Friday 23 November 2012

Assignment to Disaster (Sam Durell #1) by Edward S. Aarons (Gold Medal / Muller 1955/59); feat. Charles Binger Cover Art

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

For this final post on Edward S. Aarons and his Sam Durell-starring Assignment spy novels, let's head right back to the beginning of the series, with Durell's debut adventure:

Published straight to paperback by Gold Medal in the States in 1955 and Frederick Muller in the UK shortly thereafter, Assignment to Disaster is, as others have remarked, atypical in comparison to the Assignment series as a whole, as it's set firmly within the USA (the vast majority of the forty-eight Assignment novels are set in exotic overseas locales). The story sees Sam Durell, agent of super secret CIA department K Section, tasked with locating missing scientist Calvin Padgett, who, before he disappeared, was working on a project to launch a nuclear missile into orbit. Durell's only lead is Padgett's sister, Deirdre (a name which, for me, never fails to bring to mind this Deirdre), but she's being hunted by the same nefarious agents who apparently kidnapped her brother. And so Sam is forced to go on the run with her, pitting him against not only his own colleagues in the CIA, but the FBI as well.

Essentially, Assignment to Disaster is one long pulse-pounding perspiration-drenched pursuit across the States, punctuated by bursts of violence – Sam is really put through the wringer – and a curious stopover at Sam's grandpa's beached bayou paddle steamer. As Doug Bassett notes, though markedly different to what would come after, the book sets up the basics of Sam's world, from his job description to his Cajun heritage and "improbable grandfather"; it's a decent little spy thriller, and a key work in that it helped ignite America's postwar passion for Cold War espionage fiction.

As is tediously frequently the case in my book collecting endeavours, through little-to-no fault of my own other than an inability to not buy books when I see them, I've ended up with multiple copies of Assignment to Disaster. Not only do I own the copy of the Muller edition seen above – the front cover art of which is uncredited; shout if you know who it's by – but two others besides; this:

A 1959 second printing of the Gold Medal edition, featuring cover art by Charles Binger; and this:

Yet another copy of the Muller first printing. I can't recall the correct order of events now, but I suspect I bought this copy first – probably at last year's London Paperback and Pulp Bookfair – before finding the other, rather tidier copy later. I elected to keep this one, though, for the express purpose of blogging about it. You can see on the cover that someone's decided that ravishing redhead Deirdre would look immeasurably sexier sporting spectacles, but that same someone evidently thought Assignment to Disaster would be the perfect book within which to practice their handwriting skills. They've made a tentative start on the half-title page:

with a couple of attempts at drawing what I think are swords on the inside front cover, before properly knuckling down on the inside back cover:

Weirdly, I'm sort of loath to part with this copy; I can't help wondering who it was who elected to use Gold Medal's sales blurb as a basis for learning to write. That's if that was the intention; I guess it could have been a trainee copywriter soaking in the deathless prose of a sales and marketing master.

Anyway, while I'm done with Edward S. Aarons for the moment, I'm not quite done with the paperbacks. Because I'll be staying with the humble softcover for at least the next few weeks to bring you books by, among others, Richard Stark, Patricia Highsmith, Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald – coming right up, after a Notes from the Small Press...

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...

Monday 19 November 2012

Assignment Black Viking (Sam Durell #25) by Edward S. Aarons (Gold Lion Hardback, 1973)

The third and final Gold Lion hardback I acquired from international jet-setting book dealer Jamie Sturgeon also marks the beginning of a short series of posts on the novel's author and lead character: Edward S. Aarons, and CIA secret agent Sam Durell:

Published in hardback in the UK by Gold Lion in March, 1973 – originally published in the US in paperback by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1967 – Assignment Black Viking was part of British publisher Gold Lion's first wave of thrillers, alongside Richard Stark's The Green Eagle Score and Dan J. Marlowe's Operation Drumfire, both of which also arrived that March. As ever with Gold Lion books, the cover painting is uncredited, but I suspect it's the same nameless artist who illustrated the dust jackets of pretty much all of Gold Lion's republished-from-American-originals thrillers in the first half of 1973.

If anyone has any idea who the artist is/was, get in touch; I'd love to learn his (or her) identity – and to find out some more about Gold Lion, for that matter: who they were; how long they were in business; who was responsible for hoovering up all those US Gold Medal titles they published into hardback (did they have some kind of rolling deal with Gold Medal, a la Frederick Muller in the 1950s and '60s?) – anything, really.

Gold Lion would go on to publish a further two Aarons novels in 1973, seemingly selected just as randomly from the author's backlist as Assignment Black Viking was: a standalone suspense work, The State Department Murders, which was originally published in the States by Gold Medal in 1950; and Assignment Helene, originally published by Gold Medal in the US in 1959, and dating from much earlier in the same series as Assignment Black Viking. An additional Durell Assignment, Assignment Budapest was published in hardback in 1974 by White Lion – who may, or may not, have been part of the same setup as Gold Lion.

Indeed, Aarons published an astonishing forty-two instalments in the Assignment/Sam Durell (often misspelt Durrell, including by Gold Lion on the jacket front flap of Black Viking) espionage series, from 1955 to 1976, the year after his death, with a further six – credited to Aarons's brother, Will B. Aarons, but actually written by Lawrence Hall – following on after. And over the next couple of posts I'll be exploring the series in a bit more depth, looking at different editions of the books, and reviewing the first instalment, Assignment to Disaster...