Assignment—Nuclear Nude by Edward S. Aarons
Price I paid: 75¢
For Sam Durell the action starts with a walk in Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.,…and ends in an international race for a trillion-dollar formula.
Along the way he picks up a bevy of beautiful hippies. Together they travel from the lush keys of Florida to the Seven Sin Islands of Singapore.
There Sam hunts for Madame Hung, an Oriental power broker with a taste for debauchery. That’s when the world’s most durable secret agent offers himself as a fly to Madame Hung’s spider.
Then one of the free-loving flower children pulls a super double cross, and Sam is caught by two killers in a torture dungeon—Chinese style.
I found another Assignment— book! It’s been a long while since the last one, Assignment—Star Stealers, and I’ll admit I never had much interest in revisiting this series. What changed my mind? It was 100% the title of this novel. The cover didn’t hurt. Why did Marlo Thomas steal that painting? What’s she doing with a spear gun? Why is she naked, except for sandals? I had to know, dear reader!
I’m sure you’ll be surprised, but Marlo Thomas is nowhere to be found in this novel. There is a quartet of “beautiful hippies” but none of them are described as looking like That Girl. There is, however, a painting, and it’s important. A spear gun also makes an appearance, so that’s nice.
One thing Nuclear Nude had over Star Stealers was that Sam Durell, the protagonist, was better fleshed-out. I might be misremembering, but Star Stealers felt like it had no character development at all. Durell was just…there. He was like a blank human upon which the target reader was supposed to superimpose himself. Nuclear Nude avoided that. We got some character backstory. Sam Durell almost came across as human!
We learn that he’s from the Louisiana bayou, that his callsign is “Cajun,” and that he’s had a lot of adventures. That last bit is hardly surprising, since Nuclear Nude is the 27th in the series. It’s a full three books ahead of Star Stealers, which makes me wonder what happened in between them to cause the quality to suffer so much.
Yeah, Nuclear Nude was a lot better than Star Stealers, but please don’t think that I’m going to say it’s a good book. It’s very problematic. It’s got every stereotype against Asians. It’s gross. It’s Yellow Peril writ large. There’s surprisingly little anti-Communism in this book, although it makes an appearance. No, this is a book about how China is going to take over the world and replace all the white people with Buddha statues or something equally stupid.
Before we know any of that, Sam gets recruited into the situation. A General McFee recruits him to take care of a situation, and is very insistent about it, even threatening Sam with a poison needle in an umbrella until Sam agrees to take on the assignment. It’s a big deal, but it takes a while to figure out why.
The fact that there was a mystery throughout the whole book is what kept me going. Well, that and seeing how horrible it would get. You know me well enough by now that I probably shouldn’t have to say that.
See, a painting has been stolen. It’s not even a notable painting. It’s by some hippie schmuck who is not a good painter, although this one is apparently okay. A fella named Clifton C.B. Riddle, one of the richest men in the world, owns it, and he wants it back. Yeah, so mystery one is figuring out what’s so important about this painting in the first place, seeing as how Riddle spent less than a hundred bucks on it. He gives a standard rich tough guy statement like “When I pay for a thing, it’s mine, and I keep what’s mine, blah blah blah,” but we all know there’s more to it than that.
The painting is called The Nuclear Nude. It is a naked lady surrounded by mushroom clouds and stuff. I bet it’s very tasteful and subtle.
Sam agrees to help find the thing, but he’s quickly intercepted by Riddle’s daughter, Linda. Linda is one of the bevy of beautiful hippies this book is supposed to have. She’s both a MacGuffin and a Refrigerator Girl, which tells you a lot about what’s going to happen. She’s not a Fridge Girl for Sam, though, but instead for some sad sack who follows her around a lot, named Denis, who is a physicist.
I’m probably going to jump around this plot a lot, because a lot happens and I can’t remember exactly what order it was in. There was a consistent narrative, at least, which is unlike a lot of other bad spy thrillers.
Anyway, at some point we find out that Denis created a “formula” that has something to do with neutrinos. Using them as a power source somehow? I have no idea how that’s supposed to work.
Almost as soon as Sam meets C.C.B. Riddle and takes the job, he gets fired from that same job! Sam figures that means something weird is happening, so he continues to investigate. He learns that Riddle has dealings with three of the other richest men in the world, and together, they form the Great Quadrangle of Rich Guy Stereotypes.
We’ve got Riddle, the Texas business magnate who is a big tough guy, mustache and all. Han Fei Wu is basically Fu Manchu, mustache and all. Ulrich van Golz is a Nazi, mustache and all. Yusuf Hadad Fazil doesn’t really play that big a role in the story, but he probably made his money selling opium and heroin from Afghanistan before going legit, and maybe he had a mustache?
Each of these stereotypes have daughters, and I’m going to quote their descriptions verbatim from page 27, because it’ll give you a pretty good feel for everything about this book:
The slim, fair Linda Riddle, the taller, firm-breasted, broad-shouldered Valkyrie, Anna-Lise von Golz, the dark and jewel-like Ryana Fazil, of Turkey, and like a young goddess out of China’s misty youth, the girl named Pan.
This book freakin’ hates semicolons!
When they first meet Sam, they’re naked except that they all wear a necklace with what looks like a sunburst or a sunflower on it. I think it comes up again? They try to stop him from either helping their dads or interfering with their dads, I can’t remember, because everything in this book goes kinda crazy after this, what with double-crosses and so forth.
Not long after Sam investigates Harry, the guy who painted the thing, and Ryana Fazil end up being killed! Oh no!
That galvanizes the rest of the girls, who accompany Sam throughout the rest of the book, more or less. They end up going to Singapore and investigating Sam’s main lead on the painting thief, and it’s none other than the deadly Madame Hung!
Oh no, not Madame Hung!
Okay, so I’m being flip here and a little unfair, because the book totally establishes that Sam and Madame Hung have a history, and it even does it pretty well, considering everything. They met up once before, in Iran. According to the footnote, that was in Assignment—Moon Girl. Madame Hung is all of the Yellow Peril stereotypes about mastermind Asian women. She’s like a spider in her web, etc. She’s also a Dragon Lady , with all that entails. And furthermore she’s sadistic, delighting in torture and destruction and murder and all of those things. Sam is scared of her, and its made clear that he’s got good reason to be, even if all those reasons are GROSS AND AWFUL.
There are all sorts of adventures and close calls in Singapore that aren’t worth relating, even if they made sense at the time. One of the tragic things about this book is that narratively it was pretty good. It had plenty of story elements to enjoy, but the story itself was an offensive mess.
One thing worth mentioning is that Anna-Lise, the Nazi’s daughter, attempts to seduce Sam at one point. She fails, but not for lack of trying, considering that the narrator mentions her “proud breasts” what felt like forty times.
In fact, Sam doesn’t do the Horizontal Safety Dance with anybody in this book! I was expecting it to get gross on that level, too, but nope, it was avoided. It’s noteworthy that Sam doesn’t leer at the girls, either, although the narrator sure as hell does. At its worst, Sam regrets that he’s too old for this stuff.
Sam finally makes his way to Madame Hung’s hideout in some kind of Sin Islands off the coast of Singapore. They square off a bit and it turns out that Madame Hung had already captured Linda and is forcing her to dance in a live-action version of the painting. Also, if she tries to stop or leave she’ll be electrocuted to death. She’s saved by Denis, the physicist guy I mentioned earlier, because, yeah, Refrigerator Girl. Denis, emboldened, is now no longer a liability, and Linda falls in love with him finally.
The process of rescuing Linda also causes Sam to knock Madame Hung into the electricity box, electrocuting her. In what is the worst possible thing you can ever write at a time like this, Sam basically says “Yeah, she’s dead, and I’m not going to go five steps in that direction to check because I really want to get out of here.”
I mean, I get that you want to keep a villain around, either for a sequel or a surprising climax or whatever. But there are much better ways to write that. Don’t just go “Should I check if she’s dead? Nah. Even if she’s not, she’s humiliated, which is just as good.” Nothing like that. I’ve seen it too many times, in too many books I’ve reviewed, and it’s never, ever not being the most eye-rolling element in the book. Sometimes that’s saying a lot.
I mean, if your villain-who-isn’t-dead is a mastermind like Madame Hung is supposed to be, why not make it a bigger deal that Sam has to get out of there quickly? Like, she was carrying a dead man’s switch, or she hit the TRAP button at the very last second, or she’s still surrounded by goons and Sam is heavily outnumbered and has to run. Something. ANYTHING.
So after that, Sam tracks down where the painting is and goes to find it. Turns out the plane that was supposed to be carrying it to Singapore crashed. He and the girls all go to recover it, but surprise, Madame Hung is also there because she didn’t die. Also, the businessmen from earlier in the book are all there, until they aren’t because somebody kills them. C.C.C.C.C.C.C.B. Riddle survives, though. I can’t remember why, but Anna-Lise also dies at some point? I think it had something to do with being a Nazi.
Also there is a friend of Sam’s, a fella named Red Rod, who is very good at guerilla warfare. He helps a lot.
Finally Sam squares off against Madame Hung again, although this time she has a protégé! It’s Pan, the one we were led to believe was the Lotus Blossom character! It turns out that she’s evil too! Oh no!
Madame Hung gets flung off a cliff somehow, Pan escapes, and the painting is recovered, along with its weird neutrino secrets.
Denis and Linda get married and everybody lives happily ever after, I guess.
I don’t mind that this book was so convoluted. I did have to leave large swathes of it out of the review, stuff like how Sam is also a member of a super-secret Chinese society called the Five Rubies, which is what allows him to gain entry into a number of places throughout the book. Still, that’s fine. Convolution in a spy novel is pretty par for the course, and Nuclear Nude actually did that okay.
It’s just the overblown Yellow Peril stuff. Thing is, I don’t necessarily feel that Aarons was going for anti-Chinese sentiment in this book. No, he didn’t avoid it, and he sure as hell should have done better, but it’s worth pointing out that every other person in this book was also a stereotypical, stock character. This was just an incredibly lazy book. That doesn’t make it any less problematic, though! It’s definitely a thing worth noting, on a societal level, that when somebody decides not to do any real creative thinking, the default is destructive stereotypes.
Of course, it also doesn’t help the book’s case that Madame Hung was working for Peking the entire time, as well. There’s that wonderful mixture of anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Communist sentiment that really sets my teeth on edge because it’s racism and jingoism all rolled up into a little ridiculous ball that probably carries a tiki torch or something.
I do wonder about how different this book was from Assignment—Star Stealers. While Nuclear Nude was upsetting and bad, it was a much better-written narrative. Even word choices were better. For instance, Star Stealers used the phrase “lighted a cigarette” several times, which just seemed awkward to me. In Nuclear Nude, someone “lit a cigarette,” and it made a lot more sense.
Also, the previous book had some kind of convoluted scheme that might cost the American government, like, a million dollars, and that was presented as a big deal. It was really laughable. Nuclear Nude has a less convoluted scheme, and the stakes are a little more dire. It’s a matter of trillions of dollars in technological advances, and it makes a little more sense, even if those technological advances make absolutely no sense.
Near the end, Sam Durell says something like “I don’t even believe in neutrinos,” which might be the dumbest line in the book. Seriously, Sam? By what metric are we supposed to value your opinion on neutrino research? Have you read papers? Talked to scientists? Analyzed the research? No, I know you haven’t, because several times you mentioned that the research was way over your head. I know this is minor point and a tiny quibble, but that bothered the hell out of me. It’s one step away from an ignorant “I don’t believe in neutrinos” to an equally ignorant but far more destructive “I don’t believe in climate change” or “I don’t believe in vaccination.”
Okay, Sam Durell, you’re on my shit list now.