Valley Of The Assassins, by Ian MacAlister
January, 1976 Fawcett Gold Medal
Prolific author Marvin Albert published a few adventure novels as “Ian MacAlister” in the ‘70s, Fawcett clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Alistair MacLean’s books. Some of the “MacAlister” books were WWII thrillers, and others, like this one, had contemporary ‘70s settings. But if the others are as good as Valley Of The Assassins is, they’re all worth seeking out.
The only material I’ve read from Albert is his work on Soldato, so what I know about him is his recurring theme of a protagonist being hunted by killers in a desolate terrain. That occurs here as well; Albert is a gifted adventure writer, capably bringing to life desolate, far-flung corners of the world and having his characters endure Hemingway-esque struggles while also fending off human enemies. With this novel Albert adds other elements to the mix: a sort of proto-Indiana Jones vibe with ancient maps written in secret code, an almost supernatural menace, and even a heist vibe to boot, with the main protagonist carefully putting together a team to carry out what is essentially an elaborate tomb raid. It’s an entertaining novel for sure, but be aware this is another of those deceptively-slim ‘70s paperbacks; it only runs to 190 pages, but it has some very small, dense print.
It’s not a slow-moving novel, though; while we don’t get to the expected “hunted in a desolate setting” motif until late in the novel, Albert keeps the narrative moving with occasional action setpieces, lots of mystery and suspense, and very strong characterization. Not to mention a very strong grasp of setting: Valley Of The Assassins takes place in Iraq, Iran, Oman, and the desert, and in each locale there is the feeling that Albert has been there, even if he hadn’t really been; what I mean to say is that he confidently and succinctly captures the vibe of these areas with the air of an expert. He also capably brings to life his protagonist, Eric Larson, an American “adventurer” (per the back cover) who has lived in the Middle East for the past several years; Larson came here as an oil driller, “fell in love” with a cabin boat, decided to buy it at great expense, and now lives here still, doing odd jobs for foreign businessmen visiting the area.
We meet Larson while he’s en route to one such job, venturing along the Persian Gulf for Iraq. He comes across three “corpses” along a reef; one of them, a frail little hunchbacked man, turns out to still be alive. Larson brings him aboard and, per the weak man’s whispered request, takes him to Iran. The novel takes place in pre-revolution Iran, of course, and indeed Larson never once is concerned about terrorism or the expected modern troubles during his voyages around Arabia. His main troubles are how the Iraqi authorities suspect him of occasionally providing assistance to Kurdish rebels, something we gradually learn Larson has indeed done in the past.
Two weeks later he’s bumming around in Basra, Iraq, trying to avoid the suspicision of his “friend,” a power-hungry Iraqi cop named Hammad who likes to have the occasional secret drink with Larson – but who wouldn’t be bothered at all if he were to have to torture, beat, or arrest his friend if it turned out Larson was involved in anything illegal. Larson has bigger concerns, though; he returns to his cabin boat one night to find a strange young Arabic man waiting in the boat for him. The man draws a strange symbol on the deck and tries to kill Larson with a poisoned dagger. Larson blows the guy’s head off; Hammad comes in to collect the corpse, and everyone is baffled by the strange symbol tattooed on the would-be assassin’s chest. There are a lot of ideograms throughout the book, by the way, including even hieroglyphics. The assassin appears to have come for a piece of paper (with more ideographs) that the old hunchback secretly stashed on the boat without Larson’s awareness. Larson takes the map to a scholar acquaintance, one who has spent decades studying Arabic history.
Albert skillfully weaves a mystery element into the narrative as it becomes clear the paper is a map. But everything about it is a puzzle, with the deciphered symbols coming out as odd lines of poetry which seem to be vague directions. Eventually Larson will learn this all has to do with the infamous Hassan I Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, a despotic ruler from centuries ago who retained a legion of fiercely loyal Assassins. The Old Man also factored into Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus!, which too was published around this time, so there must’ve been some book or documentary or something that was getting writers interested in him in the mid-‘70s. Larson suspects the Assassins still exist, even though official records state they were disbanded back in the medieval era – he gets confirmation of this when he draws the symbol that was tattooed on the would-be assassin, and his friend tells him it is the mark of the Assassin order.
Larson gets further confirmation when another old acquaintance suddenly shows up – Darra, a “dark, hard-eyed young woman” that Larson had a fling with a few years before. She’s a Kurdish rebel, and while helping them against their Iraqi oppressors Larson and Darra fell in love…which didn’t go over well with her husband, thus Larson left. But she reveals that her husband’s since been killed in a Soviet airstrike. Now Darra is here with another young Kurd, Jamil, and they’ve also come for the map. Turns out they are aligned with the old man Larson saved at the beginning of the book: his name is Kasra Tofiq, and he’s an Iran-based scholar of Kurdish extraction who is the world’s leading expert on Hassan I Sabbah. After meeting the man again, Larson gets the full details: Tofiq had read that the Assassins had a great treasure which was hidden in Sabbah’s coffin after their fortress fell. They carried it around Arabia to stash it somewhere, but the location was lost. Tofiq thinks he’s found the location, but in pure Indiana Jones style it’s not so simple: the seeker must decipher several clues and jump through innumerable hoops to find the treasure’s location. Worse yet, Tofiq is certain the treasure is somewhere in the Rub-al-Khali, a massive desert so infamous that even veteran sand-dwellers go out of their way to avoid it.
This takes us into the heist angle of the novel, as Larson begins putting together his team of specialists. However unlike a proper heist, these specialities aren’t fully exploited in the narrative. Like one guy, another acquaintance of Larson’s, named Church, who lives in Oman as a geologist and thus has free reign from the authoritative government to travel around. Larson hires him on with a promise of a nice cut in return for using Church’s free pass – Larson and the others will need to go through Oman for the desert – but after this is accomplished Church becomes inconsequential to the plot. More important are the other characters who come along: Darra, Jamil, and finally Hammad, who forces himself into the venture after having spied on Larson. Finally there’s Ivo Slasko, a Czech gunrunner who too has nothing of consequence to add to the plot and might as well be wearing a red shirt.
Albert delivers yet another taut sequence where Larson ventures alone to desolate Alamut, impregnable desert fortress of Hassan I Sabbah. This is very much in the Indiana Jones mode as Larson must find the ancient garden and sit in the darkened, empty fortress throughout the night, waiting to see how the moon illuminates the map – only then will the first steps in the journey to the treasure be revealed. This sort of thing repeats throughout the novel, with the journeyer coming to the next stop only to have to wait for the next “signal” on how to proceed. Larson by the way has gotten so involved because, if the treasure is as great as expected, he wants fifty percent of it – and knows no one can prevent him, as he keeps Tofiq’s map and further burns it after getting the next signals here at Alamut. Thus Larson is the only person in the entire world who knows how to find the ancient Assassin treasure.
Now there’s mystery, and tension, and mounting thrills with strong characterization, but I can hear you asking – where’s the sleaze? Sadly my friends there’s none. We know for sure that Larson and Darra are soon back together, but the most we get is a “morning after” moment in Darra’s small apartment in Iran, with Larson musing that she is “the epitome of a soft and supple harem delight.” Even the violence isn’t much dwelt upon; later in the book there are a few pitched firefights, but as with the Soldato books it’s more in the PG realm of “get shot and fall down”-type violence, with none of the exploding heads or fountaining cererbrospinal gore that bloodthirsty action readers typically demand. But friends it’s my pleasure to inform you that the lack of this exploitative stuff doesn’t matter! Valley Of The Assassins is a damn great novel even without it.
We know action is forthcoming, as Larson is sure to get arms for the trip into the hellscape desert. Everyone carries an M16 and Browning high-power automatic, and they also bring along two Enfield rifles for long-range sniping. As they enter the desert in a truck and a Land Rover, Church learns via his friends in the Oman army that the Berber “desert raiders” have been especially violent lately. They almost come off like proto-Sand People in the novel, with the constant threat that they might latch onto Larson’s party in the desolate desert and set in upon them. But while cool, I felt the Berbers sort of distracted from the more narratively-important threat: the Assassins. And indeed the two menaces are easily confused, both being comprised of robe-wearing desert dwellers with little in the way of human compassion.
Albert really brings the desert to life, and this material is straight-up adventure fiction, with lots of flora and fauna detail. But as mentioned the book is longer than you expect, and a lot of this serves to make it read a little slowly at times. Then again, Albert’s prose is so sinewy and accomplished that you don’t mind the slackened pace. There is as mentioned the growing threat of the Berbers, and this really comes to a boil in a gripping sequence that has several of them tailing Larson’s group. The Berbers are on camels, but when Larson’s Land Rover keeps breaking down on mountain-sized dunes the tables are turned. This leads to a gripping sequence where Larson and comrades mount an ambush on the Berbers, cutting them down on full auto. This leads to more of Albert’s patented “man being stalked” material, with Larson desperate to find the last four Berbers, but while super cool it turns out to be a precursor of the novel’s climax, which features the same situation of Larson being stalked.
There’s another layer to the story in that Larson is certain there’s a “leak” in Tofiq’s organization; this became evident when the Assassin showed up on Larson’s boat in Iraq to kill him. The “mystery” of the leak is pretty easily solved, but regardless Larson doesn’t get certainty of it till near the novel’s end, when a trio of Assassins show up and start stalking his party through the desert. There’s no titular “valley” of Assassins here; rather, the treasure turns out to be in a twisted cavern system that sprouts over a volcanic crater. Albert again skillfully delivers the desperate situation as Larson and the few remaining members of his party navigate the rocky, dangerous terrain, all while the Assassins stalk them. The biggest reveal is when the treasure is discovered, lying for centuries on a pile of volcanic ash by the crater – the excellent cover illustration turns out to be a spoiler of what Larson actually finds in Hassan I Sabbah’s coffin.
The finale is what Albert does best: two men tracking our hero through rough desert terrain in a taut sequence that will leave even the most veteran action reader exhausted. It’s the exact opposite of the typical gun-blazing action finale, with Larson desperately maintaining silence as he crawls in and out of canyons, moving inch by inch as he scans the horizon for a betraying cloud of dust – which would give away the location of his enemies. Oh and meanwhile he’s been shot in the leg so has to pull himself around, and Darra has a severe concussion. This part was especially synchronistic as I happened to accidentally bang my own head on the wall that very day (I forgot to duck when going into the downstairs closet, like a pure fool). Darra’s out of it for the finale, save for one very memorable appearance; I forgot to mention, but she too is a wonderfully-realized character, a kickass desert warrior babe who fights harder than most men Larson knows.
At 190 dense pages, Valley Of The Assassins actually has a pretty curt ending; Larson manages to get out of the desert with the “treasure,” but what happens after this is unstated. Does he go back to Kofiq? Do he and Darra use the treasure money to start a new life in America, with Darra becoming a media presence to talk about the Iraqi subjugation of the Kurdish people? This is something Larson suggests they do, but whether they actually do or not is up to the reader to determine. Regardless, Valley Of The Assassins is as mentioned a great novel, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I’ll be looking for more of the “Ian MacAlister” books in the future.