Friday, December 16, 2011

Forgotten Books: Invasion of the Crimson Death Cult - Curtis Steele (Frederick C. Davis)

(This post originally appeared in somewhat different form on February 1, 2006)

This pulp novel from the September 1935 issue of OPERATOR 5 is the usual mix from a Popular Publications hero pulp: a mysterious villain with a terrible new weapon lays waste to the country, kills thousands of people, and drives our stalwart hero (in this case, Jimmy Christopher, also known as Operator 5 of the American Intelligence Service) to the brink of madness before the villain's evil plan is finally thwarted. The same thing happened month after month, not only in the Operator 5 series but also in Popular's top-of-the-line hero pulp, THE SPIDER. And you either love it or you don't. I think you can guess which category I fall into.

The Operator 5 series is interesting for several reasons, though. For one thing, there was some fairly important story-to-story continuity, something that didn't occur very often in the hero pulps. While there might be the occasional reference in a Doc Savage or Shadow story to something that had happened in the past, for the most part their adventures could be read in any order. The same was true of most of the hero pulps. The novels in OPERATOR 5 often featured sub-plots that ran from issue to issue, though, culminating in the famous "Purple Invasion" series, which ran for thirteen issues and is basically one long novel of what we now call alternate history. "Invasion of the Crimson Death Cult" is from the story arc that features the Hidden Hundred, a group of former Intelligence officers who have been kicked out of the service in a very early example of political correctness run amok. Following their dismissal, they band together to work in secret for the good of the country, and Jimmy Christopher (who is still an active agent) is their leader.

There's also the fact that for a blood-and-thunder pulp series, the Operator 5 stories sometimes seem oddly contemporary. This one opens on the border between Texas and Mexico, as Jimmy Christopher joins forces with the Border Patrol in an attempt to stop what we would now call terrorists from being smuggled into the country. The writing is also pretty good most of the time. The original author behind the Curtis Steele house-name was Frederick C. Davis, a prolific pulpster who also had a fairly well-respected career as a hardback mystery novelist. His Operator 5 novels (and I've read most of them) are uniformly good. The other main writer on the series was the famously enigmatic Emile C. Tepperman, who penned the Purple Invasion story arc and did some of his best work on it.

I bring all this up, though, mainly to wax nostalgic and talk about how I first discovered the Operator 5 series in the mid-Sixties when I picked up a paperback from the spinner rack in Trammell's Grocery Store called LEGIONS OF THE DEATH MASTER. The cover art featured a clean-cut hero type falling into a pit full of serpents, and the copy above the title fairly shouted, "Bounding Out of the Thirties!" Well, that was like a shot of pure adrenaline to me. I was already reading Doc Savage and the Shadow and knew that I liked that sort of pulp stuff. I bought the book, read it right away (it was also part of the Hidden Hundred storyline), and went on to pick up many other Operator 5 books. Well over half the series has been reprinted in one format or another. When I was writing the Revolutionary War series PATRIOTS (published by Bantam under the pseudonym Adam Rutledge), one of my characters became involved with the espionage network set up by the colonists during the early days of the war, and so naturally, his code name became Operative Five. (I had to change it a little.) But it was definitely a tribute to Jimmy Christopher and a way of saying thank you for all the enjoyment I had gotten out of reading the series. (I also liked the idea that somewhere out there, some pulp fans might read those Patriots novels and grin knowingly when they got to the part about Operative Five . . .)


Anonymous said...

Davis is, for my money, one of the best of the old time pulpsters and one of the least recognized.
His Operator 5 novels are generally tighter and more climactic than most hero pulp. The first one ends with our hero battling enemies atop the Empire State building and calling in a barrage of cannon-fire from battleships in the harbor that takes off the top of the building. Now that's dramatic. He seemed to have an instinctive sense of how to satisfy the reader.

Davis also wrote good detective stories, some deliciously lurid Weird Menace yarns (The Mole Men Want Your Eyes!) and the absolutely wonderful Moon Man series of short stories that ran in Ten Detective Aces from 1933 through 1937.
An impressive body of work, really.

John Hocking

Tom Johnson said...

Thanks, James, I always love these pulp reviews. I, too, picked up all those Corinth Regency reprints. What great memories!

James Reasoner said...

Yes, although I don't recall the details, I remember reading several other Operator 5 novels by Davis and thinking that the climaxes were especially good.

James Reasoner said...

It was a great time to be a pulp fan back then, wasn't it? Today there's even more stuff available, but it's not like having all those mass-market paperbacks in the grocery stores and drugstores.

Walker Martin said...

Fred Davis had one of his better series in DIME DETECTIVE during the forties. There were over a dozen long novelets starring Bill Brent, a reporter, who screwed up a news report, causing his editor to assign him to the Advice For the Lovelorn column. Now known as Lorna Lorne, he was a sort of Dear Abby, but still managed to get involved in complex murder cases. All 16 novelets were reprinted by Battered Silicon Dispatch Box in an enormous book.

Fred Davis' grandaughter regularly attends PulpFest in Ohio and collects his pulps. Matt Moring of Altus Press will be reprinting some other detective cases written by Davis in the 1930's.