Saturday, March 20, 2021

Edward S. Aarons' Assignment - Karachi

Edward S. Aarons (1916-1975) was an American writer whose output included the 42 Sam Durell “Assignment” spy thrillers. The first of these, Assignment to Disaster, was published in 1945. Sam Durell (codename Cajun) is a CIA agent whose cases take him to numerous exotic locales. Assignment - Karachi, published in 1962, was the sixteenth book in the series.

Sam Durell’s latest assignment is to act as bodyguard to wealthy socialite Sarah Standish. Sarah is financing a new expedition to S-5, a rugged peak in the Himalayas. The previous expedition ended in disaster. The ostensible purpose of the expedition is to find a legendary crown given to Alexander the Great. The CIA has no interest in that. What they are interested in is the huge deposits of nickel which are rumoured to lie beneath S-5.

The day he arrives in Karachi, in the province of Sindh in Pakistan, someone tries to kill Sam Durell. Maybe there’s been a security leak. Maybe he can trust K’Ayub, the colonel in Pakistan’s intelligence services with whom he is supposed to be working. And then there’s the problem of Sarah Standish, a strong-willed woman who doesn’t think she needs protection. To make things more complicated Sarah has fallen in love, for the first time, with an Austrian mountaineer named Rudi.

The expedition includes Rudi’s sister Alessa, an archaeologist. It also includes Hans Steicher, another Austrian mountaineer. Hans is in love with Alessa so when Sam and Alessa start getting romantically involved Hans is not pleased. And he could be a very dangerous man. There’s clearly plenty of potential here for conflicted loyalties and betrayals. That’s without taking into consideration the fact that at least one member of the expedition is a spy who intends to sell the secret of the location of the nickel deposits to the highest bidder. So that adds even more potential for betrayal, which is of course what you want in a good spy thriller.

One of the survivors of the original expedition, Dr Ernst Bergmann, has vanished. Bergmann is a geologist and he probably knew where the nickel deposits were to be found.

Durell has several contacts in Karachi who could provide useful information. Of course the contacts are entirely untrustworthy scoundrels but that’s the espionage game for you.

Sam Durell is a professional and what really worries him is that there are amateurs mixed up in this case. Amateurs in the espionage game are a danger to everyone and they’re a particular danger to themselves. Especially amateurs like Sarah’s secretary Jane King who is playing a particularly dangerous game.

There’s also the problem of Red Oboe. Red Oboe is a mysterious spy about whom nothing certain is known but the name has been mentioned in Karachi. Red Oboe may have been connected with the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), an anti-Nazi wartime spy network. If Red Oboe is in Karachi it’s a reasonable guess he is mixed up in the intrigues centred on the nickel deposits. Where Red Oboe’s loyalties might lie is anybody’s guess.

Durell is a pretty tough guy but he is human and he makes the occasional slip-up. He’s also not immune to the charms of the female of the species and he’s not as coldly calculating and ruthless as contemporary fictional spies such as Matt Helm.

There are murders and kidnappings and it all leads to a climax on the slopes of S-5, with the mountains providing as much danger as the spies.

Aarons has no great literary aspirations but he knows how to tell an action-packed story which moves along at a very satisfying pace. His prose is workmanlike but effective. There’s a lot less sex than you’d find in a Bond novel and while there’s violence it isn’t graphic.

Aarons was a second-tier spy writer and the Assignment books are not as good as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels but they’re still very enjoyable. Assignment - Karachi is good stuff and it’s highly recommended.

I reviewed one of the earlier Sam Durell books, Assignment…Suicide, a while back.

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