19 April 2019

Edward S. Aarons and the Great Spy Series That Never Came in from the Cold


by Lawrence Maddox
Sam Durrell nears the end of his run in Assignment–Sheba
Cover Art by Richard Kohlfield

Many of my dad's generation we're in for a culture shock when the '60s rolled around.  Remember the moment in Cheech & Chong's "Earache My Eye" when the dad drags the needle across his son's rock LP? That really happened in my household in the early '70s, to my older brother when he was cranking Hendrix in his bedroom. My dad had great taste in music (R&B, Jazz, Big Band ), but he was pretty much done with Rock once the British Invasion took hold.

During the British Invasion, maybe earlier, Rock n' Roll drew a line in the sand for baby boomers. If you were on the wrong side of it, you were probably listening to your parents' music and reading Archie Comics. To varying degrees the Rock'n'Roll hegemony stuck, sustaining like Nigel Tufnel's guitar in This Is Spinal Tap ('84). The Beatles versus Stones argument drags on, even as the Rock Hall of Fame scrapes the bottom of the barrel to remain relevant.

Bachelor pads were serving up Mai Tais
Les Baxter once again
When all the other stuff that seemed so un-cool by comparison roared back with a Martini-swilling vengeance at the dawn of the '90s, I couldn't have been happier. Suddenly the Rat Pack, Tiki Culture, and dinner jackets were back in business. Sure, there was a downside. After Swingers ('96), the Dresden in Los Feliz was packed to the gills with wanna-be rat packers and it took forever to get served.

It's my impression that this nostalgia for the once-irredeemably square extended to crime genre paperbacks from that era, too. Second-hand books by the likes of Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) that once sold for a buck-or-under were now going for way more. The cover art, created by illustrators like Harry Bennett, Victor Kalin, and Robert McGinnis, was itself becoming imminently collectible–and influential.  Advertising and the burgeoning Low Brow Art Movement borrowed heavily from it.

In that era of comebacks, when Arthur Lyman, Donald Hamilton, and Robert Goulet (via Will Farrell on SNL) were once again orbiting the zeitgeist like re-launched Sputniks, there was one glaring omission.

Assignment– Sorrento Siren
Edward S. Aarons' Assignment series started in 1955 with Assignment to Disaster, two years after Ian Fleming's like-minded Casino Royale debutedAssignment's hero is Sam Durrell, a tough, resourceful Cajun who works for a shadowy component of the CIA. Durrell's assignments take him to vividly-rendered faraway places, tantalizingly dangled before the reader in book titles like Assignment–Sorrento Siren, Assignment–Sulu Sea, and Assignment–Cong Hai Kill. Beautiful women, power-hungry villains, and violence are always part of the equation. Aarons ratchets up the tension, and the Assignments build to frenzied, action-packed climaxes.

Aarons was a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction by the time he wrote Assignment to Disaster at the age of 40. His New York Times obit states Aarons "sold his first story when he was 18 and his first novel at 19. And, before turning solely to the novel form and the Assignment series, he had written 200 magazine stories and novellas." If WW2 hadn't intervened, no doubt the count would've be higher.

Assignment– White Rajah
From 1955 until his death in 1975, Aarons wrote 42 Assignments. Two were published posthumously. The series continued without him into the early '80s with six more Assignments, but it wasn't as good. Sergio Rizzo, in his New York Times biography of Aarons, writes that "the Assignment series sold more than 23 million copies and has been reprinted in seventeen languages."

The switch from detective to spy fiction was a good move for the industrious Aarons, and not without precedent. Arthur Conan Doyle did the same with Holmes in stories like "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," in which Holmes and Watson track down submarine plans stolen by a German secret agent.

For a run that stretches from Elvis to the Ramones, with Aarons writing 2 or 3 Assignments annually, the quality is consistently high. For anyone who has attended Bouchercon or is voting on the Anthony Awards (Schmooze Alert-my novel Fast Bang Booze is Best First Novel eligible), take note: Anthony Boucher judged the Assignment series "among the best modern adventure stories of espionage and international intrigue."

 In his excellent essay "Edward S. Aarons and the Sam Durrell/Assignment Series of Spy Novels" (found at ExistentialEnnui.com), Nick Jones argues that the Assignment series is important for reasons besides its longevity and popularity, writing "Sam Durrell is arguably America's first proper postwar fictional series spy." Jones suggests that Aarons may have created Durrell without direct inspiration by Fleming's Bond. "Casino Royale wasn't published in the US until 1954 and didn't sell terribly well," Jones writes. If Aarons did indeed set the framework for American spy fiction to come, his importance cannot be denied.

I've been on some memorable Book Benders, when life has given me time to catch a ride with a book series or a particular author and hang on for numerous stops.  I think a lot of book lovers read that way. For me this may have started with Tolkien. Kerouac was also an early addiction. I loved them so much back then I'm afraid to re-read them now, in case one of us hasn't held up over time.  I spent one of my longest Book Benders reading Ross MacDonald's Archer novels. That's series locks you in.
Assignment–Sulu Sea

I had the same Bender experience with the Assignment series. Just like with the Lew Archer novels, you don't have to start at the beginning. I think the books get better as they go along, and that Aarons hit his stride in the '60s and early'70s.  My favorite is Assignment–Sulu Sea ('64). Here's how it kicks off:

Holcomb did not know how long he had been running or when the sun came up, or when he fell at last in the sandy debris of coconut husks and rotting palm fronds. He was afraid off the light. The screeching of the birds and the grunting of a wild pig somewhere in the vine-shrouded wilderness beyond the beach terrified him. He knew he was being followed. The sounds of the birds and monkeys and pigs mingled with the sigh and crash of the surf of the Celebes Sea on the beach. There was a kind of madness in the noise that balanced the gibbering in the lurking shadows of his brain.

Ian Fleming is famous for researching, in person, the settings of 007's adventures. He even wrote his own travelogue, Thrilling Cities ('63), though he seems a little grumpier than in the Bond books.  Aarons' methods have been lost to time, at least until a serious biographer gets on the case.  Sergio Rizzo writes that the Assignments "were most often set in the faraway places that Aarons researched on annual trips in search of new and vivid material." I reached out to an Aarons family member, who said, "My understanding is that his research was primarily book research."

There's no doubt Aarons did his research. I also like to think that Aarons really did travel to some of the many places he wrote about, having his own adventures before sitting down to the lonely task of writing multiple novels annually. His setting descriptions are lush and evocative, written with the confidence of one who experienced them firsthand. If he visited these places or not, chalk up the immersive writing to pure craftsmanship.

Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton
I think there are a couple reasons why Aarons is unknown to the general reading public after having been so popular in his day. Unlike Fleming, or Matt Helm's creator Donald Hamilton, Aarons never left his mark on Hollywood. Low budget flick Dead to the World(1961) is based on State Departments Murders, a hardboiled novel Aarons wrote using his pseudonym Edward Ronns.  Dead to the World is directed by Nicholas Webster, best known for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), and it's not a career maker. I couldn't track down any other films Aarons is connected to.

Another issue is the way Aarons was marketed. I couldn't find any photos of Aarons on the internet. More importantly, I also couldn't find any on the paperbacks themselves. Many genre series authors were smartly branded, and it helped create a mystique around them. Micky Spillane looms large on many of his covers, wearing a porkpie hat. Fleming holds a gun. Donald Hamilton wears bitchin' sunglasses. Aarons, like a spook from one of his own novels, is nowhere in sight. He deserves to be rediscovered.

I already mentioned Sergio Rizzo and Nick Jones and their excellent essays on Aarons. Randall Masteller, writing at SpyGuysandGals.com, offers an amazing resource for spy fiction fans and has a synopsis for each book in the Assignment series. Doug Bassett provides many insights into Aarons in his piece at MysteryFile.com.

12 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Gen X stunned me when they embraced Tony Bennett, but soon I decided that was a good thing. Music had taken on the competing strains of hip-hop and heavy metal. Something was needed to soften the hard lines and jagged edges, and who better than experts of what we considered schmaltz. Thus Michael Bublé came forth, and Rod Stewart released a multi-CD collection of torch songs. I didn't get it, but the arts need renewing even with once old, now new.

The author who's fallen locally, if not quite into obscurity, is the other MacDonald, John D. Mention Travis McGee to anyone under the age of 40 and people go, "Who?" Sadly, Florida isn't known for valuing its history. Our former Governor Scott, aka Senator Scott, aka committer of the largest ever Medicare/Medicair fraud, aka Lord Voldemort… proposed selling off Florida's state parks and historical to developers. Constituents rejected the move, not so much because they valued history, but how many more condos and strip malls can we build and still make a profit?

Fast Bang Booze is Best First Novel eligible? Really? Congratulations, Lawrence. Friends and colleagues, let's get right on that.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Interesting article. I've a lot of reading to catch up on.

Eve Fisher said...

I have to admit, I never heard of Aarons, and I did wallow a bit in the 1960s fiction when I was a teenager - Brett Halliday, John D. MacDonald, Ian Fleming, etc. My guilty favorite was Brett Halliday's Mike Shayne, who even had his own mystery magazine for a while.

John Floyd said...

Interesting column, Larry. I've read most of the Hamiltons, Flemings, MacDonalds, Westlakes/Starks, but never anything by Aarons.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Leigh-The Travis McGee books are great! There's still a lot of chatter about them on FBook Paperback sites. He lived on a boat, which was very cool.
Yep, Fast Bang Booze debuted last year, so is currently eligible for Anthony Best First Novel consideration. Voting ends this month. A sequel is in the works.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!
O'Neil-The catching up never ends!
Eve-Those are all terrific series , imo. I haven't read Mike Shayne, but I've heard of his magazine. Do you recommend him?
John-If you like those authors, you'll like Aarons. Honestly, his books are hard to stop once you start.

Eve Fisher said...

Larry, I loved Mike Shayne - but I have to say, I was in my teens and haven't read him since.

Randall said...

I read most of the Sam Durell novels during the early 70s. When I went to add the series to my SpyGuysAndGals site, I thought I would refresh my memory by reading a couple. I did the binge read, taking nearly a month, and breathing the Cajun. I hope as I near my 70s to undergo the pleasure again in a few years. Such a great character with incredible locales and more gorgeous women than one man deserves. And bad guys galore! All presented with such a masterful writing touch.

Great article! I enjoyed it immensely.

Robert Bidinotto said...

Ah, you've brought back memories. During the '70s, when I began my since-unbroken binge of thriller reading (and now, writing), Aarons was one of my early encounters. I confess that his tales, though well-written, didn't grab me as much as those by Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and Mickey Spillane. I read a number of them, then my interest waned. But I do remember Sam Durell fondly. Thanks for this backgrounder, and a trip down Memory Lane.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Randall-Thanks! Your site SpyGuysandGals is truly fun to explore. I recommend it to anyone who likes spy fiction in all its forms.

Robert-Appreciated! I've never read MacLean, and I really should.

Steve Liskow said...

I read several of the Aarons Sam Durrell books when I was in my teens, and completely forgot about them until your column. I read most of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm stories, too, and thought they were both much better (and much better written) than the James Bond series. Except, of course, for the criminal butchering of Helm in the film(s?) starring Dean Martin.

I knew Aarons wrote many books, but I didn't realize HOW many. Amazing. I agree that he's well worth re-discovering.

Thank you for the reminder.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Steve-Thanks for your comments! I don't disagree about Aarons and Hamilton being better than Fleming, at least on a consistent basis. Dean Martin's Helms are a guilty pleasure of mine. They're more like Get Smart or Austin Powers than Helm.