The prolific output of American-born Edward S. Aarons (1916-1975) covered both the espionage and crime genres. There’s an understandable tendency to assume that a spy fiction writer who emerged in the 1950s was probably to some extent at least an Ian Fleming imitator. In the case of Aarons it isn’t really true. The James Bond books did not start to achieve spectacular sales in the US until the end of the decade by which time the Sam Durell series was well and truly established. It’s also important to point out that the US had its own spy fiction tradition. American writers like F. Van Wyck Mason and John P. Marquand had been writing fine spy adventures since the 30s.
There’s very little real resemblance between the Bond novels and the Sam Durell books. What made the Bond novels so seductive was not so much the sex and violence as the wealth and glamour of the backgrounds, and the eroticisation of power. The Durell tales have much more of a pulp feel and Durell himself, although he is naturally brave and resourceful, is just a professional doing his job.
This assignment is tricky even by the standards of the assignments that a spy can expect to face. There are two rogue factions within the Kremlin. One faction, the extreme faction, wants a nuclear war with the US immediately and believes it has a way of winning such a war. That faction also wants a return to unquestioned one-man rule. The other faction, the moderate faction, wants to stop them. The CIA is backing the second faction but it’s at best a short-term marriage of convenience - the moderate faction is still composed of loyal communists who do not trust the United States and especially do not trust the CIA.
Sam Durell has to link up with the moderate faction and he also has to make contact with another CIA agent in Leningrad, an agent who is apparently either dying or in extreme danger or perhaps both.
For the CIA this was a rush job and it’s kind of improvised. As often happens with rush jobs it starts to go wrong right at the beginning and it keeps on going wrong. Sam makes contact with members of the moderate faction but they are even more suspicious of him than he’d expected and it’s obvious that any kind of co-operation is going to be very difficult. They expect him to betray them and in fact if he follows his instructions that’s exactly what he’ll he be doing. He suspects they’re going to betray him and they’ve made it clear that they intend to do so.
His main contact is an attractive young woman named Valya. Appearances can be deceptive. Valya has killed at least nine men so her ruthlessness is not in doubt. She’ll work with him, up to a point. Her friend Mikhail is a bigger problem - he is cowardly and unstable and he conceives an instant hatred for Sam Durell. To make things worse Sam and Valya are already being pursued by implacable MVD man Kronev.
The plot is basically an extended chase, or to be more accurate it’s a series of interlocking hunts with the hunters being hunted themselves. There’s also a web of intersecting loyalties and potential betrayals with uneasy alliances that could turn in an instant to deadly enmity.
There’s as much action as any spy fan could reasonably wish for and the action is handled skillfully. And there’s a dash of romance.
I suspect the author had no real knowledge of the Russian geography that he describes but he fakes it well and confidently. The paranoiac atmosphere that is an essential ingredient in the spy genre is present in abundance.
There’s no characterisation to speak of, but this is a pulpy action-fueled spy thriller so who cares?
The one real weakness, and it’s a minor quibble, is that Durell isn’t quite cold-blooded enough to be an entirely convincing spy. He’s not exactly a Boy Scout but he does have slight Boy Scout tendencies. He lacks the ruthlessness of Fleming’s Bond or Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm.
The plot has a couple of twists that are somewhat surprising for a Cold War spy thriller, especially from the 1950s.
What matters is that the book is fast-moving and exciting and very entertaining. Recommended.