EDWARD S. AARONS – Assignment–Stella Marni

Gold Medal 666; paperback original. First printing, April 1957. Reprinted several times: as 906 (2nd pr., 1959), k1515 (4th pr., 1965), d1729 (5th pr., 1966), T2308 (6th pr., 1970), and M2949 (1973).

   Search as I may, I cannot determine what the number and date of the third printing might be. Although, of course, I fully realize that I may be the only person reading this who may care. The data as given above may also be suspect, it is true, determined as it was largely from listings on ABE and elsewhere, which is hardly the most reliable way of doing bibliographic research.

   But one thing that is clear is that the book, published as the fourth in the Sam Durell “Assignment” series, came out early enough to be reprinted again and again as later ones came along. (In the same way the the oldest child in the family gets the vast majority of the appearances in the family’s photo album.) What is not so obvious from the bibliographic data is that the book is not among the better ones in the series.

   At first I thought that this may have been due to the fact that the action takes place solely in the five boroughs of New York City. It’s been a while since I read one of the books in the series, but what I remember always enjoying is Aarons’ detailed descriptions of the exotic places of the world where he would place Durell next. But that’s not really the problem Even this early in the series Aarons shows how he could make even the most mundane places suddenly come to focus, and with a fresh perspective. Here, for example, is Sam on page 87 as he is tracking down a frightened girl’s father – well, all right: Stella Marni’s father – who has been kidnapped and may be hidden away on a freighter docked along Manhattan’s west side:

    … She was a frightened girl hiding behind her mask of cool and impersonal detachment. He knew her now. And he knew she was not the proud goddess disdainful of men, the remote and chilling woman she had seemed to be.

   He pushed her aside in his mind with a deliberate effort. Nobody had challenged him in the busy shed, where he wandered alongside the white, rust-flaked plates of the freighter. An officer on the bridge was shouting something down to the longshoremen astern, his voice garbled and echoing through a hand amplifying phone. Most of the loading was being done through the cargo hatches aft of the center superstructure. But there were two loading ports in the side of the ship open to gangways nearby. So far as Durell could see, no one was on guard, and several men came and went on errands by that route, to and from the ship.

   He walked that way. He had no longshoreman’s badge authorizing him to be here, and he could be challenged at any moment …

Stella Marni

   Stella Marni is a crucial element in a campaign by several communist countries to “call home” refugees who’ve come to the United States seeking political asylum. Convinced that all is well back in their native land, several such people have gone back, only to never to be seen again. As a famous successful photographic model, Stella Marni has gone before a Senate committee stating her willingness to return to her native Hungary. Sam wonders why, and if there is any way to change her mind. The final key to her mysterious change of heart: her missing father.

   Stella is also one of those women who draw men to her like the proverbial moths to a flame, and even Sam may not be immune. On pages 72-73 he has a long and increasingly bitter confrontation with his close lady friend Deirdre, who, although she herself asked Sam to help Stella in the beginning, is also beginning to have second thoughts. As it has transpired, Sam has spent the previous night with Stella, causing Deirdre to become suspicious and increasingly jealous. And even though the night spent together by Sam and Stella was innocent enough, the fact remains that Deirdre has every right to be.

   The primary focus of this tale is therefore Stella: as an enchantress, as a unwitting Jezebel, and yet as an innocent victim. And if you are beginning to wonder if this makes the book a “cozy” in any sense of the term, the answer is no. There are some extremely tough fight scenes in this book also, one example of which is on page 127. (Severely tempted to add quotes both here and up above a paragraph, I decided to reconsider when I looked and saw just how long each of the insertions would have to be, in order to convey the full effect.)

   And this is strange. As I am typing up my comments on the book just now, based on the notes that I took (over a month ago) I am suddenly discovering that I may have liked the book more than I thought I did. But no, it is not so. The last comment I see that I made is that it is “lightweight at the core.”

   Which meant at the time, and still so now, that there are no twists or surprising turns of the plot. Paths I anticipated did not occur, even the less imaginative ones. The story has but one direction to go, and that it does so with skill – and a modicum of finesse – still does not mean that it is not going in any more than in one direction.

— September 2006

Postscript: I wonder somewhat about Deirdre. Being the girl friend of an ruthless CIA agent whose jobs continue to take him to exotic places around the world, places in which equally exotic women are always available and/or near at hand, would hardly seem ideal for a long-lasting relationship. The future for her appears rather blaak and dismal. All seems well again at the end of this book, but just how long, I wonder (that is to say, for how many more books) does Deirdre manage to stick it out? Anyone know?