Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cavern of the Damned: Chapter 6

Chapter 6:The Dread Command
Operator five travels to the town of Beacon to find Tim Donovan has stowed along. At his destination, he finds a church going up in flames, the pastor dead, and the congregation disappeared. Jimmy Christopher has a hunch, finds the cemetery where the pastor was buried, and witnesses him being resurrected by the followers of Zaava.
The resurrection scene reminded me a little of how Voodoo sorcerers create zombies: by drugging someone, burying them, then digging up the brain-scrambled victim.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cavern of the Damned: Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Out of the Gem
This is a brief chapter with Jimmy Christopher going back to his townhouse and touching base with his side kick Tim Donovan. He shows him another magic trick. Next, he checks in with his romantic interest and ace reporter, Diane Elliot. It seems Diane is going to be interviewing Senetor Cottron, who's becoming an advocate for the cult religion of Zaava in congress. Finally, he packs up his roadster and heads north to the town of Beacon.
I'm starting to wonder if Jimmy Christopher teaching Tim Donovan magic tricks is a plot device which appears in every novel. More experienced Operator 5 fans would have a better idea.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Chapter 4:The Power of Zaava
Recovering from his ordeal, Operator 5 goes immediately to his chief, Z-7, and tells him what happened. Z-7 shows him reports which have been filtering in from over the country. Huge amounts of hashish are being smuggled into the country to drug the cultists. Congressmen are beginning to advocate the new religion in Washington, DC. Christian ministers who've stood up to the cultists are disappearing or found dead. Churches are burning. Operator 5 decides to leave for the town of Beacon, where an entire congregation vanished.
Looks like there was some fear of strange, murderous cults being imported into the US in the 1930's. I'd always assumed the 1920's was the time where weird religious groups first made an appearence.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Chapter 3: The Secret Temple
Now we find Jimmy Christopher in his Carleton Victor mode at the secret rites of the Goddess Zaava in an undisclosed location. Most of the rites consist of robed devotees from the upper classes sitting around an idol of the Goddess chanting her name over and over again. Also, the air is filled with hashish-loaded incense. But at the climax of the rites, Christopher witnesses the reappearance of the woman he rescued in the first chapter. She's whipped into submission by the priest of the cult. Looks like Fred Davis wanted a little spice in the soup.
Jimmy Christopher finally puts his air filters in place and is able to overcome the narcotic elements of the incense the devotees are burning. But while trying to pinch a sample of the incense out of a burner, he's captured by several of the cultists and imprisoned in a room. To eliminate him, the cultists release "tiger ants" into the room. Operator 5 manages to break open the window and climb down a concealed rope to safety, ants in pursuit. One at the ground level, he's taken to a hospital by a sympathetic cab driver.
Zaava as an ancient Goddess of Tibet appears no where in the literature about that country, not even in the study of the Bon religion which proceeded the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. Possibly, Davis just tossed some words together to create a variation on the Thug cult of India. Likewise, tiger ants do seem to exist, but army ants was what the author had in mind. They're not quite as deadly as the ones described in the novel. You can thank popular entertainment for all the killer ant stories.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Chapter 2: The Black Prince
Once back in Washington, DC, Jimmy Christopher assumes the character of Carelton Victor, portrait photographer to the rich and famous. Carelton is Operator 5's Bruce Wayne or Lamont Cranston. Before going to see Z-7, he is informed by one of his clients about Prince Horpa Tal, a Tibetan royal who is visiting the US. Naturally, he's invited to meet the prince. He makes a note to remember the invitation.
Z-7 informs him of the mysterious USIS deaths: Gila Monster bite, rattle snake bite, garroting, and death by flaying. It seems all of the agents were working on a case involving smuggling of hashish into the country. No one knows who the killers are, but witnesses reported "Asiatics" wearing black turbans with matching robes. Operator 5 is convinced that someone is using "bhang" to recruit people for a cult religion. By the end of the chapter he's been whisked away to a secret cult meeting under the guise of his Carelton alter ego.
Where do I begin?
First of all, Tibet did not posses a "prince" such the Europeans knew one in the 1930's. The High Lama was still the divine ruler at the time. Second, the bite of a Gila monster, although toxic, has never been known to kill a human. And...swarthy Asians in turbans? OK. This alternate universe Operator 5 inhabits is very different from mine.


Chapter 1: The Eyes in the Sky
With this Operator 5 novel (first published in August of 1934), we encounter religious fanatics intent on destroying America and everything she represents. Once again, the Operator 5 novels have an eerie parallel to our own times. If this pulp series exists in an alternate universe, it's not very far from our own.
The chapter opens with Jimmy Christopher and his sidekick Tim Donovan racing a "roadster" across the mountains of Virginia. Operator 5 has received a summons of great urgency from his boss Z-7. But before they can reach the sacred city of Washington, the pair encounter a swarthy group of men wearing black robes with matching turbans chasing after some unknown woman on a lonely mountain road. Operator 5 dispatches them, rescues the girl, and deposits her to her town before continuing on his mission.
Also they encounter a strange apparition floating in the sky: two giant eyes which seem to be watching them closely. The only knowledge we receive about Operator 5's latest predicament is that several United States Intelligence agents have been killed in different parts of the country within days of each other. All we know about our hero is that he and Tim have been on a vacation since the conclusion of The Melting Death affair.
It really must suck to be Operator 5. OK, you get to duke it out with mindless zombies from time to time, but the USIS won't even let him have a decent vacation. I just hope they let him accumulate those vacation days from year to year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


So what can be said for Blood Reign of the Dictator?
Many words come to mind: exciting, relentless, action, thrills, adventure, existential. OK, I may be stretching things with that last one, but you do get the point. Frederick Davis never once lets up in this novel. Each chapter was a bullet train ride to the next one. I kept turning to the next episode just to see what was going to happen and there were enough plot twists to keep me reading. I can't say such a thing for many books published in the last ten years. The author knew his audience and how to deliver what they wanted.
Ursus Young emerges from Blood Reign as one of the most sinister villains I've ever encountered in pulp literature. All he cares for his power and how to get it. But he too knows his audience and what they want to hear. Although comparisons with Josef Stalin are made time and again, Young's role model resembles Mussolini. His fictional home state of New Cornwall sounds North Eastern, but Young resonates better as a corrupt, ruthless Southern Pol. But to have made him Southern would've drawn too many resemblances to Huey Long.
Another novel which looked at the rise of a fictional fascist dictator in America was Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here. The Lewis novel was published after the Davis one, but I doubt there were any influences. His dictator, "Buzz" Windrip, doesn't resemble Ursus Young very much. Likewise, It Can't Happen Here is mostly concerned with the rise to power of it's villain. Young is already entrenched by the time Jimmy Christopher moves against him.
There isn't a lot of back story in Blood Reign. We're told Ursus Young rode to the governorship of his state by way or patronage jobs and pay-offs, but much else. His fall occurs quickly, maybe a little too quickly. What happens in the rest of the country outside Washington, DC when the Silent Sentinels are on the march? And how did Young maintain his power base? Did he have his own political party? We're never told.
But the novel wasn't intended to enlighten English professors. Davis aimed at giving his Depression-weary audience a thrill ride, which he brilliantly did. And with the entertainment came a warning: beware of politicians who promise everything, but thirst for absolute power.
It's a warning still meaningful.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Chapter 12: Destiny Makers
Just as President Ursus Young is about to order congress to vote in his new constitution, the Secret Sentinels break into the capitol building, disarming the Black Troopers. At gun point, Young signs documents naming the former president as his secretary of state. With all of his cronies resigning in mass, Young is then forced to sign his own resignation papers. Fleeing the capitol building with his deaf mute body guards, Young is gunned down before an enraged mob can get to him. The final pages of the novel deal with the government looking at the long road ahead to rebuilding the republic.
The novel ends very abruptly. It would seem that having hit his word quota, the author decided to wrap things up and get on with the next adventure. This I find a little bit of a disappointment, as I was hoping for the details on how the new government reconstituted itself.


Chapter 11: The Signal
Operator 5, Z-7, and all the refugees of the raid on their Washington, DC center have reached the secret communication of the resistance. Once safely at the command center they learn more horrible news: Ursus Young has rushed a session of congress in to ratify a new constitution to give him unlimited powers. Using balloons to raise the antennas, Z-7 broadcasts the call to arms to their supporters all across the nation:

“Sentinels, you have your orders! Act upon them now! Begin your march! Washington is your objective! The destruction of the despot Young is your aim! The preservation of the United States of our forefathers, the salvation of the nation we love, is our paramount purpose. “Strike!” “This is your signal!”

You can almost hear the MGM background music thunder as Davis describes page after page of the black robed armies marching on Washington. There is an extensive description of a Sentinel air strike on a fighter plane squadron loyal to Young. Operator 5 arrives in Washington just in time to prevent Diane Elliot from being decapitated in front of the capitol dome. The chapter concludes with the final battle to take the capitol.
If ever there was a chapter in this novel designed to keep the readers glued to the page, this is it. I imagine hardcore Operator 5 readers silently reading this on the bus, at the table, or on the street corner. Frederick Davis cranks up the newsreel volume to 12 in this one.


Chapter 10: Raid Orders
Assuming the identity of secret policeman Doman, Operator 5 infiltrates President Ursus Young's security meeting to discover the Black Corps have located the headquarters of the Secret Sentinel resistance.He's able to get the warning out just as the goons attack, forcing the entire control center to flee moments ahead of the secret police. And something new shows up in this chapter: Ursus Young announces his intent of bring the guillotine back to publicly execute traitors to his regime. OK, now we know the reason for the crimson executioner on the cover of the original magazine.
I'd like to know if the cover was painted before or after the plot of this novel was discussed.
I have this vision of an editor on the phone saying:"Hey Fred, we got this great painting for the next issue. You need to write a story that has a guillotine in it."

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Chapter 9: Sentinel Justice
OK, Fred, you're starting to lose me with this chapter. Up till now I was thrilled to see just how wild each one could be. They were always better than the next. But with chapter nine, the author blows a tire.
Z-7 and his boys have created a secret revolutionary organization known only as "The Secret Sentinels". They operate out of a hideout in Washington, DC where Z-7 has a tap into every meeting room of dictator Ursus Young. They've also recruited a government scientist to help them broadcast a radio signal telling the nation the truth about what's really happening in America. They've started to raid radio stations and military bases for supplies. There is even talk of impeachment proceedings against President Young by bold members of congress. They have one battle cry: "Await the signal- Then strike!". So far, so good.
And they have a special uniform: a black robe with matching black hood. The hood bears an emblem of a skull.
And this is where I say: "Huh?"
How absurd is it for a revolutionary group to be running around dressed as some kind of negative KKK? This is supposed to be a mass organization trying to recruit people for the overthrow. How difficult would it be for Young's secret police to pick-out black robes in a crowd? OK, maybe I'm expecting too much from a pulp novel from the 1930's, but it's been a roller coaster ride so far. Davis continues to shock me with new twists and turns, but at least they did'nt go too far off the rails.
This chapter begins with the Secret Sentinels liberating a town under siege by Young's Health Police, who are using claims of a plague to suppress dissent. Next we see Operator 5 rescue a rich philanthropist who was about to have his fortune confiscated by the secret police. The chapter gets back on track with Operator 5 assuming the identity of Huntley Walsh, rich man about town.
One amusing character is the butler of "Huntley Walsh" an Alfred type who, upper lip stiffly in place, drolly informs Operator 5 of the various Secret Sentinel revolutionary activities.


Chapter 8: Hooded Foe
Z-7 now makes an impassioned speech to all the opposition intelligence agents which have gathered at the secret location. He puts it bluntly:

“If President Young is the nation, we are enemies of our own country! It is not only that we have pledged defiance to his dictatorship. We are unalterably opposed also to all the dangerous, subversive forces that are allied with him. Behind him now, stand rings of destructionists whose only aim has been to destroy the United States. Over all the country, un-American organizations are hailing Young as their new leader— hailing him as their unholy messiah, who will make the United States a nation of the past— a nation which, once crushed down, can never rise again!”

Jimmy Christopher recruits a former comrade in the USIS known only as T-3 to gain entrance into Ursus Young's inner circle. After tricking a local officer of the secret police into following them back to their secret meeting place, Operator 5 assumes the idenity of the Black Corpsman. Next, he and T-3 fake an assassination attempt on Young. Operator 5, under the guise of Donn Doman, sergent of the secret police. T-3 is captured, but Operator 5 has gained Young's gratitude and respect under his new identity. He's also promoted into the inner circle, which was the plan all along.
Pretty strong stuff, but you have to remember what was happening in the world at the time. With the unholy trinity of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin dividing up the world, it seemed like a real possibility a home grown dictator could emerge in the USA. The Silver Shirts were already getting a lot of attention in the newspapers, even if their numbers were small. Oswald Mosley already had his British Union of Fascists up and running. The future didn't look too bright.


Chapter 7: Divided Allegiance
With fascists now in control of the government, Operator 5 and Z-7 have no choice but to form a secret underground organization. We are taken to a special hide-out Z-7 had constructed years ago which only he knew about. Planning for the possibility of a foreign invasion, Z-7 had a duplicate WDC-13 (central headquarters) built. With duplicate files and separate phone lines, they will now carry out the resistance against Ursus Young.
I had to love the entrance to the secret hideout: a grandfather clock. Years later The Man from UNCLE TV show would work the same angle.
Z-7 summons his loyal agents and pledges to bring down the dictatorship of Ursus Young. And he doesn't sugar coat the work ahead:

“Before I go further, I warn you that this is organized treason. This, Gentlemen, is the something of a revolution. We will move in constant danger of arrest by President Young’s new secret police, in danger of imprisonment without trial, in danger of execution without the slightest hope of appeal. All of you, if you follow me upon our determined course, will face the penalty of spies at work in an enemy country in time of war. We will be facing peril at every turn while fighting for our country and against a terroristic dictator. We will face death."

One interesting scene has Jimmy Christopher teaching Tim Donovan a mentalist trick. What it boils down to is a way to get someone to think of a particular number. The trick is explained in great detail, which makes me wonder if author Davis had picked up an interest in magic. Certainly Walter Gibson, who wrote most of the Shadow novels, was devoted to stage magic.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Chapter 6: Terror by Decree
Jimmy Christopher escapes death, although he is wounded by the assassin's bullet.
But he arrives too late to be of any help. Governor Ursus Young wins the presidential election. It's not said who he beats, but the president he runs against sounds a lot like FDR: a gentleman, serving out his first term, etc.
Remember: when this story was written there was a very real possibility that the populist Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana would run for the White House.
Keeping in line with the over-the-top track of this book is the innaguration of the new president. After The chief justice of the Supreme Court tells Ursus Young he is turning over to him "the destiny of a great government", Young refuses to take the oath of office! Next he makes a speech which is so out of control, it's believable!
Here are some highlights:

“Citizens of this country, the time has come for action. We are done with politics. We are done with bureaucracy. You have demanded a government of power, a government fearless in the face of your problems, and you are going to get it. From this moment on, I will drastically control this country for the good of the common man, for the good of his job and his pocketbook. That is the creed of President Young, and you will see it carried out now!”
“As President of the United States, I declare this nation in a state of war! Our enemy is poverty! As President, I will leave this platform to go straight to my desk in the White House and issue a series of proclamations which will empower me with absolute control of the Federal Government. I intend to wield greater power than any President has ever dreamed of possessing but I shall wield it for the good of the common man. My speech is ended. I will not use words to fight our battle, but strength! I will not talk— I will act. I’ll make prosperity— and give it to you. That is my oath of office!”

The Chief Justice reminds Young that he cannot assume the presidency until he takes the oath. Somehow, I think we'll be seeing that Chief Justice again.
The chapter ends with Young and his henchmen going directly to the headquarters of the United States Intellegence Service and firing everyone! Refusing to be replaced by his cronies, Z-7 (Jimmy Christopher's boss) and Operator 5 are arrested by the Black Corps. Of course, they soon escape.
OK, this isn't supposed to happen. The hero is supposed to show up at the last minute and offer damming evidence which brings about the downfall of the politician who seeks to turn the US into a dictatorship. At least this was the solution in Seven Days In May, etc. Which is why I keep reading this book.


Chapter 5: Lurking Cheka
We now come to something I've noted in this novel from the beginning: the use of terms particular to the Soviet Union in the 1930's to slam Governor Ursus Young. And this stands in contrast to the description of his followers, who act like a bunch of stormtroopers out of Nazi Germany, and not the elite leather-jacket followers of Joseph Stalin. The cheka was the paramilitary arm of the Soviet Communist Party.
Fleeing Govenor Young's minions, Jimmy Christopher heads to an army air base on the edge of Hartland, the capitol of New Cornwall. He learns about the base being under constant attack by the Black Corpsman of the governor, but the base commander gives him the use of a plane with a pilot to fly to Washington and warn the president of the terror of Young.
Once in the air, with Diane and Tim, Jimmy Christopher radios headquarters and makes his report. Then he learns something which amazes the most jaded reader: the president himself is coming to New Cornwall to make a speech! On the orders of the chief executive, he orders the plane back to the army base. Operator 5 will provide protection for the president for his visit to New Cornwall.
Once on the ground, Operator 5 discovers the base has been attacked and nearly destroyed by the Black Corpsmen. He tells the pilot to take Diane Elliot to Washington, but allows his sidekick, Tim Donovan, to remain with him.
The final scene in this very chapter has Operator 5 taking an assassin's bullet for the president in the middle of his speech against the tyranny of Ursus Young. The president barely makes it out of the auditorium while a pro-Young mob tries to attack the stage.
Wow. In one chapter Davis has managed to pack more plot twists and excitement than most authors can generate in an entire book. And we are only four chapters into the novel!


Chapter 4: Defiance of Terror
Now we finally get a look at the aspiring fascist dictator, Governor Ursus Young. The governor has his office in the capitol of New Cornwall. He's awaiting a vote which will award him the nomination to the executive office of the USA. And in walks Operator 5. Who had requested an audience with him. Sweet.
How cold is this wannabee Mussolini? Very. Let's put it this way: he has a personal body guard of four deaf mutes. Thus, the men closest to him can neither hear nor speak of anything which goes on around them. And one other item: he has a personal secretary named Melvard Gorad. My admiration for the creative powers of writer Frederick Davis increase with each page I read.
Naturally, Hizzfuhrer assures Jimmy Christopher that he has nothing to do with the disappearance of Diane Elliot. He guarantees Operator 5 "every protection and convenience" in allowing the USIS man to leave the state.
Once Operator 5 has left the building, it's a different story. The governor orders his Black Corpsmen to capture him by any mean necessary. Operator 5 had counted on it, even telling Gov. Young he already knew where Diane was being held.
The remainer of the chapter has Operator Five trailing the secret police to where they are holding Diane and her rescue.
So far, each chapter has built on the action of the one previous.
A little more background on Govenor Young would've been nice. We don't get much of a description of him either, other than he's huge and posesses "iron-gray" hair. However, I'm sure Davis felt that the action part of the story was paying his bills.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Chapter 3: Suicide Stratagem
Jimmy Christopher spends most of this chapter trying to get in contact with Central Headquarters WDC-13 in Washington, DC at the local USIS office. However, as soon as he arrives, he discovers the branch has been infiltrated by Governor Young's men. Unable to send the real report to his superiors via radio, he is neverless able to get out a warning. But Young's minions try to trap him in the branch office with poision gas. Being Operator-5, he escapes their trap.
He still hasn't located the whereabouts of the Diane Elliot. Even her contacts at the local wire service are terrified to speak about her.
The governor's men try to kill Jimmy Christopher with "cacodyl isocyanide". This was touted as a new and deadlier poison gas in the late 1920's. It was never actually used in war. I an only assume the author of the this episode had been doing a bit of background reading on poison gas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Chapter 2: Plague of the King
Still under the idenitiy of Huntley Walsh, Jimmy Christopher has changed clothes and reports in to "The Chief" after witnessing Govenor Young's Black Troopers in action.
His next destination is the home of William Stockard, a newspaper publisher who is under house arrest. He's a victim of the mysterious plague which has allowed Governor Young to push his emergency powers through the legislature. The cab driver is too terrified to drive up to the "quarantined" mansion and lets him off several streets away.
After sneaking into the mansion, Jimmy Christopher introduces himself to Stockard. The publisher's condition is slowly deteriorating, but he has a state-approved physician treating him. Jimmy confiscates the "medicine" the doctor is administering and checks it with a portable chemistry lab. Somehow he's able to identify it as being alpha-dinitrophenol, a nasty little molecule used in the manufacture of dyes. It effects the nervous system and can cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Which are very similar to the plaque symptoms.
By the end of the chapter, Jimmy Christopher has wielded his sword belt, and escaped the bullets of the traitorous "physician" who was treating Stockard.
The sword belt has me a little confused. If it coils so carefully in a belt sheath, how does it lock in place when he needs it? And does he have a back-up belt when the sword is in use?
I also note Jimmy Christopher is a master of jiu-jitsu. This Japanese martial art was one of the first ones taught in the west after Mitsuyo Maeda traveled outside Japan offering demonstrations.


Chapter 1: Secret Executions
This was the 14th Operator-5 novel. It was first published in May, 1935. The author was Frederick Davis, writing under the house name of Curtis Steele. Davis would go on to author another six Operator-5 novels before moving onto better paying ventures.
The chapter opens with Jimmy Christopher and his young side-kick Tim Donovan sneaking into the fictional state of New Cornwall, where Govenor Ursus Young has set himself up as a dictator. Worse, he's trying to get the nomination for the presidency, which will make him master of America. They disguise themselves as railroad tramps and slip in undetected.
How bad have things deteriorated in New Cornwall? In the first few pages, Jimmy Christopher witnesses an execution of several outstanding citizens for speaking out against the govenor. This isn't a daylight affair, the victims are herded out of a truck at night by the govenor's own "cheka" and shot after an officer reads their crimes. Jimmy is able to retreive a wallet from one of the victims after the black-clothed goons hastily bury the bodies.
Jimmy Christopher has been sent to the state to 1)find out what the govenor is planning and 2) locate his missing love interest, ace reporter Diane Elliot. Diane has made the unfortunate mistake of criticizing The Honorable Ursus Young's administration. So she's gone missing and no one will admit to knowing where she went.
Young has rammed through a special bit of legislation known as "Emergency 100" which gives him absolute power in the state. He has his authority enforced by "Health Police" who can pull anyone off the street at will.
Parrells to real-live Louisiana govenor Huey P. Long are not too subtle. As a matter of fact, Long was assasinated the following September after this novel was published. Although he never had Ursus Young's control on his state, Long was considering a run for the presidency when he was shot.
The chapter ends with Jimmy and Tim witnessing a medical doctor being shot-down in a hotel by Govenor Young's Health Police.


I've been a fan of the pulps every since I discovered The Avenger reprints back in the 1970's. For awhile, every trip to the mall was another chance to grab the next adventure of Dick Benson and his multicultural crew. Afterwards, I moved onto Doc Savage and even tried The Spider. Some would agrue where the golden age of pulp novels lay, but in my heart it was the 1970's when I began discovering the reprints. Forty years may be a long time, but not if you're a high school kid bored and looking for adventure.
Recently, I've discovered Operator #5.
I first encountered Jimmy (Operator #5) Christopher in Don Hutchison's The Great Pulp Heroes book. Mentally, I made a note to check him out when I had the opportunity. There have been some reprints as of late, so now it's possible to do so without having to shell out $$$ for a rare, original edition. And, of course, there are ebook editions availible which makes it even more conveinent.
What has atttacted me to O-5 is the unbelievable over-the-top story lines in the novels, which were first published in the 1930's. It wasn't just one invasion of the USA the hero had to thwart, he had them just about every issue. With his sword belt and identifiying ring, secret agent Jimmy Christopher battled the forces of hell to save the New Deal.
One story arc, "The Purple Wars", lasted thirteen issues. I haven't had the chance to read them yet, but I plan to do so. And I'll publish my running commentery here.
Z-7, named for Operator-5's older chief, is something I've wanted to do for a long time: a Reading Blog. Comments welcome.