Showing posts with label Edward S. Aarons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edward S. Aarons. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Gang Rumble

By 1955, author Edward S. Aarons had mostly switched his writing expertise to espionage thrillers starring his secret-agent star Sam Durell. Before that, the author had crafted really good crime-fiction that often had the pseudonym Edward Ronns attached to it. In 1958, three years after finding literary success with his Assignment series, Aarons returned to the world of crime-fiction to author a potboiler called Gang Rumble. It was published by Avon and now exists as a Black Gat reprint by Stark House Press.

The narrative takes place over the course of one hot summer night in Philadelphia. Young Johnny Broom is a reckless, defiant hood that leads a small-time lot of losers called the Lancers. Broom's gang is set to rumble with a rival faction called the Violets in a section of abandoned row-houses deemed The Jungle. But, Broom's scheduled rumble is just a distraction for the cops. This hoodlum has a much larger agenda taking place.

With the cops dedicating their labor to the widely circulated rumble, Broom and two other guys are going to rob a local warehouse for a mid-level crime-boss. It's an audition for Broom to move up a few rungs on the criminal ladder. But, the book's most enduring element is that Broom's older brother Pete – a real nice good guy – works in the warehouse and has been coaching Broom to turn a corner and right his life on the straight and narrow. Will Broom kill Pete in the holdup?

This is a really unusual novel for Aarons and I've read enough of his crime-fiction to recognize some striking patterns here. Typically, Aarons doesn't write many crime-noir novels set in urban locations. His usual locale is the New England shoreline towns or the occasional lakeside cottages that permeate crime-noir paperbacks. Further, his crime novels are mostly void of any sexual depravity or heinous violence. 

In Gang Rumble, a male character is mentioned as pleasing himself, which leads to an affair with a housemaid. There is also an attempted rape scene, which is a little more detailed than what Aarons normally presents to readers. One of the characters recalls killing fish by emptying the tank and watching them slowly perish. These are all very unusual aspects to Aarons writing. It reads more like something Ovid Demaris would write – perverted criminals engaging in ultra-violent ways. Or, at the very least a Jim Thompson-styled romp. 

Whether Aarons was influenced by other writers (or assisted?), Gang Rumble is an enjoyable action-packed novel with plenty of intensity, riveting suspense, and an unpredictable formula. It has all of the popular crime-fiction tropes – kidnap, hostage, heist, police procedural – including unruly youngsters doing dastardly things. There's some social preaching here and there, mostly a repetitive pulpit soapbox on mankind's spiral into lawless savagery, which is eerily prophetic as the years roll on. While the author's literary estate is mostly locked tight, I'm glad this one slipped through and was able to be reprinted by Black Gat/Stark House Press. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Catspaw Ordeal

Edward S. Aarons struck gold in 1955 with the first of his successful espionage series starring CIA operative Sam Durell. This is considered the second, more prosperous half of Aarons' writing career. The first half consists of roughly 20 crime-fiction and mystery novels authored under his own name and the pseudonym of Edward Ronns. We've slowly consumed Aarons' crime-fiction work here at Paperback Warrior, and continue that trend with a look at the author's 1950 paperback Catspaw Ordeal, published under the name Edward Ronns. It was published by Fawcett Gold Medal at least twice, once in 1950 as #133 and again in 1958 as #766, both with different cover art. It was also published by Phantom in 1954 and Gaywood Press in 1952, both of these with variations of the 1950 Fawcett cover by William Downes.

Danny Archer is a 29-year old former Navy veteran that has settled down in Southwich, Connecticut on the Long Island Sound. Archer is married to a woman named Roz and the two have reached a complacent part of marriage, void of excitement or interest. Archer is not only tied to Roz via marriage, but he also works for her father, a guy named Stanley, who runs a local factory. All of this normal suburbia boredom is shattered when Archer's old flame shows up.

Secretly, Archer has never really gotten over Della Chambers. When she arrives in town, Roz immediately senses that Archer can't resist Della's magnetic pull. When Roz leaves town for a few days, Archer finds himself in a murder investigation. In his own home, Archer finds a dead guy huddled over his office desk. Della is somehow involved, but also a man named Burke Wiley, Archer's old shipmate that supposedly died when their ship was sunk in WW2. Archer believes either Wiley or Della killed the man, but then things become even more complicated when Wiley explains a counterfeiting plot that could make them all super wealthy. 

Obviously, there is a lot going on in this relatively short 170-page paperback. Archer's marriage complications are front and center, but the moving parts begin to tear away part of the protagonist's own sanity. He begins to question his past, and the how his work at the factory is somehow tied into Roz and this seemingly dead-man-from-the-grave, Wiley. But, the core of Aarons' complex plot is a murder mystery. The cops have targeted Archer as the prime suspect, but he can't quite explain where these other characters tie into his personal ordeals at home. It makes for a fascinating, whirlwind of possibilities as Archer walks a balance beam of right and wrong. 

Like most of Aarons' crime-fiction, he uses the same locale and atmosphere. His novels are typically quiet, rural lakeside or oceanfront cottages and houses draped in a thick fog that is symbolic of the criminality slowly descending on the main character or their close friends and family. These locations are nearly always the American Northeast, which makes sense considering Aarons' grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in Connecticut (also the home of Fawcett Gold Medal). While Catspaw Ordeal isn't the best that Aarons' early crime-fiction has to offer (try 1953's The Net for a must-read), it is more than serviceable and a pure pleasure to read. Recommended.

Friday, March 18, 2022

The Art Studio Murders (aka Dark Memory)

Philadelphia native Edward S. Aarons was a graduate of Columbia University, a WW2 veteran, and successful author. He wrote nearly 100 short stories between 1930 through the 1950s, but he's recognized for the two phases of his career. The first is his early crime-fiction, 20 novels published by the likes of Graphic, Avon, Fawcett Gold Medal, and Phoenix. The second phase is the Assignment series starring CIA operative Sam Durrell. I've been steadily plowing through Aarons' crime-fiction novels, mostly written as Edward Ronns, which brings me to his 1950 original paperback The Art Studio Murders. It was also published with various cover art as Dark Memory.

Henry Dana is a painter living in an art studio in New York City. After attempting to take the subway back home, Dana plunges from the platform and is nearly killed. When he wakes, Dana feels like this was no accident and believes someone is trying to kill him. Later, he discovers that his paintings have been slashed and he's attacked by an unseen intruder in his studio. An acquaintance named Lori calls Dana one evening and tells him she knows the identity of his attacker. But, in a familiar genre trope, she dies before Dana can gain the name.

Like Aarons' own career, the book has two very different stages. The first act takes place in New York with Dana avoiding death while also acquiring a lower commission for a painting. These scenes involve Dana's agent and friends, and introduces a “fatal attraction” scenario where his married friend Kay tries to seduce him. There's the typical police angle where they think Dana is under a lot of mental stress and his paranoia is wreaking havoc on his social existence. 

The second stage is something I've talked about in numerous reviews of the author's work. This is all about location. In the second act, Dana decides to leave the city and head to Kettle Island, Connecticut to rekindle an old love affair with a recently divorced woman named Sarah. But, Dana's friends follow him to the island to enjoy a short vacation. Dana effectively brings his killer with him to the island. The author uses a harrowing thunderstorm to trap the characters on the island. Like most of his crime-noir novels,  Aarons' uses a waterfront setting as an integral part of the story – an abandoned lighthouse, windswept beaches, shoreline cottages. 

The Art Studio Murders works as a suspenseful stalker novel. In the city, Dana's experiences with the killer in the darkened studio was like a horror movie scene. Aarons ups the ante by recreating that suspense in the second act, only making it more atmospheric and frenzied. The only real issue I had with the book is there are too many characters. In the early chapters, there are eight characters to contend with. Thankfully, the book has been reprinted by Armchair Fiction and the publisher has a handy checklist with short descriptions of each character. 

The Armchair Fiction reprint is a twofer including The Art Studio Murders and an absolute gem by Mary Roberts Rinehart called The Case of Jennie Brice. I reviewed the latter work for Paperback Warrior HERE. There's no reason not to buy the reprint considering it's two great novels in one. At the time of this writing you can buy the reprint for $13 HERE

Monday, November 8, 2021

Paperback Warrior Primer - Edward S. Aarons

Author Edward S. Aarons is mostly associated with his long-running and successful series Assignment, starring a CIA agent named Sam Durell. However, Aarons was extremely prolific in the decades prior to his Assignment books. In today's Paperback Warrior Primer, we reveal who Edward S. Aarons is and delve into his remarkable literary career. 

Edward Sidney Aarons was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1916. He attended Columbia University and gained degrees in both literature and history. At the young age of 17, Aarons had his hands in writing short stories while also working through college as a newspaper reporter and a fisherman. This experience probably lends itself to his crime-noir novels, which typically feature reporters and/or fishing towns in the Northeast.

By the end of the 1930s, Aarons had three full-length novels written - Death in a Lighthouse (aka Cowl of Doom), Murder Money, (aka $1 Million in Corpses), and The Corpse Hangs High. These novels were published by Phoenix Press and authored under the name Edward Ronns. 

Like most of the mid-20th Century authors, Aarons served in WW2. He was part of the U.S. Navy between 1941-1945 and reached the rank of Chief Petty officer. During his military service, Aarons sold a lot of his short stories to the pulps. He was featured in the late 1930s and 1940s pulps like Thrilling Detective, Angel Detective, Detective Story Magazine, Complete Detective, etc. According to Crime Mystery and Gangster Fiction Magazine Index, I found 92 short stories listed from the 30s through the 50s under the name Edward Ronns. Needless to say, by the time Aarons was discharged from the Coast Guard in 1945 he transitioned smoothly into full-time writing. 

In 1947, his hardcover Terror in the Town was published. It was later reprinted in 1964, complete with a suspenseful, horror-styled cover. I had the opportunity to review it for the blog HERE. In 1947 and 1948, Aarons wrote two novels starring Jerry Benedict, a newspaper cartoonist who functions as a private-eye. The first one was called Lady, the Guy is Dead, which would also be printed as No Place to Live. The second book was called Gift of Death and I had the opportunity to review it HERE. Like Terror in the Town, Aarons used a distinct atmosphere with moonlit graves, dark cornfields and a weird menace styled-subplot involving a family curse. Also in 1948 Aarons saw his novel Nightmare published internationally. I also have a review of that novel HERE.

Up until 1950, each of Aarons' published novels listed his name as Edward Ronns. But, in 1950 he used the pseudonym of Paul Ayres to contribute to the Casey, Crime Photographer series created by George Harmon Coxe. The series installment was Dead Heat. In 1951, his novel The Net was published by Graphic and reviewed HERE. Most of the author's 1950s crime-noir novels were published by the top crime-fiction company at the time - Fawcett Gold Medal. They published stuff like Escape to Love, Passage to Terror, Come Back, My Love, The Sinners, Catspaw Ordeal, The Decoy and so forth. But at the same time, Aarons was also being published by Harlequin, Graphic and Avon. In 1950, he had five novels published, two in 1951, two in 1952, two in 1953, and then one more in 1954. 

It is remarkable to think that Edward S. Aarons had 20 novels published before he really struck gold. His career trajectory is very similar to John D. MacDonald. Aarons honed his craft in the pulps and wrote stand-alone novels until he was ready to launch a series character that carried him financially for the rest of his career. For Aarons, this was his Assignment series starring CIA operative Sam Durrell and published by Fawcet Gold Medal.

The first series installment is Assignment to Disaster, published in 1955. After the debut, the series ran for 48 installments through 1983. Each book in the Assignment is mostly a stand alone title - the original printings weren’t even numbered. The series hero, Sam Durrell, is a Cajun from Louisiana who left the swamps to attend Yale. It's there that he learned several foreign languages. Later, he served in WW2 in the OSS - which was the real-life precursor to the CIA. When readers first meet Sam in 1955, he’s an operative in the CIA’s espionage division.

Each novel is a single assignment for Sam. He needs to carry out each mission for the CIA, with his adversaries generally being the Soviets, the Chinese, or one of their client states. Many of the books provide the setting in the title: Assignment Bangkok, Assignment Peking, Assignment Budapest, etc. Others are named after the sexy vixens Sam encounters on his adventure: Assignment Helene, Assignment Madeline, Assignment Zorya, etc. Sam meets a lot of different people trying to get his mission off the ground, and they all join forces to succeed. Assignment is like a combination of Nick Carter: Killmaster and Matt Helm. Better than Killmaster, not as good as Helm. 

Edward S. Aarons wrote the first 42 Assigntment installments up until his death. His last book, Assignment Afghan Dragon, was released post-humously in 1976. Then, also in 1976, the 43rd installment, Assignment Sheeba, was released under the by-line of Will B. Aarons - the brother of  Edward. There were six Assignment books under the Will Aarons name released through 1983. There are two important things to know about the Will Aarons installments.

First, series fans generally agree that these books don't possess the same quality. Second, Will Aarons didn't author these books. He hired a ghost writer named Lawrence Hall to write them. This mystery was crowdsourced and solved on the Mystery File website, and you can read the sequence of edits to their article solving this authorship HERE.

But, aside from the Assignment installments, Edward Aarons was able to sprinkle in another 10 unrelated novels through 1962. Some of these were based on screenplays like Hell to Eternity, published in 1960 and reviewed HERE.

Edward Sidney Aarons died from a heart ailment in New Milford, Connecticut in 1975 at the young age of 58. His obituary in the NY Times stated that his Assignment books sold more than 23 million copies and were reprinted in 17 languages. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Nightmare

Author Edward S. Aarons wrote 20 books between 1936 and 1954, including a number of short-stories for pulp magazines including Popular Detective and Thrilling Detective. I've covered a number of the author's early crime-noir novels and was happy to find a 1971 McFadden-Bartell paperback reprint of his 1948 novel Nightmare. It was originally published under the pseudonym Edward Ronns.

WWII veteran Nolly is living the American dream in New York City. He's been married to his beautiful wife Susan for five years. He has a great job working at Globe Finance where he manages payroll, mortgage loans and the vault. He enjoys working for his boss, Mr. Wright, and each evening he happily walks his dog around the block. It's the quintessential “white picket fence” lifestyle. But, like any great crime-noir, Nolly's life is turned upside down when he is placed in an extreme situation.

After a rare night out with his three co-workers, Nolly returns to his home in an early-morning drunken stupor. After discovering his wife isn't home, Nolly receives a phone call from a mysterious voice telling him to get over to Globe Finance. When he arrives there and unlocks the door, he's hit in the head and blacks out. He wakes up to discover his boss, Mr. Wright, has been murdered and $40,000 is missing from the bank vaults. Complicating matters is that Nolly finds a gun in his pocket that apparently was used as the murder weapon.

We’ve all read this sort of story before. It's the familiar “man wakes up beside a corpse” plot where the innocent party must scour the town for clues in search of the killer. Unlike Aarons' seaside, rural novels like Terror in the Town and The Net, it was interesting to read Nightmare's story unravel in an urban setting. In some ways, Aarons' writes this in a way that would later become the dominant approach by writers like Ed Lacy and Henry Kane. He still manages to insert his seaside, darker aura to the story near the end (the characters end up in marshy New Jersey), but this one has a unique voice that isn't the standard Edward S. Aarons crime-noir.

As I read more and more of Aarons' crime literature, I move him just a few more rungs up the ladder. I don't think he's a Harry Whittington or John D. MacDonald caliber storyteller, but he does sit somewhere firmly in the middle of the pack. He's never boring, never dull, but he's never created anything particularly innovative or remarkable. Nightmare proves that Aarons was just another good, dependable mid-20th Century writer. Sometimes, that's all we are really dreaming for anyway.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, February 22, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 79

Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 79 delved into the life and work of Edward S. Aarons. Also discussed: Richard Neely, Harry Whittington, Reprints, Men of Violence, Men’s Adventure Quarterly, and more! Listen on any podcast app or download directly HERE 

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 79: Edward S. Aarons" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

They All Ran Away

Before focusing his efforts on his bestselling series of Assignment books starring CIA operative Sam Durell, Edward S. Aarons authored a number of good, stand-alone crime-noir novels. I've reviewed a lot of these including Gift of Death (1948), The Net (1953) and Terror in the Town (1947). There are still so many of the author's pulp stories and crime novels to explore. I decided to try another one with 1955's They All Ran Away. It was originally published by Graphic Mystery and then reprinted in 1970 by Macfadden-Bartell.

Using the private-eye formula, Aarons introduces readers to Barney Forbes, the book's hard-charging protagonist. Forbes was an MP in the Army before becoming a New York detective. After his wife's tragic and sudden death, Forbes left law-enforcement to pursue a career as an attorney. With his new profession, Forbes is struggling to pay the bills and second-guessing his career change. Thankfully, a successful law firm that specializes in estates hires Forbes to utilize his detective skills to service one of their own clients.

A wealthy man named Malcolm Hunter has come up missing in the small, mountain lake community of Omega. The firm's client is Malcolm Hunter's brother Jan, a rather abstract young man who is fed money by the Hunter trust. This missing person case brings Forbes to upstate New York to find where Malcolm is.

With the book weighing in at just under 150-pages, Aarons surprisingly packs the narrative with a rich blend of mystery and full-barreled action. Like Gift of Death and Terror in the Town, this author excels when setting the story within a small waterside community. Instead of the northeastern Atlantic, the author utilizes rural lake houses to create a thick atmosphere that works as the perfect backdrop for the mystery to unwind. I think Aarons was one of the best authors in the business in describing the locales and making them seemingly come alive as just another character.

Forbes is an easily likable character, and I loved his alliances with the troubled town sheriff and an eccentric Native American. Like any good crime-noir, Forbes also has his share of beauty queens to contend with. The backstory of Forbes losing his wife plays a key element in his fixation on Malcolm Hunter's abused wife. With just a dose of romance and tension, They All Ran Away fires on all cylinders and proves once again that Edward S. Aarons was a great storyteller. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE


Monday, February 1, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 76

On Episode 76 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we take a deep dive into the life and work of legendary author Ralph Hayes. Also discussed: Donald Hamilton, Edward S. Aarons, Steve Frazee, Russ Meservey and more. Listen on your favorite podcast app or paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE 

Donate to our show using this LINK 

Listen to "Episode 76: Ralph Hayes" on Spreaker.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 69

The Paperback Warrior Podcast recognizes Veteran’s Day on today’s episode on World War 2 Adventure Fiction. Also: Stephen Mertz, Max Allan Collins, G.H. Otis, Edward S. Aarons, and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, paperbackwarrior.com, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 69: World War 2 Fiction" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Benedict #02 - Gift of Death

Edward S. Aarons' most recognized literary work is the 42-book Assignment series starring the globetrotting CIA agent Sam Durell. However, before that series began in 1955, Aarons authored a two-book series of crime-noir novels starring amateur private-eye Jerry Benedict. The first of the two books, No Place to Live (aka Lady, the Guy is Dead), was published in 1947 and introduced Benedict as a New York political cartoonist who is drawn into a murder investigation when he finds a corpse. The second novel, Gift of Death, followed a year later and moves the action south to a rural Connecticut farm. My first and only experience with the Benedict character is Gift of Death.

In the early chapters, Benedict is summoned to the office of Lucius McConaughy, the editor of The Globe newspaper where the two men work. McConaughy praises Benedict's sleuthing skills for solving the murder mystery found in No Place to Live. He explains to Benedict that his Uncle has recently passed away and a $600,000 inheritance is to be divvied up between himself and five cousins. Benedict's role is to determine who is potentially killing off the cousins to grab a bigger slice of the pie. After cousin Amanda's secretary was decapitated at the family's sprawling farm, McConaughy feels that the murderer was targeting Amanda and mistakenly killed her secretary instead. Benedict agrees to assist and the two travel to Connecticut to submerge themselves in a nest of cousinly vipers.

Aarons' narrative includes a Weird Menace sub-plot at the family farm. The old house is rumored to be haunted, a double-suicide occurred in one bedroom and there's a massive tree that was used for hanging in the early 1800s. Moreover, the unknown killer is attacking at night using a razor-sharp scythe as the killing tool. The author's macabre depictions of grizzly decapitation is combined with his trademark signature of sweeping Gothic imagery. Like Terror in the Town (1947) and The Net (1953), Gift of Death features a thick, foreboding sense of dread and doom. Aarons' drapes the story in old swaying oak trees, dark cornfields, moaning winds and positions the characters in eerie, ghost-like places such as hill-top cemeteries and abandoned summer cottages. Needless to say, Aarons' sense of d├ęcor and atmosphere is both stylish and effective.

If you like an old-fashioned, dense murder mystery, Gift of Death will surely be a pleasurable reading experience. Despite the spooky ambiance, I found the characters to be a little shallow and stereotypical undermining the core mystery. Benedict plays the proverbial 1940s detective well, interviewing all the parties while gaining liquid courage from mid-shelf bottles. It's a familiar, well-worn formula that doesn't hamper the narrative's momentum. Overall, I was glued to the story and didn't rush the reading just to pull the mask off.

Aarons' is such a masterful storyteller and Gift of Death proves that in spades. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 28, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 63

Today’s Paperback Warrior Podcast explores the life and work of sleaze-fiction author Orrie Hitt. Also this week: Chiefland, Florida! Quilting Babes! Andre Norton! Dean R. Koontz! Dial M for Man! Edward S. Aarons! The Net! And much more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or www.paperbackwarrior.com, or download directly HERE 

Listen to "Episode 63: Orrie Hitt" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Net

While mostly known for his Sam Durell (or Assignment) spy series, Edward Aarons authored over 30 crime-noir novels under pseudonyms including Paul Ayres and Edward Ronns. I've made it my mission to collect the author's work, particularly his crime-fiction paperbacks, but rarely ever read him. After my lukewarm appraisal of his 1947 mystery Terror in the Town, I've ditched the author for over two years now. Fully rehabilitated, I decided to read The Net. It was originally published by Graphic Mystery in 1953 under the name Edward Ronns.

Like the author's prior novels Death in a Lighthouse (1938), The Sinners (1953), Come Back, My Love (1953) and They All Ran Away (1955), The Net has a seaside or lakeside nautical theme. It seems to be a common thread weaving together Aarons' descriptive tales of mystery and murder. Like Terror in the Town (1947), the novel is set in a sleepy New England town where average people begin to do very bad things.

Watching the madness unfold is Barney, a prize fighter who receives a letter from his estranged brother Henry to return to Easterly, the brothers' hometown. It's there where Barney learns that Henry's fishing business is facing financial ruin. The catalyst is a man named Peter Hurd, a wealthy business magnate who has bought out the town's fishermen. As a final holdout, Henry is being bullied and stripped of resources and manpower. Upon Barney's arrival, Henry's ship is struck by an adversarial vessel in the dense fog. The casualties are two of Henry's longtime laborers.

As the narrative deepens, Aarons introduces a number of connecting plot threads. One is Barney's fight manager Gus and a $6K bet that Barney can knock off a top middle-weight contender. Barney's training and conditioning for the fight is mixed into a love triangle with his old flame Jo and a hothouse nymph named Lil. Once the body count reaches a surprising height, Barney is forced into a fugitive role as he digs into the killer's identity while staying ahead of a sheriff that's financially backed by Hurd.

I really enjoyed this tightly woven mystery. Despite having a number of revolving characters and plot devices, the narrative remains consistently plausible. Aarons is such a descriptive writer and paints the portrait of this seaside town incredibly well. The story's soundscape is the crashing of waves and ocean spray on the rocks, the creaking of the old schooners, the blaring of the fog horns and small town chatter of harbors, docks and fish. Visually, it's the foggy coast, the illumination of the lamplight on the dark waters and the sheen of brass locks on old discarded trunks. While it has the makings of a cozy New England mystery, the narrative is a more violent, hardboiled detective story as Barney delves into the town's history to unmask this brutal killer.

Shame on me for discarding Aarons after one subpar novel. I'm thankful I revisited this section of my shelves to discover an entertaining vintage thriller. The Net is an above average mystery that combines all of the crime-noir and hardboiled elements we know and love into a compelling and impressive quick read. There have been numerous reprints of the novel so please go hunt down a used copy. You won't be disappointed.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 8, 2019

Sam Durell #33: Assignment-Bangkok

Between 1955 and 1976, Edward S. Aarons wrote 42 installments of his series starring a Cajun CIA field operative named Sam Durrell in a variety of international assignments. My limited experience with the series is that they can be enjoyed in any order, so I picked up 1972’s “Assignment-Bangkok” purely for the prospect of a fun spy adventure set in Thailand.

The assignment itself involves bringing home a CIA colleague named Mike Slocum who has gone dark somewhere in the jungles of Northeast Thailand where Durell sent him to scout for a new threat emanating from Red China. Before hitting the Thai jungles to find and recover his missing operative, Durrell must spend some time in the capital city of Bangkok gathering leads...and some operational support.

The formula for many of the “Assignment” novels finds Durell assembling unlikely people in his orbit to complete the mission, and “Assignment-Bangkok” seems to be built on that same platform (kinda like the Blues Brothers getting the band together). The team he assembles includes a Buddhist monk who is actually a CIA sleeper agent living a life of contemplative meditation and a female industrialist with a personal stake in Slocum’s well-being. 

The assignment becomes intertwined with the refineries in the Golden Triangle turning opium into heroin, and the armed factions who want to ensure their operations continue uninterrupted. Within this subplot, there’s a compelling mystery as Durell works to identify the drug lord while staying one step in front of corrupted local officials.

As a series hero, I’ve always found Durell’s personality to be rather wooden. He’s not nearly the fully-realized character of James Bond or Matt Helm. But the Cajun is smart, competent, and patriotic protagonist who is thrust into several difficult and life-threatening situations in this Thai adventure that he navigates quite well. Aarons’ writing is well-researched and never dull, and he has a knack for creating an interesting supporting cast of characters to support and oppose Durell. Overall, “Assignment-Bangkok” is the best Durell novel I’ve read to date, and anyone with an interest in Thailand-based Cold War adventures will be pleased with this installment. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 30, 2018

Terror in the Town

Edward S. Aarons released “Terror in the Town” in 1947, just two years after finishing his service in the US Coast Guard and nine years from his debut novel “Death in a Lighthouse”. While known prominently for his long-running espionage series 'Assignment', typically called 'Sam Durell', Aarons wrote nearly 30 mystery and thriller novels under the pseudonym Edward Ronns (among others) and his own. “Terror in the Town” utilizes Aarons' early experience with those genres to create a suspenseful Gothic thriller that shapes up as your typical whodunit.

A sleepy seaside town in the northeastern US sets the tone and pace of the novel. I hesitate to use the term “Gothic”, but it does seem to fit with the narrative's isolation and atmosphere – windswept dark streets, shadowed manors, suicide cliffs and robust rooms cast in deep shadow. The town has it's “terror” to contend with – a strangler on the loose knocking off citizens. Young and beautiful Verity is the import, new to the town and married to the newspaper owner Jess. Early on she learns that an escaped inmate from the local asylum, Manuel, may be on the loose and the killer behind the most recent murder. As the book plods along, more murders occur and Verity begins suspecting her own husband as the killer.

“Terror in the Town” left me lethargic in places, counting down pages until the murderer is revealed. There's a little backstory regarding a famed ship, a family secret and some lost diamonds, and that aspect might be just enough to lure in the mystery or action genre fans. For me, I was planning on enjoying an early slasher entry. It is, but just not a very exciting one. The seaside town harboring secrets with a killer on the loose is strong, but Aarons in his early development just boggles it all down to a lot of nonsense. Ultimately, the cover is far better than the book.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Hell to Eternity

Edward S. Aarons started his writing career cranking out short stories for the pulps under the name Edward Ronns. The popularity of men’s paperback original novels in the 1950s gave Aarons a market to spread his wings with his stand-alone men’s crime and adventure books. His most successful venture was the Sam Durrell 'Assignment' series of spy novels that spanned over 40 installments between 1955 and 1970.

“Hell to Eternity” is an anomaly in Aarons’ body of work. It’s a 1960 Fawcett Gold Medal novelization of a screenplay (written by someone else) based on a true story from World War II. Although the events in the book ostensibly happened, the story has been filtered through the meat grinder of time and fictionalization: events occurred in 1944 that were recounted to a screenwriter 15 years later that were adapted for a book by the successful action novelist. This is good news for a reader who wants to enjoy a kick-ass war novel that reads nothing like a high school history textbook. The fact that the hero was a real guy is just an added bonus.

“Hell to Eternity” is the story of Hispanic USMC Private Guy Gabaldon and his experience at the Battle of Saipan during the war. For those without a deep knowledge of history, here’s what you need to know: Saipan is a small island in the Pacific about 135 miles from Guam and 1500 miles from Tokyo. The island was taken over by the Japanese during World War I and liberated by American troops during the sequel war. The isolated nature of this event allows the reader to enjoy the story of this battle without taking a deep dive into all the war’s machinations. It’s a bite-size story in a super-size war.

The reader is in good hands with Aarons as the storyteller. He introduces us to Gabaldon as he and his fellow Marines are positively terrified at the prospect of fighting the Japanese on the heavily-fortified island of Saipan. Flashbacks to Gabaldon’s childhood give us insight into his humble beginnings and the circumstances that taught a poor Los Angeles kid to speak fluent Japanese after he developed close relations in that immigrant community. As always, Aaron’s writing is superb, and the reader really comes to know young Gabaldon as a person while creating a rooting interest in his survival and success on this important mission.

For his part, Gabaldon is an understandable and imperfect hero. Fresh out of boot camp and scared out of his wits, he is far from a typical action star as he storms the beach on Saipan under enemy fire. He’s also conflicted as he sees Japanese soldiers dying at his feet because the immigrant community meant so much to him growing up. Flashbacks to Gabaldon’s life following Pearl Harbor and the internment of his Japanese-American friends add additional moral nuance to this exciting adventure story.

The interior of Saipan is a mountainous jungle pocked with caves deep into the woods. Those caves became fortifications and hiding places for the Japanese soldiers during the U.S. invasion. These hideouts serve as a great set-piece for Aarons to show us the way Gabaldon uses his language skills to coax enemy soldiers from the safety of their hiding places into surrender and interrogation. Meanwhile, there are plenty of bloody battles as the Marines fight Japanese Imperial soldiers armed with both guns and samurai swords. Aarons knows his way around a good action scene, and “Hell to Eternity” has plenty.

Later in life, Gabaldon went on to become a losing candidate for the U.S. Congress and the owner of a seafood business on Saipan where he lived as a civilian for 20 years before relocating to Florida for his final years. Before his 2006 death, Gabaldon wrote a non-fiction account of his war experiences called “Saipan: Suicide Island.” I don’t know much about Gabaldon’s own book, but there’s no way it’s more entertaining and exciting than Aaron’s fictionalized version of the story. “Hell to Eternity” is essential reading for fans of pulpy WW2 adventures. It will fit perfectly on the shelf next to Len Levinson’s 'Rat Bastards' series. Highly recommended.