Monday, March 16, 2015

Sam Durrell #39: Assignment Quayle Question

Sam Durell #39: Assignment Quayle Question, by Edward S. Aarons
May, 1975  Fawcett Gold Medal

With a cover that could come off a ‘70s sweat mag, the 39th volume of the Sam Durell series picks up “shortly” after the events of the previous volume, though be assured that reading Assignment Sumatra isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying The Quayle Question. Plus, this one features a Fu Manchu-style supervillain who runs a Satanic cult!

Our taciturn hero Sam Durell is in rural Virginia, on an assassination mission. Teamed with a few FBI and DIA agents, his assignment is to take out a Japanese terrorist named Tomashita, who we gradually learn is one of the minions of Eli Plowman, “sanitation squad” leader of Durell’s K Section. Plowman, who appared in the previous volume, has gone rogue, and for vague reasons Durell’s been selected by K Section to take him out.

But first he must take out Tomashita, who is apparently in the US to kill the recently-selected head of a Japanese business conglomerate, one that has been steadily buying out media outlets around the world. (The novel is very prescient in how it predicts the coming trends of the ‘80s, by the way.) In particular this conglomerate, or zaibatsu, now has its sights set on the global media kingdom of Rufus Quayle, a notoriously-reclusive mega-billionaire who rules from his own private castle and is never seen in public (read: Howard Hughes).

On the job with Durell, against his objections, is the lovely Deidre Padgett – the only woman Durell has ever loved, to cue the old cliché. Apparently she appeared more frequently in earlier volumes; we learn that now, in this later volume, she works in an admin capacity for the DC-based K Section, to at least be somewhat a part of Durell’s world. It seems the two broke off their heated relationship because Durell couldn’t allow himself to “go soft” by falling in love. More importantly, he doesn’t want someone he loves to be harmed by his untold enemies around the world.

But here Durell learns something new about Deidre: she’s the niece of Rufus Quayle. And now she’s the man’s only living relative, or at least only one who can be found: Quayle’s daughter, Deborah Pentecost, has gone missing, as has old Quayle himself. The K Section theory is that they’ve been kidnapped by the henchmen of the zaibatsu. Not that Deidre has much to do with her reclusive, wealthy uncle; she claims to have only seen him once in her life. But still K Section fears she might be on some Japanese hit list.

We can already tell this novel will show a more personally-involved Durell, as when Deidre goes missing in the assassination attempt he’s frantic, but hides it beneath his professional demeanor. He finds her, though, tied up beside the hippie van she was using for cover as she trailed Tomashita’s rental car. And the Japanese terrorist himself has gotten away, not only escaping Durell’s sniper round but also butchering the zaibatsu head and his entire family, including his little kids.

Meanwhile Quayle’s attractive daughter, Deborah, is held captive in a dank dungeon, constantly questioned by some evil presence she never sees. Deborah has the mind of a computer, able to predict industry trends and whatnot, but this is more of a curse; “My talent is like ashes in my mouth,” as she memorably puts it. Her unseen interrogator constantly asks why Quayle’s second-in-command (and also Deborah’s ex husband) wanted to recently meet with her; when Deborah refuses to play ball, she’s shown the poor bastard’s carcass, which is mutilated and hanging from a meathook!

Durell eventually figures Tomashita and Eli Plowman are not only working for the Japanese but that they can be found in the Ca’d’Orizon, Quayle’s castle on the Jersey shore. He also figures the old man is there. Durell’s biggest clue is a bit of sand left in his supposedly-top secret safehouse, near DC; he figures the sand was planted there by Plowman, in the expectation that Durell would see the sand and connect it to the Jersey shore – and thus go to Quayle’s private castle.

Aarons really has a gift for word painting, so there’s lots of colorful description of the scenery and terrain of the places Durell visits. This does add a literary flavor to the book, but detracts in that it gets away from the action and lurid thrills. But then again, the argument goes that the Sam Durell books were never really considered part of the men’s adventure genre. If so, someone forgot to tell the publisher and the cover artist. As it is, one gradually begins to wish that less was being described and more was actually happening.

Things pick up with a firefight in an amusement park, where Durell and Plowman have a brief face-to-face. Here Plowman plays Darth Vader, asking Durell to join his cause. Of course, Durell refuses. He’s worried about this zaibatsu, which, if it takes over Quayle’s company QPI, will have a “world-wide network of media outlets,” and thus be able to sway public opinion. Again, it’s very interesting how prescient Aarons was. The novel’s big threat isn’t nuclear war or anything of the like, it’s about how the media can be misused.

Rufus Quayle is in fact hiding in his castle, and his scenes too are memorable. Bedridden, surrounded by armed henchmen, Quayle has recently lost his voice due to throat cancer and thus “speaks” through a teleprompter. He has no intention of selling QPI to the Japanese, even if they have his daughter – even if they threaten to kill her. Durell thinks the man is a “monster” but can’t argue with him; Durell too realizes what ramifications might ensue if the zaibatsu were to gain access to Quayle’s global networks.

Aarons seems to want to hedge his bets; I know he passed away not long after The Quayle Question was published, but at any rate he appears to want to leave Eli Plowman’s fate vague; the wily villain plunges into the ocean after a gunfight with Durell, and is wiped out by a big wave. Durell later bluntly states that Plowman’s dead, though he has no proof, and is himself uncertain. But at least Aarons wraps up the Dr. Sinn character, who also apparently had a run-in with Durell in an earlier installment.

Unfortunately, it’s only in the homestretch that Aarons begins to ramp things up. The book also gets more lurid here, with Deborah getting raped by one of Sinn’s more grotesque henchmen (one with a deformed member, naturally) – that is, after she’s had her finger cut off. And true to the genre, Deidre is soon after captured, taken to Sinn’s secret hideaway of a temple. This turns out to be in Baja, California, a Maharana temple that Sinn has rented from a drunk old lady who owns the property.

Even here more time is spent on scene-setting, so that when Durell finally goes to save Deidre (and have his final confrontation with Sinn), only a handful of pages are left. Dressed like one of the monks (the robes hiding electronic gear which is necessary to keep Sinn’s security devices from going off), Durell brazenly walks into the villain’s lair, where he’s promptly captured. The cover image comes to life, with Deidre shackled before an enthroned Sinn, who has ten black candles lit; when the final candle goes out, one of his henchmen will slit Deidre’s throat.

Aarons cheats on the finale, with one of Durell’s colleagues coming to his aid at the last second. While it’s realistic, I feel that this goes against the grain of heroic fiction; the protagonist should always save himself. Instead, Durell’s left standing there powerless as the love of his life is about to die, and some random DIA agent bashes in the window and starts shooting. You’re almost like, “Jeez, maybe that guy should’ve been the star of the book.” But anyway, the fireworks here are rather muddled, with even Sinn’s comeuppance barely dwelled upon; Durell just shoots him, and that’s that.

So while The Quayle Question was moderately enjoyable, it just didn’t have the spark of Assignment Sumatra, and I got a bit frustrated with the inordinate amount of word painting. I wanted a bit more exploitative verve than Aarons was willing to deliver.


Brian Drake said...

Didn't Aarons' kid or brother take over the series after he died?

Joe Kenney said...

According to Jim Doherty's comment on my review of Assignment Sumatra, Edward Aarons's brother Will took ownership of the series after Edward's death, and though the books carried the "Will B. Aarons" by-line, according to Jim they were actually the work of a writer named Lawrence Hall.

RJR said...

Hey, hey, Ed Aarons is NOT trash!!! I think there were only about 3 "Will B. Aarons" books. They just didn't cut it.

Stephen Mertz said...

RJR is right. Head and shoulders above the "body count" stuff. Aarons was a "real writer" and one of my all-time favorites.