Friday, April 27, 2018

Forgotten Books: The Yellow Scourge - Curtis Steele (Frederick C. Davis)

You wouldn’t expect a pulp novel from 1934 called THE YELLOW SCOURGE to be very politically correct—and you’d be right. However, this novel, the third to feature Jimmy Christopher, Operator 5 in America’s intelligence service, actually isn’t all that objectionable. Frederick C. Davis, who authored this one under the house-name Curtis Steele, uses “the Yellow Empire” as a stand-in for Japan, but I doubt if that fooled anybody even in 1934. The Japanese characters aren’t caricatures, though, and the main villain, a freelance female spymaster, isn’t even Japanese as far as I can tell.

The plot of this yarn, which appeared in the June 1934 issue of OPERATOR #5, is pretty simple: a faction of the “Yellow Empire” military wants to start a war with the United States and attempts to do so by launching an attack on its own naval fleet with planes made to look like American craft. The fleet is visiting the California coast and Jimmy Christopher happens to be on hand, so of course he figures out right away what’s going on. Then Yellow Empire ships, again disguised as American vessels, attack merchant ships from England, France, and other European countries so they won’t come to America’s aid when the Empire declares war.

There’s some espionage going on—Jimmy Christopher clashes with the female mastermind behind the plan and undertakes a daring mission to obtain proof of the Yellow Empire’s treachery—but for the most part THE YELLOW SCOURGE is a war novel. In an eerie precursor of fears that were actually common seven years later after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Empire’s fleet bombards the American west coast, their army invades Mexico and advances on the United States from the south, and they try to destroy the Panama Canal. The Americans, led by Jimmy Christopher, of course, strike back with a long-range aerial mission like the one to Tokyo led by Jimmy Doolittle. In a bit that smacks of science fiction considering the era, they also battle the enemy with radio-controlled rockets designed by Operator 5. It all makes for a fast-moving and entertaining, if far-fetched, tale.

Almost all the elements of an Operator 5 novel are here: Jimmy Christopher pretends to be society photographer Carleton Victor and banters with his manservant Crowe; he stops in the middle of the action to demonstrate a magic trick for his pugnacious 14-year-old Irish sidekick Tim Donovan; he worries about his father, a former intelligence operative with bullets lodged near his heart so that too much excitement might kill him. Jimmy Christopher’s twin sister Nan is mentioned but doesn’t appear. This is an important novel in the history of the series, though, because it marks the introduction of feisty gal reporter Diane Elliott, who will serve as Jimmy Christopher’s love interest and the bad guys’ kidnapping target for the remainder of the series.

Don’t mistake my somewhat flippant comments for criticism: I love this series. Frederick C. Davis’s plots always hang together, and he can spin out these apocalyptic scenarios that make the reader believe Jimmy Christopher really does have to save the entire country from destruction every month. As far as I’m concerned, the Operator 5 novels are top-notch pulp adventure yarns, and if you’re a fan of that sort of storytelling and haven’t tried them, you should.

1 comment:

George said...

I'm becoming a fan of Frederick C. Davis in all his guises. I have some paperback editions of "Curtis Steele" that I'll have to locate and read!