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...