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Assignment—Star Stealers

Assignment—Star Stealers by Edward S. AaronsAssignment Star Stealers front
Fawcett Books, 1970
Price I paid: 75¢

Someone was hijacking satellite secrets from the Big Three. Even the Russians and the Chinese were willing to deal with Sam Durell to get them back. But Sam didn’t like the way they played. They always cheated.

So there was Sam with nothing between him and The Riddle but the naked Sahara crawling with sudden death, double dealers, and a missing bag of electronic tricks that could play havoc with the heavens.

One U.S. agent and a million dollars had already been lost in the search.

Sam figured this was one time when he’d better go it alone. Then along came Amanda…a lovely, very willing widow whose assets were literally earth-shaking.

Sam found a new way to reach the stars—and almost stumbled into eternity.

A note on the title of this book. It is presented in three different ways throughout the cover, spine, and inside. The cover presents it with no punctuation, while the spine has it as I place it in the header to this review. The inside of the book says Assignment…Star Stealers, which is the version I like least. Wikipedia lists it with the em-dash, so that’s what I went with. Wikipedia also tells me that this book is the thirtieth in the series. There was no way for me to figure that out on my own, since the inside cover, while it does list some of the other books in the series, definitely does not list another twenty-nine, nor does it list them in chronological order. In fact, it lists them alphabetically, making me think this series might have been a precursor to Nora Roberts’s A is for Alibi and such and such series. Alas, that is also not the case.

Being number thirty in the series, the book really doesn’t waste much time introducing us to the main character or anything. It just jumps right in. Even Penetrator novels have more character building exposition than this book. All we get at the start is that our hero’s name is Sam Durell, he’s some kind of spy for the American government, and he’s really good at it.

The back cover doesn’t give us much to go on either. I’ve learned not to trust them, but this one had a bit of writing gold in it worth mentioning, I guess. The femme of this book, Amanda, apparently has “literally earth-shaking assets.” So at first I assumed that was referring to her t-and-a, as it were, but that was not in fact the case. Color me surprised. She is, in fact, extraordinarily rich, seeing as how her late husband ran some big company that dealt with satellites. When he died, she got control of the company.

Either way, those assets are not “literally earth-shaking.” When I think “literally earth-shaking,” I think “Yo mama so fat, she sat down and ruined the work on my Etch-a-Sketch.”

Schlock Value is pleased to bring you the first new entry into the Yo Mama canon since Matthew Arnold’s “Yo mama so ignorant, her armies clash by night.”

I am sorry.

Anyway, the book. As we’ve seen, Sam Durell is the hero and he’s on a mission. Somebody is stealing satellite intel from the American, Russian, and Chinese governments and then selling it back to them for lots of money. Lots of money. I mean, it’s crushing the U.S. treasury just having to keep up with how much money these guys are demanding.

We’re paying them off a million dollars at a time.

Is it just that this book was written in 1970 that makes that a lot of money, or did the author have absolutely no sense of scale when it comes to the U.S. government and its money? Let’s learn something!

  • In 1969 the estimated cost of the Apollo program came to $23.9 billion.
  • In 1970 Richard Nixon asked Congress for $155 million to aid the Cambodian government.
  • In 1970 Riverfront Stadium was completed, with a final cost of $45 million.

Okay, I’m thinking a bad sense of scale, then.

So Sam is in Morocco investigating this whole shebang where he meets Amanda Coppitt, who grew up in the same small Louisiana town as Sam. Amanda is now into some real cashola now that her husband is dead, and it seems that her stepson, Richard, is involved in this million dollar scheme to extort three world governments. So she’s decided that she wants to help out of respect for her late husband, or something. Still not sure about that.

She’s deeply in grieving for her late husband, but that doesn’t stop her and Sam from rocking the casbah about every fifty pages or so.

Sam’s contact in Morocco, Olliver, is, well, he’s the bad guy. There, I said it. Spoilers, I guess? It was supposed to be a surprise to the reader, but it really wasn’t. I mean, on page two or so he’s described as greedy and untrustworthy, so why did it take until the end of the book to figure it out? Also, he’s a pedophile. That’s made pretty explicitly clear. So yes, he’s the bad guy. Or one of them, anyway. The other one is a Nazi.

I wish I were joking.

Sam runs into his opposite numbers from the Soviet Union and China, spies named Skoll and Chu Li, respectively. Not Chun Li, no matter how many times my hands try to type it. The two of them try to get Sam to pool his resources with theirs, since their own governments are losing their entire economies to these sadistic madmen. He refuses, mainly on the grounds that he doesn’t trust them. That’s pretty good grounds, I guess.

So the real mystery at the beginning of the book involves a guy named Dodd who was essentially the bagman for one of the deliveries of a cool million in US cash. The government figures the way to figure out what happened to him and the money is to give Sam the other half of the US treasury for another delivery and then do what he needs to do.

When he finds Dodd, the bag of money turns out to be just full of paper so the bad guys killed him. Somebody switched the bag! Where’s all the money from all the taxpayers? This will ruin the economy!

Thing is, Sam tries to make the same dropoff and it turns out that he doesn’t have any money either! Somebody has set them up!

It was Olliver the pedophile. But that information comes later.

Sam escapes capture and/or murder and makes his way back to civilization, specifically Zurich, in an effort to figure out what all has gone wrong. He finds a trail leading all the way back to Morocco, and after one or two sex scenes hops on a plane back to where the book takes place. Seriously, what was the point of that?

Sam and Amanda (Samanda?) find Richard horribly beaten. Apparently he was found by Skoll and Chu Li first, and they tried to get some information from him. Now he’s completely over-the-bend because his gentle mind couldn’t conceive of getting roughed up by Communist spies.

Okay, something about Richard. We’re told over and over again that he’s a genius, and that his defection to this unnamed bad guys is a huge blow to the American spy satellite program. But nothing we’re told about him actually confirms the fact that he’s a genius. All we’ve got to go on is the word of the narrator.

That got me thinking, actually. Writing a character as a genius seems to be a pretty difficult thing to do. After all, by their very nature, they’re going to know a bunch of things that the author doesn’t, right? That would make it pretty difficult for the author to illustrate how smart this guy is because there’s no real metric for it. Sure, you can say he has a high IQ or that he holds doctorates from every European university, but that doesn’t really mean genius necessarily. At least not to me. Those are the kinds of attributes you give to the genius villain, in my mind. Batman doesn’t have a degree, is all I’m saying.

So what can an author do? If you want to say that a character is an excellent sharpshooter, you have them shoot something really far away really accurately. If you want to say he’s an amazing athlete, you have him run a mile in three-and-a-half minutes. But if you want us to think your character is a genius, you actually have to make something up. Say he solved a well-known mathematical problem when he was ten. Say he cured cancer with a garden hose and carrots. Give me something so that I’m shown, and not told, that this character is as smart as you say he is.

So with Richard in tow, Sam and Amanda set out to find the bad guys’ hidden base in the desert. Why did they bring Richard the babbling genius idiot? I dunno. I guess time was of the essence. After all, the commie spies are ahead of them and we can’t let them win.

But wait! Along the way they find Chu Li’s body. Looks like even commies can’t trust other commies. Or, well, slightly different kinds of commies.

Finding the body is actually sort of a good thing, because it makes Sam realize they must be close to the hidden base. He sets up Chekov’s signal finder (he got it earlier in the book from Not-Q), and discover the hidden base deep within the caves of the Sahara desert.

So the bad guys have been intercepting satellite signals and then selling off the information to the governments. I’ve covered that. What I still don’t understand is how that works. This hidden base is more-or-less a couple of retractable satellite dishes in the middle of the Sahara. How do you intercept a radio signal? Either they’re transmitted toward a target or radially in all directions. Or am I wrong about this?

It turns out that the guy running the base is a former Nazi named Dr. Handel. The fact that he’s a former Nazi doesn’t have a lot to do with the plot other than to tell us he’s the real bad guy. He was, in fact, previously working for the American government on spy satellite technology, because yes we did in fact employ former Nazis to get our space program going and no, I’m not proud of it either but at least we got to the moon first is all I’m saying. He defected, apparently because there’s good money in defecting. He doesn’t seem to have any kind of ideology, Nazi or otherwise, as his motivation. He just likes money and figured out a brilliant way to get some that obviously wouldn’t backfire ever.

He’s a load-bearing boss, so when he dies Sam and Amanda have to escape the base before it explodes. On the way out they find Skoll and he gets out too so that he can be in the next thrilling adventure I guess.

That’s not the end of the book, though! We still have to get Olliver, the guy we knew was a bad guy all along even if Sam (the super-spy, mind you) didn’t! Remember when we discovered that the bags of money Dodd and Sam had were full of useless paper? Well, Olliver did that. He tries to make off with the money, but he gets killed in the pursuit. Not by Sam, mind you, but by the Arab girl he was all pedophile-y with. And that’s the book.

Here’s the thing: this book didn’t actually seem all that bad until I finished with it and started thinking about it. Honestly, while I was reading it, I thought it was going to turn out pretty good. And in some ways, it was pretty decent. It had a certain internal logic, and while he was just a James Bond ripoff Sam Durell was actually a pretty decent protagonist of the standard grizzled too-many-battles-but-it’s-my-life stripe.

One thing about this book was that it very occasionally had some really odd word choices and phrasing. Nothing too bad, this isn’t like that other spy book I read with it’s consistent awfulness, but very occasionally the book would use words that, while correct, just struck me as odd. At one point a character speaks between “mouthsful” of food. I’d’ve used “mouthfuls.” The little squiggly red line concurs with my judgement. Sam uses a set of “picklocks.” And several, several times it talks about how a character “lighted” a cigarette. Edward S. Aarons was an American author, so this isn’t some kind of weird ESL thing. Was that just how people talked in 1970? Or maybe it’s not Aarons’s fault, but Fawcett books had an idiot copy-editor? I wonder if we’ll ever know.

Oh, and incidentally, I picked this book up in the science fiction section of my used book store. I guess it was just because of the title. I am not happy with them.


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