Don Smith’s “Secret Mission” paperback series spanned the decade between 1968 and 1978. The series wasn’t the cash cow for Award Books that “Nick Carter: Killmaster” was, but 21 installments by the same author certainly wasn’t a business failure. It’s clear that Award Books was trying to steal some of Killmaster’s shine as the front cover blurb promises, “A razor-sharp thriller from the publishers of the Nick Carter series!” while the back cover touts, “Violence and suspense to rival Nick Carter!”
The “Secret Mission” series hero - and narrator - is Phil Sherman, a resourceful international businessman who takes on assignments in foreign lands for the CIA. Nearly every book is titled for the name of the nation where the majority of the adventure takes place. As the series order doesn’t matter much, choosing which book to read based on one’s interest in the host country seems like a good system to me. So this time around, we go to Haiti.
In the later books of the series, including 1973’s “Haitian Vendetta,” Sherman is now an employee of the CIA and no longer an independent contractor. When we join Sherman, he is en route to Haiti to investigate a member of the Haitian Secret Police who may be planning a Cuba-supported coup. Sherman’s marching orders are to prevent the insurrection without shedding any blood. Sherman’s cover is that of an international business consultant scouting locations for corporate outsourcing of unskilled labor.
It doesn’t take long before Sherman is intercepted by the secret police who insist on saddling him with an interpreter (minder) even though Sherman speaks perfect French. It’s presented as a service that the new President-for-Life extends to visiting businessmen. The way that Sherman eventually shakes this tail was a pleasure to read. It’s also amusing that Sherman’s businessman cover fools no one on either side of this brewing conflict. Everyone just correctly assumes that he is CIA.
Another cool aspect of the story is Sherman’s Haitian CIA informant who provides our hero with the local flavor to help him complete his mission of political sabotage. Marcel’s sexy daughter - who may or may not be involved with voodoo - aspires to use Sherman as her personal sex toy. Humming in the background is the interesting cultural tug-of-war between the practitioners of Catholicism vs Voodoo, and the influence the Voodoo religion has over politics and power in Haiti.
At 184 big-font pages, “Haitian Vendetta” is a quick read. It was a cerebral spy story that never ventured into cartoonish territory (well, maybe once), nor was it dense or confusing like Robert Ludlum’s espionage fiction.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much action at all in the book for the first 130 pages. Sherman conducted a logical and compelling investigation to determine what, if any, insurrection plans were underway in Haiti, but the novel failed to live up to the promise that this paperback was “An adventure novel of violence and suspense to tie your nerves in knots!” I enjoyed the book, but my nerves remained unknotted for the majority of the reading experience.
The pace of the novel increases markedly over the last 50 pages, and it ends on a pretty exciting action set piece. I think for most readers sucked in by the inflated marketing blurbs and exiting cover illustration, the payoff is too little, too late. I can recommend this book - with reservations - because I love Sherman’s character and Smith’s writing, but this just isn’t a book for paperback adrenaline junkies.
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