Friday, January 11, 2019

The Lure of the Italian Treasure (#157)

The Lure of the Italian Treasure coverI hope some enterprising writer or editor commissioned / wrote The Lure of the Italian Treasure as a way of writing off a trip to Italy on their income taxes. I doubt that’s true, although I think someone in the creative process for this book has actually gone to Italy. The details feel right.

This is the first time Frank and Joe have left North America / the Caribbean in the digest series. They traveled to Canada in Cross-Country Crime (#134), and then they went to the Caribbean twice — The Secret of Skeleton Reef (#144) and The Caribbean Cruise Caper (#154) — but the last book that sent them overseas was Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84), in which they stopped a civil war in Africa after diverting through Paris. Desert Phantom is so unlike the rest of the series it barely counts, though. If you want a “normal” Hardy Boys book, their last trip out of North America was in The Crimson Flame (#77) — Thailand — and their last trip to Europe was to Germany in The Submarine Caper (#68, also known as The Deadly Chase).

But Frank and Joe don’t make a big deal about their trip to Italy, and even a kerfuffle with customs inspectors in Milan over Joe’s bugging equipment is downplayed as barely worth mentioning (except as foreshadowing). So why are Frank and Joe, average American teens, in Italy, and why should we care, if they’re so blasé? Well, they’re working on an archaeological dig outside Florence. Before you can jump to the obvious conclusion that this is related to Frank’s interests or that Fenton as placed them at the dig to uncover antiquities theft or fraud or some damn thing, we learn that working on an Etruscan archaeological site has been Joe’s dream “for more than a year” (2). Yes, lunkheaded Joe is the one who wants to see Etruscan ruins, and he’s interested enough to not only work as an unpaid student (for credit, maybe, but where?) but to also rope in his brother.

How did they become a part of this program? Who knows! It’s never explained. If you’re in charge and the Hardys show up, you thank your lucky stars, integrate them into the program as well as possible, and wait for the crime and astounding luck to wash over you. And let me tell you: Hardy-caliber luck really cleans out your pores. (Crime, not so much.) It’s not like you usually pay them — The Hunt for the Four Brothers (#155) notwithstanding — for their normal labor or their mystery solving.

And the Hardys certainly bring the cheap labor and unbelievable luck in this one. Joe uncovers an Etruscan potsherd, which allows the Dixon to go over archaeological procedure and introduce our supporting cast: Cosimo Gianotti, a fellow student whose “English was almost flawless, though he spoke with an accent” (5); Julia Russell, an Englishwoman getting her doctorate at the University of Florence; and Professor Mosca, who is nominally in charge of the dig but rarely makes an appearance. Count Vincenzo Ruffino, whose estate the dig is on, and his daughter, Francesca, also pop up about this time. Francesca flirts a bit with Frank, which perhaps inspires Frank, who one-ups his brother by unearthing a box full of jewelry. Frank gets a quick congratulatory kiss from Francesca as a reward.

Now, a note about the jewelry: Among the pieces are “fibulae” and “agrafes” (16). The former term is the plural of “fibula,” which is a brooch or clasp; the latter also describes clasps, usually on armor or costumes. Also, one might guess that jewelry would make the boys think of their mother, aunt, or girlfriends, but elder female Hardys go almost unmentioned, and the only time Iola’s name comes up is to remark that she gave Joe a handkerchief so he would “think of her when he made an important discovery” (2). Predictably, he never gives her a second thought; at least Frank thinks Callie would appreciate one of Florence’s lovely views.

The box is left in situ so that the find can be photographed in context, but after Joe has a misleading nightmare to inject a bit of excitement into the story, the Hardys awake to find the jewelry is missing, and the man the count placed on guard — Bruno, a former convict, now employed as a gardener by the count — has been chloroformed. The Hardys get off on the wrong foot with the police when an officer sees Frank too close to the crime scene; Frank tells Cosimo to explain to the officer how great Frank and Joe are, but Cosimo declines, saying, “I think we’d better just be quiet. I know the type.”

And the boys get to know the type as well: Inspector Amelia Barducci suspects the boys of involvement in the theft. (Amanda Knox and author Douglas Preston would both learn about this type in Florence.) The bugging device that customs officials found raises her suspicions, and she also finds the timing — the theft occurred two days after the Hardys arrived — suggestive. The inspector also thinks Frank finding and sniffing the chloroformed rag shows he was checking to see if the cloth still smelled of the chemical, and using his knowledge of the moon’s phases to reason when it would be dark also indicates his possible guilt.

Despite the polizia’s suspicions, the brothers are allowed to continue working at the dig; the next day they find a skeleton and a bronze dagger — outstanding finds! Honestly, Mosca’s benign indifference might have uncovered the greatest innovation in archaeology: Hiring detectives. After all, it’s their job to discover what has been hidden. (Detectives who are students are preferred; you can pay them little or nothing at all! Exploitation of young workers for “experience” and “college credit” is standard practice in academia and industry, after all.)

Bruno shows them a secret passage, which they conclude the thief used to get away. The police, who find them there, reach the same conclusion; the inspector says the government has ordered her to tolerate the Hardys, but the next time she finds them meddling, she will arrest them.

Frank and Joe can’t let things go, of course, so they take time off their unpaid jobs and dive into the Reprobate Roll Call! (Also, I am not recapping the boring investigation part of the book. Literally, the most memorable part was that Francesca has a horse: Her name was Lola; she was a show horse.)

  • Francesca Ruffino. Francesca likes to flirt with Frank, even in front of her boyfriend. When she takes the Hardys riding, their horses are spooked by a gunshot and collide. (Both boys are thrown, but Francesca saves the unconscious Frank.) Joe calls her a “mixed-up chick” (72) because she baits her boyfriend by batting her eyes at Frank.

  • Count Vincenzo Ruffino. The count is having trouble finding the money to keep up his old castle, and selling the jewelry would raise considerable cash. His father was a Fascist under Mussolini, and the count keeps his father’s military gear — including a rifle the same caliber as the one that spooks Frank and Joe’s horses — in a secret room. On the other hand, he’s a non-entity, and I don’t care about him.

  • Vito, Francesca’s boyfriend. He’s obviously jealous of Frank, and he might not like Americans, but that has nothing to do with stealing antiquities. He was in the area when Frank and Joe’s horses were spooked. He also insults Frank’s face — to his face — with Frank being too gutless to respond with a toothless insult.

  • Antonio Cafaggio, the count’s friend. Cafaggio runs a shop in Florence, and Francesca is sure he’s taking advantage of her father, who sold Cafaggio a family heirloom too cheaply for Francesca’s liking. But they find nothing incriminating in Cafaggio’s castle warehouse, and Cafaggio does nothing nefarious when he catches the Hardys, Cosimo, and Francesca trespassing in the warehouse, turning them over to the count instead.

  • Bruno. He keeps finding secret passages around the count’s estate, he served time in jail (for embezzlement), and he makes a joke about killing the Hardys to keep them quiet. (Frank and Joe claim to understand that it’s a joke, but they note the “humor has an edge” [74].) Bruno also leads the boys to the count’s father’s rifle, which Bruno may have used and / or planted.

  • Phillip Speck, a fence. According to Bruno, he buys stolen antiquities. When Frank and Joe go undercover as buyers, Cafaggio’s assistant, Pino, enters the store and reveals their identities. Speck tries to lead them at gunpoint to Pino’s van, but the Hardys make a break for it and elude both, shaking Pino during a foot chase through Florentine tourist sites. (Both Speck and Pino know where the Hardys sleep, so I’m not sure what good escaping momentarily does.) Pino is captured by police for trespassing, and Speck claims he wasn’t involved with the jewels — but Speck says the count is deep in hock with a loan shark, so maybe the Hardys should look at him?

After Frank and Joe elude Pina, a car tries to run the Hardys’ Vespas off a cliff. A little later, someone tosses a smoke bomb into their sleeping quarters to scare them off, which makes no sense — if guns and an attempt at vehicular homicide isn’t scary enough, then a smoke bomb would be pretty weak tea. The sprinklers do ruin the boys’ clothes, though, so that’s a victory for the criminals, one as important as any the criminals usually get.

Inspector Barducci is unimpressed by this sequence of events, explaining it all away. But she does extend her warning, giving the boys one more chance. If that’s the way you discipline criminals, inspector, no wonder Italy has a reputation for lax law enforcement. Later, when Frank and Joe try to tell her Vito’s car looks like the one that ran them off the road, Barducci tells them to buzz off, then arrests Bruno.

That night, the dig is robbed again. The Hardys and Cosimo catch Francesca wandering around; they force her to admit Speck and Vito are the masterminds behind the thefts. They also make her wear Joe’s bugging device, which is classic crime drama stuff. There’s a lot of scrambling, Frank says “there’s no time” to call the police (130), and the Hardys rush off, putting a young woman’s life at risk for their pride, I think, more than to find stolen antiquities.

The stakes increase when Speck and his men stuff Francesca and Vito in the trunk of their limo and drive off. When Frank and Joe run to get the cops — the same cops Cosimo stayed behind to call — they are caught by Speck’s men. It was a trap, you see. Francesca ratted them out with a note slipped to the villains, and Speck and Vito — actually a con man named Claudio — played it perfectly. Stupid Hardys! That’s what you get for not actually planning!

However, Speck and Claudio make the classic blunder: Getting involved in a land war in Asia. No, wait, that’s not it. They taunt Francesca, demeaning her intelligence, telling her she’ll never be able to go home again, and laughing at her falling for Claudio so easily, more easily than they had hoped: “You plant seeds, and some turn into beautiful flowers. I never thought this one would be so easy to pick,” Speck says (136).

Speck, Claudio, and their thugs take Frank, Joe, and Francesca into the woods to kill them, but Speck abandons his co-conspirators with the goods. Claudio turns on the thugs, leaving them as well as the Hardys tied up in the wilderness. But Claudio inexplicably spares their lives. Another classic blunder! Remember the classic hiking maxim: Take no chances; leave no witnesses. Or something like that.

Frank and Joe round up the thugs, and despite their near escape, the Hardys are not too harried to lecture a somewhat contrite Francesca. The police quickly sort out who’s who and who deserves prison; Speck is quickly arrested off-page by the police, and the artifacts are recovered, delivered to the Hardys by an officer who thinks the jewelry is too ugly to steal. (Claudio gets away. A loose end!) Bruno is presumably released, although maybe not — maybe he’s the Monster of Florence. And no one pays Frank and Joe anything!

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Hunt for the Four Brothers (#155)

The Hunt for the Four Brothers coverThree (mostly) made-up dialogues about The Hunt for the Four Brothers:

The pitch meeting:

So what great idea do you have for me for Hardy Boys #155?

I want to send Frank and Joe to a summer resort —

We just did that four books ago — The Rocky Road to Revenge.

Oh … OK. Wait — they’ll be working at a summer resort in the mountains.

The resort was in the mountains in Rocky Road

Which state?
Colorado.

Aha! This time they’ll be in North Carolina.

Mountains in North Carolina are better than a small town in Oklahoma, I suppose, or a train station in Indianapolis. So what’s the mystery?

It starts out with someone stealing soap from the resort bathrooms, and the victims see a wolf-like animal nearby at the time. This leads to whispers of a werewolf —

Ah, that’s better! You had me worried about this soap stealing. We’ve done the werewolf thing in Night of the Werewolf, but that was almost a hundred books and twenty years ago. How are you going to resolve the werewolf legend?

Oh, I’m going to drop it immediately. This is the Hardy Boys, not Scooby-Doo.

Then why bring it up — you know what? Let’s let that go. What are Frank and Joe going to be doing while a not-werewolf is stealing soap?

Lots of things! Lawn mowing! Picking up — and burning — trash! Dishwashing! Carrying luggage!

Those are things they do for their jobs, right? Not part of the investigation?

Well, their jobs become cover for their investigation, like always. The actual investigation will include more exciting things like airport codes and parking fines and stolen soap and a civil war.

A civil war could be interesting. Haven't done one of those in a while. Where?

Kormia.

OK. I’ll ask again, where?

Kormia!

*sigh* Where is Kormia? Is it in Africa? Eastern Europe? Asia?

Almost certainly!

Well, as long as that’s the only major non-American place mentioned in the book, that should be OK.

*silence*

Let’s move on. What are the villains trying to get away with? Maybe with a high-stakes crime, we can still polish this coprolite.

Gem theft, looting a country’s cultural heritage, and smuggling.

Now you’re talking!

But the Hardys won’t know the gems exist until about pg. 110 out of 151, and the other crimes are incidental to the main gem theft.

*deep sigh* So what about their chums? Will anyone from Bayport be working at this resort with them?

Oh, sure — Chet.

Why Chet? Not that I’m complaining — Chet’s always a great addition to the story — but why him instead of, say, Biff?

The Hardys will need someone to do investigative work for them when their elsewhere. They’ll need someone to cover their shifts when they’re investigating and someone to pressure into following them into danger so we can see how courageous the Hardys are. And in this case, they’ll need someone to steal soap for them.

So basically you’re saying the Hardys need someone to push around, and no one else would take their crap?

Exactly! I mean, at one point, the Hardys essentially work Chet so hard he gets only two hours sleep in 48 hours!

So Chet will be there. What about their girlfriends?

No. Why would they want to spend the summer with Frank and Joe? Besides, it would cramp Joe’s style. There’s a girl, Katie Haskell, at the resort who has a major crush on Joe.

That has potential. What happens between them?

Absolutely nothing! Joe mostly ignores her, but she’s there to loan him her car when he needs it to run errands and save his life when he’s stung 65 times by white-faced hornets.

Sixty-five times? That sounds like it would require a long hospital stay. Is that part of the climax?

No, they can take care of 65 hornet stings on an outpatient basis. I don’t think you have to stay overnight until, like, 90 or 105 hornet stings.

Huh. Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

Yes! And they use cutting edge stuff in this book — like the Internet and fax machines!

Fax machines?

Yes! You can send a whole page to a single person over phone lines! Grainy, black-and-white pages on horrible paper! It’s wonderful!

I know what a fax machine is. I was questioning whether … you know what, let’s skip that. What are you thinking about calling this soap-stealing extravaganza?

The Hunt for the Four Brothers!

The four brothers? What are the four brothers?

The gems!

You mean the ones Frank and Joe don’t know exist until almost ¾ of the way through the book?

Of course!

Are you sure you don’t want to go with something like The Great Mountain Gem Caper or The Mystery of Mountain Resort or even The Soap Smugglers?

Nope!

You know what? Fine. I’m going to start my whisky break now.

*****

Continuing a discussion on investigation management:

“What in the world is going on down there?” Fenton asked. …
“Everything’s under control now, Dad,” Joe assured him. “I survived the hornets, and they got the shrapnel out of Frank’s leg.”
Fenton paused. “You call that being ‘under control’?” (p. 109)

“Yes, Dad. This time we had actual medical professionals treat our relatively minor wounds. In the past, I’ve been knocked out more times than I can count (literally — I think those concussions have done something to my brain), been kidnapped, electrocuted, tied up, gassed, almost drowned, attacked by more vicious predators than I could shake a stick at, starved, shaken sticks at vicious predators, been shot at, was shot with a freeze ray and frozen for 36 hours, wandered into the middle of violent revolutions, been hunted as the most dangerous game, struck by lightning, buried alive, and poisoned, all while wandering around with no supervision and only the occasional medical attention. Later I plan to careen down a mountainside and fight a giant Russian in river rapids. But yeah, I think we have matters under control for the moment.”

“You have a point, son. Carry on, then — just let me know if I need to plan a funeral.”

*****

How a discussion on geography should have ended:

“I have a hunch about was in those pet carriers you saw … Siberian huskies, and I mean Siberian.”
“What?” Joe asked.
Frank held up a printout he had pulled off the Internet. “The airport code IEV is for Kiev … in Russia!” (p. 70)

“But Frank, Kiev is nowhere near Siberia — not really.”

“What?”

“It’s hundreds of miles from Kiev to the Ural Mountains, which are the western border of Siberia. It would be like saying Omaha or St. Louis is in the Rocky Mountains.”

“But —”

“Eurasia is a large landmass, Frank. You’re the smart one. You should know this.”

“But it’s — I mean, it’s the Russian connection. I know Russia is a big country, but I just got confused.”

“Well, you say that, but that’s working under the assumption that Kiev is in Russia. I know for almost the first half of your life Kiev was part of the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union doesn’t exist any more. Kiev is the capital and largest city of Ukraine, which is an entirely different country.”

“Not part of Russia?”

“No. Ukraine borders Russia, and it used to be part of the USSR, but it’s been independent for almost a decade now.”

“Gee, thanks, Joe! If you hadn’t corrected me, I would have spent the rest of the adventure saying Kiev was in Russia, making the Russian who’s lurking around the obvious suspect. That would have been humiliating!”

“Yes, and just think if the adults around us didn’t correct us — think of how embarrassed they would be!” *wiiiiiiink*

Friday, November 30, 2018

Eye on Crime (#153)

Eye on Crime coverI picked up Eye on Crime while killing time in a northern Virginia mall — Crystal City? — half a year after the book came out (December 1998). It was the first of the post-Syndicate digests that I had read, and I wasn’t that impressed by any aspect of the book. Still, I remembered the general plot: A TV variety-show host, alternately described as “fast becoming one of the hottest” things on TV by the narrator (1) and “two-bit” (110) by the Hardys, hypnotizes teenagers into enacting various action scenarios, which are then edited into security footage to implicate the teens for jewel robberies. It’s ridiculous; that’s the reason I remembered it.

Rereading Eye, though, after covering my gaps in the original canon and reading dozens of digests and other Hardy series, I am fascinated by the dynamics between the Hardys and their girlfriends. The first fifteen pages or so are portraits of teen relationships that are somewhere between normal and careening toward disaster. (Although from what I remember, “careening toward disaster” is pretty normal for teenage dating relationships too.) Frank and Joe have taken Callie and Iola to a taping of the Monty Mania TV show, which is hosted by the aforementioned hypnotist. The boys start by ignoring their girlfriends to read the newspaper (Bayport Times, this time). Frank apologizes, blaming the front-page news, but Iola (of course) asks, “And this excuses your poor behavior now?” (2).

And rather than taking this as a hint to socialize, like a normal teen — hell, a normal person — Frank and Joe immediately go back to the newspaper. I thought Iola had Joe under some sort of control, but obviously not.

Later, when Iola and Callie complain about how Frank and Joe’s mystery solving cuts into their relationship time, Joe decides to play relationship chicken: “Are you getting jealous? … Do you miss us that much?” (4). Iola snickers at the idea, but the boys are convinced it’s true, even after both girls decline Frank’s offer to include them in crimesolving. The discussion (from Frank and Joe’s POV) / argument (from the girls’) ends as “Callie and Iola sneered at the brothers, putting on their grimmest we-don’t-find-you-funny looks” (5).

During the show, Callie and Iola volunteer to be hypnotized, even though they’ve been told audience members who appear on the show will have to stay after the show, and the foursome have agreed to meet Chet and Tony at the Pizza Palace. Frank’s solution? He and Joe will abandon the girls, letting Callie and Iola catch up with the rest of them at the Pizza Palace.

Frank … Frank, Frank, Frank. You’re supposed to be the smart one. Your girlfriend has just complained about not seeing enough of you, about your being emotionally and physically distant. The correct answer is you call the Pizza Palace on a payphone or your cell phone to let Chet and Tony know you will be late, then WAIT FOR YOUR GIRLFRIENDS.

Then Frank pulls another weird move, as if he’s already trying to shift the blame for the failure of the relationship: When the host of Monty Mania asks Frank and Joe if he can “steal” their girlfriends, Frank says, “Seems to be the theme of the day” (9). This is the first time anything like this has come up! And anyway, other than kidnapping, you can’t really steal a romantic partner. Women and girls have agency, Frank.

Then Frank and Joe participate in Iola’s and Callie’s hypnotic humiliation, with Joe saying the girls should be made to impersonate their favorite animals. Later, while still under hypnotic control, Callie and Iola admit they are envious of Frank and Joe’s crimesolving activities and wish they could be more like the brothers. That’s kinda creepy — or it would be if the text (and most of the other books) indicated this were true, but nothing in the rest of Eye on Crime indicates they want to be like Frank and Joe.

Joe wants to use this admission against Callie and Iola — “rub it in a little” (13) — but Frank tells him not to. Joe: relationships are frequently a power struggle. You can’t use your ammunition willy-nilly. You have to save it up — and given Iola’s strong will, you’ll need all the help you can get.

Or maybe discretion is better: When Iola comes home late and Joe hopes “everything is OK,” she says, “I’m fine” (26). The next day, when Frank and Joe express concern, Iola asks, “What could possibly be wrong?,” and Callie says, “Nothing is wrong” (28). If you have to ask, you’re already doomed, Frank and Joe.

(Speaking of creepy, while on the subject of relationships: Chet and Iola’s father “looked like an older version of his son,” while their mother is “a dead ringer for her daughter” [23]. Did the Mortons procreate asexually, like through mitosis or by budding?)

And that’s about the only glance we get at the Hardys’ romantic relationships. We learn Callie and Iola are friendly but not close friends (a characterization that clashes with previous books), and Callie and Iola are more emotionally demonstrative (embraces) than usual after the boys come to their investigative rescue. But that’s not enough to satisfy the reader’s appetite after the glimpse we get — not that I buy all that we are told, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

*****

The rest of the story isn’t much. Footage of the hypnotized Iola and Callie is spliced into security footage of a robbed jewelry story, just as it was for a pair of baseball players at rival Shoreham High, who are also accused of being jewel thieves. Frank and Joe are slow to catch on, but while sticking their beaks into crime scenes and other people’s private property, the Hardys realize TV host Monty Andrews and his hypnotism is a key element to the crimes, as is the robbery victims’ reliance on Eye Spy Security. After Frank and Joe saves Andrews from a pair of goons, Andrews tells them he’s a patsy. He owes a lot of money at high interest to Ronald Johnson, the owner of Eye Spy and a loan shark, and Andrews’s hypnosis scenarios, focusing on teen audience members, were dictated by Johnson.

The Hardys’ solution? Allow themselves to be hypnotized, and then … profit? Iola and Callie are supposed to keep an eye on Frank and Joe and give them an alibi (probably?), but hypnotized Joe disables the girls’ car, and the Hardys disappear for the night. (They don’t have Chet and Tony, who wait at the Hardy home, or Fenton do anything.) Frank and Joe are arrested for robbing a furrier, with evidence planted in their van, but after smirking at the cops, making bail, and snooping at Eye Spy, they figure out the next target and watch Andrews’s goons rip off another jewelry store. The Hardys and their friends follow the goons back to their hideout, and even though Chet and Tony are captured because they don’t follow Frank and Joe’s orders, Frank and Joe get the goons to confess the entire scheme, and the teens capture the goons. Iola even whacks one of them over the head with a lamp.

Even though no direct evidence links Johnson to the crimes, the teens are all in the clear. Frank and Joe are back at school the next day, ready to play Shoreham. Before the game, Shoreham’s exonerated players offer Frank and Joe an autographed baseball and bat. It’s a bit of shade thrown at the boys in addition to a thank you: The items are autographed by the defending state champions from Shoreham High School.

*****

Although I commend the Dixon for his / her relationship work despite Simon & Schuster’s romantic strictures, she / he shows some inexperience with the series and how high school works:

  • In Eye on Crime, Tony is a waiter at the Pizza Palace, rather than a manager at Mr. Pizza; interestingly, Pizza Palace was mentioned in the revised Mystery of the Flying Express (#20), but many digests have used Mr. Pizza as a setting: Danger on the Air (#95), Spark of Suspicion (#98), Terminal Shock (#102), The Prime-Time Crime (#109), Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades (#116), The Mark of the Blue Tattoo (#146), Trick-or-Trouble (#175), and probably others. Mr. Pizza is also mentioned in Dungeon of Doom (#99) and The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120), The Crisscross Crime (#150), and Kickoff to Danger (#170). Mr. Pizza has been in too many books to ignore, is what I guess I’m saying.

  • Monty Mania is filmed at WBAY, which was a rock-format radio station the only time it was previously mentioned (Program for Destruction, #87). WBPT is Bayport’s main TV station, featured in Danger on the Air, Spark of Suspicion, The Prime-Time Crime (#109), and Beyond the Law (Casefiles #55).

  • Shoreham started baseball practices a week before Bayport. When schools can start their practices is almost always set by a state athletic committee, and any coach who didn’t start his or her own practices with a few days of that date would be seen as derelict in duty to their students and employers and / or incredibly lazy. The latter seems likely; the day after Bayport’s first baseball practice, Bayport is scheduled to play Shoreham … and then play them again the day after that. High schools don’t normally have games on back-to-back days, especially against the same team, unless they are in a tournament or similar competition.

  • Unlike in The Crisscross Crime, Biff is not the Bayport catcher. As far as the text goes, he isn’t on the team at all, although previously unseen characters Michael Shannon (catcher), Novick (pitcher), and Gitenstein are.

  • Chief Collig is paranoid about teenage gangs infiltrating Bayport, going to extraordinary lengths to curb the Shaws’ and Mortons’ free speech and right to association. (I’m pretty sure the police don’t have the authority to institute a gag order by themselves, but I admit I may be wrong; New York or Bayport may have some gang / organized crime statute on the books to prevent accused criminals from talking to those who might be able to help with their defense.) But if teen gangs are appearing in Bayport, it would not be a new development. The Mark of the Blue Tattoo, which came out the year before Eye on Crime, was entirely about teen gangs in Bayport High School, and although Frank and Joe are seen as a power nexus within the high school cosmology, they were clearly not seen as a gang per se.

  • When Chet tells Joe to let nothing happens to Iola and Callie, Joe says, “Never have” (34-5). Obviously, that’s not true in the Casefiles, in which Iola was killed in the first book; in that light, I’d say Joe’s comment is an ironic statement.

*****

This Dixon also has a proclivity to get too clever with names. BHS’s baseball coach is Coach Tarkanian; Jerry Tarkanian was the basketball coach for UNLV from 1973 to 1992, winning an NCAA national championship in 1990. (He also briefly coached the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs in 1992, then returned to the NCAA with Fresno State from 1995-2002.)

One of the wrongly accused Shoreham players is named Pepper Wingfoot. The surname is really strange; the only place I’ve ever seen it before in the Fantastic Four comics from Marvel, where Wyatt Wingfoot is a friend of the Human Torch and the Fantastic Four. Given that association, I wonder if “Pepper” came from Iron Man’s secretary / on-and-off girlfriend, Pepper Potts. On the other hand, I have no idea where the name of his partner-in-non-crime, Roberto Rojas (Robert Red?), comes from.

This Dixon also named a goon “Spicolli,” which I thought was a tribute to the character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But that character’s name was spelled with only one L, and given that his partner in goon-itude was “Zybysko,” it’s more likely the names were chosen for wrestlers Larry Zybysko and Louie Spicolli, who feuded in the mid- to late ‘90s WCW.

There is a limit to the Dixon’s cleverness: One of the robbed jewelry stores is “Golden Palace,” which sounds like it should be selling Chinese food instead.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Rocky Road to Revenge (#151)

Rocky Road to Revenge coverMy first disappointment with The Rocky Road to Revenge is that it contains no revenge. I admit: The title is a good one, but it doesn’t fit the story. The only attempt “revenge” in the story is a botched extortion scheme that ends up with the blackmailer abducted and nearly murdered.

The second disappointment is that Rocky Road is a clear attempt to cash in on the X-Files craze in the late ‘90s, yet nothing about the title or front cover gives any indication of that. It’s a waste, even if the back cover copy does try to get the UFO angle in the book across … although even the back cover botches the details, as the second paragraph starts, “It begins with a strange green light in the sky.” No, the book clearly says it’s an orange light: “The color reminded Joe of a Halloween pumpkin” (7).

The mystery involves abductions in Colorado, where Frank and Joe are spending part of the summer with a classmate, Terry Taylor, who is working at a resort. (I don’t think many parents who would allow their teenage sons to visit a classmate of the opposite sex more than halfway across the country without adult supervision, but we know Laura and Fenton trust / have abandoned all responsibility for Frank and Joe.) Rocky Road pushes the theory that the victims were taken by aliens, linking the disappearances with the bright orange light seen in the Colorado skies during the first chapter.

Rocky Road hits most of the highlights of UFOs and UFO abduction that any X-Files fan would know: electrical failures, lost time and fuzzy memories of the abduction, abandoned vehicles on deserted roads, bright lights. Frank and Joe debate the alien-abduction theory, with lunkhead Joe pushing the idea, and Frank batting it aside. Disappointingly, the experts they talk to don’t hit some of the points real experts on UFOlogy would; Rocky Road doesn’t mention the “Wow!” signal when discussing evidence of alien life gathered by radio telescopes, no one mentions the words “panspermia” or “Fermi paradox” (although Joe describes both ideas to bolster his claims), and the word “probe” is never once mentioned in relation to alien abductions.

The final disappointment is that Rocky Road plays the alien angle too straight. This is a Hardy Boys book, not a serious novel, and no one should expect a Hardy Boys book to be rooted in strict reality. I wanted a winking acknowledgement that the orange light or the mysterious night hobo who always wore sunglasses had something alien about them; I wanted Alex Trebek as a man in black. Instead, Rocky Road drops both the light and drifter, referencing the light on the final page in the same way the original Disappearing Floor (#19) picked up the mystery of its beginning pages, ending with the boys promising to find Harry Tanwick.

*****

After the orange light in the sky gets the attention of the Hardys, Terry, and everyone else at the Silver Crest resort and the nearby town of Parnassa, Colo., the Silver Crest’s owner, Clay Robinson, disappears, his jeep abandoned on the side of a lonely road. Local UFOlogist (and former SETI scientist) Alistair Sykes takes down eyewitness accounts of the lights, exposits the basics of UFOlogy to the Hardys, and plays up Robinson’s disappearance as a possible alien abduction to the local press (such as it is). Soon after, though, Sykes vanishes as well, and that means it’s time for a Reprobate Roll Call:

  1. Myra Hart and Bev Kominski, two former employees of Silver Crest and “drifters” (12). Robinson fired them for stealing from his office, and the two bear a grudge against him (and Terry, who reported seeing them exit Robinson’s office at the time of the theft). After denying the theft through most of the book, Myra and Beverly eventually claim they were only getting compensation for overtime Robinson declined to pay them. They also have no regard for anyone’s personal safety; they puncture a raft so that it will cause problems in the middle of the rapids, and while riding bicycles, they swing wide on a blind curve, causing Frank to either plow into them or drive off the cliff. (He uses his amazing driving ability to put Robinson’s jeep into a controlled sideways skid instead.) Myra also strands Joe and Terry on a ski lift for a while.

  2. Max Jagowitz, general store owner and local crank. Jagowitz is opposed to Robinson’s plan to create a ski resort called the Golden Dream. As a member of the local council, he’s steamed that Robinson managed to get the votes for the approval of the Golden Dream despite his opposition. (He essentially accuses those who voted for Robinson’s development of corruption. Democracy!) Jagowitz lies about his family history, claiming they emigrated to America in 1889 from Yugoslavia, even though Yugoslavia didn’t exist until the Treaty of Versailles, thirty years later, and didn’t exist when the book was written either. He also keeps accusing Joe of stealing a bag of potato chips, although to be fair, Joe should have waited Jagowitz to ring up his purchase rather than just dropping a couple of quarters on the counter.

  3. Clay Robinson. Clay’s a genial fellow, and Stella, his dog, loves him, but he’s ruffled a few feathers getting the Golden Dream project approved. Sykes doesn’t like him either, making cryptic comments about Robinson stealing moonstones. Also, Robinson tells the Hardys, “When Clay Robinson gets it into his head to do something, by golly, he does it. Always remember that, boys. Stick to your guns, no matter what” (6). Frank says it’s good advice, and I know it sounds that way in a “never give up on your dreams” sense, but taken to its extremes, it becomes delusional or psychopathic. Sure, he disappears early in the book, but he could be staging his abduction for nefarious purposes.

  4. Alistair Sykes, a scientist / UFOlogist. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence let him go after their funding was cut — according to him — and now he’s working from his home, with a radio telescope and equipment he paid for himself. He too has an (unspecified) grudge against Robinson, so perhaps he abducted a man he doesn’t like to play up the alien-abduction angle and even used his own abduction to drum up publicity and the funding he needs for his work.

  5. Aliens! No, not really — but what’s up with that weird guy who keeps wandering around at night in sunglasses?

After Robinson disappears, Frank and Joe uncharacteristically agree to call the cops, but Sgt. Bunt and his team inspire no confidence. Terry asks the Hardys to investigate, even though she claims she’s not supposed to know they’re detectives. “Word gets around school,” she says, and the narration claims, “They tried to keep it quiet” (32). This is in contrast to The Ice-Cold Case (#148), just three books before, when even a classmate’s father knows they’re detectives.

(Speaking of uncharacteristic, Frank is the B&E King this book rather than Joe; Frank uses his lockpicks to break into a couple of places, setting off the burglar alarm in one location. Also uncharacteristic: When their raft is sabotaged, Frank gets dumped into the water, which causes Joe to pity him: “It could have happened to anyone” [30], which is the Hardys’ version of “Don’t worry: It happens to all guys.” Perhaps he should pity Frank — he and Joe were outstanding white-water rafters in The Roaring River Mystery (#80], so falling out of a raft is a huge step down for him.)

They visit with Sykes and learn that despite all his fancy equipment and learning, he’s decided that an invented language, known only by him, is the best way to communicate with aliens, and he almost concludes a powerful Mexican radio station playing salsa music is an alien signal. Later, after a possibly alien-caused electrical outage at the Silver Crest, he disappears, with only an open window to suggest where he went.

Not uncharacteristic is Joe’s ability to put himself in danger. Joe and Terry visit Moondance Peak to sightsee and give themselves something to do while Terry exposits to Joe about the area and Robinson. (There’s no romance here, no, no! Joe has no hormones — or at least not the ones that would cause a teenage boy to react when alone with a female classmate in a beautiful setting.) While Joe and Terry are on the way down, Myra, the ski-lift operator, shuts the lift down; Joe tries to climb down a nearby pole but nearly falls to his death instead. The lift starts up again soon after. This almost exactly like what happened in Carnival of Crime (#122), when Joe almost falls to his death getting out of his gondola on a stalled Ferris wheel to help a kid who doesn’t actually need his help.

Because of his belief that the government is concealing proof of aliens, Joe cashes in some of Fenton’s chips with his friend, General Radman. Radman sets up a meeting with General Webster at NORAD, who essentially tells the boys to stop grasping at straws and act like rational adults rather than conspiracy freaks. Joe is more or less satisfied, and we all have to agree as taxpayers that this hour-long conference, soothing the paranoia of a teenage boy, is a great use of a military officer’s time and expertise.

On their way back to Silver Crest, Frank is forced to stop on a lonely road by a bright light. After a “quick jab of pain” (107), Frank loses consciousness; when he awakens, Joe is missing, and he claims something had hit him over the head. (Nothing hit him in the head; he was jabbed with a knockout drug.) Frank and Terry immediately confront Myra and Bev; Frank thinks they are “downright mean and capable of just about anything” (113), and I can’t decide if that’s a damning statement from Frank (he’s seen a lot of crimes) or if Frank’s imagination is so limited he can’t think of anything truly awful. Terry bluffs and gets Myra and Bev to admit they stole a moonstone necklace from Robinson’s safe.

Then Joe shows up on a bicycle after Bev and Myra slip away from the interrogation and, without consulting his brother, puts Bev in a headlock. You know, as one does. It’s not like he has any reason to suspect the ladies. He woke up in a cow pasture with Robinson, then ran into Frank and Terry. He only beat up on a woman because it looked like she and her friend were fleeing, and if that’s not an allegory for modern police practices, I don’t know what is.

Neither Joe nor Robinson remembers anything helpful. Despite the lateness of the hour, Robinson goes to complete the task his kidnapping prevented him from completing days before: talking to his lawyer. That’s a good idea, because Frank — after a visit to Jagowitz — works out that Robinson is behind everything. When Sykes saw Bev wearing a moonstone necklace that had been stolen from his mother decades before, Sykes realized Robinson had been the thief and tried to blackmail him. Robinson decided not to take extortion lying down, staging his own kidnapping before abducting Sykes (and later Joe).

I must admit: I very much admire how Frank figures out the motive, working through an A.B.C. Murders setup. At first, he conjectures Robinson was the true target, and Sykes and Joe were taken to muddy the waters. When Joe and Robinson turn up, he switches gears — Sykes was the real target, and Robinson and Joe were kidnapped to obscure the real motive. Frank shows he’s the intelligent one, for once, rather than Dixon just telling us.

The Hardys track Robinson and his dog, Stella, to a mine — Frank finds the hidden door to the abandoned mine after he “ran his flashlight over the mountain” (134), which … wait, the entire mountain? — and after leaving Stella outside, they find Robinson about to blow up the mine to kill Sykes. Frank tries to convince Robinson he’s not a killer, but Robinson reminds Frank of the advice he gave Frank at the beginning of the book: “I said once you’ve got it into your head to do something, you stick to your guns” (145). Fortunately, Stella wanders into the mine — Joe didn’t actually tie her up or put her in their vehicle or anything — and Robinson can’t bring himself to harm his dog. He’s put in jail for his stupid, stupid crimes.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Crisscross Crime (#150)

 coverFor the hundredth book in the Hardy Boys series, The Secret of the Island Treasure, Simon & Schuster brought back Hurd Applegate, a character from the first Hardy Boys book (The Tower Treasure) and a recurring character in early books. I was hopeful S&S would do something unexpectedly retro with book #150, The Crisscross Crime, but I was disappointed.

The book does have touches that recall earlier mysteries. The title is similar to The Crisscross Shadow’s (#32), although the plots have nothing to do with each other. Bayport’s reservoir is important, like in The Secret of Skull Mountain (#27), but the reservoir in Crisscross Crime appears to be a new reservoir, as it isn’t located at Skull Mountain. (It's probably the same reservoir from Dungeon of Doom [#99].) The biggest rush of nostalgia comes when Fenton’s international crimesolving just happens to interlock with Frank and Joe’s Bayport case (The Mystery of Too Many Damn Times to Count). Still, I wish there had been more explicit references to the Hardy Boys’ past in Crisscross. If, as Wikipedia suggests, Crisscross Crime started out as Hardy Boys Casefiles #130 before that series was cancelled, it’s a miracle the book fits with the Digest / original series as well as it does.

Well, I suppose you can count Joe being a headstrong moron and Frank being a plodding dullard being references to the series past — but I’ll get back to that.

The story begins on the baseball field — that’s something else that hearkens back to the good ol’ days, but Frank and Joe were playing baseball for the Bayport Bombers in Danger on the Diamond (#90) as well, so it’s not unusual. Now, if they’d brought back baseball-loving chum Jerry Gilroy, who hasn’t been seen since 1966, then that would have been awesome. Anyway, Joe’s pitching, Frank’s at shortstop, and Biff takes Chet’s old spot behind the plate. The Bayport Bombers are an out from a win with runners in scoring position; Joe hangs a curve, but a diving catch by Frank seals the Bomber victory.

Rather than head to Mr. Pizza, Frank and Joe need to pick up their mother’s car from the shop. While Frank pays, Joe spots a break-in at a nearby bank. The robbers take off when the alarm sounds, and when Frank drives by in Laura’s car, Joe hops in with their video camera and tells Frank to follow that car!

The chase ends in a junk yard, where the robbers abandon their vehicle. But Frank drives Laura’s car into a car crusher — oops! — and as the car is turned into a cube, the boys narrowly escape with their lives and the video camera. I realize this is probably a traumatic moment for them; it would be for me. But our heroes are Frank and Joe Hardy, who have been in traumatic situations from (literally!) Australia to Zurich and everywhere in between, so why do they do so many stupid things afterwards?

For example:

  • Joe’s first act after the car is destroyed is to break into the junkyard’s office and snoop around.
  • Frank and Joe delay telling Laura that her car is no more, and she learns about it by watching the video Joe shot of it turning it into a large die.
  • When the boys want to learn what happened at a successful robbery that happened just after the break-in they witnessed, Joe poses as a reporter for the Bayport Globe and grills the bank manager, even though the police have told the bank manager not to blab. Why not ask the usually cooperative police, Joe?
  • When a suspect doesn’t want to talk to the boys, Joe’s reaction is to immediately hop her large wall to force her to talk to them.
  • When Frank tells his brother to call the cops if he isn’t back from checking a potential bank robbery in ten seconds, Joe’s reaction is to get a couple of baseball bats, give one to Biff, then try to beat up the robber(s), who have guns.
  • When Frank and Joe are captured by the villains at the end of the book, and Frank realizes the criminals are more likely to kill the boys the more they learn about what the Hardys know, Joe keeps blabbering, letting the criminals know exactly how much the boys have learned.

On one hand, the Hardys have always put justice above property rights or personal safety. On the other hand, Joe might be a nihilist thug, rushing headlong toward the hospital or the grave. (He might have discovered what all those concussions mean for him later in life and be determined not to suffer through the symptoms of CTE.) I realize the above acts are (somewhat) normal for private eyes in fiction, but Frank and Joe are kids with no reason to not cooperate with the police, given how willingly Con will feed them info.

But Frank and Joe never call the police! I’ve joked about the boys considering themselves a law unto themselves, but it’s hard to remember a case on which they have snubbed the five-oh so blatantly. After Laura’s car gets crunched and the boys break into the junkyard office, Frank and Joe don’t call the cops — even though it takes about three hours between the car’s destruction and the arrival of a concussed Biff to pick up the brothers. (A time warp might explain the abnormally long time it takes for a car chase and poking around a room or two, or the boys might have fallen into an alternate timeline: Joe calls Biff “Hoop,” and Biff’s drives a hatchback instead of his usual jeep.) Frank and Joe are determined to investigate, and it takes Frank’s near arrest — the boys’ van was spotted near the botched bank robbery — to get them to hand over their video of the chase.

But they don’t hand over the tape until after they’ve given it to Phil Cohen, who shouts “Enhance!” at his computers a few times and gets a clear look at the license plates. C’mon, guys! If TV has taught me nothing else — and it’s possible that it hasn’t — it’s that the police have a whole unit dedicated to shouting “Enhance!” at video, even though it’s impossible to improve a video past its original resolution.

I suppose the lack of police involvement cuts both ways. When Joe vaults the fence at a ritzy house on tony High Street — the same street the Hardys live on, although the book doesn’t mention that — and are caught, Frank and Joe don’t feel the need to use the police to justify their presence. Fortunately, the suspect lets them out of the trees in which her Dobermans have chased them and doesn’t call the cops herself.

Collig tries to give the boys their comeuppance, yelling at the Hardys for charging into a bank robbery with baseball bats, but his dressing down is interrupted by a grateful bank manager, who tells Collig the boys saved all that federally insured money and only drew a couple of bullets that hit only one bat. Still, Chief Collig gets his momentary revenge at the denouement: When Frank and Joe reveal the villains’ real, final target, he sneers at them, and his officers laugh. Serves you right, boys.

(This antagonism between Collig and the boys makes more sense if the book was originally a Casefile; Collig’s animus against the boys is much greater in that series.)

I guess I shouldn’t be too harsh on Frank and Joe. After they describe the initial robbery attempt and chase to Fenton, Fenton tells the boys to call Collig “if they find anything concrete” (30). Fenton: They are frelling eyewitnesses to an attempted bank robbery, and they have videotape of the criminals escaping. I’m not sure your sense of responsibility is everything it should be.

The independent streak he inspires in his sons ends up biting him in the ass, though. When Frank and Joe find the counterfeiter Fenton has been hunting is in Bayport, they ask for Fenton’s number; Laura says she has already spoken that day to Fenton, who said he’s returning to Bayport, and boys decide their information can wait. Sure, why not?

And the boys definitely get their cavalier regard for information sharing from their father. When Frank and Joe try to “soothe” Laura and their Aunt Gertrude after they see Laura’s car being crushed, the women tell the boys to call the police (36). The boys refuse. No reason to listen to hysterical women and their completely legitimate concerns about your safety and the modern crimefighting apparatus!

Because Frank and Joe don’t share info with the police, it’s hard to blame Collig for his reactions. He thinks he’s figured out the pattern in crimes — or more accurately, he figures Frank has figured out the pattern, which he shared with the police in a rare moment of cooperation. Well, the book claims Frank figured it out, but let’s see if you can figure it out yourself. First, as Frank and Joe were getting their mom’s car crushed and the police were responding to the triggered alarm, a bank downtown was robbed. A day or so later, while Joe and Biff foiled the bank robbery with their wooden bats, the police were responding in force to an alarm triggered at a bank on Bayport’s outskirts. Frank’s cognitive breakthrough? He “explained the hunch he and Joe had about all the real targets being downtown and all the false alarms being on the outskirts of town” (108).

That’s not a hunch. That’s recapping what had happened in the book so far

Now, what don’t Frank and Joe share with Collig? In the junkyard office, Frank and Joe find detailed maps of Bayport’s utilities, including the sewer lines and storm drains. Also, Fenton is investigating a counterfeiting case for the government, and the printing plates and ink have already been stolen; one of the suspects tells them the paper U.S. currency is printed on is stored in Bayport. (Seems like Fenton should have been on top of that, really.) The boys — well, Frank, really — put 2 and 2 together, and even though they don’t bother to check whether they should be adding or multiplying, come up with the 4-1-1: The criminals are using the storm drains to move around town, and the last bank robberies will be a double fake. The real target will be the armory where the paper is stored.

While the police are responding to a decoy robbery downtown, the robbers use jackhammers to break into the armory from below, which our crack troops can’t hear. They then escape through the storm drains on jet skis. It’s unusual; I’ll say that, at least. After Frank viciously “clocked” a criminal with a tire iron and steals his jet ski (138), the boys chase the other robbers to the reservoir, survive being tied up to drown in the storm drain (Frank flexes his wrists to escape his wet bonds), and pursue the last of the criminals onto the bay, where they prevent international counterfeiter Herve DuBois from escaping onto his speedboat and the open sea.

At no point do they call the police, but the Coast Guard does show up in time to keep the criminals from drowning.

The book ends with Laura and Fenton showing up at the boys’ next baseball game in her new car; Laura cheerfully tells her sons they will “never” drive it (150). Finally — consequences for Frank and Joe!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Chase for the Mystery Twister (#149)

The Chase for the Mystery Twister coverThe Hardy Boys mysteries are usually set in fictional places — Bayport is fictional, the small towns around Bayport are fictional, and the small towns across the world the Hardys wend their way to are fictional. They do spend time in real places, of course; New York has always been a staple of Hardy Boys crimesolving. But mostly the Hardys are not visible from the world outside your window.

For many years, I rarely thought about this practice, but lately it has been bothering me. Bayport and its fictional environs are fine, I’ve decided: The milieu created for the absurdly powerful crimefighting family could hardly be mixed up with the real world. But when they wander into some fictional town in an identifiable part of the real world, it feels strange. The Hardy Boys books aren’t the most subtle and incisive observers of humanity, and these fictional places give leave to the authors to abandon reality and make somewhere real into something unreal, where stereotypes and bizarre characterizations dominate.

Take, for instance, Lone Wolf, Okla., where most of The Chase for the Mystery Twister takes place. Allegedly, all these things are true about Lone Wolf:

  • It is large enough that a television station is located in the town.
  • The TV station thinks its audience is learned enough but also bored enough to care about atypical tornado debris patterns.
  • It is small enough that the town’s sheriff also holds a full-time job as a barber.
  • It is large enough that people remark about how long it takes to get from one side of the town to the other.
  • It is small enough that there is only one motel in a 25-mile radius of Wolf Gap.
  • It is the self-declared Tornado Capital of the World, even though it is part of “Twister Alley,” rather than “Tornado Alley.” This title seems to bring no tourism to the town, as evidenced by the one motel.
  • The air is so clear and the land so flat that vehicles can not only be seen more than a mile away (and their relative size distinguished), they can be seen despite the lessened visibility created by storms and tornados.
  • Somehow a Hispanic man who introduces himself to newcomers with a hearty “Buenos dias” has been elected sheriff in the largely white community in rural Oklahoma.
  • The early spring corn in Lone Wolf is tall enough to block Joe’s view of a thresher, despite corn being barely shoe-top level until some time in May in most of the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Joe is able to practice bilocation, being at a bank and a barnraising at the same time.

The most amazing fact about Lone Wolf, though, is that it’s a real place. Or at least the Lone Wolf in Mystery Twister is based on a real place — the 500 people who lived in the real Lone Wolf in 2000, two years after Mystery Twister was published, wouldn’t have been able to support the two rival insurance agents / scamsters that are at the heart of the book, let alone have a television station or a sheriff.

(I was also shocked to learn that the National Severe Storm Laboratory is a real thing. I mean, National Severe Storms Laboratory just sounds fake. But no, it’s a real part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

The real Lone Wolf also presumably doesn’t expose homoerotic urges like this book suggests. When Joe grabs Phil with his “muscular arms,” “Joe knew there was no time to be delicate”; there’s also mention of Phil being “roughly yanked” and of putting body parts in hole (54). The scene is supposed to show Joe rescuing Phil from a fire, but you have to read between the lines. I think Joe is carrying Phil to the fire … in his pants. Later, when an attacker pins Joe against the dirt, words like “wriggled,” “bucked,” “tried every move he knew” and “got a hold of the man’s hair” are used (88). Sure, it’s supposed to be a fight, but it seems ... charged, you know? By the time Phil urges, “Get it up, Joe!” (127), I was blushing at the explicitness.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Lone Wolf is a place and a state of mind. What is The Chase for the Mystery Twister?

****

It’s a bad book, that’s what it is.

I’m not going to suggest an editor slid a worn-out VHS copy of Twister to this book’s Dixon, said “Go wild,” and then belched instead of giving the author an outline — heavens no. But if you’d like to make a little bet on the matter without letting the authorities know, then you know how to contact me.

During Spring Break, Frank and Joe fly to Lone Wolf — fly commercial, mind you, like peasants — to meet up with Phil Cohen. What’s technophile Phil, who was complaining about going out in the cold in the previous mystery, doing in BFE Oklahoma? Why, he’s working for a team of stormchasers, a pursuit he has never showed any interest in before. Phil has been in Oklahoma for a while, much longer than a mere spring break internship would allow — has he already graduated high school, or are his grades good enough that he doesn’t have to show up for classes?

Phil and the other stormchasers work for Lemar Jansen, who apparently doesn’t have a doctorate in meteorology or anything else (everyone calls him “Mr. Jansen”). His team is opposed by Greg Glover, a former colleague who has his own team. Glover’s team has corporate sponsorship, but Janson’s doesn’t because he “doesn’t want anyone pressuring him or telling him what to do” (109). This raises questions: What kind of businesses sponsor stormchasers? What do they get out of the deal? What do they pressure stormchasers into doing? And why — why sponsor people who drive after tornados?

No — asking “why” never gets anyone anything but a headache. We’ll press on.

Jansen and Glover’s teams are fascinated by a house that a tornado has leveled near Lone Wolf; the debris left by the tornado has been strewn in an atypical pattern. Jansen and Glover have seen this anomaly once before, but like the previous time, they find no clues as to what caused the strange pattern — all the local weather radars were jammed, and evidently NOAA has no interest at aiming its weather satellites at a probable tornado event. Poking around the house’s wreckage, Joe finds a piece of the owner’s “Ming vase” (35), but the shard is stamped “Occupied Japan” (40). Bayport’s education system must be lacking severely if Joe thinks a vase labeled “Occupied Japan” could be a genuine Ming.

Anyway, Frank, Joe, and Phil find other clues that the homeowner was defrauding his insurer, which is poised to pay out more than a million dollars, although the homeowner’s insurance agent doesn’t seem too concerned. At the same time, Lone Wolf’s other insurance agent disappears, causing suspicion to fall on the Cherokee grandfather of the absurdly named Snowden Parlette. While investigating the fraud and disappearance, Joe pressures Phil into breaking into every place with a locked door. Frank performs a Buster Keaton impersonation at a barnraising, then Joe has his sexually charged fight before fleeing from a thresher that corners like a rally car. (Joe ends up hiding under a tractor rather than climbing over or through the tractor. What a farm noob!) When the man with the destroyed Ming vase shows up with the sheriff in tow, accusing the brothers of “slander and threatening him in public” (90), Frank and Joe are nice enough to not point out that slander is a civil crime, outside of the purview of a sheriff.

A videotape of the tornado that left the weird debris patterns — dubbed the “mystery twister” by Frank — shows up without provenance or credit; Frank and Phil debunk the video after Frank steals it from Glover. While Frank is realizing the homeowner and his insurance agent are colluding on their scam, Joe gets Phil into trouble by breaking into the villains’ semi; Phil is knocked out, and when yelling for help while the truck is roaring down the highway predictably fails, Joe manages to knock down the rear door with a “huge” tractor (118). (If you think a huge tractor will fit in a semi-trailer, you too are a farm noob, sadly uninformed about tractor sizes.) The tractor is part of the fraudsters’ insti-tornado kit, which they used to knock down the house with the weird debris pattern; I think the amount of damage the kit would have to pull off in a short time is only a little more believable than a supervillain keeping his lair secret when it has been constructed by a crew of hundreds.

Even with the tractor, Joe can’t get the door down until the semi is going over a cliff; Phil and Joe implausibly jump free of the trailer and tread water in the quarry pit until they are rescued hours later. In the last ten pages, the boys are chased by an F5 tornado on the way home, capture the fraudsters, prove the missing insurance agent was in on the scam, exonerate their friend’s grandfather, and recover most of the money stolen by both corrupt insurance agents. Also in the last ten pages: Joe runs at a monster truck that is driving toward him, leaps on its hood, and subdues the truck’s driver, so it’s pretty clear the Dixon just threw up his hands, said “Screw it,” and crammed everything he needed to into the last few pages without regard for pacing or logic.

It's a poor ending, but then again, it’s a poor book.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Ice-Cold Case (#148)

The Ice-Cold Case coverSo I took it pretty easy on the last book, Trial and Terror, giving it some leeway because it seemed to be attempting to deal with a touchy subject with some subtlety. The Ice-Cold Case, on the other hand, will not get the same benefit of the doubt, even though its title correctly used a hyphen in a compound adjective.

Why?, you might ask. It’s simple: Frank and Joe are morons.

As the book begins, Frank and Joe drive Phil, Chet, Callie, and Iola to Sarah Kwan’s birthday party. (This isn’t what makes Frank and Joe morons; just give me a moment.) Now, given Hardy Boys’ depictions of East Asians and Asian-Americans, having a friend of Asian descent is kinda a milestone for the Hardys, especially since they don’t have any members of the Kwan family cross-dress to make their girlfriends jealous or Chet horny, like they forced Tom Wat to do in Footprints under the Window (#12). No, in this case, Frank and Joe attend a party at the beautiful lakeside home of the prosperous Kwan family, and —

Ha ha, no. Frank and Joe don’t attend the party. Mr. Kwan immediately dangles the possibility of investigating a series of robberies around the lake, and Frank and Joe are off like a shot — ignoring the party, their friends, the birthday girl, and even their proposed skating race. They get in the middle of a squabble between unruly hockey players and ice fishermen. The cops are called, a football teammate of Joe’s who’s a bit of a jerk but basically good freund is arrested, and the Hardys scarf down burnt burgers before taking off.

Now, this is usually where I would insert a reprobate roll call, but I’m not going to bother this time. The obvious suspects are obvious; since Frank and Joe waste their time on investigative avenues that are unlikely to pan out, the brothers come across as dullards. What are they overlooking? Very soon in the investigation, it becomes clear the thieves should meet certain criteria:

  1. They must have access to the lake without motor transportation because the Kwans would hear a vehicle driving by;
  2. They must be around the lake frequently, since the thieves react quickly to what the Hardys do;
  3. They must be from out of town or have out-of-town connections, as the stolen goods haven’t shown up in any local pawn shop or with any fences; and
  4. Their robberies are, for some reason, concentrated in the winter months.
Who meets those criteria? Not Ray Nelson, the jerk who played football with Joe; he has alibis for too many of the robberies, and besides, Ray claims to have helped the Hardys “find that kid who ran away … [and catch] Rob Dee stealing stuff from the gym lockers” (15). (We haven’t seen Ray before, but since Frank and Joe don’t contradict him, we should believe him.) Since Ray didn’t do it, his friends, John and Vinnie, are similarly in the clear; besides, they work at Burger World, which I don’t think any self-respecting teen thief would subject himself to. (Burger World: Circumnavigate your taste buds with Burger Flavor!®) The idea that the culprits are the Kwans, peripheral characters introduced only to serve as an entre for the Hardys into the case, is laughable. None of the fishermen are fleshed out enough to be the villain, except for chief ice hole Ernie Tuttle; however, Ernie is not a criminal — just a cranky old man who runs (and lives in) a fishing shop on the lake.

So who do these clues fit? Tuttle’s grandkids, Neil and Stu, who come up from Maryland every winter to help their grandfather with his fishing shop. They fit all the criteria. In my notes on the book, I’d decided they were the culprits before p. 20. But the Hardys take half the book before focusing on the Tuttles, and only on p. 132 does Frank admit “hesitantly” admit Ernie might have nothing to do with the crimes.

Come on, guys! You’re supposed to be good at this! I think it’s time to play the Moron Game!™ (modified version). Joe Hardy, why are you a moron?

“Joe wasn’t going to let go of the investigation for the sake of a birthday party” (20).

Well, that’s more inconsiderate than stupid. What about your opinion of the housesitter you beat up after breaking into the home he was watching?

“‘You think with all that’s going on around here, he’d be more appreciative that we were trying to protect him,’ Joe grumbled.” (48) Also: after the boys beat up the housesitter, Joe says, “He seemed to have an attitude” (52).

That’s … an unrealistic reading of the situation, Joe. You can’t expect beat up someone and have them thank you. It just doesn’t work that way.

Maybe you can show your wit (or lack thereof) through humor, when Phil offers to help despite his aversion to being outside in the freezing cold?

“‘You know I’m available to help,’ Phil said.
‘I thought you hated the cold,’ Joe said.
‘I told you I can fix the heat in [the van],’ Phil said.
‘I meant the cold on the lake,’ Joe said, and they all laughed” (118).

That’s not a joke. That’s the result of carbon monoxide leaking into the van’s passenger space.

Well, we’ve always known Joe was the intellectual weak link. So, Frank, are you a moron? When someone might be shooting at the house you’re in, what do you do?

“Frank threw open the door and flew out in a spiral” (103).

There’s a fine line between stupid and incomprehensible, and that sentence lands on both sides of the line. I can’t imagine how a human being can run in a spiral, let alone fly in one — does he spin out of the house like a thrown football, or is he trying to run in overlapping circles to confuse the shooter? (Think about walking out your front door and walking to the street or mailbox “in a spiral”; you’d look like a total nimrod.)

Well, what about when Joe asks, “How many [nightspots for partying] are open ... late?”

“‘Not too many,’ Frank said. ‘Let’s check them later’” (69).

So you’re telling me that a city of 50,000 doesn’t have a plethora of spots where people can come to your town and help you party it down? And more to the point, you want us to believe you know anything about those places? (The boys find Officer Con Riley hanging around the Dew Drop Inn, which probably has an active nightlife. I’m assuming it’s a little redneck-looking joint and that Con is waiting for a scuffle involving a longhaired hippie chasing five big dudes, including a faithful follower of Brother John Birch, around the parking lot in his mag-wheeled, four-on-the-floor Chevrolet.)

Let’s expand this to the Hardys chums. Chet Morton, why are you a moron?

“Chet was a longtime friend of the Hardys and was used to such abuse from them” (23).

Abuse! Come on, Chet, have some pride, and just walk away from them! You’re more than just a reliable vessel for their horrible comedy stylings.

Hey, Phil Cohen, what do you have to say when you and your friends are almost run down by a stolen truck, which misses Frank by inches?

“Do you think they were really trying to kill us?” (111).

Frank doesn’t believe so, but as we’ve established, Frank may be a moron!

What about the cops? Con Riley, why are you a moron?

“Frank hoped Riley wouldn’t realize he was being grilled and clam up on them” (18).

Riley doesn’t realize a pair of teenagers are transparently pumping him for information, and he gives the boys an update on the investigation without getting anything from them. Later on, he equates a broken van window in severity with arson. On the other hand, he’s getting teenagers to do his work for free, so maybe he’s not as big a simpleton as I think.

***

It all ends up fine, of course. The Tuttle kids are captured, Ray is cleared, and he and Joe “gave each other big football-player hugs” (143). (I … I don’t think that’s a thing football players do, usually, but I admit I never played high-school football.) The Kwans throw an old-school party to celebrate the Hardys’ success, and since Frank and Joe don’t have to share the spotlight with a character who will never be seen again, they are quite willing to be part of the festivities rather than looking for something more interesting to do.

The book does have a bit of drama; when Joe manages to fall through thin ice — the brothers claimed to have been lured onto the thin ice, but they have no one to blame but themselves — the author manages to put some real drama into his rescue and recovery. Joe is dragged to the Kwans’ house, where Mrs. Kwan, a nurse, treats him. Part of the treatment involves submerging Joe in a warm bath, and Mrs. Kwan insists Joe remove all his clothes before going into the bath. This may be the first time a non-blood-related female has seen either of the brothers naked. A milestone! And honestly, I figured both brothers were never-nudes, taking showers in their jean shorts.

Later, Joe’s hanging around the Kwans, waiting for his clothes to dry while dressed only in a bathrobe and heavy socks. Joe “had an embarrassed look on his face … ‘I feel weird hanging around here in a bathrobe,’ he said. ‘I mean, there’s a girl from school here’” (99). It’s good to know that even though he had a near-death experience, his shame reflex is still strong.

After the EMTs arrive, Joe declines to go to the hospital based on Mrs. Kwan’s recommendation: “I think he’ll be fine,” she says, despite Joe having been submerged in freezing water for three minutes (98). Joe, you don’t deserve the sort of treatment a hospital would give you until you catch the criminals! In the meanwhile, rub some dirt on your frostbite, you pansy, and you’ll be fine.

***

Also: for those of you who are wondering, Bayport is located at latitude 40 degrees north, latitude 73 degrees west. That’s south of Long Island and east of New Jersey in the Atlantic, located in international waters. If you accept that the minutes and seconds have been left off the degrees, then it’s on Long Island. (West of New York City is 74 degrees west; almost all of Connecticut is 41 degrees north.)

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Trial and Terror (#147)

Trial and Terror coverTrial and Terror is an awful title. First, there’s no real terror in this book. Secondly, Cliché-Bot’s brother, Mystery Cliché-Bot, suggested “Trial and Terror” for every single Simon & Simon and Murder, She Wrote episode in the ‘80s, and it’s still bitter about every rejection. I mean, I can see why Pocket Books gave in on this one — half of all robot uprisings start when Mystery Cliché-Bot gets frustrated and starts trying to kill humans — but that doesn’t make it less of an awful title.

Trial and Terror is set during Christmas break, that most terrible time of the year; for the Hardy Boys, Christmas means crime. (That would have been a better cover tagline — not a good one, but still better than what the book ended up with.) Trial and Terror begins with Frank touring New York’s criminal courts for a civics class, with Joe tagging along because, well, it’s not like he’s got any ideas about what to do with himself. The idea that Frank needs to learn how the justice system works is offensive on many levels: after 147 books, we know the Hardys are justice, Fenton must have drilled the legal system’s basics into his boys, and Frank should have testified in dozens of trials.

(Later in the book, Frank has to explain to Joe what Sing Sing is, which is so wrong — Frank and Joe have probably sent dozens of men there. The brothers should be getting fan mail from Ossining on a daily basis. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gertrude even had a penpal there!)

I mean, I get it: This Dixon portrays the Hardy brothers as beginners to the justice system to make the writer’s exposition less awkward. I understand. But everyone in the Hardys’ orbit, from their closest friends to their high-school principal and part-time employers, should at least have testified in a trial and probably should have been involved enough to want to watch one from beginning to end.

But I shouldn’t criticize the book too harshly. Trial and Terror has some ambitions past showing school-age kids the rough workings of justice in America, and it needs all its subtlety for that. Because what Trial and Terror wants to show readers is what happens when the justice system has something rotten inside it; can justice be found then?

Nick Rodriguez is accused of the attempted murder of his girlfriend, soap ingénue Karen Lee, and Frank and Joe just wander into his trial. (It’s hard to believe there would be any open seats for random lookie-loos, but I suppose we must suspend our disbelief somewhere.) Joe deals with the case entirely on a surface level; seeing the nattily groomed defendant, he says Nick “doesn’t look like a murderer” (2), but after the prosecution’s first witness, he’s sure Nick did it. (Although, as Sideshow Bob reminds us, attempted murder is barely a crime.)

Frank isn’t so sure, and to make sure Nick gets a robust defense, he offers the brothers’ services (for free!) to Nick’s twin sister, Nellie, and Nick’s defense attorney. Nellie says she has “nothing to lose” (16), but that’s not true: If the Hardys destroy or confuse forensic evidence, it could hamper Nick’s defense or appeals, and if the Hardys harass witnesses or commit crimes in their investigations, the judge could censor the defense, putting them in a hole. Myers, the defense attorney, accepts them on the strength of their first day’s work, but he doesn’t bother to ask for references. Perhaps he’s not the sharpest lawyer; his entire defense of Nick includes only character witnesses, which, uh, isn’t the strongest of evidence.

Frank realizes that finding another suspect would be the best way to inspire reasonable doubt in the jury — although Frank, expert in civics, thinks the threshold is “some doubt” (18). So he and Joe rustle up a Reprobate Roll Call!

  • Nick himself. Although it would be unexpected if the Hardys’ client were guilty — it blew my juvenile mind when Frank and Joe’s client was the guilty one in The Masked Monkey (#51) — Nick is not above reproach. After Karen breaks off their engagement and relationship, he can’t let it go; he persists in trying to re-establish their relationship for months afterwards. After he confesses his continued love of Karen to the Hardys with a flourish of fist pounding, Joe (again) thinks Nick is guilty, and the prosecutor forces Nellie to admit that a month before the attempted murder, Nick said to Karen, “Sometimes you make me so mad I want to kill you” (76).

  • Alex Steel, the super in Karen Lee’s building and owner of an awesome name. Frank and Joe suspect he might have attacked Lee on behalf of the building’s owner, who is trying to get elderly residents of the building’s rent-controlled apartments to leave so he can renovate and charge more for the apartments. Karen, who used to work in the prosecutor’s office, organized the resistance to the owner’s tactics. Also, Steel is an unpublished writer who writes murder mysteries, and his bloody titles make the stars of Trial and Terror suspicious. Fortunately, Frank and Joe don’t try anything so stupid as to try to find scenes similar to Karen’s attack in Steel’s writings.

  • Fred Garfein, the owner of Karen’s building. If he didn’t get Alex to attack Karen, he could have hired someone else. He’s rich, and he doesn’t believe in rent control. It’s unfair to building owners! He’s obviously not a supporter of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

  • John Q., an obsessed fan of Karen’s. He sends her fan mail that insists they are “fated to be together” (46), he talks to his TV when Karen is onscreen as if she can hear him, and he attends the trial incognito. At least he doesn’t call himself her number one fan.

  • “Lunatic” Lucy Velloni, a reporter who has an exclusive in with Karen. Her tabloid colleagues denigrate her, which Velloni believes is because she doesn’t restrict herself to traditionally feminine topics. (Given that her “crazy” actions tend to be non-feminine, action-junkie pursuits like running into a burning building and jockeying her car through New York traffic like a taxi driver, I’d say she has a point.) After she attempts to save a girl from that burning building, Frank and Joe mostly drop her as a suspect — even though Frank and Joe have to complete the rescue, and she did attempt to murder Frank by pushing him off the top of a building. (She later protests she didn’t realize the edge of the building was there.)

  • Mystery suspect!

The first helpful item that Frank and Joe discover is that prosecutor Patricia Daggett withheld exculpatory evidence — evidence uncovered by the police or prosecution that might tend to exonerate the defendant — from the defense. In this case, it’s that Karen had a key to Nick’s apartment with Nick’s name on it, which disappeared around the time of the attack. This might have allowed another person to plant evidence in Nick’s apartment. (Although this is the Hardy Boys universe, and a key isn’t necessary; lockpicking isn’t an uncommon skill.) Trial and Terror tries to sell the idea that this kind of misconduct could get a prosecutor imprisoned, but that’s extremely unlikely, even for a prosecutor who, like Daggett, makes a habit of withholding exculpatory evidence.

Just like in the last book I recapped, Frank and Joe get a lot of mileage out the excuse that they’re working on a school assignment; they even use that excuse to see busy developer Fred Garfein. (He doesn’t really listen to them, to be fair.) Other investigative tactics used include Joe picking the lock on a suspect’s apartment to get access while he’s gone (illegal methods that would be a good reason why the defense might not want to hire the brothers) and Frank using Fenton’s name to get some carpet fibers tested by the police. (The evidence room officer admits Fenton got him out of some “jams” (83) — and we know what that means. *Wiiiiiiink*.)

Since this is Christmas time, Frank stops into a New York jewelry store and purchases a cheap enamel ring with a butterfly on it for Callie. Joe doesn’t make a purchase; ostensibly, he has already acquired a present for Iola, as he says, “If you mess up with a girlfriend's present, it’s not a pretty sight” (62).

(Joe, if Iola is violent around you, it’s not your fault — even if she says you’re making her do it. Just … reach out and get help, man. This is not a joke.)

While rifling through Karen’s letters, the brothers come across a letter from an inmate at Sing Sing. The brothers head upstate and learn that Daggett withheld exculpatory evidence in his case, and Karen overheard an argument about that between Daggett and an investigator. (The inmate wanted Karen’s help in his plea to Daggett’s boss — a less confrontational way of attempting to get justice than the traditional lawsuit / appeal, and one that is not likely to succeed. But he might as well try all avenues, I suppose.) From this bit of evidence, Frank and Joe decide Daggett is guilty of the attempted murder of Karen. Daggett sends an arrested criminal to threaten the boys, promising him leniency for thuggery against the brothers, but it backfires, because no one can intimidate the Hardys. In a bit of courtroom drama, Frank tries to produce a Perry Mason moment from the witness box, claiming that an unidentified piece of evidence is part of Daggett’s crappy enamel ring — just like the one that Frank bought Callie! — which broke during Daggett’s attack.

The gallery goes wild. The judge dismisses the case, which would be unusual if this were the real world, and Nick is freed to keep foisting his emotional neediness upon Karen; Karen apologizes for thinking this guy who just couldn’t let their relationship go might have attacked her. Apologizes! And then she’s forced to celebrate with Nick, Nellie, and their lawyer! Poor Karen.

Now, there are a few problems with the justice system that this Dixon glosses over. The prosecutor introduces information that an objection overrules; the jury is supposed to forget the information, but that’s impossible for a human to do. Also, a crime-lab technician identifies the hairs found in a ski mask found Nick’s apartment and testifies they are Nick’s; although he initially prefaces his testimony with “in my opinion,” he later says hair samples “can be matched with almost as much accuracy as fingerprints” (10) and that the odds that the samples aren’t Nick’s are “a million to one” (11). Although DNA can be found in some hair samples, that’s not what the lab technician is saying; he’s saying when he looks at the hair in a microscope, he can visually compare and match them with precision accuracy, and that’s just not true. (To be fair to these fictional lawyers and the fictional lab tech, that sort of forensic overstatement goes on all the time in courtrooms, and it passes unchallenged.)

The important thing, in the end, is that Joe realizes how important it is that everyone gets “the best possible defense” (118). Why is this? Because at different points during their investigation, Joe thought every suspect was guilty, and their investigation proved not everyone wanted to kill Karen Lee.

But remember: In Joe’s eyes, they are all guilty of something. We are all guilty in his eyes. Someday, Joe won’t be satisfied with punishing the guilty in just Bayport. He will convince more and more citizens to outsource the dispensing of justice to him, until the entire country — the entire world — will be forced to grovel and pray for a merciful Joe.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Carnival of Crime (#122)

Carnival of Crime coverSo, a carnival of crime, you say …

The Hardys have danced all around the entertainment-industrial complex, but I don’t think they’ve investigated a carnival before. Automobile stunt shows in Fear on Wheels (#108), the circus in Three-Ring Terror (#111), a demolition derby in The Demolition Mission (#112), an amusement park in Danger in the Fourth Dimension (#118), and a Renaissance faire in Crusade of the Flaming Sword (#131), but not a carnival. Admittedly, the Hardys had worked for a carnival in the original Clue of the Broken Blade (#21), and Chet worked for Solo’s Super Carnival in The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo (#47), but no Dixon working on the digests remembers those hardback books. Also, there’s a winter festival in The Cold Cash Caper (#136), but that’s later in the series, and a winter festival has a whole different set of crimesolving issues.

You might not be able to guess the plot of Carnival of Crime from the title alone. The name suggests the carnival is propagating the crime, like Marvel’s Circus of Crime. (A Ringmaster with a hypnotic top hat would be completely optional.) Instead, it’s Hardy Boys Digest stock plot 1b, in which a business is in trouble because of “accidents” that look like sabotage but might not be (but totally are, because this is a Hardy Boys story). Once you know that, the story pretty much tells itself: a standard Reprobate Roll Call (I’ll get to that later), a crooked carnival game, and set pieces in the Tunnel of Love, Fun House, and Mirror Maze. You’re smart; you could’ve thought of this, although you might have had the sabotaged ride be the more exciting roller coaster rather than the Ferris wheel, and you might have laughed at your editor when he suggested a dangerous bumper car attack instead of dutifully trying to put menace into the least menacing attraction at a carnival. (I mean, even the “Guess Your Weight” guy can have an element of fat shaming to his attraction.) But that’s you; you’re principled, and you know what works.

I mean, a carny yells, “Hey, Rube,” at one point to set other carnies against the Hardys. It’s that sort of by-the-numbers book. I’m not saying you could’ve done better; I don’t know the quality of your prose and transitions. But with a professional editor, I’m not going to say you’d do worse.

So, as to the story itself: After Frank and Joe “just finished that business of the mine fires over in Pennsylvania” (35), the operator of Fairs to Go, Susan Bowman, calls the younger Hardys to investigate problems at the carnival, having heard of the Hardys through an unnamed friend. This “friend,” of course, is probably someone on the carny circuit who passes around the names of people who work for free. Fairs to Go is hemorrhaging money and Susan is a teenager who just took over the carnival because of her father’s heart attack, so it’s not like she has many options to combat the alleged sabotage. The Hardys do work for free, but they don’t bother to return Susan’s call; instead, without knowing who Susan is or what she does, they randomly run into Susan when they attend the Bayport Fair, which Fairs to Go is working.

Despite their being the same ages, Susan has to ignore Joe’s skepticism that she’s responsible enough for the job; Joe is unacquainted with responsibility, as being a teen detective is a pastime that carries no responsibility, not even the responsibility to not cause harm to your client’s interests or to take normal efforts to preserve your own life. But that seems like a small price for Susan to pay. In Joe’s defense, Susan claims to be “carny born and bred” (29), an unfortunate turn of phrase which calls to mind unsavory and probably unethical breeding practices involving sideshow performers, and she completely botches any chance Frank and Joe have to keep up their cover identities. Not that their cover identities — students writing a term paper about the carnival business, in this case — would ever fool anyone, let alone a group as legendarily suspicious of outsiders as carnies, but there are forms to be observed, you know? Just like we all pretend corporations are responsible citizens and ignore their rapacious need for profit — until we’re absolutely forced to stop ignoring it.

So who is sabotaging Fairs to Go? Here’s the Reprobate Roll Call:

  • Ricky Delgado, Susan’s stepbrother. A business school dropout, Ricky thinks he should be running Fairs to Go. He has two goons, Boomer and Kenny. (I had to look up Kenny’s name because I keep wanting to call him “Esiason.”) Ricky and his goons confront Frank and Joe a time or two; during one confrontation, Joe gets offended when Ricky calls them “boy detectives” (45), a totally accurate description of the Hardy boys, and “turkeys” (67). Later, Frank discovers Ricky is shaking down the booth operators, building a “war chest” that will allow him to revitalize the carnival after he ousts his stepsister in a putsch. (He doesn’t say he plans to have Susan assassinated in her Mexico City exile, but honestly, he doesn’t have to: That’s implied. History has shown us that’s the inevitable course of carnival power struggles. Or is it Communist power struggles? I get confused sometimes. The one with more clowns.)

  • Raoul Duchemin, former Fairs to Go strongman. Injuries have reduced Raoul to a general laborer, but Raoul is unhappy because carnival show business is the only business he knows. He’s also a moron, but there’s no evidence that that makes him unhappy. He has a “crush” (33) on Althea, the Ferris wheel operator, and he glowers at any man who looks twice at her. That was probably supposed to be a menacing (to the Hardys) plot point in 1993, when Carnival was published, but a quarter century has made his attempts to control the romantic life of a woman who has no interest in him into something incredibly creepy.

  • Cecil Farkas, who runs the shooting-gallery game. Frank and Joe expose his rigged game almost as soon as they enter the carnival — he feeds chipped BBs into the rifle, making it almost impossible to hit the target, so I learned something about gaffed games — and of course he’s going to hold a grudge after Susan gives him his walking papers.

  • The four Fratelli Brothers, a clown family. They are almost always in character, which means “amusing” disinterested people who just wish they’d go away. I don’t think I need to say more than that, really.

  • Mystery culprit.

Since Ricky is too obvious a villain, you will be unsurprised to learn that “mystery culprit” is the winner of the Hardy Detecting Sweepstakes. (For those of you who were wagering, Mystery Culprit pays $25 to win, $10 to show, $3 to place.) This Dixon does give the mystery a twist by having Ricky’s goons betray him to work with Morris Tuttle, Susan’s father's partner / business manager. Tuttle had been cooking the books for years, and to conceal his crime, he was sabotaging the business and siphoning money from Fairs to Go to pressure Susan into selling her family’s interest. He also put a hose through his office window to destroy the business’s computer and claimed he had no backups. (Of course he had backups; of course the boys find the “diskettes,” which is perhaps the most ‘90s thing about this book.)

Given that the villain is a middle-aged guy who projects an aura of benign concern throughout, how is the menace delivered in Carnival? Joe avoids the deadly threat of the aforementioned bumper car attack. When the Ferris wheel is stopped, Joe momentarily slips out of his gondola to try to prevent a young boy, whose lap bar didn’t lock, from winning a Darwin Award, but he fails at the rescue attempt, never reaching the child, and has to leap back in his own gondola. (The kid didn't really need rescuing, so the three-page “action” sequence was pointless.) One of Ricky’s goons attacks Frank in the Fun House; Frank defends himself, but he doesn’t use his “well-honed martial arts instincts” (143) until they’re needed to capture the culprits at the end of the book. Boomer shoots a Roman candle in the Tunnel of Love at Frank and Althea —

No, it’s not like that. You know it’s not like that. Frank would never canoodle with a girl other than Callie. Althea suggested the Tunnel of Love as a place to privately discuss Ricky’s perfidy. (The attack works, frightening her into silence.) However, Joe would totally take a girl other than Iola into the Tunnel of Love, and Iola’s reaction would have given the book a believably terrifying element.

In the final move by the villains, Joe gets sapped while investigating Kenny and Boomer’s trailer. (Joe’s rationale for the B&E? “Uninvited visits always pay off,” he thinks as he picks their lock [106].) The villains dump him in the Mirror Maze with an unconscious Ricky, then set the maze is set on fire. It’s not a bad plan, as far as it goes; Frank and Joe were suspicious of Ricky, and the bound Joe next to Ricky might have given investigators the idea that Ricky had abducted Joe and both had been the victim of an accident. I don’t think any real investigator would believe that — it’s too convenient — but this is Bayport. I can’t imagine the Bayport Police Department has a great reputation, given how much of its work it outsources to teenage boys.

On the other hand, angering the Great and Powerful Fenton Hardy by harming / killing one of his sons seems less like tempting fate and more like demanding one’s own destruction from an angry and powerful god.

*****

Usually, this is where I’d end this post, but this Dixon makes a major misstep I have to talk about.

When you’re dealing with circuses and carnivals, you have clowns. It’s difficult get rid of them, and no matter how much you spray or put out traps, the best you’re likely to do is drive them into a neighbor’s property until that neighbor drives them back. But given the near-mandated presence of clowns, a writer should use creepy clowns, a reliable threat that readers and protagonists will respond to. Even though this Dixon doesn’t want to lean into the shifty reputation many carnies have — Susan calls them “friendly, honest people,” even though carnivals “attract a few crooks” (30) — you can’t cover clowns’ inherent creepiness, no matter how much clown white you use. Early in the book, Dixon uses that creepiness as a plot point, when Joe sees a clown through the Hardys’ kitchen window: “a ghostly white face with exaggerated, brightly colored features. It’s huge red lips were fixed in a demonic grin. … a clown from a horror film” (35).

That’s a solid hook, and it would be genuinely frightening if that clown kept popping up, leering at the boys and doing something violent or frightening. In this case, the clown lures Joe into an IED: a firework under a metal can, triggered by a tripwire. No one is hurt, and the bomb — powerful enough to toss Joe “into the air like a dead leaf” — is accompanied by a threatening note with a pun. Con Riley and the police show up, but they cede their authority to Frank and Joe. The boys, showing their usual legal acumen, hold on to the evidence (for no real reason) and decline to press charges (because vigilante justice is the best justice — who needs the authorities mucking things up?).

The horror clown plotline is mostly forgotten, though — Frank glimpses the clown later in the book, and Joe finds clown white in Boomer and Kenny’s trailer. Other than that, the brief promise of something genuinely frightening without being too kid-unfriendly is forgotten.