Showing posts with label Secret Mission. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Secret Mission. Show all posts

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Secret Mission #01 - Peking

Don Smith’s Secret Mission series ran for 21 installments between 1968 and 1978. The novels star an international businessman named Phil Sherman who takes dangerous assignments from the CIA, and the books tend to be way better than you’d expect from the publisher, Award Books. Although the series can be read in any order, today we visit the first installment, Secret Mission: Peking.

When the reader first meets our narrator Phil, he’s preparing for an exhibition in Prague where he hopes to sell his products - “electronic computers” (remember, it’s 1968) - to some communist bloc countries. A shadowy U.S. Government operative requests that Phil sell a very specific IBM computer to a Czech electronics broker who would then sell it to Red China. The computer is destined for a Chinese atomic research facility to facilitate the manufacture of a nuclear bomb.

What the Chinese don’t know is that the computer Phil is selling contains a hidden bomb trigger designed to level the Chinese atomic facility (recall that computers were a lot bigger back then.) However, even after the sale is consummated, the U.S. government is not done with Phil. Something is wrong with the computer’s inner workings (besides the bomb trigger), and they need Phil to travel into Red China and fix the giant IBM.

Reluctantly, Phil travels to Peking, and we get a very enjoyable “amateur thrust into the world of spies and intrigue” plot. Phil is a delightful narrator, and a sexy Chinese translator is assigned to accompany him on his mission. Can Phil fix the computer and have it installed in the Chinese atomic weapons facility? More relevantly, can he set the trigger and get out of Peking before things start exploding?

Despite some slow stretches and a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, Secret Mission: Peking was a solid first-installment and definitely worth reading. It’s not as cartoonishly-exciting as a Nick Carter: Killmaster novel, but it’s more fun than a cerebral John LeCarre espionage potboiler. Phil Sherman is an excellent narrator to take the reader on this suspenseful ride. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, November 2, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 68

Episode 68 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast features an in-depth look into Don Smith’s “Secret Mission” spy series. Also: Shopping trips! Richard Stark! Jack Higgins! Scary Hillbilly Fiction! And much, much more! Listen on any podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE 

Listen to "Episode 68: Don Smith" on Spreaker.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Secret Mission #17 - The Libyan Contract

Don Smith’s ‘Secret Mission’ books star Phil Sherman, an international businessman turned CIA operative on a variety of international assignments for 21 paperbacks spanning 1968 to 1978. It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but I think the ‘Secret Mission’ books are consistently better than Edward Aarons’ similar, but more successful, ‘Assignment’ books starring Sam Durrell.

The series can be enjoyed in any order, so I picked the 17th installment, “The Libyan Contract” from 1974 for my next adventure with Sherman. The book opens with a Swiss bank receiving a $200,000 wire transfer from Dallas into the numbered account belonging to a South African assassin who recently escaped from prison. In 1974, the JFK assassination was enough of a fresh wound that when “Dallas and assassin” are mentioned together, the banker quietly notifies Interpol.

News of this mysterious money transfer eventually makes its way to the desk of Sherman’s boss at the CIA who is appropriately worried that the assassin, a notorious racist, may be targeting a U.S. black leader. Because of the potential domestic threat, Sherman teams up with an FBI agent to investigate the situation. The disparity of the by-the-book FBI man and freewheeling Sherman is one of the many pleasures in the narrative.

The manhunt for the assassin quickly becomes international and the FBI is left behind on U.S. soil while Sherman handles the globetrotting operation. Sherman suspects that the target of the assassination is a middle-eastern leader and tracks the killer through England, Brussels, Italy, and Malta (oddly, given the title, not Libya). There’s also plenty of sex and violence along the way leading up to the climactic final confrontation between Sherman and the would-be killer.

For reasons unclear to me, the Secret Mission novels have never been reprinted or digitized since their original release. This is a shame because it’s a quality series that deserves to be remembered. However, “The Libyan Contract” just isn’t the best of the bunch. The plotting was choppy and generally imperfect leading up to a rather abrupt ending. If you’re working your way through the series, you still should read this one as it wasn’t bad. However, “Secret Mission: North Korea” was a way better installment if you want to get started.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Secret Mission #15 - Haitian Vendetta

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.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Secret Mission #08 - Secret Mission: North Korea

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.

Odd Postscript:

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.