Wednesday 21 November 2012

Edward S. Aarons and the Sam Durell / Assignment Series of Spy Novels (Gold Medal, Coronet, Herbert Jenkins, 1950s/60s/70s)

In 1955, two years after Ian Fleming's James Bond made his debut in Casino Royale, America gained its very own globetrotting secret agent: Sam Durell of the Central Intelligence Agency. Debuting in Assignment to Disaster (Gold Medal, 1955), Durell would go on to star in a further forty-eight adventures over the next twenty-eight years – all bearing the legend "Assignment" in their title, all published by Gold Medal in the States, and all but the final six written by Durell's creator – Edward S. Aarons.

Given that Sam Durell is arguably America's first proper postwar fictional series spy – beating another, rather better remembered US agent, Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm, into print by five years – it's perhaps surprising that he's slipped so comprehensively from the collective memory. In their day, the Durell/Assignment novels were hugely popular, going through multiple printings and selling in the tens of millions. They're characterised by a pacy, urgent style and display a convincing grasp of the exotic locales – researched in person by Aarons himself – that would become a hallmark of the series after the initial domestically set stories. Many of them stand up well even today; those critics that do still recall the books – Doug Bassett et al; Spy Guys and Gals (both those pages boasting bibliographies, the latter annotated) – hold at least some of them – Assignment Suicide (1956), say, or Assignment Tokyo (1971) – in high regard. But the series as a whole fell out of print years ago, and beyond this biography by Sergio Rizzo (scroll down) and the sites already linked, you'd be hard pushed to find much of substance about either Durell or Aarons online.

Born Edward Sidney in Philadelphia in 1916, Aarons attended Columbia University, working as, among other occupations, a reporter, a salesman and a fisherman, and in 1933 winning a collegiate short story contest. In 1938 he published Death in a Lighthouse, the first of around thirty hardboiled mysteries and thrillers written under the pen name Edward Ronns, many starring newspaper editorial cartoonist Jerry Benedict. Aarons's writing career was interrupted when, following Pearl Harbor in 1941, he enlisted in the coast guard; upon returning to civilian life he gained a bachelor's degree in literature and history from Columbia, and resumed penning the Ronns novels, publishing at least one a year, and sometimes two or three, until 1962. He also, from 1948, began publishing novels under his own name, and once the Assignment series commenced in 1955, his already prodigious output increased even further, with the Sam Durell stories also appearing two or three times a year.

All of the Durell novels were published straight to paperback in the States by Fawcett/Gold Medal, under covers illustrated by the likes of Robert McGinnis, Barye Phillips and Charles Binger. In the UK, Frederick Muller issued the earlier Sam Durell adventures in paperback editions virtually identical to the US ones (only the cover price and prelims were changed), before Coronet picked up the softcover rights in 1966, publishing a good chunk of the series under photographic covers over the next ten or so years. But a number of the Assignments also made it into hardback in the UK. I wrote about the ones published by Gold Lion and White Lion in 1973/4 the other day, in particular Assignment Black Viking, but another British publisher beat Gold/White Lion to the punch, issuing half a dozen Durells in hardback in the mid- to late-1960s: Herbert Jenkins.

I speculated in that Black Viking post that Gold Lion had some kind of rolling line-wide deal with Gold Medal, and Jenkins evidently had a similar, earlier arrangement: they published dozens upon dozens of Gold Medal crime and spy fiction paperback originals into hardback around this period. Sometimes the dust jacket designs would take cues from the American covers – see Peter Rabe's My Lovely Executioner or Frank Castle's The Violent Hours – but the jackets for the Jenkins editions of the Assignment novels forged their own direction, ranging from the fully painted, to the design-led, to photographic treatments.

As far I've been able to determine, Jenkins's earliest Durell offering (they'd published a non-Durell novel, The Defenders – a tie-in to the old TV show – in hardback in 1962) was Assignment Suicide, the third Sam Durell mission (originally published by Gold Medal in 1956), which they issued in 1964 under a wrapper designed by Bill Payne. The story sees Sam Durell parachuted into the USSR to deal with an attempt by rogue Russian elements to launch a nuclear strike on the US, a plot that Barye Phillips interpreted rather more literally on the Gold Medal cover:

The only other Jenkins edition I've got my hands on to date – like Assignment Suicide, courtesy of Jamie Sturgeon – is Assignment Zorya, the eleventh Durell adventure, published by Jenkins in 1967 (Originally published by Gold Medal in 1960).

The jacket design is uncredited, but again it's markedly different to Charles Binger's Gold Medal cover art:

Other than those two hardbacks and the Gold Lion edition of Assignment Black Viking, my burgeoning Edward S. Aarons collection consists mainly of various paperback editions, most of which I acquired at this year's and last year's London Paperback and Pulp Bookfair:

And it's to the book on top of that pile that I'll be turning next: the debut Sam Durell thriller, Assignment to Disaster...


  1. I have a pile of Sam Durells -- including those by the ghost whom they hoped "Will B. Aarons" to get through some day. I've enjoyed the Aarons/Ronns books that I have read;they are much better than some of their reviews.

  2. Glad you agree, Jerry! It really is about time Aarons got his due, especially now that the Matt Helm novels are coming back into print.

  3. Interesting that the back cover art features a fairly consistent depiction of Durell--looking quite a bit like Robert Mitchum, I thought (not as close a resemblance as some other instances of movie stars appearing incognito on paperback covers we've discussed recently).

    I've seen this in a number of long-running genre book series--Mack Bolan, Shell Scott, Perry Rhodan, etc.

    Obviously not the case with Richard Stark's Parker. Maybe in part because the publisher kept changing. But I suspect mainly because some characters just elude any definitive visual interpretation.

  4. Somehow I have managed to acquire them all. Not bad!, but none I have read so far hold up to the best Matt Helms.

  5. Chris: Well Robert McGinnis's takes on Parker are reasonably consistent, but even then, his visualization does change a bit between books. Then again, Gold Medal didn't publish that many Parkers – certainly nowhere near the number of Matt Helms and Sam Durells they published, and it took a few books for both those series to develop a signature cover style – so maybe Parker and his series would have established more of a visual identity if it had continued with Gold Medal.

    D.A.: The weight of opinion seems to be that Matt Helm is a cut above Sam Durell, but I still think the Assignments are good enough to warrant at least ebooks. They've got a lot going for them, not least that in the US, they were the first of their kind.

  6. If there had been as many Parkers as Durells, perhaps--but that's just it--as many as Westlake wrote, it never really became THAT kind of series. He had so many other strings to his bow, and never let himself rely on any one character too much. Nor, thankfully, did the character end up in anyone else's hands after Westlake's death (well, not in books, anyway). I wonder if Ian Fleming would consider it a good or a bad thing that 007 has gotten on so well without him? And of course once Sherlock Holmes was in the public domain--but perhaps no other character in modern fiction is that durable (I still won't read those books, though--okay, The Seven Percent Solution, once).

    This is a specific type of series, and seems to require a certain type of marketing, that includes a specific visual depiction of the character--that may change over time, to be sure--28 years and 48 books (!!!!)--but the attempt is made to be consistent in the artwork that helps sell the books. And given that the characters in question tend to not be overly complex or hard to figure out (not a dig, just an observation), it's pretty easy to be consistent.

    Sorry to ramble on so, but I'm rather fascinated by this type of character, why some survive in the public memory, and others do not. Who ever thinks about Bulldog Drummond, for example--I mean, other than Alan Moore, who apparently remembers every fictional character that ever existed?

    Doc Savage is kind of still alive, I guess--he's a classic example of the book and accompanying artwork matching up perfectly, since he's basically a novelized comic book character, only the novels came first (and probably inspired many of the classic comic book superheroes who came after).

    I obviously think Parker lives on because he's so much better written than most of these characters, so much more of a cypher that can never quite be solved--and yet his following remains small, though devoted. It's a damned good thing, I think, that Westlake didn't write 48 novels about him. There can indeed be too much of a good thing.

    If I see any Gold Medal Durells out there, I might sample one or two, just out of curiosity--but at this point, I've yet to read a James Bond or Matt Helm adventure--for me, they're creatures of the movies. I'd have a hard time not seeing Sean Connery and Dean Martin. :)

  7. You know, having never read any of Ian Fleming's work, I never got around to perusing the cover art for the 007 novels--the beautifully designed hardcover dust jackets for the first editions never depicted any of the characters (always a classy choice, and you never have to worry about who's playing 007 in the movies that way), but Signet did a series of paperback editions that occasionally depict Bond himself (a semi-clothed woman much more often, and nothing wrong with that).

    In several very early Signet editions, that depiction is VERY similar to the way Durell is portrayed in the Gold Medal paperbacks--

    Obviously Durell is a Bond clone, so hardly surprising, but I'm a little confused here--who was copying whom with regards to the artwork? While Bond easily outranks Durell, Gold Medal just as certainly trumps Signet, and all the other paperback divisions were influenced by them. There could be mere months separating the publication of the books in question, and I'm having a hard time figuring it out. My suspicion is that since the Bond first edition hardcovers never any depictions of Bond, and the Connery films didn't start until later, the art department at Signet might have been looking for some cues closer to home.

    Oh well, time for dinner. Happy Thanksgiving. ;)

  8. And to you, Chris! We don't do Thanksgiving over here, so yesterday was turkey-free for me, but hope you and the rest of EE's American readers had a lovely time.

    Interesting idea about the Signet Bond covers taking cues from the Gold Medal Durell ones. There could be something in that. But I'm not sure it's fair to call Durell a Bond clone. Bond and Durell are quite different characters, and although there are superficial similarities between the two series, stylistically they're quite different. Who knows if Aarons had even read Fleming before writing Assignment to Disaster? Casino Royale wasn't published in the US until 1954, and didn't sell terribly well, not even when it was retitled You Asked for It for a paperback edition in 1955. Indeed, it took a while for Bond to become the sale juggernaut he would – JFK's endorsement of From Russia, with Love in 1961 helped break him properly in America, and after that the films did the rest.

    I'd suggest that the original Cape dust jackets of the Bond novels are more a product of the time than a conscious decision not to depict the character. Back then, jackets, particularly those wrapping books published by the bigger publishing houses, were often obliquely evocative rather than literally illustrative; depictions of characters were more commonly found on the covers of paperback editions, the Bond novels being prime examples.

    You should give a Bond a go, by the way. Casino Royale and From Russia, with Love would be my recommendations – both are excellent.

  9. Well, I've never read spy fiction, and if I did, I'd probably start with Le Carre (or maybe one of Graham Greene's novels in that vein), but I never used to read crime fiction either, so anything's possible.

    You're right, and I should know better--what happens when one character in a particular type of story hits really big is that writers who were trying to sell a somewhat similar character in the same genre suddenly find the wheels greased for them at publishing houses, movie studios, TV networks, etc. Though in some cases they've been tweaked to make them more like the character everybody's talking about than they were originally.

    The times were calling out for stories about suave superspies fighting Communism and shadowy crime organizations (and having a whole lot of sex along the way), and that would have happened with or without Fleming. Still and all, the first of the line often ends up being the one that survives the longest in the public memory. Though I'm sure there were some comparable characters to Bond that came in a bit too early, and never made much impact. Timing may not be everything, but it's a lot.

    Whether Durell was originally influenced by Bond or not, it's very likely the influence crept in more and more. That's just how this type of series tends to work. Even Westlake refers to James Bond in some novels, though not all that approvingly, I thought. He wrote some novels that are clearly in the spy genre, and tried to put his own quirky spin on them, but it comes down to the fact that he can easily sell a spy story to publishers because of the popularity of Bond and the wannabe Bonds. The wheels have been greased for him, and it's fun to take a break from heists and murders (the kind that aren't sanctioned by a legitimate governmental entity).

    As to the difference between hardcover dust jackets and paperback covers of that general era--well I wish it was still so pronounced. As I work my way through the Westlake oeuvre, I find fewer and fewer paperback covers I like--more and more they aspire to be like the more conceptual artwork of the Bond hardcovers, but they entirely lack the polish and inspiration (apparently Fleming designed one or two covers himself--talented fellow), and are mainly just DULL. While there's something to be said for just letting us imagine what the characters look like, I always do that anyway, and I still enjoy the hell out of artists like McGinnis, Bennett, and yes, Jenkins, giving us the benefit of their imaginations, which only enhances the overall experience.

    There's no need to be classy all the time.

  10. Oh, and btw, I know you don't have Thanksgiving over there. You're still free to with me a happy Guy Fawkes Day. Do you have Black Friday? If not, I bet you will soon. :)

  11. I love the "assignment" series. I'd like to know who owns the rights to these now. Any ideas?

  12. Heck, I have all 42 by Edward Aarons and they're superior to any Matt Helm or James Bond novels in every conceivable way. Love 'em. Some are better than others, but all are suspenseful and exciting.

  13. Thank you Mr Jones for this great overview of Aarons and his Assignment books. I'm making my way through the series, but so far I think the best of the books are as good or better than any other cold war spy novels. Assignment Sulu Seas ('64) is my favorite. It's time that Aarons gets his overdue recognition as a master of the genre.

    1. Noted on Sulu Sea, Lawrence – thanks for the recommendation!