Between the years 1968 and 1978, Don Smith wrote 21 books in his 'Secret Mission' series for Award Books (the original publishing home of Nick Carter: Killmaster). These are espionage books narrated by an American international businessman named Phil Sherman. Phil isn’t a spy, but he occasionally takes freelance assignments for the CIA who enjoys his globetrotting day job as a ready-made cover.
“Secret Mission: North Korea” was released in 1970 as Assignment Number 8 in the series, and it’s the first one I’ve sampled. Other than Phil, the only other character you need to know is CIA supervisor Ross McCullough. Ross is the one who needs to hire, cajole, or blackmail Phil into taking these assignments at the beginning of each book. Their relationship is pretty hilarious because Phil is the ultimate reluctant spy. He never intended this to be his life’s work, and he’d be just as happy dealing with benign, international import-export deals.
In this case, Ross pretty much has Phil by the balls after Phil was peripherally involved in a Tokyo whorehouse brawl and finds himself in police custody on the eve of signing a large and profitable Japanese business deal. Ross magically appears at the interrogation room offering Phil a way out of his predicament by signing a temporary employment contract with the CIA.
The mission is a reprisal action to strike a blow at an increasingly hostile North Korean regime (Editor’s Note: This was 1970. The more things change...). The plan is for Phil to captain a large ship near North Korea in hopes that it will be seized by NoKo’s government. Phil and the crew are instructed to flee the ship right before the seizure takes place leaving the enemy with an abandoned boat secretly loaded with TNT. At port, the ship will explode destroying the pier and anyone nearby. Phil’s crew consists of seven ex-cons sprung from federal prison with the promise of a cash reward and a reduced sentence if they can make this work. Because Phil is in a tough spot himself, he accepts the gig.
The first third of the book involves roping Phil into this mission, meeting the crew of convicts chosen for the trip, and prepping the boat into a secret, floating bomb. There’s a great chapter where Phil and his boys hit a Japanese port-side bar looking for lady action, and our hero hooks up with a sexy, Japanese babe followed by some fully-realized sex scenes. Readers of a lot of classic spy fiction will find themselves asking if the girl is just a throw-away sex partner or is she somehow part of the intrigue?
Smith’s writing is smooth and easy to follow. He certainly understands Phil’s character by the time this economical 150-page paperback hit the shelves. However, his development of the secondary characters was pretty non-existent. Blame it on the economical writing style needed to keep the paperback thin and lean. However, my biggest ax to grind is with Award Books who spoils a key mid-novel plot development on the back cover description and the inside-the-front-cover teaser. This was a shameful marketing choice in a genre that relies on creative plot twists to keep the reader engaged. Ignore those spoilers if you can.
Once the boat sets sail, the paperback becomes a straightforward maritime and escape adventure - a cold-war clandestine mission on the water and under the watchful eye of a deadly enemy. Sherman’s confrontation with the North Koreans and the ultra-violent aftermath displays awesome adventure writing, and the book delivers plenty of action over the course of the final hundred pages. The story twists and turns in ways you’ll never expect with an abrupt but climactic ending. Fans of Donald Hamilton, Edward Aarons, and Ian Fleming will find a lot to enjoy here, and this mid-series entry-point will make you want to explore further into this largely forgotten series. Highly recommended.
In 1959 - nearly a decade before Secret Mission #1 was released - it appears that Don Smith wrote a paperback called “Red Curtain” that was released under the pseudonym of Duncan Tyler. The novel featured a businessman named Phil Sherman thrust into a spy adventure. The answer to why Smith and Award Books decided to resurrect this obscure one-off character for a 21-Book series many years later is a mystery lost to the ages.