Showing posts with label Rat Pack. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rat Pack. Show all posts

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.

24 May 2018

It's Vegas, Baby...

by Eve Fisher

For those of you who haven't heard, Las Vegas has an ice hockey team!  Just simmer in that thought for a minute.  The baking oven of the Nevada desert air, the frosty ice of the skating rink...  Now, on with the story.  The Golden Knights expansion team took to the ice this season...  and is going to the Stanley Cup.  Yes.  Which is a great story, except that it may break the bank in Vegas.

Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup run unlike anything we’ve seen
Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and William Karlsson
celebrate their second-round Game 5 victory over the Sharks.Getty Images
NOTE:  The way it's being hyped, you'd think that this has never happened before, but it has:  In 1967-68, the St. Louis Blues began as an expansion team and made it to the Stanley Cups - where they lost all four games, bing, bang, badda, boom.  
But back to the money.  As the New York Post put it, “When [the Golden Knights were] at 300-1, we wrote a ticket for $400, which pays out 120 grand,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations for Westgate Casino. “I can’t give definitive numbers, but every book is going to lose a healthy six figures if the Knights win the Cup. Some places are whispering seven.”  (BTW, if you're thinking of laying a bet down now, the bookies dropped the odds a long time ago.)  On the other hand, they're making a ton of money off the people who are pouring in to see the miracle team.  The Rampart Casino offers merchandise giveaways, food vouchers and opportunities for mid-game wagering each time the Knights play. Westgate shows every Knights game on its 240-foot-wide video screen.  “We want people walking through the door,” Duane Colucci of the Rampart Casino said. “Whether or not they’re betting on the Knights, they’ll play video poker, they’ll grab something to eat.”

BTW, the last time that a game threatened to break the bookies was in 2015-16, when the British football (soccer, for us Americans) team, Leicester City, took everyone by surprise. The team was 132 year old and had never won a title. They were so bad that bookmakers gave them 5,000–1 odds .  But they did.  They won.  And the bookmakers lost up to £25 million.  One lucky bettor placed £20 at the original odds and won over £100,000!  The largest payout was £200,000 to someone who wagered £100 on the team in October when the odds had improved to 2,000–1.
NOTE:  Winning over odds that long, and a record that dismal, led to claims that spiritual forces worked for Leicester, including the club's Thai owners employing Buddhist monks to bless the players, and the reburial of the recently recovered remains of King Richard III (whose remains had been found in a parking lot in Leicester in 2012) in the city's cathedral in March, 2015.  (Wikipedia
Anyway, the Vegas bookies aren't facing odds that bad.  And even if they were, Vegas always figures a way to play the odds.  And to shift their services to a new customer base.

Today, Vegas is all about "Sin City", and "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."  In the 1990s, it marketed itself as "Family Friendly", which I still find hilarious.  And in the 60's...

The Rat Pack at the Cal-Neva Casino
Wikimedia
Well, the 60s were the last time I spent much time in Vegas.  I was a kid, and my parents would drive up from Southern California to either Vegas or Lake Tahoe to do some gambling.  That was back in the old days, when the mob ruled Vegas, and the Rat Pack ruled the Strip.  I don't remember the name of the casino my parents liked, I just remember that it was huge.  When I was 7-12 years old, I (and the other children who were idling away the time) would run amok among the slots and blackjack tables, or sit and people watch, or just play.  In some ways, it was a much safer, more innocent "Florida Project".  And it was very safe.

Twenty years ago, a child was lured into a Vegas casino restroom, where she was sexually assaulted and murdered.  I turned to my husband, horrified, and said, "That would never have happened in the 60's."  And it wouldn't.  We might have been running loose, but there was always someone keeping an eye on us, wherever we were.  Those large men in suits standing around everywhere weren't going to let anybody touch us.  And if we got too near a door, they'd stop us and ask, "Hey, where are your parents?"  We'd point somewhere or say, "Keno table" or something, and they'd herd us back there, and / or hand us off to a young woman in tight clothing who'd feed us more ice cream.  It wasn't bad.
NOTE:  I understand that today Nevada law prohibits children 100%, absolutely, no exceptions from being on the casino floor.  Maybe that law was on the books back in the 60's, too, but I sure don't remember them acting on it.  Granted, my parents were day gamblers...
Since then, the only other time I was in Vegas was in 2006, when my husband and I met up with another couple (from New York City) to go on a tour of Canyon Country - Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon.  Vegas was the perfect hub to meet in, rent a car, and drive out.  But we had to spend one night there, because our flights arrived at such different times.  Frank & Theresa had a friend who told them about a cheap hotel off the Strip, and we decided to stay there.  It was cheap, all right.  It didn't have bedbugs or cockroaches, but I wouldn't have sat down on that worn brown carpet for love nor money.  (When bedtime came, I leaped out of my shoes and into the bed, with nary a toe hitting the rug.)  The main center for entertainment in the hotel was its own mini-casino down in the lobby, and an elevator large enough to hold a coffin and pallbearers, reeking of beer and cigarettes from the uncountable number of topless drunks (of both sexes) constantly going to or from the casino.  Loud, proud, and endlessly fascinating.

But we were hungry, and the hotel had no dining privileges.  We went down to the Strip for dinner, and the food had certainly gotten more expensive - and to be fair, better - than the 1960s.  Afterwards, we walked around for about half an hour in the stifling heat (90s in the dark) to see the outside casino shows.  (Near-nudity, lights, flames, and the occasional pole dance.  Not too different from the hotel, actually...)  Then we got in the car and drove around counting Elvis impersonators and checking out wedding chapels.  The next morning we went down to the Denny's within walking distance and hung with the locals.  Not an Elvis impersonator amongst them, and only a reasonable number of sonic boob jobs.

After that, we headed off into the desert, and wondered again, where was all the water coming from?




BTW, as many of you may know, the Supreme Court has cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting. "Immediately after the ruling, the stock price for Caesars Entertainment [Nevada] rose 6%." (CNN)

2nd BTW, in 2019, the Oakland Raiders are moving to Vegas, where they'll be known (of course) as the Las Vegas Raiders.  First official NFL game will be in 2020.  

I think the bookies are going to make their money back.