Friday, January 20, 2023

Edward S. Aarons' Assignment Helene

Assignment Helene, published in 1959, is the tenth of the Sam Durell spy thrillers written by Edward S. Aarons (six more were published after Aarons’ death credited to his brother Will but in fact ghost-written by Lawrence Hall).

CIA agent Sam Durell has been sent to the (mythical) newly created island republic of Sarangap in South-East Asia to investigate the murder of the US consul in the old city of Sarangap. The new nation is highly unstable. There’s a rebel army in the hills trying to overthrow the government. The US doesn’t want that to happen but they don’t want to get officially involved. The rebels might be bank-rolled by the Chinese or by Taiwan but either way it is known that an American is involved in running guns to those rebels and that has the potential to cause embarrassment. The deceased consul, Hansen, had presumably been close to finding out the identity of that American.

Durell arrives in Sarangap accompanied by Hansen’s widow, a glamorous movie star. She had been estranged from her husband and it’s odd that she now seems to so keen to go to Sarangap to collect his body.

The first thing Durell discovers is that his cover has been blown. He also discovers that there was a romantic triangle involving Hansen, Hansen’s wife and the Vice-Consul, an arrogant Ivy League pup named Twill.

Sam is eager to interview the three Americans whom Hansen suspected of gun-running but one (a peace activist) has disappeared and one is probably going to be too drunk to provide much useful information. And of course it soon becomes evident that somebody is prepared to disrupt Durell’s investigation by having him killed.

Durell finds himself in the jungle with two beautiful women, neither of whom he can trust, a possibly equally untrustworthy American diplomat and a broken-down American ex-intelligence agent. They fall into the hands of the dangerous rebel leader Trang. What all of these people have in common is that it seems that would all like to see Sam Durell dead.

Sam Durell isn’t quite a stereotypical square-jawed all-American hero. He has just a bit of psychological complexity. He’s not very ideologically driven. In a vague way he believes in freedom and democracy and all that stuff and he’s loyal to his country but he’s capable of understanding that people in the Third World often have very valid reasons for disliking and resenting America and he’s capable of admitting that US foreign policy is sometimes disturbingly wrong-headed and selfish. 

The Sam Durell spy thrillers do not belong to the cynical pessimistic school of spy fiction typified by Greene, le Carre and Deighton but they’re also not quite simplistic exercises in flag-waving.

In this book Durell faces some genuine moral dilemmas and while he’s keen to do the right thing he has to admit that he has no idea what the morally correct decision might be. He knows where his duty as a CIA agent lies but it might not be consistent with his duty as a human being. And Durell isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of merely following orders like an automaton. He’s aware that people sometimes do bad things for good reasons.

The two women are Hansen’s wife and Hélène, part Sarangapese and part European and all dangerous. Either woman could turn out to be the femme fatale of the story and just about any of the main characters could be the murderer. Durell wants the murderer.

This is therefore part spy fiction and part murder mystery and the mystery angle is handled pretty well with some decent misdirection.

There’s no shortage of action either.

Maybe Aarons wasn’t quite in the premier league as far as spy fiction writers are concerned but he wasn’t far out of that league. Among American spy writers of the same era Donald Hamilton was better but Aarons is very much worth reading. He’s definitely a cut above the average pulp spy writer.  Assignment Helene is highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of other Sam Durell spy novels, Assignment…Suicide and Assignment - Karachi.

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