Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sam Durell #38: Assignment Sumatra

Sam Durell #38: Assignment Sumatra, by Edward S. Aarons
October, 1974  Fawcett Gold Medal

I’ve never given the Sam Durell series much consideration, though I’ve heard good things about it. The series started in 1955 and ran until the early 1980s; the creator and sole writer until his death in 1975 was Edward S. Aarons (after he died the books continued on for a few volumes, published under the pseudonym Will B. Aarons). Recently at a bookstore I came across several of these books at half off the cover price, with an additional 20% on top of that, so I couldn’t say no – especially when the cover price on some of them was 90 cents!

I mostly picked up ones from the early to mid ‘70s, given the bias (which even I myself don’t fully understand) that I have for that era. I chose this 38th volume in particular as the one to start with, what with the back cover copy stating that on this assignment Durell works with a “lethal lady” who basically gets off on murder. To my pleasure, Assignment Sumatra turned out to be a great read. These books are only marginally part of the men’s adventure genre, in that there’s a series title and volume numbers, but the writing is several steps above the genre norm and the feel of the books is more in the espionage arena. But it still packs in enough sex and violence; there’s just a bit more mystery and suspense than you’d get in, say, The Executioner.

Durell is known as “The Cajun” given his Louisiana heritage, but we really don’t get much background information on him in Assignment Sumatra. No wonder, given that this is the 38th volume in the series! At any rate he works for K Section of the CIA, and is your basic James Bond type. Durell comes off as pretty taciturn and more concerned with seeing the job through as cleanly as possible – in other words, he doesn’t go out of his way to get into scrapes or to kill as many enemy agents as possible.

This last fact in particular forms most of the conflict in the novel – Durell has been assigned to work his current mission with the beautiful Lydia Morgan, aka the “lethal lady” of the back cover. Lydia is a 27 year-old assassin with Q Clearance, apparently the operatives of the CIA who have clearance to kill. She really enjoys her job, and Aarons does a great job making her character so fascinating – her complicated backstory goes that she was a hippie girl who had a bad “back to nature” scene in which the two guys she was with ended up dead.

After more mental breakdowns Lydia was contacted by the creepy Eli Plowman, head of the CIA’s “sanitation squad” and one of the people Durell most hates (it’s obvious Plowman has been in previous volumes); Plowman took Lydia under his wing and turned her into a master assassin, one who can use any weapon or her hands and feet to kill. However as mentioned Lydia enjoys it, something Durell suspects at first but gradually learns to be the truth. (He witnesses it, in fact, during a later scene where Lydia demands to have sex with Durell right on the battlefield, and turns to look at one of their slain foes as she orgasms.) Durell himself is disgusted by Lydia, and not just because of her affiliation with Plowman; despite her beauty Durell instantly distrusts the woman, and resents the command that he work with her.

Their mission is to cart around a decoy who resembles moderate Indonesian leader Hueng, Premier of Salangap (another person Durell has dealt with in a previous book). The decoy, Tu Fu, is a Hakka country bumpkin who bears enough of a resemblance to Premier Hueng that Plowman and Lydia hope he will make for a suitable target while the real Hueng makes his way in secrecy to the SEACROP conference, a meeting of South Asian leaders in which Hueng is expected to make an America-friendly speech. However out to stop him is K’ang Wu Chien, Hueng’s co-ruler who is attempting to take over the country and oust Hueng; K’ang wants Hueng dead so that he can make the SEACROP speech and unite the South Asian rulers against the US.

So begins the suspense and treachery, as Durell and Lydia try to escort Tu Fu across Sumatra in the hopes that K’ang’s assassins will spring forth and kill the guy. Durell begins to feel sorry for the Hakka decoy, and instantly grates against Eli Plowman’s exploitative scheme. The novel starts off heavy on the action as the trio are attacked shortly after Durell arrives on the scene, Lydia killing off the attackers with ease. Her trademark weapons are a two-shot, heavy caliber derringer she carries between her “ample breasts” (we learn that the handle has been specially formed to fit there) and a thin, needle-like blade she straps to an inner thigh. She is also competent with her hands and feet and butchers their attackers with relish.

Durell and Lydia take an immediate dislike to one another, though Aarons as expected builds up a gradual chemistry between them, leading to the mandatory sex scenes. However Durell never stops distrusting the woman, or treating her roughly. Aarons capably walks an unusual ground because he makes Lydia such a monstrous person, capable of cold-blooded murder and deceit, yet at the same time he makes us feel compassion for her, as she’s obviously mentally unstable due to her rough background, plus she herself is aware that she is “sick.” As the two get in more danger Lydia begins to cling to Durell, sometimes begging him for sex, saying that only Durell can make her human again. Durell tries his hardest not to fall completely for her, so this makes for an added layer of suspense.

Aarons has a definite command of his craft, and his writing is masterful in how he doles out topical details about his exotic settings yet still keeps the action moving. He also has a gift for characterization and dialog. The action scenes are all compelling, and very well staged, though Aarons doesn’t dwell on the graphic aspect. True, we get several mentions of exploding blood and brains, but for the most part Durell only kills when he absolutely must. The sex scenes as well are described enough that we know something happened, but again Aarons doesn’t dwell on the details. So again, the book has more in common with a more “respectable” series like say Fleming’s James Bond novels than it does with the average men’s adventure novel.

I guess my only problem with Assignment Sumatra is that Aarons doesn’t really tie up everything, so far as the main characters go, and he tends to build up characters and then drop them. K’ang for example has a grand entrance, complete with the genre-mandatory bit where he tortures Durell, but after that he disappears, and his comeuppance at the end is perfunctory. Tu Fu also disappears from the narrative, and Aarons leaves Lydia’s fate a mystery – Durell sends her off with the brother of a man Lydia killed earlier in the book, though Lydia doesn’t realize this. Personally I found it hard to believe that the guy would be a match for her, so I suspect Lydia probably reappeared in a later, Will B. Aarons-penned installment (or at least perhaps Aarons himself planned to bring her back).

Anyway I really enjoyed the novel, and I’m happy I picked up so many volumes of the series. These books are deserving of a rediscovery, and luckily enough it looks like they can still be gotten for cheap in most second-hand bookstores.


Tom Johnson said...

Nice review. The Sam Durell novels are several steps above the men's adventure novels. The early stories were not quite as harsh as most of the later ones became, but you could see where the series was headed even back then. A lot of the violence is really graphic, and realistic to the point it can make the reader sick at times. But it makes the point that Durell is in a real world, not one of make believe, where things actually happen that are not good for the public to see on CNN. The series is good reading, but I suggest they be read between lighter fare, not all at once.

Samuel Wilson said...

I've read a couple of earlier Durells, the earliest being Assignment Budapest. Back then the running subplot was his complicated romance with Deidre Padgett, who I understand becomes an agent in her own right later in the series. These books can be had quite cheaply from the right sources; I paid no more than $1.50 for the five I own. The ones I've read are conventional Cold War stuff with evil Commies but they're fairly entertaining and I wouldn't mind getting more.

Marty McKee said...

The Durell books kick major ass, though I haven't read any of the later entries (but I'll get to 'em someday). Again, not really part of the men's adventure genre, just like Matt Helm isn't, not really. But well worth your time in tracking them down.

RJR said...

I've read as many Durells as I could get my hand on in my teens and early 20's. I enjoyed them all!


Zwolf said...

I'm glad you're getting into these... they're pretty badass. You should also pick up some of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm books if you see them around -- they still show up in used bookstores a lot, and they're pretty similar to the Sam Durell books. Helm may be even a wee bit more badass, although not by much. They're both hard-edge killers when they have to be. I really got the wrong idea about those from the Dean Martin movies. The Nick Carter books are also great, and still available cheaply. Anyway, when I bought a few Sam Durell books at a used bookstore (for around a quarter each) I soon had to hunt down the rest of 'em. Even though those were more like $3.50 (online dealers gotta charge shipping), they were worth it. I've only read three or four of them so far, but every one's been great so far. Even though they're cold-war era, they don't feel too dated.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey everyone, thanks for the comments. Glad to hear I'm in for more good reads with this series. I think the next one I'll read is the next volume, The Quayle Question, which apparently sees the return of Deidre Padgett, whom Samuel Wilson mentions above. The cover is nice and '70s lurid with an illustration of the girl in chains with some ominous guy looming over her!


Just for the record, "Will B. Aarons" was not a pseudonym, per se. He was a real person. Specifically, he was the brother of Edward, and the executor of his will, and, apparently, the controller of his copyrights. OTOH, he was NOT the writer of the post-Edward Durell books. He hired a writer named Lawrence Hall to do the posthumous entries in the series, and, possibly for legal reasons having to do with his being executor of the estate, took credit for them. I have no other info on Hall, and apparently, the Durell continuations were the only books he ever wrote.

Joe Kenney said...

Jim, forgot to thank you for this note -- thanks for the info!