Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960
List of main characters:
Kelly Sherwood, teller at the Hollywood First National Bank
Eloise “Toby” Sherwood, Kelly’s sister
John “Rip” Ripley, FBI agent
Peg, FBI receptionist
Nancy Ashton, call girl
Louella Hendricks, Toby’s high school friend
Jack, Toby’s boyfriend
Captain Frank Moreno, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), robbery division
Jim “Popcorn” Durga, the police informer
Sheri Kimura, Red Dillon’s girlfriend
Joey Kimura, Sheri Kimura’s son
Operation Terror was a fun read. The narrative revolves around Kelly Sherwood, a bank teller at the Hollywood First National Bank, who is targeted by Red Dillon because of her access to the bank’s money. He blackmails her into stealing thousands of dollars, and he threatens her and her teenage sister, Toby, with sexual assault and death if she doesn’t comply. Chapter 1 begins with Red Dillon attacking Kelly Sherwood in her garage after she comes home from work, and the tension continues to escalate throughout the narrative as Dillon tests Sherwood’s resolve with threats and diversions. The story certainly has many noir characteristics: the threat of violence, blackmail, robbery—and nonstop tension.
Experiment in Terror is a film based on Operation Terror, and seeing the film inspired me to read the novel. It’s short: The total number of pages is 192, and that includes blank pages and all the front matter (title page, copyright page, and so on). The authors, the Gordons, are Gordon Gordon and Mildred Nixon Gordon. I never realized that John Ripley is a recurring character in their novels (five, to be exact) or that two Ripley novels were adapted for film.
◊ Click here for more information about the authors and their publications.
◊ Click here for my blog post about Experiment in Terror.
(This blog post about the novel Operation Terror contains all the spoilers.)
I read the novel because I thought it would fill in some of the gaps presented in the film version. In Experiment in Terror, for instance, Nancy Ashton’s connection to Garland Lynch and to Kelly Sherwood is never made clear; Agent Ripley offers a guess that Ashton probably found herself in a position similar to Kelly Sherwood’s but nothing more. Lisa Soong’s (Sheri Kimura in the novel) connection to Lynch (Red Dillon in the novel) seems to be based solely on the fact that he has a predilection for Asian women, but that doesn’t explain his willingness to pay for her son’s numerous and expensive medical bills. Neither the film nor the novel offers anything more about these points, so readers (and viewers of the film) are left wondering about these loose ends.
Differences between the Novel and the Film
◊ The setting in the novel is Los Angeles. In the film, it is San Francisco.
◊ In the novel, Nancy Ashton is a call girl, and she dies falling off the balcony of her apartment building. In the film, she designs retail store mannequins, and she is strangled in her own apartment.
◊ A friend of Nancy Ashton’s, Deborah Samuelson, is interviewed by the FBI in the novel. This character doesn’t exist in the film.
◊ In the novel, Red Dillon asks Kelly Sherwood to meet him at the Angel Flight cable car, a famous Los Angeles landmark. In the film, he arranges to meet her at the Roaring Twenties nightclub.
◊ Sheri Kimura in the novel becomes Lisa Soong in the film. Kimura goes under surveillance in her own apartment by two FBI agents and a police officer in the novel, but this doesn’t happen in the film.
◊ Red Dillon (Red Lynch in the novel) calls John Ripley at his FBI office. He never makes this call in the film.
◊ Kelly Sherwood is instructed by Red Dillon to take his phone call for additional instructions at a pay phone at the Hollywood Bowl. In the film, he instructs her to go to a pay phone at the Fisherman’s Wharf.
◊ In the novel, Dillon’s instructions at the pay phone include a cab ride to the Coliseum, and the story ends in the stands at a Los Angeles Rams–Baltimore Colts football game. In the film, the story ends at Candlestick Park on the baseball field.
Operation Terror differs from the film in other ways that I found striking. The novel includes some comparisons between the work of law enforcement and that of the military. For example, John Ripley can sympathize with Kelly Sherwood by comparing her to a soldier on the battlefield:
She [Kelly Sherwood] interrupted. “If I have to sit around waiting—”
He [John Ripley] nodded sympathetically. It was the waiting that broke most victims, the same as it broke soldiers on the battlefield. (page 160)
Operation Terror also included some details to explain Sheri Kimura’s hesitancy about helping the FBI. In fact, Agent Ripley finds her hostility inexplicable:
Rip said, “I don’t get it. You [Sheri Kimura] were hostile to us even before we told you what we wanted.”
“You bet I was.”
“Why, Miss Kimura?”
“Does Christmas 1941 mean anything to you?”
He thought the date over. “Offhand, it doesn’t What does it mean to you?”
“I’ll tell you what it means to me. I was twelve years old and I had the world. I had the greatest dad any girl ever had. My mom died when I was four, and he’d brought me up with all the love in his heart. We were very close—very close.”
She swallowed, fighting emotion, and Rip waited.
After a second she continued, “That day my world crashed. We were given a few days to get ready. The government was packing us off to a concentration camp. My government, the flag I’d loved. Packing us off because of the color of our skin. We were American, mister, but we didn’t have the right kind of skin. A yellow skin might be a spy, a traitor.” All the resentment harbored for years spilled out. “My dad lost ’most everything. He sold palm trees for ten bucks that had cost him a hundred, and shrubs for a quarter that he’d paid a dollar for. Because you don’t go off and leave a nursery for three years.
“So they put us under guard in a place in Arizona, behind barbed wire and with rifles ready to shoot us down if we tried to get out. They didn’t have any chambers where they could put us to death, but he died anyway, brokenhearted, still loving the only land, the only country he’d ever known, But I swore when they put him in the ground—I swore—”
Reliving the scene, she broke. Rip looked away.
Rip knew that most Japanese-Americans had returned to their homes after World War II bearing no grudges. They were perhaps the only people in all history who had been so treated and who forgave their oppressors so readily. They decided that what was past was past and they must fit themselves to a new era.
All except a few.
Rip said. “That was eighteen years ago, Miss Kimura, and Red Dillon’s today, and there’s absolutely no connection.” He continued, “What’s more, if I remember rightly, it was military order, and an action which the Department of Justice opposed from the time it was suggested. The FBI never made any request for such relocation.” He paused a moment. “Believe me, I understand how you feel, but your thinking’s all wrong. Please give this some study—and talk with your attorney about it.” (pages 134–135)
Sheri Kimura is suspicious of all government authority, and John Ripley works for a federal agency. She is generalizing; he hopes that she can have some faith in one specific part of the federal government. He doesn’t remember anything about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, but he didn’t experience anything remotely like it. The text seems to imply that, if so many Japanese Americans could get over their unjust treatment and internment, why can’t Sheri Kimura? But I find that argument disingenuous. If you want any proof that people can forgive but they do not and may not want to forget, examine George Takei’s writings on the very same subject (click on each book title for more information):
Click here for George Takei’s October 23, 2019, interview on PBS NewsHour.
The ending of Operation Terror is a bit smug in the way that it treats its main characters as heroes, but it does acknowledge one of the core themes of noir in film and in literature: that evil is omnipresent, a fact of life.
Rip watched as Kelly got into the Bureau car that would take her home. She raised her hand to him as the car pulled away, and smiled, and in her smile was the kind of strength and gentleness he liked in a woman. She was America to him—she and Toby.
The man [Red Dillon] stretched out up there in the Coliseum, he was America, too, unfortunately.
“Well, it’s over,” Rip said to Bradley [fellow FBI agent]. Over for Kelly Sherwood, he thought, but tomorrow another criminal somewhere would reach out to use an innocent person in another Operation Terror. (page 191)
Kelly Sherwood is calm and composed throughout her ordeal. She helps the FBI; she drew them in from the beginning and continued to rely on them until the case was resolved. She is offered up as the ideal that every American man would want to have waiting for him at home, back in the 1960s. The fact that she is in her twenties and has already endured the death of both parents in an accident only adds to her mystique and strength. She is a success—and Sheri Kimura, by implication, is not.
The quotation above also acknowledges the reality of work for Agent John Ripley. The case is over for Kelly Sherwood, but Ripley and his coworkers will likely face another dangerous criminal—and soon—in their line of work.