An Introduction to Edward S. Aarons’ Assignment Series, by Doug Bassett
I spent many years in a small town in Western Pennsylvania, and my favorite used book store there was a combination paperback/knitting supply store in the basement of the local truck stop.
The owner made most of her money selling knitting supplies, not books, and I think the bulk of her paperbacks she had with her from the beginning. There was the usual amount of junk there, of course, but she had some real treasures, too, including a complete run of Edward S. Aarons’ “Assignment” series.
Aarons has always seemed to me to be an underappreciated writer. The casual reader has completely forgotten his name, apparently, which is kind of sad, considering his one time popularity. But even among serious fans of hardboiled or spy fiction his reputation has fallen. Knowledgeable fans still recognize his name, but his work seldom comes up for serious discussion, even in the most informed circles.
I don’t want to make great claims for Aarons. I don’t think he’s another John Buchan or Ian Fleming lying unrecognized in the paperback stacks. But he’s a far better writer than his reputation would suggest, in part because he is, when it comes down to it, a writer of good adventure stories with a fine sense of place. These are modest virtues, and their very modesty tends to get them ignored. These virtues are also scarce. I pray, nowadays, for a reliable, no-fuss no-muss writer of unpretentious adventure tales to appear in the stacks.
Hence this introduction. I’ll be reviewing a half-dozen installments in the “Assignment” series, and I’ll discuss a few in some depth. Hopefully you’ll be interested enough to search out more titles on your own.
Edward S. Aarons became successful fairly late in his career. Writing under the name “Edward S. Ronns,” he published three mystery novels in the Thirties and several more in the late Forties. He never came to prominence, though, until the “Assignment” novels featuring Cajun CIA agent Sam Durell. The series lasted over twenty years, from 1955 to 1976. (Additional novels in the series were written by “Will B. Aarons,” said to be his son. They’re also said to be not very good.) FOOTNOTE
He wrote other novels too, of course. Of his non “Assignment” work I can recommend The Art School Murders, a not-bad picture of Fifties bohemia and a pretty decent fair-play mystery.
But the “Assignment” series begins in 1955 with Assignment to Disaster. America is scheduled to launch an experimental nuclear missile into space, which will orbit the Earth in a kind of proto Star Wars Missile Defense Deterrent fashion. Or anyway that’s the plan. Unfortunately, though, one of the scientists on the project has disappeared. Durell is tasked with finding him, and his one lead is the scientist’s sister, Deirdre:
So it came to Sam Durell
Get to the girl. See if she knows where he is, why he ran. There isn’t much time. Five days. If he opens his mouth, it will only take five minutes and all hell will break loose.
You’ll note the deadline. Disaster is suffused with a sense of urgency.
Was it right to take that first step [into space] with a knife in one’s hand, poised at the throat of all mankind?.... And would it bring peace? He did not think so.
Aarons depicts a world on the knife’s edge of disaster, with its characters running about desperately trying to avert Doomsday. The pitch gets positively operatic at times, and certainly it is the book’s most notable quality.
This is the first of Durell’s adventures, and it’s pretty good. It isn’t typical of the series as a whole, though. The action takes place in the States (most installments occur in exotic climes), Durell is seemingly not nearly so well respected in his organization, and most amusingly, Durell is far less of a superhero, taking a terrific amount of abuse and harboring all sorts of doubts and inner turmoil.
Still, the basic setup is here: Durell works for a supersecret section of the CIA headed by the pro forma crusty old man (here General McFee). We learn that Durell’s a Cajun, and we eventually meet Durell’s improbable grandfather who improbably lives on a beached riverboat – he was the last of the riverboat gamblers, apparently – and who gets ever more improbably ancient as the series progresses.
The villain is ultimately revealed to be Deirdre’s older brother, a brilliant but crippled scientist who wants to provoke World War Three out of what essentially is a loathing of mankind. Very much like a Bond villain, with the crippled genius overcompensating into evil, and it is also very interesting that an example, it pops up years before Fleming’s Casino Royale.
A couple of novels later Assignment Suicide (1956) appeared. This is one of the more famous installments in the series, and it’s really the first to set the template for the rest of the books.
A crazy general in the Soviet Union has plans to launch one ICBM at the West (in 1956 ICBM’s were apparently cutting edge technology). Here’s his plan:
[He] wants to punch a button, just one, on May Day – and an intercontinental ballistic missile takes off with an H-bomb warhead and lands somewhere on this side of the world. Not enough to knock us out, they know that. But enough to start us retaliating. Then they send the rest of the ICBMs over…. A neo-Stalinist gimmick to do away with their ‘collective leadership’ and put one man in the saddle again.
In 1956 this must’ve seemed disturbingly plausible. Durell goes to the Soviet Union to meet up with members of a resistance group and try and stop the crazy general’s plan.
Aarons always had a knack for descriptive prose. It’s one of his finest qualities as writer. Here’s a taste of it:
Another dog began to bark behind a wooden fence that sagged in front of a small izba, a log house with ornately scrolled carving around the yellow-painted door and roof eaves. A lamp glow came from the narrow windows that faced him and someone moved around in there, carrying an oil lamp.
Aarons was known for his careful research, as you can see here (“izba”). What’s even more interesting to me, though, is Aarons’s knack for bringing life to his descriptive passages. There’s often explicit or implicit movement in an Aarons description – note the moving light – which tends to liven up these passages.
All sorts of typical “Assignment” motifs make their first appearance in Suicide. We see a situation where a diverse group of people are thrown together and have to rely on each other to survive, a limited scope of action (despite the exotic locales, the meat of a Durell action sequence happens in a very restricted environment), a beautiful woman who improbably falls in love with Durell after first hating him, Durell engaging in the most straightforward sentimentality after declaring he’s a hardass. Et cetera.
This is not one of my favorite installments. Although the formula is being established here, it’s still new, and not as subtly done as it is elsewhere. But because most of the subsequent Durell’s would follow this template, I think this is a good introduction to the series.
Assignment Sorrento Siren (1963)
This, on the other hand, is probably my favorite Durell adventure, at least of the ones I’ve read.
Here Durell is called in to recover some stolen Asian artwork for a petulent SE Asian prince, a mission that quickly becomes personal when the thief rapes and kills a friend of Durell, as well as threatens to reveal an Eastern European network if he's not left alone. Here’s the bad guy talking about how he’s willing to sell out K Section:
In a pig’s ear. That’s my little life preserver, eh, friend? You touch me and our mutual acquaintance, Major Pacek, gets all the dope on your playmates behind the Iron Curtain. I guess you figured that out already.
This, besides being an unusually tough, very violent episode in the series, is an interesting blend of very current spy novel motifs with a very old kind of story, the Italian world of vendettas and blood feuds and the scions of noble families seducing each other’s wives. (This is the sort of thing The Count of Monte Cristo is full of, for instance.) As is usually the case, borrowing from the very old helps keeps the formula fresh.
I would love Sorrento just for the formal experimentation, but there are other good things here, too. Many of the Durell’s have a kind of clichéd tough guy sentimentality, but this installment is notable for its sour view of its characters: there are a few decent inhabitants, but generally speaking this world is full of hate and greed and duplicity – the ‘Sorrento Siren’ is a two-bit floozy sleeping with her husband’s worst enemy. Also, I think Aarons off-handedly points up an interesting truth, that most betrayal is motivated by primal needs – greed, sex – not, as, say, le Carre would have it, heroic ideology or deep psychological/sociological reasons. I think history has more or less proven Aarons correct.
Sorrento has a couple of stock Aarons characters: the“rich but on his way down and trying to recapture his former glory” guy and the “adventurer who hates as a reflection of his past, where he was hated” – both of which are more psychologically complex than you might first think. It’s as though Aarons spent a little extra time and burned a little extra inspiration to bring these characters to life. I highly recommend Sorrento. If you find it, snap it up.
Aarons was a popular writer, but he was also a good writer. He was craftsmanlike and knew how to deliver reliable entertainment to the reader. Modest goals, to be sure, but sometimes writers are so anxious to hit a home run they forget the modest virtues of the single or double. The “Assignment” books are reliably entertaining, and I think you’ll enjoy them if you try them out. I’ve spotlighted a few other books below, to give you more ideas.
Other “Assignments” worth a look –
Assignment Treason (1956)
Durell poses as a traitor in order to find out who’s leaking information to the enemy. A confluence of events suggests to others that he actually is a traitor, and soon he’s on the run. One of the very best Durell’s.
It shares a lot with Assignment to Disaster, both in its domestic setting and in its general hysteria. It contains a rather traditional Truman/Democrat sort of politics, with an interesting villain (a rightwing Senator who wants to provoke World War III because he’s such a deep believer in American exceptionalism). The hysteria is matched by an array of appealing grotesques: the enormously obese mother, the despairing French Girl, the desperate father.
Assignment Madeleine (1958)
Durell is sent to Algeria during the French/Algerian war to bring back a renegade spy whose plans could interfere with a peaceful settlement of the crisis and inflame anti-American sentiment.
One of the better Durell’s: he’s in a believable position (not really a spy, more a strongman), the “group of disparate individuals united together during a crisis” motif is more plausibly handled than it often was, the action, particularly in the final third, is extremely sharp (although Durell gets out of trouble with a straight-up deus ex machina), the characterizations are a bit better than normal (I particularly like Aarons’ touch with the women here), the political situation is complicated, with no easy good or bad guys, and the setting is, as always, extremely well evoked.
It also has a plea for compromise and moderation that suggests a real insight into where Aarons’ head was at. Recommended
Assignment Tokyo (1971)
A very good later Durell – so good one wonders, was it kept in storage until near the end? Or was this just a late flowering? An epidemic is hitting a small town in northern Japan after a Japanese fisherman foolishly opens up a canister that washed up onshore. One woman miraculously recovers, and Durell is sent in to get her before the Russians or the Chinese do.
The villains turn out to be the Chinese. Durell ends up teaming with the Russians. A surprisingly tough-minded book: characters you think will make it don't, and while it has some of the typical series sentimentality, Durell is tougher-minded than usual. (He gets out of his big jam by threatening the girl. When she later asks if he’d have really killed her, he admits yes, he would’ve.) In the end, there’s no pax Americana, as Durell and the Russian find common cause against the excesses of both their governments.
BIBLIOGRAPHY - Edward S. Aarons’ “Assignment” series, compiled by Steve Lewis
All of the following are paperback originals. Most were reprinted several times over, but only the original editions and their publication dates are included here.
Assignment to Disaster. Gold Medal 491, June 1955.
Assignment—Treason. Gold Medal 568, April 1956.
Assignment—Suicide. Gold Medal 621, November 1956.
Assignment—Stella Marni. Gold Medal 666, April 1957.
Assignment—Budapest. Gold Medal 707, October 1957.
Assignment—Angelina. Gold Medal 749, March 1958
Assignment—Madeleine. Gold Medal 799, August 1958.
Assignment—Carlotta Cortez. Gold Medal 834, January 1959.
Assignment—Helene. Gold Medal 863, March 1959.
Assignment—Lili Lamaris. Gold Medal s911, August 1959.
Assignment—Zoraya. Gold Medal 979, March 1960.
Assignment—Mara Tirana. Gold Medal s1036, September 1960.
Assignment—Lowlands. Gold Medal s1073, January 1961.
Assignment—Burma Girl. Gold Medal s1091, January 1961.
Assignment—Ankara. Gold Medal s1152, September 1961.
Assignment—Karachi. Gold Medal s1237, September 1962.
Assignment—Manchurian Doll. Gold Medal, 1963.
Assignment—Sorrento Siren. Gold Medal s1270, January 1963.
Assignment—The Girl in the Gondola. Gold Medal k1398, March 1964.
Assignment—Sulu Sea. Gold Medal k1497, 1964.
Assignment—The Cairo Dancers. Gold Medal d1583, 1965.
Assignment—School for Spies. Gold Medal d1640, 1966.
Assignment—Cong Hai Kill. Gold Medal d1695, 1966.
Assignment—Palermo. Gold Medal d1753, 1966.
Assignment—Black Viking. Gold Medal d1823, 1967.
Assignment—Moon Girl. Gold Medal d1849, 1968.
Assignment—Nuclear Nude. Gold Medal R2000, 1968.
Assignment—Peking. Gold Medal R2145, 1969.
Assignment—White Rajah. Gold Medal R2202, 1970.
Assignment—Star Stealers. Gold Medal T2281, August 1970.
Assignment—Golden Girl. Gold Medal T2461, September 1971.
Assignment—Tokyo. Gold Medal T2733, February 1971.
Assignment—Bangkok. Gold Medal T2559, May 1972.
Assignment—Maltese Maiden. Gold Medal T2635, November 1972.
Assignment—Ceylon. Gold Medal M2888, November 1973.
Assignment—Silver Scorpion. Gold Medal M2735, June 1973.
Assignment—Amazon Queen. Gold Medal M2904, April 1974.
Assignment—Sumatra. Gold Medal M3139, October 1974.
Assignment—Quayle Question. Gold Medal P3224, May 1975.
Assignment—Black Gold. Gold Medal P3354, November 1975.
Assignment—Afghan Dragon. Gold Medal P3527, June 1976.
Assignment Unicorn. Gold Medal 13610, 1976.
FOOTNOTE. The story behind the “Will B. Aarons” who was the author of the Sam Durell series for several entries after Edward Aarons’ death has already been told. It was a combination of good research and investigative skills on the part of Jeff Falco and Al Hubin, neither of whom can resist a good bibliographic puzzle.
From the letter column in Mystery*File 41, Mid-January, 2004, after the question I asked about Will B. Aarons’ identity in M*F 40:
JEFF FALCO (California)
The belief that Will B. Aarons was a house name may of course be correct, but I don't think that there is any actual proof for this (except for one item, see below). My comment about Will being the son was based on a quick look-up in a book called Contemporary Authors.
Now that you questioned it, I looked further and found Edward’s obituary in the New York Times which states: “Surviving are his widow, Grace Dyer Aarons, and a brother William Aarons,” with no mention of any sons or daughters. I therefore retract that comment.
To add to this, I have just done a copyright search for Assignment: Death Ship (1983), one of the Will B. Aarons books, and the claimant statement reads “Lawrence Hall and Will B. Aarons (executor for the Estate of Edward S. Aarons).” Assignment: Tiger Devil (1977) places “(pseud.)” after Will B. Aarons name in the author line, the claimant being merely “Fawcett Publications” (this would be the sole proof of house name status).
It gets more interesting: For Edward S. Aarons’ 1974 Assignment: Amazon Queen, the claimant is given as “William B. Aarons, Jr. [Executor].” The same for Assignment: Girl in the Gondola. And even more interesting: Edward S. Aarons’ Assignment: Maltese Maiden and Assignment: Golden Girl give as claimant “William B. Aarons & William B. Aarons, Jr. [Executor].”
So, all in all, it appears that there was indeed a Will B. Aarons, if not two of them, the brother and nephew of Edward S. Aarons, but whether they themselves actually wrote the books by “Will B. Aarons” can probably only be proven by the editor for those books.
<<Again, for the record, here is the list of the Will B. Aarons books. All of these featured Sam Durell as their leading character, in a continuation of the Assignment series begun by Edward S. Aarons:
Assignment: Sheba. Gold Medal 13696, 1976.
Assignment: Tiger Devil. Gold Medal 13811, 1977.
Assignment: 13th Princess. Gold Medal 13919, 1977.
Assignment: Mermaid. Gold Medal 14203, 1979.
Assignment: Tyrant's Bride. Gold Medal 14371, 1980.
Assignment: Death Ship. Gold Medal [Ballantine] 12440, October 1983.
<<It is unclear to me whether the correct spelling on these should be with a colon or a dash, and at the moment, I do not know which of the 1977 titles came first. UPDATE: By determining the Gold Medal numbering, this has now been resolved, and the revised listing above is now correct.
<<But there is more to the story. I passed the information above to Al Hubin, who made good use of it. Keep reading.>>
AL HUBIN (Minnesota)
I’ve no reason to disagree with anything Jeff has uncovered. CFIV shows Assignment Death Ship as written by Lawrence Hall, without any identification of Will Aarons. But I note, in the Social Security Death Benefits records, a William B. Aarons, 1914-2002. He died in Atlantic City, but his social security number was issued in Pennsylvania, as was Edward S. Aarons’ (who appears in the Death Benefits records as E. S. Aarons).
I am inclined to change my Will B. Aarons entry to Will(iam) B. Aarons, 1914-2002, and identify him as the presumed brother of Edward S. Aarons.
<<From a followup email:>>
Like you, I’m not sure which if any of the books William B. Aarons wrote, but a search of the Internet turns up a William B. Aarons, Jr., at <address omitted>. Seems likely he’s the person. I'll write him a letter and ask. I’ll hope to get his response soon.
<<Another email followed soon after. This one included Will B., Jr.’s response:>>
“Will B was, indeed, my father. Regarding the author of the six books in question, I can tell you that for each of the books there was a primary author who was not my father. I really do not know if my father had any role in the development, editing, or other activities related to these books, but my sense is that he had no role. You may get additional information from our agent <name and address omitted>.”
<<At this point we are now awaiting response from the agent, who replies: >>
“Lawrence Hall wrote all of the Will B. Aarons books. I’d want to clear any mention for publication with him.”
<<Al now sums it up:>>
As you can see, this nails it for Will B. Aarons authorship. I’ve responded to <the agent> by indicating that Lawrence Hall is already associated with the Aarons entry for the one book, based on the copyright registration, and asking her to clear with Hall so that he can be publicly credited with all six.
<<Permission was granted. See the following addenda entry for the at long last correct attribution given to the Will B. Aarons entry.>>
NOTE: Thanks and a tip of the hat to Bill Crider, from whose shelves crammed with books came several of the covers used to embellish this article.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.
Copyright © 2004, 2006 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors.