If you had been watching The Avengers every week in 1969, you’d have seen Tara King effectively neutralised – warming the bench – in the two previous episodes, Killer and The Morning After. And at first The Curious Case of the Countless Clues looks like third time unlucky for Linda Thorson.
Tara has a broken tibia, it turns out, and is laid up at her apartment, forcing Steed to go it alone when a government minister is implicated in the murder of a man we’ve already seen dispatched in bizarre fashion, by a pair of “detectives” who appeared to have “found” the evidence of the man’s death before any crime has even been committed – lots of it.
The detectives are played by Anthony Bate and Kenneth Cope and after they have killed their first victim, who falls neatly into an outline already neatly chalked out on the floor, Steed is sent to investigate by a man in deerstalker, tweeds, the full Sherlock Holmes, with the great Peter Jones playing sleuthmaster Sir Arthur Doyle (ho ho).
The clues at the scene of the crime, meanwhile, all point to one obvious suspect. But since that man has an absolutely watertight alibi…
This being a story by Philip Levene, it’s a criminal racket behind it all, the two men essentially acting as fancy extortionists using “evidence” of an upcoming murder to put pressure on a future suspect. If the target plays along, an alibi is also furnished. If not, that’s where the plethora of clues come in.
It’s actually a rather neat old-school case, more Cathy Gale than Emma Peel – everyday criminals rather than criminal masterminds being the nub on which the plot turns.
I’ve already mentioned Jones, superbly ridiculous as a man who fancies himself as a latterday denizen of Baker Street. Bate and Cope are interesting too, Bate because he brings such a massive amount of oily menace to the role – he’s one of many reasons why 1979’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy can be rewatched countless times.
Bate is also instrumental in reviving the old Avengers class-based hierarchy of villainy. He is posh and therefore issues the orders, Cope is middle class and therefore facilitates those wishes. And further down the food chain – we later learn – is the man who actually carries the orders out, the oily rag, played here by Tony Selby as a grimy mechanic.
The men’s surnames are Earle (Bate), Stanley (Selby) and Gardner (Cope) – Earle Stanley Gardner being the author of the Perry Mason stories, and The Case of… being the formulaic title Gardner gave to each of his tales.
Tracy Reed is another interesting addition to the cast. Introduced as an old flame of Steed’s her Janice looks at first like being another of the tryouts as a Linda Thorson replacement. But this is one of the Bryce episodes – the second one produced in this final series – and Thorson was Bryce’s girlfriend, so perhaps that’s a theory too far. In any case, after a bit of mild flirting, Janice fades into the background and King, though stuck at home, does start to become more involved in the storyline, to the extent that the episode begins to resemble one of those Barbara Stanwyck thrillers about endangered women. Let’s not forget that part of the Bryce remit was to return the series to the way it was – Steed and his amateur helpers.
Midweight movie director Don Sharp gives it a glossy sheen, even throwing in a couple of visual references to Hitchcock’s Rear Window while Tara languishes at home, and successfully racks up the tension as the focus moves from Steed to King.
A pretty good episode, which only leads to the speculation as to what shape the whole series would have taken if Bryce hadn’t lost the gig to Clemens and Fennell.
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The imdb refers to this as season seven. I’m saying six, along with most of the fan sites and Wikipedia, and in line with the pretty much definitive Studio Canal box set. The reason why the imdb and others say seven is because they’re taking the final block of eight Emma Peel episodes as a separate season. But since there were only eight episodes in that production block, lumping them together with the 16 episodes of what everyone agrees is season five brings the total up to 24, much closer to the usual Avengers run of about 26 episodes.
© Steve Morrissey 2020