it tells a sort of origin story for Modesty, much of which matches up with the comic strip origin. It also has the curiosity factor of the villain (not a spoiler, you learn this early on) played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in more recent years known as Jamie Lannister of “Game of Thrones.” This movie is a huge improvement over the Monica Vitti bs.

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  11. Janet Sullivan says:

    No need to publish this… I’ve never written to an author, but wanted to tell you that “Quarry” has been saving my sanity for the last 8 weeks. Don’t know how I found him, but thank god I did. I am a 67 year old woman who now lives on the coast of NE Florida (between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach), but I was born and raised in west Central Illinois– near Burlington. Four things tie me to Quarry: 1) Cheerleading camp in the late 60’s was at Lake Geneva 2) we always had the best time with the cheerleaders from Muscatine 2) it’s a blast actually reading about the Iowa/Illinois border towns… Brady St. in Davenport, etc. 3) but most importantly, I evidently need what the Quarry books offer. I am responsible for leading the outreach activities to our Florida county’s 27,000 Democrats– phone banking, text banking, postcard sending, door hangings, etc. My days are VERY intense, and Florida is VERY intense, and well, you know how scary all of this is. Anyway, I was finding that my normal bedtime authors were not holding up to the intensity of my day. All of a sudden their books seem too fluffy and I couldn’t lose myself enough to forget my day. Somehow I found ‘Quarry”, and he’s just what I needed. You and Quarry have become my lifesavers. My husband suggested I try another series of yours, so I tried a Nathan Heller book, but,nope: I need Quarry. I’m so very grateful for him and you. Thanks very much. Jan Sullivan, Palm Coast, Fl formerly from La Harpe, IL

  12. Janet, these are lovely words, and I’m glad Quarry works on you. Oddly, he is very good company. I do urge you to give Nate Heller another try, when you run through the Quarry novels. Some people insist on reading them in the order I wrote them, or to try to arrange them chronologically (in history), which is tough, since some novels don’t cooperate with that effort (the first half of STOLEN AWAY predates TRUE DETECTIVE and TRUE CRIME, and so does DAMNED IN PARADISE). So I would suggest you look at the famous crimes or mysteries I’m dealing with, and select one that interests you. Don’t be put off by the length of the novels, and I think you’ll find Heller is similarly good company to Quarry. He probably has more shift in character, since he spans a longer range of time and several novels occur before WW 2 (in THE MILLION-DOLLAR WOUND) traumatizes him. I would recommend BYE BYE, BABY to a Quarry reader, that’s the Marilyn Monroe book, and (again with Quarry in mind) ANGEL IN BLACK (the Black Dahlia). I’m also fond of FLYING BLIND (Amelia Earhart), but that’s not a typical Heller entry, if there is such a thing. I have, incidentally, also have had shelter-in-place sufferers (and Barb and I are among them) who find the ANTIQUES novels a fun place to go in this very not fun times.

    Thank you again.

  13. Oh, and Janet — the very first Heller, TRUE DETECTIVE, has a lengthy section in the Quad Cities, and also a section in Florida.

    All of the Hellers are on sale for 99-cents on Kindle very soon — see tomorrow’s blog (9-21-2020) for details.

  14. Gary Kato says:

    Looking forward to reading Come Spy With Me. And, you couldn’t find a more appropriate writer for your blurb recommendation than
    Raymond Benson. Both his James Bond books and Black Stiletto novels are great action thrillers. The Black Stiletto’s overall plot is that
    a man discovers through his mother’s diaries, that though she’s now dying of alzheimers, she was once the famous masked vigilante
    The Black Stiletto. Over the course of five books, Benson relates the Black Stiletto’s story, weaving both the past and the present.
    As recently as last year, or was it the year before, The Benson James Bond books have been reissued in two massive installments,
    The Union Trilogy, and Choice Of Weapons. The physical description of James Bond is like Sean Connery, but the action described in
    the books is like the grittier action of the Daniel Craig movies.

    I was in high school when The Avengers was on TV. What teen aged boy wasn’t in love with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel?
    She was strong, smart and sexy, and oh so feminine. Sigh!

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