Friday, January 16, 2009

His Hatred Was Like Black Acid

I'm surprised it also took me this long to get around to Sam Durell. This long-running series of adventure novels by author Edward S. Aarons doesn't really belong to the '70s genre of men's action novels, but I'm including it anyway. The Durell books are much more akin to Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm adventures (which I also plan to re-read someday) than to the Executioner or the Death Merchant. They're also a series I'm familiar with, having read a handful of Durell books before I started delving into the men's adventure genre last year.

I won't write much about Aarons or the history of Sam Durell, since my Mobius cohort Doug Bassett has already done so much better than I could have. Just briefly, Aarons wrote 42 globetrotting Durell novels between 1955 and 1976. After he died, his estate contracted with author Lawrence Hall to punch out six more Durell books under the name Will B. Aarons, which was the name of Edward's brother. The books are written almost totally from Durell's point of view. Though not in first person, Aarons never cuts away (that I recall) to see what other characters are up to. The reader follows the plot right alongside Durell.

Durell is a tough American espionage agent, codenamed Cajun because of his Louisiana upbringing. Although he has a girlfriend in at least the first two novels, Dierdre, Sam's job prevents him from becoming tied down to friends, family or lovers. After serving in the OSS during World War II, Sam ended up in the CIA, where he traveled all over the world battling evil. I liken the Durell adventures to the Matt Helms because of their relatively realistic approach to spying. No laser battles or world-domination plots or kinky villains or cloning machines. Violence causes pain and pain hurts.

The second Durell book is ASSIGNMENT TREASON, published in April 1956 by Gold Medal, and it's very good. The action never leaves the Washington, D.C. area, but Durell's mission is a tough, demanding one that takes a lot out of him emotionally, as well as physically. Only his boss, Dickinson McFee of K Section, knows that Durell is undercover. Even Dierdre is stunned to learn that Durell is a traitor stealing government secrets and turning them over to the Soviets, specifically a list of covert U.S. agents. The real American traitors ambush Durell to take the list from him, but it disappears in the struggle with neither party getting its hands on it. From there, the search is on, which leads Durell to the true enemy, a right-wing ex-senator who plans to start an atomic war he is sure will destroy America's enemies, even if it does claim many millions of Americans as acceptable collateral damage.

Cool and crisp at 160 pages, TREASON is a terrific adventure with a strong hero and plenty of cracking action scenes. Aarons doesn't flinch at presenting violence, though the really rough stuff occurs off-page. One female character is permanently scarred as a result of torture, but Aarons never describes exactly what the heavies did to her face, leaving it up to us to imagine the ugliness. Though the book is definitely a product of the 1950s Cold War era, its characterizations and story—about right-wing extremist forces pushing the U.S. into an unnecessary war out of their psychotic sense of patriotism—rings true five decades later.

The Edward S. Aarons Sam Durell books are great stuff.


Anonymous said...

Also these books are super easy to find and cheap. You can easily come across them for a dollar a piece which is a perfect price for them. I know all the used places I go usually have stacks of them around.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I clicked on here (my favorite blog) and found a Sam Durell review! The Matt Helm & Sam Durell books are the only genre I like better than the Executioner/70's stuff. I never thought you'd include these, so thanks for doing so! Last year I put together a set of both and became hooked. They're old-school cold war goodies, and I highly recommend them. But readers of this column beware: There is no Mac Bolan-type body count with Helm & Durell. They're more realistic, give 'em a shot.

Johny Malone said...

Spanish editions of Sam Durell's books: