Friday, June 19, 2015

Reel Thrills (#127)

Reel Thrills coverOh, good. It’s been a while since I’ve read a Hardy Boys book where Frank and Joe mingle in a glamorous entertainment field …

Oh, wait, that’s right — they were bodyguards for the leader of a boy band in the last book I read, Mystery with a Dangerous Beat. In Reel Thrills, Frank and Joe are thrown into the glamorous world of B movies. (Chet’s impressed, at least.) When someone blows up movie producer Mort Tannenberg’s yacht at the Bayport Marina, Tannenberg consults Fenton Hardy. Fenton says he met Mort at a party, although I’m not sure what kind of party both a producer of schlock movies and the world’s most famous private detective would both be attending. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: if reading Hardy Boys books have taught me nothing else, it’s that Fenton knows everyone. I mean, Dangerous Beat started because Fenton went to college with a prominent manager for musical acts.

Fenton, of course, immediately fobs the case onto his sons and Chet. He’s too busy for the King of B Movies because he and Laura are leaving for Paris. Ooh la la! When Mort meets with the boys, he reveals that not only did his yacht go boom, but props left on the dock indicated the explosion was supposed to mimic the shock ending to one of Mort’s not-yet-released films. This leads the boys to surmise that the villain was working on the film, which, maybe not, but if we assume someone else got ahold of the script, Frank and Joe’s suspect pool would be so large it would drown them.

Since twist endings are Mort’s trademark, he feels extra threatened. He sends Joe to his company offices in New York to snoop around as a gofer, while Frank begins work as a P.A. on Total Annihilation, Mort’s newest film. I was shocked — shocked! — when accidents started happening on set. When has that ever occurred in a Hardy Boys story? (Every time. Yes, I know.) As part of the on-set menace, the author uses the oldest cliché: a sandbag that nearly falls on Lisa’s head. (A sandbag! For Gertrude’s sake, how hackneyed can you get?)

(Also: I mentioned in Dangerous Beat that crawling through office ductwork was the only movie cliché as old as the “tampering with the brakeline” bit. In Reel Thrills, Joe has to escape from a locked room by crawling through the ductwork.)

Frank finds it interesting that if Lisa were injured, the movie would have to stop filming. This line of thinking gets him so worked up that when he sees Lisa grappling with a man, he rushes forward to help, only to get an elbow in the chest from Lisa, who’s just rehearsing.

That night, Mort throws a party, and he has the Hardy boys work as waiters as “free labor.” This is a bit confusing; is Mort not paying anyone for having Frank and Joe do detective work? If so, that’s a sweet deal! If not, he’s not getting free labor. He’s probably getting incredibly expensive labor. At the party, Mort gets gaslighted by someone, with his dead wife showing up and replicating the end to another of Mort’s films before disappearing. Frank and Joe (presumably) get grass stains on their tuxes jumping twelve feet out a window to pursue her.

A few days later, someone sneaks into Mort’s home, breaking into his safe in imitation of the ending of Mort’s unreleased Blood in the Streets. How did the thief guess Mort’s security code? Because he uses the same code that was used in Blood in the Streets. (This is not quite as dumb as President Skroob’s luggage combination. But it’s close.) The break-in worries Mort so much he eventually agrees to Frank and Joe’s suggestion to hire Chet as a house sitter. Mort also asks Frank and Joe to stake out the location where he plans to shoot the most important scene in Total Annihilation … and Frank and Joe head back home after giving the auditorium a cursory glance. Good work, boys!

Suspect pool time!

  • Mort himself. Frank and Joe think he might be trying to pull an insurance scam and attempting to hide it by hiring the Hardys to cover up his own complicity, but since the crimes revolve around things he would like to keep secret, Frank and Joe have to rule him out.
  • Cindy “Poison Pen” Langly: Mort fired her as a writer for revealing “trade secrets,” and now she writes stories that defame him for a trashy tabloid. She even accuses him of destroying his own yacht — for publicity purposes — in print. On the other hand, Langly thinks Mort is hoping for “BIG BOX OFFICE BUCKS,” which is absurd. It’s a B-movie: a large gross at the ticket office is a longshot. He’ll probably get more money from video and cable TV rights.
  • Danny DiNuccio: He has no real motive, but he’s Joe’s boss, he acts mean toward Joe, and he’s does vaguely suspicious stuff. That’s enough for Frank and Joe Hardy! He’s also miffed he suggested the twist ending to Blood in the Streets but received no credit for it.
  • Lisa Summer: A teen star, she is concerned about what Mort’s movies are doing to her career and probably wants out of her contract. (Joe thinks she’s sexy when she’s sad, which is a little creepy.) She’s probably not wrong; in Blood in the Streets, her role is “a ruthless ninja safecracker expert named Raven Blue.” I’m not sure if she’s an expert on cracking safes, an expert on safecrackers, or an expert on ninja safecrackers — if it’s the latter, Raven certainly has the field to herself.
  • Peter Rizer: The assistant director of Total Annihilation. He’s mostly incompetent at overseeing things on set — lights go out, ammonia is placed in the fog machine ... You know, the usual stuff. Rizer is more important because he dates the author, who was most likely was a young lad (or she was a young lass) while Reiser played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1940-2, 1946-8).

    (Also dating the book: Frank’s confrontation, during broad daylight, with three muggers in a New York City parking garage. Ah, pre-Giuliani New York, how we miss thee.)

As it turns out, Langly and DiNuccio are innocent of wrongdoing, unless you count DiNuccio being Langly’s inside source as a crime. (I wouldn’t, although I sometimes admit my legal compass does not match up with the Hardys’.) Rizer is, as I mentioned, merely incompetent. Summer and her trainer are behind the worst of the on-set accidents in an attempt to get Lisa out of her contract. (She wants to exercise a safety clause, but after Frank and Joe confront her, she realizes she’s stuck with Mort.)

The real culprit of the crimes that imitate Mort’s films is Sid Renfield, Mort’s executive producer who got kicked upstairs after directing Mort’s movies for years. Evidently he doesn’t discuss this slight with Mort, because he and the Hardys are shocked when they discover who is behind the plot.

Despite not doing any real investigating, Frank and Joe seem like a big enough threat that Renfield tries to murder them with a Jeep before launching his coup de grace against Mort. But the Hardys are — barely — ahead of him, having figured out how he planned to kill Mort. Joe remove the detonator that would destroy Mort’s brakes (*sigh*) and puts sand in Renfield’s gas tank, forcing Renfield to accept a ride from Mort or admit what he’s done.

Renfield incriminates himself, and Frank and Joe are victorious again. I’d actually declare this a clear win for Frank and Joe, unlike Mystery with a Dangerous Beat; nothing was really destroyed, no one (except Joe, who suffers a vicious concussion when a flat from a set drops on him) is really injured, and the plan to get the villain to incriminate himself is actually kinda clever. Nice job, Frank and Joe (and Franklin W. Dixon)!

But my goodness, lay off some of the clichés next time, OK?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124)

Mystery with a Dangerous Beat coverWell, if I have nothing else positive to say about this book, I must admit Mystery with a Dangerous Beat is a distinct title.

It’s always good to be a Hardy. In this particular instance, Frank and Joe get free tickets to a sold-out concert in L.A., courtesy of Fenton’s college friend, music manager Harold Manstroni. Who are Frank and Joe seeing? Why, it’s none other than the Funky Four, “the best dance band around.” I’m envisioning something between New Kids on the Block and Menudo, without any edginess or interesting ethnicity.

Since this is a Hardy Boys story, the concert can’t end without a heavy object almost dropping on someone; in this case, it’s a huge spotlight that narrowly misses “lead singer and heartthrob Brian Beat.” (As an aside, Joe thinks Brian has “total star power,” and he also regards Brian as the best-looking guy in the band.) A security guard denies Frank and Joe entrance to the stage to investigate the accident, so they have to totally coincidentally run into an incognito Brian the next day at an arcade, where Frank plays Air Racer, while Joe plays Hack Attack (a taxi-based game, which has never been a thing). Because the arcade evidently has the lamest games ever, the brothers have nothing better to do than save Brian when a malicious passerby outs Brian as a celebrity and he is menaced by adoring fans, who threaten to riot. How do Frank and Joe save Brian? By Frank testing that old free speech chestnut and shouting, “Fire!” in a crowded arcade. (Turns out that’s OK.) The author and editor show a lack of understanding about football, saying Frank acted like a “defensive lineman” by clearing a path for Brian and Joe; offensive linemen clear paths, which defensive linemen exploit gaps.

In the aftermath, Joe gets Brian to hire the brothers as extras for a video the Funky Four are making — you know, so Frank and Joe can keep an eye on him. While on set, Brian is hassled by Pico Hernandez, a music reporter who, you know, makes crap up to promote his magazine, Janet Reno’s Dance Party Scene (actually, I think this was from before Reno joined the magazine). Frank and Joe’s “vigilance” doesn’t stop Brian from being nearly electrocuted by a sabotaged microphone stand. Just after, in incredibly ‘90s moment, a woman wearing bike shorts and an “oversize denim jacket” over an orange top rollerblades onto the set to accuse Brian and the band’s manager, Marcus, of stealing a song she had written.

When Brian’s mother is admitted to the hospital, Brian wants Frank and Joe along as part of his retinue. Fenton has no trouble with the boys splitting from the family vacation to LA, saying in essence, “Sure, whatever, knock yourself out. Write if you get (paying) work!” Pico pressures Brian for an interview on the plane. It turns out Brian’s mother is fine, but a man posing as an orderly tosses liquid nitrogen on Brian’s face, but of course there’s no lasting damage, and the man escapes.

At a thinly veiled Magic Kingdom, Brian’s roller coaster car goes off the tracks; the next day, his dressing room is trashed, and the Jet Ski he was supposed to be riding toward a pier — driven by Joe instead — is sabotages so its accelerator is stuck.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Frank and Joe aren’t doing a very good job. Brian isn’t killed, so by that bare standard of bodyguarding, they’re successful. But with all those accusations and crimes, they discover nothing for the first half of the book. Even the boys themselves complain there are “a thousand loose ends.” They also let Brian get socked in the jaw by Pico, which in any rational universe should shut down Pico’s access to the band — but no, casual assault is another key facet of any Hardy Boys book, and not something the police get involved in. So the incident gets written off.

Also, Brian Beat is getting off lucky in the press. Stories about his contract situation, personal tragedies, a plagiarism accusation, and murder attempts should have reporters swarming around him like blowflies on a corpse. The only reason I can think of that they aren’t is that people really don’t care about him or the Funky Four. (Fun fact: The band’s manager really did cheat one of the band members, Jason, out of songwriting credits / royalties — or he thought he did, at least.) But even with that scandal, no one’s sniffing around the band except Pico, and he’s too incompetent to do any actual reporting.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the Hardys’ skill is their inability to find Brian when a ransom note shows up. Do they try to track Brian’s movements? Look for witnesses to his last known moments of freedom? Contact the police? No. They chase Pico for a while, wait, and then go out to Brian’s mother’s house to break the news to her, face to face. Fortunately for them, Brian is actually at his mother’s, and the ransom note is a fake. Unfortunately for them, someone has cut their brake line …

Ah, tampering with the brake line: the old movie chestnut, just as hoary as crawling through the ductwork in an office building. I’ve never crawled through a duct, but I know from experience that cutting the brake line being a sudden danger is bollocks. If you use the brakes at all — as Frank and Joe do on a mountain road before their brakes’ catastrophic failure — you can feel the brakes getting softer and less effective. You have a warning. That Frank can’t detect it also reflects poorly on the boys, or maybe on Fenton’s training. By this point in their careers, he has to know someone’s going to cut their brakes eventually, and he should have made sure they were prepared. I mean, the man has trained Frank to disarm land mines, for Thor’s sake.

With Brian safe, the boys and Marcus decide to try to trap the ersatz kidnapper. Although everyone suspects Pico, it’s Suzi B., the band’s fired dance choreographer, who had accused Marcus and Brian of stealing her song. Her ransom demand was her way of getting the money she was owed. The boys let her go, even though what she did was still a crime. But who cares? Frank and Joe seem to believe only attempted homicide is a crime worth their time.

And they get another attempted homicide; the music video requires a skydiving scene, and Brian’s parachute fails to open. To stack cliché atop cliché, Frank catches up with the falling Brian, and the two ride Frank’s parachute to safety. After this near disaster, the brothers start asking questions, and hey ho! they nail their suspect — Jason, Brian’s (jealous, but hiding it well) bandmate and best friend. Turns out he’s been trying to kill Brian because Brian always steals the spotlight, albeit inadvertently. It also turns out he stole Suzi B.’s song, then let Marcus steal it from him. With all those crimes, Frank seems concerned only with the parachute tampering: “That’s attempted murder … You could go to jail for that.”

Could! What is the source of Frank’s doubt? Does he believe the justice system is incompetent? Does he think a confession is insufficient to secure a conviction? Does he agree with Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, believing “attempted murder” isn’t really a crime?

Congratulations, Frank and Joe! It took only four potentially fatal incidents for you to figure out what the hell was going on. Fortunately for you, the attempted murderer was incompetent!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Danger in the Fourth Dimension (#118)

Danger in the Fourth Dimension coverDanger in the Fourth Dimension is a dumb title. The measure most commonly called the fourth dimension is time. The danger of time is that in the end, it saps us of our vitality, gradually taking our youth and leaving only decrepitude before we eventually die. It’s a long-term danger, one hardly able to be done justice to in a 150-page children’s detective book.

Also: Frank and Joe are not subject to the ravages of time, the bastards. It holds little danger for them, given that it has been 88 years since their debut, and they are still going — not as strong, perhaps, but still going. All it will take is a decent movie or cartoon or TV show and — voom, they’ll be as strong as they ever were.

Anyway, that’s a little off topic. In Danger, Fourth Dimension is a sci-fi theme park in South Carolina. Fenton Hardy has asked his sons to meet him there to help with an investigation, but when they arrive, he has vanished. Frank and Joe are told he checked out suddenly, and they are left in South Carolina with no guidance and no idea what they are supposed to be investigating (other than where Fenton is). Seems like a bit of a flaw in the Fenton Hardy Inc. operating procedures, but what do I know?

I’m not going to go into the suspect pool on this one; suffice it to say when Frank asks himself, “Were Fenton Hardy’s kidnappers too clever for them?” (81), the answer appears to be yes. Frank and Joe have trouble even discovering what Fenton was investigating: the first person who says he hired Fenton is park designer Justin Maceda, who tells the boys he needed Fenton to find blueprints that were stolen from him, while Bayport-resident-on-vacation Ernest Brody says he hired Fenton to foil a retirement-community scam. Unfortunately, even after they get somewhere on the second case, Frank and Joe are completely unable to recognize the villains once they take off their wigs. (Danger retroactively devalues every time Fenton fooled the boys with a disguise in the canon, as they are completely unable to recognize a couple of mooks who put on wigs and costumes, and they are unable to recognize Brody even though he matches the description of the old guy looking for them exactly.) They manage to catch the ringleader (Maceda) only because he forgets to flee at the end, thinking his holograms will be able to hold off the Hardys.

Frank and Joe search for their father at a leisurely pace, making sure not to stay up late or put too much effort into the task. They could get others to help, but they do not. Do they alert park management? Not really; they’re not sure who to trust. That’s not a bad idea; security is so awful at the park that they hand out keys to the boys willy-nilly and do not react to massive failures in the exhibits or the Hardys fighting a man on a roller coaster. Do Frank and Joe call the police? No, because the kidnappers might kill Fenton if they do that. Also, the local police are awful; they think the only way to be able to arrest — not successfully prosecute, but arrest — the villains is to catch the two low-level scamsters in a transaction; I admit it makes a better case, but it’s not necessary. However, they say the only way to arrest — again, arrest — Maceda is to get his confession on a wire, which is stupid. They can get the two underlings to testify against their boss, and if they had just moved quickly, they would have gathered a huge amount of evidence against Maceda and arrested him without a chase. Hmm … perhaps this is why Frank and Joe are so remarkably successful: their competition on the law-enforcement front is pathetic.

So Frank and Joe have to race against time to save Fenton … except it isn’t much of a race. The villains keep threatening Fenton’s life, but they never do anything, even when Frank and Joe refuse to stop investigating. It becomes clear about two-thirds of the way through the book that either Fenton is dead or the criminals lack the stones to kill him — either way, Frank and Joe shouldn’t be deterred. I mean, they aren’t (ever), but they shouldn’t angst about it. Eventually they find Fenton, but not until they’ve been fooled by a hologram of Fenton (under the Hall of Holograms, natch). Really, without Brody, they would have been in trouble.

As a book, Danger is going to succeed or fail on the strength of the Fourth Dimension park. So what’s it like? The basic idea seems to be based around retro sci-fi kitsch — metallic-colored jumpsuits, jet packs, robots, automated homes, BEM (bug-eyed monsters). The housekeeping staff at the park hotel wears garish overalls, because what says “utopia” better than people wearing ugly utilitarian clothing semi-willingly? The café in the park is called the Interstellar Snack Shop — not embarrassing, but I have trouble believing they couldn't have come up with a better name. The park uses a monorail for internal transportation. It has Epcot-type buildings called the Hall of Holograms, Biosphere, and the Science Fiction Exhibit. (The entire park is a science fiction exhibit. Perhaps it should be called the Science Fiction Museum?) The park also has a home of the future, which has a “rock-o-matic chair” — that’s exactly what you think it is, a self-rocking rocking chair. Rocking chairs do not need the improvement, although Maceda manages to almost subdue Joe with the chair.

It’s not entirely Epcot; it does have rollercoasters and a video arcade (with Mega Baseball!), and Frank and Joe play in the “Space War Gladiator Game,” although it’s not clear whether the Laser Tag-type contest is something park guests can participate in or if it’s some sort of entertainment for them to watch. The park also has a solar system mobile, which has scale-model planets hanging dangerously over the crowds; while standing under them, Frank once again proves a law of motion: a suspended object, once no longer suspended, will fall directly toward (but not onto) the nearest Hardy male.

But occasionally Fourth Dimension transcends its retro futurism. In a 1993 book that uses the “National Network” — “the network that links computers in universities and libraries,” which we call “the Internet” — the video arcade has working virtual reality games, which would be impressive today. The park has literal — literal! — flying cars and working laser pistols. I am not joking about either of these. What is described as a hovercraft flies over a low part of a roller coaster, and the book sells the idea that Frank and Joe are scared for their lives when shot at with one of the laser pistols.

It seems Maceda, the park designer, has created these devices — the same park designer who’s running a real-estate scam to get the money to open his own sci-fi theme park. If he wanted money, he should have sold the patent to the flying car he invented. The army would love real, working deadly laser pistols. It doesn’t matter if either is practical for large-scale manufacturing; they both represent such a step forward that companies would offer millions for them. But no, the guy decides to try to bilk the olds out of their money. Honestly … He was bitter against his boss because his boss sees the theme park “merely as a money-making operation” (35), showing he hasn’t thought about capitalism very much.

But hey — at least Fourth Dimension will stand as a lasting monument to Maceda’s genius. Or maybe not. The owner might sell it to Disney, who’d make it into a Star Wars park, or maybe it will just go under because Maceda isn’t there to contribute his innovations. Plenty of abandoned theme parks in the world.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Of Time and the Hardy Boys

In the early books of the Hardy Boys canon, from The Tower Treasure (#1) to The Great Airport Mystery (#9), ghost writer Leslie McFarlane and / or the Stratemeyer Syndicate made an effort to create a coherent chronology. Those first nine books follow the brothers and their chums over three years — essentially from late in their sophomore years in high school to graduation. The books cover three springs (#1, #6, and #9, all of them late spring), two winters (#5 and #8) and a lot of summer (#2, 3, 4, and 7).

After that, the Hardys stopped aging, went back to high school, and never worried about time making sense again. Seriously: time was more linear in a season of Doctor Who than in any five consecutive hardcover Hardy Boys books after that. But that was OK, really; the books were released once per year, and it didn’t matter that readers couldn’t fit together consecutive stories in a coherent timeline. After waiting all year for another book, who cared if they didn’t match up exactly? And as for the back catalog of books — well, who had access to all 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 of them? Those who could read all of them were overjoyed to experience the wealth of Hardy Boys stories.

When the Hardy Boys books came out in paperback, though, Simon & Schuster started releasing several books per year. The only way that would work, as a publishing strategy, is if they expected readers to actually buy more than one book per year — consecutive books, most likely. And in that case, skipping around the calendar becomes more distracting. It’s harder to believe in a fictional world when Frank and Joe Hardy have come unstuck in time.

After finishing Crusade of the Flaming Sword, I’ve read #130 through #141, which coincidentally covers all of the digests released in 1995 (#130-5) and 1996 (#136-41), so I decided to see if the Hardys obeyed the calendar.

Surprisingly, the 1995 books did! Sidetracked to Danger (#130) is set in February, probably about the time the book was released. Although Crusade (#131) has no specific chronological setting, Frank and Joe spend several days without going to school — so it’s set during spring break or summer. They’re back in school in Maximum Challenge (#132), which means it could be set between spring break and the end of the school year; they’re out of school again in Crime in the Kennel (#133), presumably during the summer. Cross-Country Crime (#134) occurs during Thanksgiving vacation, and The Hypersonic Secret (#135) is set only a couple of weeks later, in the run-up to Christmas. So not only can these books fit in a single calendar year, they were mostly published at the same time they were set.

I admit, I was impressed.

The next year’s releases aren’t so well coordinated. The action in The Cold Cash Caper (#136) falls during the February Winter Festival — again, the book take place roughly the same time of year it was released. Unfortunately, it’s not clear when the next book, High-Speed Showdown (#137), occurs, but it’s warm enough for boat racing on Barmet Bay, so it can’t be fit between Caper and The Alaskan Adventure (#138), which ends just before the beginning of the Iditarod in early March. Chet begins a summer job at the zoo in The Search for the Snow Leopard (#139), but Slam Dunk Sabotage (#140) jumps ahead to February (or perhaps early March) for the end of the high school basketball season. The Desert Thieves (#141) is set in early January — probably close to the book’s publication, although on the wrong side of the New Year.

That’s a freakishly small number of summer books — somewhere between two and four out of the twelve books. More than two-thirds of the first 85 books are set during the summer, so that’s quite a change.

1995’s releases show the books could create a sense of time; why couldn’t Simon & Schuster have spread their 1996 releases throughout the year? Of the six, four books were set in the first 80 or so days of the year, with none of them occurring in August or later. Would it kill someone to have a fall mystery? (Maybe it would; there must be a reason why Hardy Boys books are so rarely set in the fall.) I’m sure such things were not a major concern of Simon & Schuster, which had many more pressing concerns — writing outlines, wrangling freelancers, editing manuscripts, marketing, selling — but I suppose I’m saying I would have appreciated it.

Of course, I wasn’t buying the books back then and was well out of the series’ target age range. I also didn’t read the books until more than a decade after they were written. But why wouldn’t Simon & Schuster decide to cater to me?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Crusade of the Flaming Sword (#131)

Crusade of the Flaming Sword coverIn Crusade of the Flaming Sword, the RenFaire — sorry, the medieval fair “Avalon” — has come to Bayport. Chet, Joe, and Iola have volunteered to serve as knights and ladies for Avalon; Chet likes fighting in armor and being a knight, while Joe was roped into being a knight by Iola. He complains about it, which is stupid. (You’ve already agreed to do it, Joe. Keep your mouth shut — because you love Iola, because you want to make her happy, because she might have a knight fetish. Keep your eyes on the prize.)

Iola is volunteering because she gets to be a princess —not just a princess, but Princess Rowena, the daughter of Avalon’s King Bertram (actually Avalon’s owner, Art Growtowski). How did Iola get this plum part? I’m guessing because of her natural imperiousness (bossiness), which we’ve seen in other mysteries. It comes to the fore here, as she orders around a woman portraying a handmaid (she does it “playfully,” the text says, but you know it’s playful in the way a popular kid is playful when coaxing a shy kid into doing something amusing or uncomfortable — thinly veiled bullying).

Perhaps Iola is just getting into the role: Legend says Rowena was an Anglo-Saxon princess who was a seductress and a wicked stepmother — if she existed, which is doubtful. Walter Scott repurposed the name for the Saxon love interest of the knight Ivanhoe in the knight’s eponymous novel.

Because he isn’t working at the fair, Frank doesn’t get in for free, and he complains about the $10 admission price. Twenty years later, that’s the equivalent of $15.40, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s inflation calculator. I suppose that’s steep for a teenager without a job, and he probably — well, might have — paid for Callie as well. Still, it doesn’t seem exorbitant, given that he gets to witness armored knights fighting, see falconry demonstrations, and watch jugglers and magicians while soaking up “medieval” atmosphere. In any event, Frank gets his revenge by using faux Olde English dialogue and being an exposition machine (“What are the dates on [the Middle Ages]?” he asks his brother, irrelevantly) until I wish he’d get bitten by a plague rat.

But Frank’s “methinks” and “approacheth” are in keeping with Avalon’s signage, which invites people to buy “foode,” “drinke,” and “leather goodes.” The place deserves to go out of business because of those crimes against the language, but no — Avalon’s going to go out of business because of “the Knight of the Flaming Sword,” who performs such dastardly tricks as sawing halfway through a grandstand support, releasing a tasty bunny during a falconry demonstration, and putting glass in the mud pit. Oh, yes, Avalon has “mudde fights,” and the Hardys and Iola pressure Callie into taking part against another woman (or “damsel”).

Yes, that’s right: this book has Callie mud wrestling another woman. Not in a bikini or anything like that, but still — this is the most exploitative I’ve ever seen the series get. (The book also has a “Drench a Wench” booth, with the shy Carla — Iola’s favored target for bullying — getting dunked.) I’m not sure whether exploitative is worse than ignored, but the book does balance the idea that the medieval period had no female knights with an increased role in the books for women; Callie at least gets to follow a “creepy” suspect, and Carla is an expert horsewoman who is handy with a sword. Still: mud wrestling and Drench a Wench.

Anyway, the shape of things is easy to see: Avalon is being subjected to sabotage, which might drive it out of business. Growtowski doesn’t want the bad publicity of a police investigation, so he asks Frank and Joe to look into things. The brothers agree, although they tell Growtowski not to reveal they are detectives. Surprisingly, Growtowski, the Hardys, and their friends managed to keep the secret throughout the book.

To the suspects!

  • Growtowski himself. Insurance fraud, perhaps? The possibility is quickly discounted.
  • Alvin Sing, Avalon’s business manager. With Phil Cohen’s hacking, the Hardys discover Sing wants to start “Prophecy Fair,” a competitor to Avalon with sci-fi touches. Given that Avalon is a wandering fair, I’m not sure why anyone would think he needs to eliminate Avalon to be successful — he could just ply another territory or get investors to support a single location, a la a theme park. Still, any excuse to get Phil into the book is fine by me.
    Sing either was a copyright violator or really liked Windows marketing; his computer screensaver was very similar to the then-current Microsoft slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” (The final word was absent on Sing’s computer.)
  • Kev Dyson, Avalon’s best knight. A method actor and very intense, he — or his character — idolizes a medieval knight who went nuts after the Crusades and started murdering peasants. Joe doesn’t like him because when the two spar, he disarms Joe, then keeps attacking him. Joe somehow thinks he should be allowed to lope over to his sword and re-arm himself during (mock) mortal combat. Joe is a sore loser.
  • Charlie Krause, a new reporter for the Bayport Star. Krause, who thinks being assigned to write about a Renaissance fair is a waste of his time, has an annoying tendency to report on the sabotage. This results on bad publicity, which makes Frank suspect him — maybe he’s creating havoc so he can write about it? That’s not the case, but what he does do is break into the Hardy home and leave a glove dripping fake blood pinned to Frank’s headboard along with a threatening note. Evidently, being out investigated by a couple of student reporters (Frank and Joe’s cover identity) drove him off the deep end. Or perhaps it’s his colleagues not telling him who Frank and Joe really are that brought his latent psychopathy to the fore.
    The brothers don’t turn him in, unfortunately. They know a little something about B-and-E; after all, they broke into Sing’s computer (using floppies!) and printed out his business plan on the laser printer (I expected a dot-matrix printer).
    (Early in the book, Joe mentions an aversion to the press after his picture appeared on the front page of the Star because of “that flying saucer incident.” Does anyone know what this is referring to?) (ETA: Evidently this is a reference to The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping. Thanks, Adam!)
You won’t be shocked to know that none of these are actually the Knight of the Flaming Sword. You will be similarly unsurprised when you hear that someone is trying to buy Growtowski’s authentic medieval longsword, and that the someone trying to buy the longsword is behind the sabotage. The sword is named Chauvency, which is appropriate for a medieval fair; “Le Tournoi de Chauvency” is a narrative poem about a tournament and its accompanying revelry from the 13th century. (Growtowski says it’s named after castle, but I can’t find a real castle with that name. The town Chauvency is in northern France, near the Belgian border.)

It is obvious the sword is the knight’s goal when the sword’s existence is casually dropped into the text, and it’s obvious when the boys begin to investigate the angle. It is probably obvious even to the pre-teens who are the book’s intended audience. Unfortunately, the Hardys discover the villain’s true motive not through investigation or “logic” but through Frank stumbling across the destructive knight’s true identity (Carla) and paying “a visit to her motel room.” Carla isn’t there, but the boys pick her lock and find her address book, which reveals her uncle is an antiquities dealer.

The brothers pay a visit to the uncle, Tony Morslip, and while Joe distracts him, Frank uses floppies and instructions provided by Phil to prove Morslip has been hacking into Avalon’s computer system. Unfortunately, Morslip knows exactly who the brothers are and imprisons them in his authentic reconstruction torture chamber. He’s read too much Poe, though, as he ties the brothers to a table while a swinging pendulum slowly drops from the ceiling. I doubt that’s an authentic medieval device, but that’s what Morslip and the author have decided to go with, so we’ll just have to roll with it. It’s just one absurdity in the scene; I can’t think of how the pendulum with a long distance from its pivot to its weight could menace both brothers without hitting the table they’re tied to, and Frank manages to stop the pendulum with his stomach — presumably at the end of its swing, but who knows? He should have been gutted.

The brothers escape, using the pendulum to sever the bonds and a judo kick to destroy the door. They talk their way through Morslip’s security guards and make it to Avalon before anything stupid happens; however, the ineffectiveness of the police allows Carla to make a final attack on the fair. Frank and Joe begin a stupid chase, which ends with Carla and Morslip’s capture. King Bertrand offers the boys their choice of damsels; Frank chooses Callie, but Joe hesitates over his choice until Iola hits him. I’m beginning to think Joe is a bit like Dave Foley’s character on NewsRadio: He’s attracted to his girlfriend most when she’s angry at him.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Forward Progress

For ease of navigation, here are all the books I have covered on this blog:

Digests:
087: Program for Destruction
092: The Shadow Killers
093: The Serpent’s Tooth Mystery
095: Danger on the Air
100: The Secret of the Island Treasure
107: Panic on Gull Island
117: The Baseball Card Conspiracy
118: Danger in the Fourth Dimension
124: Mystery with a Dangerous Beat
126: Racing to Disaster
130: Sidetracked to Danger
131: Crusade of the Flaming Sword
132: Maximum Challenge
133: Crime in the Kennel
134: Cross-Country Crime
135: The Hypersonic Secret
136: The Cold Cash Caper
137: High-Speed Showdown
138: The Alaskan Adventure
139: The Search for the Snow Leopard
140: Slam Dunk Sabotage
141: The Desert Thieves
146: The Mark of the Blue Tattoo
152: Danger in the Extreme
154: The Caribbean Cruise Caper
156: A Will to Survive
159: Daredevils
160: A Game Called Chaos
161: Training for Trouble
162: The End of the Trail
163: The Spy that Never Lies
164: Skin & Bones
166: Past and Present Danger
168: The Castle Conundrum
169: Ghost of a Chance
171: The Test Case
172: Trouble in Warp Space
173: Speed Times Five
176: In Plane Sight
178: The Mystery of the Black Rhino
179: Passport to Danger
180: Typhoon Island
181: Double Jeopardy
182: The Secret of the Soldier’s Gold

Casefiles:

18: A Killing in the Market
42: The Last Laugh
50: Power Play
55: Beyond the Law
59: Open Season
76: Tagged for Terror
78: The Pacific Conspiracy
90: Deadly Engagement
93: Mission: Mayhem
119: The Emperor’s Shield

Undercover Brothers:

#2: Running on Fumes
#3: Boardwalk Bust
#9: Martial Law
#19: Foul Play
#25: Double Trouble

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Desert Thieves (#141)

The Desert Thieves coverThe Desert Thieves is not, as I had hoped, a wacky caper about a bunch of scoundrels trying to steal the Atacama or the Gobi or Painted Desert. It is a morality tale set in the Hardy Boys’ world, and like most stories with an emphasis on morals, it is not that entertaining.

Frank and Joe are on winter break — even though last book took place during summer vacation — so Fenton takes them out west on a business trip. After the business is done, Fenton takes the boys to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the Sonoran Desert, where his old college buddy, Winton “Grish” Grisham, is a park ranger. The Hardys make a surprise visit to see ol’ Grish, who hasn’t seen Fenton in 20 years. Twenty years! I know if a college friend dropped by out of the blue after 20 years, I’d probably tell them as politely as possible to take a hike. I mean, 20 years …

Oh, crap. I just realized I’ve been out of college for almost 20 years. That means I’m almost Fenton’s age, and I still haven’t realized my goal of becoming the #1 private detective in America. I’m not even a private detective! I may have wasted my life.

Anyway, Grish — and I’m betting Fenton hung that nickname on him, out of spite — tells the Hardys about the cactus rustling that’s been happening at Organ Pipe. It sounds strange, but in essence it’s the same type of human stupidity that leads to trade in rhino horn or ivory: in this case, cacti are pretty, so people want them for their yards, and the best cacti are in protected environments. Frank and Joe immediately want in on the investigation, and here’s the lesson beginneth.

Grish does not want the boys — “a couple of amateur detectives” (8) — butting into the mystery. He doesn’t have time to be responsible for their safety, and besides, this is a federal matter, not vandalism or a snow-leopard theft. Grish wants to keep the investigation as secret as possible so as not to alert the perpetrators, so having a couple of teenagers blundering around wouldn’t be helpful. Besides, Organ Pipe is large, and according to Grish, the job requires people who know the territory. Joe unreasonably bristles at being called amateur — I mean, Frank and Joe call themselves that, half the time — but Grish’s knowledge of the territory is called into question when Fenton has to remind him he’s on a one-way road and that pickup roaring toward him might be a problem.

Still, I can’t fault Grish for not wanting to work with teenagers who call each other “bro” and “dude” (18) and use phrases like “nuke box” when they mean “microwave” (32).

So after this brush-off, what do Frank and Joe immediately do? Poke around, arousing suspicion, and talking about the case so anyone wandering by can overhear details of the sensitive operation. While they do this, Fenton looks on, bemused and not interested in helping. Although I don’t think the author has youth lingo down, he or she knows kids: if you tell them they can’t do something they want to do, they’re likely to do it anyway, because what the hell do you know? You’re only an adult.

Grish seems to be the model of patience, as he doesn’t put his foot in the boys’ asses, metaphorically or literally, when they tell him they’ve been doing the exact thing he’s told them not to do. He doesn’t tell them to go elsewhere — I’m sure the nearby Sonoran Desert National Monument, Saguaro National Park, and Coronado National Forest are wonderful in the winter. He nods and praises the boys’ efforts, even though they have told pretty much everyone about the investigation by the end.

So, Lesson #1: It is better to ask forgiveness than permission; if you’re good enough, you won’t even have to ask for forgiveness. Those who wouldn’t give you permission will probably thank you.

Of course, because the boys have been telling everyone about their investigation, they are the victim of indirect attacks. Their climbing rope is cut, their gas line is cut, and a rattlesnake — the traditional symbol of treachery — is left in their rented RV. (Also, a not-very-determined coyote tries to drag away a sleeping Joe but gives up when Joe wakes up.) After the climbing accident, Grish tells them to Just. Stop. It. The investigation is too dangerous!

But the brothers ignore him, of course, and Fenton and Joe stumble across the conspirators in a town near Organ Pipe. Fenton is caught by them, and Frank and Joe have to spring into action, with the help of the army of people they’ve told about the investigation. But — shock and surprise — the ringleader of the cactus rustlers is Grish!

Lesson #2: If someone is stopping you from doing what you want to do, they must be a bad person, and time — or your meddling — will reveal that.

Frank and Joe find Grish’s gang in the desert. Frank is almost immediately captured by Grish while trying to rescue Fenton. When the police helicopters show up, Grish slips away with his two captives. But with the unwitting help of a local artist, who shines his headlights in Grish’s face, Joe manages to sock Grish on the jaw, disarming him. Joe decides to give the artist some credit; the artist claims he had a plan rather than just getting lucky, and Joe doesn’t contradict him. This would be magnanimous of Joe if he himself hadn't been floundering around for most of the mystery. He couldn't even get the license plate numbers of the truck that drove away with his father!

Lesson #3: It’s better to be lucky than good. But it’s best to be lucky and good, and those who are both shall be given the keys of the Bayport.

If Grish had just had supper with the Hardys after they arrived and then sent them on their way without telling them about the cactus thefts, they probably would never have known about the criminal activity at the national monument. No, instead he says he mentioned the crimes so he could keep tabs on the Hardys, which is stupid; I mean, if he thought they were investigating the cactus thefts, which he claimed no one outside of Organ Pipe knew about, then it makes sense, but he should have at least felt them out about the case before spilling his guts.

Lesson #4 is something about hubris, although I imagine you can figure that one out yourself.

Here, as Jim Malone sayeth in The Untouchables while teaching Eliot Ness, endeth the lesson. Thank Dixon.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Slam Dunk Sabotage (redux) / Fat jokes and friendship

Since my most recent posts have been tackling the digests in sequence, I’d like to point out the next book, Slam Dunk Sabotage, was the first book I wrote about on this site. Enjoy!

***

There’s one other thing I’d like to discuss relating to the previous book, The Search for the Snow Leopard. I mention Frank and Joe making a fat joke at the beginning that entry as part of my evidence that Frank and Joe are bad friends. Although I don’t necessarily think making jokes at your friends’ expense makes you a bad friend or that fat jokes should necessarily be taboo, Frank and Joe making fat jokes has always seemed to be cruel to me.

In any relationship between friends, there’s likely to be some friendly chaffing going on — shortcomings will be pointed out, and in a healthy relationship, there’s likely to be some give and take involved, each side scoring some points on the other. But Chet’s in a bad situation; his best friends are perfect human beings, and they have few, if any, flaws. He has no way of returning the gibes Frank and Joe regularly dole out to him.

Also, the relationship between the Hardy boys and Chet is unequal, and it always will be. First of all, Frank and Joe are brothers and likely to unite against others. Secondly — and far more importantly — think of the perks Chet gets from being Frank and Joe’s friend. He gets status in Bayport and in the larger world, he gets to travel to exotic destinations, and he even gets real financial rewards sometimes. Being friends with Frank and Joe opens up a world to Chet that he would never have had access to without them. He’s just an average, overweight kid with a lot of enthusiasm. That’s not a bad set of attributes to have, but it’s not likely to allow anyone to travel to five different continents before graduating high school.

So what’s Chet to do? Those rewards are fabulous. Can he really risk angering his benefactors? Or should he just shut up and take their insults? Chet mostly shuts up, and that makes Frank and Joe’s jokes seem more like bullying than the usual kidding friends give each other.

It would be different if Frank and Joe spent time on their insults and managed to pick on something more than his surface shortcomings. Mocking Chet’s stupid hobbies is a better choice; many of them are kinda goofy, and enthusiasm is something that tends to heal over time. (It can be fatally wounded, though, if you attack it enough.) But the series needs each book to pack in the “jokes” with a minimum of explanation, so newcomers to the series won’t be confused, and “fat is funny” needs little explanation.

It’s a series for kids, so I shouldn’t expect too much. But jokes like that teach kids something about the nature of relationships I wouldn’t want them to learn.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Search for the Snow Leopard (#139)

The Search for the Snow Leopard coverYou might think The Search for the Snow Leopard is a mystery that involves travel to a faraway, exotic clime where the endangered species still exists or is used in symbology in some way. You would be wrong.

Snow Leopard is set in Bayport, and it’s a story about Frank and Joe being awful friends to Chet. As with all great works of literature, Snow Leopard starts with a fat joke. Chet has taken an internship at the zoo, and Frank and Joe compare Chet’s appetite to an elephant’s. Of course they do. They then “roared with laughter” (1) over a joke that is just lame as my summary made it sound. Later, when they need to talk to Chet again, Frank makes it clear he was only half listening to Chet when he said what he was going to do next. (Later, they reveal they didn’t even listen when Chet told them the name of the elephant they compared him to.)

They find Chet talking with Salamaji, the princess of the small nation of Fakenameistan — sorry, Rashipah. When Chet tries to impress her by mentioning that Frank and Joe are detectives, Joe grumbles about Chet revealing their true identities. Since when has Frank and Joe’s detective abilities been a secret? And hey, Joe, Chet’s trying to impress an attractive princess from a far-off land — be cool for once in your life. Chet’s never hampered your game when you put the moves on girls when Iola isn’t around, and Iola’s his sister. Frank’s amazed that Chet seems to be attracted to the princess, although I have no idea why an unattached guy liking a rich, exotic beauty who doesn’t treat him like a freak would be remarkable. Maybe Frank thinks Chet should stick with fatties? Later, Joe mocks Chet and Salamaji’s growing closeness while talking to his brother. I think he’s just jealous, though.

Anyway, Frank and Joe keep running around Bayport and the zoo because the zoo director wants them to investigate various animal escapes. After the first three escapes, the animal was captured and returned to its cage before anything bad happened, but then Emi the snow leopard is taken. Not long afterwards, Salamaji is kidnapped. Chet breaks the news to Frank and Joe this way: “‘The princess!’ he cried. ‘She’s been kidnapped!’”

Frank’s reaction: “‘What?’ Frank demanded. ‘Wait. Calm down.’”

I like that Frank can make “What?” a demand, but the rest of his speech seems out of line. Chet seems relatively calm, given the circumstances.

Perhaps Bayporters don’t know how to be friends; one of Salamaji’s friends, who has a key to her dorm room, lets three strange boys (Frank, Joe, and Chet) after when Salamaji goes missing, which seems like a poor choice. Frank and Joe certainly aren’t done being bad friends; when Salamaji’s ex-boyfriend thinks it’s strange that she prefers Chet to him, Frank has trouble concealing his agreement with the ex.

So Frank and Joe are clearly not being good friends with Chet, even though he called them “his best buds.” But Frank and Joe’s jerkhood is not the only thing Snow Leopard focuses on; it’s also concerned with animals. What does this book teach us about the animal kingdom?

  • Zoos are very eager to watch snow leopard sex. As soon as Salamaji donates Emi, her female snow leopard, to the Bayport Zoo, the director phones up someone who has a male snow leopard to secure a “nice husband” (8) for Emi. Euphemisms ahoy!
  • Sometimes it takes a beast to show how much you’ve lost your edge. In the original Disappearing Floor, Frank and Joe take out an escaped tiger by bouncing rocks off its skull until it dies. In Snow Leopard, Frank stands still, staring at an escaped tiger and talking to it, until someone else shoots it with tranquilizer darts. How the mighty have fallen!
  • Tigers are pirates at heart. When the tiger is hit by the darts, its response is, “Arrrrrr!” (14). That’s supposed to be a growl, but I can’t take that idea seriously.
  • Animal lovers really like the acronym “ARF.” Animal rights activists in Snow Leopard use ARF for their organization: Animal Rights Force. However, in the real world, ARF is also the Animal Rescue Foundation, a group that saves pets that have run out time at shelters; ARF was founded by Hall of Fame baseball manager Tony LaRussa and his wife in 1991, five years before Snow Leopard was published. There’s also the Animal Rescue Fund, a name under which several separate animal rescue charities operate across America.
  • Joe would like to experience primate behavior. While watching apes groom one another, Joe asks Frank why he didn’t clean him like that when they were younger. Frank says he wouldn’t do it now, either. Frank’s right to say that, Joe. Your joke was weird.
  • Chimps like soap operas. They watch Days of Destiny every weekday. Perhaps the best part of the book is that Days of Destiny actually sounds like a soap opera name.
  • Vampire bats cause amnesia. Frank thinks he’s never seen vampire bats, even though vampire bats were a major plot point in Danger on Vampire Trail.
  • Animal rights activists aren’t concerned about the law of man. Frank and Joe have a discussion with the Kellermans, the founders and only members of ARF, about the “laws of nature” and “laws of man.” Jeff Kellerman says he doesn’t want to break the laws of man because he isn’t useful to the animal-rights movement in jail. He later breaks the law several times, so he isn’t really worried about prison. But perhaps if the Sayer of the Law told him “he who breaks the law shall be punished back to the House of Pain,” he might change his mind.
  • Snakes are boneless. Or at least they are according to the narrator of Snow Leopard. Perhaps the particular snake being described was bred in an unsuccessful attempt to find an alternative source of the meat for chicken McNuggets.
  • Man really is the most dangerous game. And not just because Frank and Joe deem it acceptable to wear cutoffs as part of their “official summer vacation uniforms” (2). No, it’s because humans can use blow guns. Frank, Joe, and Chet try to rescue Salamaji from a big-game hunter but get caught themselves; the hunter and his two assistants decide to be sporting and give them a chance to survive, “Most Dangerous Game”-style. The trio finds Salamaji while fleeing the hunters; they also find blow guns that allow them to take out two of their pursuers and one of the great cats that Frank released to confuse the situation.
  • Dead animals talk to Joe. While the kids are being chased by the hunters, Joe thinks he can hear the head of a bison telling him, “Don’t let these hunters get you too, kid” (142).

***

Anyway, it all turns out all right. Chet gets a date with the rescued Salamaji at the end of the book, the villains are all thrown in jail, and both snow leopards get to live at the Bayport Zoo. But that ending makes it clear the book has been focusing on the wrong protagonist the entire time … Chet rescues the girl he’s interested in from kidnappers and manages to overcome both her ex-boyfriend and his two awful friends to get a date with her. All hail the mighty Chet!

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Alaskan Adventure (#138)

The Alaskan Adventure coverFrank and Joe head to Glitter, Alaska, a small Athabascan Indian town on the Yukon River, to visit their friend David Natik. David visited the Hardy home in an unpublished adventure, so Frank and Joe decide to return the favor by visiting David just a few days before his first Iditarod. Because that’s exactly what you want, just before you enter your first 1,100-mile dog sled race: a pair of visitors distracting you and keeping you from training.

But it’s good Frank and Joe arrive when they do: David’s aunt and uncle’s home is burned down just minutes after the boys arrive, and a few minutes later, a burning log is thrown through the window of David’s parents’ cabin, where the family has taken refuge. This is just one of many acts of vandalism and destruction that have occurred in Glitter. Obviously something is wrong, and the locals have no idea what it is; in fact, they don’t really link any of the events into a coherent whole …

But Frank and Joe do! Unfortunately, they don’t know why these crimes are being committed. They toy with the idea that old conflicts in the town coming to the fore; they think it might have something to do with David’s and his ex-friend Gregg’s rivalry; perhaps it has something with the theme-park company that wants to come to Glitter and make it into a giant living history exhibit?

Yes, that’s it — the last one. It takes Frank and Joe a while to latch onto that idea, but they figure it out eventually. Suspects include Curt Stone, a theme-park rep who remains friendly to the boys despite all their questions and his inability to tell the difference between “accusations” and “insinuations”; Lucky, a miner and living history exhibit himself, who gives Frank and Joe the helpful advice that they need to “be careful whose nuggets they put their hands on” (38); and Gregg Anderson, who suspects Frank and Joe are behind his troubles, calling the brothers David’s “gangster friends” (122). That comment transformed Gregg from insufferable jerk to all right guy.

None of these is the criminal, of course. The criminal’s grand plan is to get the locals to approve the theme park so he can sell native handicrafts to tourists for a profit, which seems like a lot of work for a small payoff. He seems luckier than good, as well; in a little town where everybody’s got their nose in everyone else’s business, he’s fortunate he hasn’t been seen in his villainous comings and goings. (The worst was when he punctured a boat in the middle of the night; people heard the sound, which was likened to chopping wood, but no one decided to look outside to see why someone was chopping wood in the dark.) The culprit also pulls one of my least favorite Hardy Boys’ villain maneuvers: the hemi-glutteal food theft, in which all of someone’s food is stolen, but rather than taking it away totally, spoiling it, or eating it, it’s abandoned somewhere nearby, allowing Frank and Joe to recover it via their superior woodscraft. (The best example of this is the original Mystery of Cabin Island.)

It is extremely ironic that Frank and Joe oppose the efforts of someone who wants to turn an entire town into a theme park. For the Hardys, that’s what travel is for: you watch the locals and see the neat, weird things they do. Everything they do is put on for your benefit, and you get to eat their local foods. At the end of the trip, you get to claim you “understand” or “helped” the natives. In Alaskan Adventure, Frank and Joe see a real “Native American healer” in action, ride a dogsled, are menaced by local wildlife, buy stuff from a general store, attend a native potlatch, and visit Lucky’s mining operation. They don’t meet David’s parents because — and I swear to God this is true — the elder Natiks are in Fairbanks working at a snowshoe factory.

The author seems to sympathize with the anti-theme park side, since a theme park supporter is causing all the damage and David’s extended family all oppose the park. The sole argument for the park — money — seems shallow compared to the … we’ll say “rich traditions” Frank and Joe witness in Glitter. David’s cousin says her father believes the park will make Glitter’s residents “animals in a circus, showing off for visitors instead of being free to live our lives the way we always have” (29). Sure, the town has its problems, but they mostly stem from a single jackass destroying things to get people to vote for the theme park. But at the end of the story, David’s uncle begins to cave to the theme park idea, claiming he thinks Glitter can work with Stone’s company. Capitalism rules!

Despite the downer of an ending, which shows the power of capitalism, Frank and Joe might get a reward: a testimonial letter from an Alaskan State Trooper commander. Wow. We’re a long way from the early books, in which rewards of hundreds and thousands of dollars just tumbled into their laps.

Frank and Joe have always treated their travels as tourism, as shown by their first trip to Alaska (just after it became a state) in The Mystery of Devil’s Paw. The boys stopped Iron Curtain spies from recovering a lost rocket in Devil’s Paw, which is a lot more exciting than putting the kibosh on a vandal, but whatever. In that book, the Hardys met local Native Americans and ate local foods; unlike in Alaskan Adventure, which featured moose steak and moose-head soup at a potlatch, in Devil’s Paw they ate bear steaks, rice-lily bread, raw salmon, stewed rabbit, and wild rose fruit while attending a native wedding. The wildlife shifted slightly in the nearly four decades between the books: both had the Hardys escaping brown bears, but Alaskan Adventure substituted wolves for Devil’s Paw’s skunks.

The story ends just before David and Gregg take off for the Iditarod, which means the story ends in early March. Unfortunately, neither won, but David is prepared for this. After mentioning Gregg wants to be “first in everything,” David says, “Life’s not like that” (14). It might not be like that for you, brother, but it is for Frank and Joe. Wisely, they refrain from correcting him, but we the readers know the truth.

Random Iditarod facts: In 1996, the year in which the book was published, Californian Jeff King won his second Iditarod behind his lead dogs Jake and Booster. He finished the course in 9 days, 5 hours, 43 minutes, and 13 seconds. Forty-nine competitors finished the race; eleven more dropped out before the end. The fastest first-timer, Cim Smyth, was 18th, finishing more than a day behind King. King won $50,000, while Smyth received $6,000 for his finish. King went on to win two more Iditarods. 1996 was the first time the competition had been completed in less than 10 days; King’s record stood until 2000, when Doug Swingley (along with Stormy and Cola) beat it by almost five hours. The shortest time was set in 2014 by Dallas Seavey, who finished in 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, 19 seconds.

Friday, February 20, 2015

High-Speed Showdown (#137)

High-Speed Showdown coverPower boat racing has reached Bayport in High-Speed Showdown. Unsurprisingly, the Northeast Nationals are also plagued by sabotage. Really, you have to wonder why any organization would hold an event in Bayport. Are the hotels that great? Is the convention center huge? Are the women more attractive?

I’m thinking the answer is massive bribes. Massive, IOC / FIFA-level bribes, with piles of cash, drugs, and complimentary subscriptions to Field & Stream.

Given everything bad that happens at Bayport events, it’s the only real explanation. High-Speed Showdown supports that hypothesis, as the corruption in the powerboat racing circuit the Northeast Nationals is part of is an open secret. The racers, owners, and crew are allowed to bet on all the races, and while the assumption is that each person would bet on their own boat, they are not restricted to betting on themselves. If a governing body allows wagering among participations, corruption is always a danger, as some bright fellow is going to figure out it’s more profitable to lose than to win.

(In addition to the implications of gambling, the book is hazy on the mechanics of gambling as well. At one point, a private investigator based in Las Vegas tells the boys incorrectly what 1-to-4 odds means. The PI suggests a $1 at 1-4 returns an additional dollar on a win, but on a loss the bettor has to kick in an additional $4. This is incorrect. If you bet $1, that’s all you can lose; if you win a $1 bet at 1-4, you’ll receive a an additional quarter.)

When you think about speedboat racing, in which massive, finely tuned engines are harnessed to the lightest hulls possible, you also think of safety, and safety is foremost in High-Speed Showdown. The boys always strap in safely before riding in power boats. The narrator makes sure readers know the Hardys and other boaters know how to pass each other on the water. Before saving a man from drowning, Frank strips off his shoes and shirt and mentions that swimming with jeans is difficult. (Did he keep them on for modesty’s sake?) The brothers have a fire extinguisher on the Sleuth that allows them to take care of a fire on a powerboat. When a speedboat wrecks, Frank stops Joe from going to the rescue: “Let the marshals handle it … if a bunch of civilians like us run straight into the path of the racers, we’ll have a real disaster” (125). When the throttle on the Sleuth breaks, Joe’s first instinct is to shut off the engine rather than flail about with the controls. In the end, as the suspect escapes in a motorboat in the crowded waters of Barmet Bay, Frank elects not to pursue: “Too late! Let him go. He can’t escape. Besides, by trying to run away, he’s just proving that we were right about him” (147). And one of the adult crew members, recalling Frank and Joe’s 15-year-old schoolmate Connie, tells us he’s not into young women: “Cute kid, but way too young for me” (85). He’s totally lying, of course, but at least he’s being cautious about what he says about underage women.

(Another competitor, whom we are supposed to hate, is not so cautious around Connie: “I can handle her kind anytime” [33]. He means he can beat her up if he needs to, but that’s still awful.)

Maybe Frank and Joe have just decided to be boring. They use notecards to try to make links between facts in the case rather than their usual random association of incidents. After learning of a lead in Las Vegas, Frank and Joe contact a PI in that city rather than flying out there. Frank’s so cautious he’s worried he might have upset a member of student government that he says, “I hope we never want something from student government” (89). What I remember wanting from student government, during my high school days, is for student government to go away.

The stakes are very low; no one is injured, except for a guy who has a Hardy Boys concussion and another who was either poisoned or ate bad shrimp salad. The most jeopardy the boys fall into is when they are attacked by men with baseball bats, which is admittedly dangerous for most people, but it’s the kind of thing Frank and Joe handle all the time. The second-most peril they are subjected to is when a firecracker explodes under their van’s hood while they are still in the parking lot. The narration tries to sell by saying Joe heard “a high-pitched whistle … the sound of something deadly coming from under the hood” (117), but that sounds like a bottle rocket, not an M-80. The third-most danger is trying the peach chutney Aunt Gertrude put on their chicken sandwiches.

I won’t go into the suspects except to mention they are all powerboat racers (one of whom has the “gratitude of a weasel” [143], which is well known as the most ungrateful member of the weasel family) or owners plus a couple of student protestors. The actual criminal is a complete surprise — unless you’ve read The Masked Monkey or The Stone Idol or The Vanishing Thieves, in which the criminal thinks Frank and Joe aren’t that bright and hires them to investigate the crimes he himself committed. To be fair, this is one of the books in which Frank and Joe’s career is not widely known; one of their high-school classmates has “heard rumors around school that they’re amateur detectives or something” (35). Magnusson, the event organizer, is surprised when Frank and Joe ask for a copy of a threatening fax, as if he expected them to spend their time investigating running into piers and falling off docks.

But they don’t. They’re too cautious for that.

Actually, one suspect I’d like to discuss is Susan Shire, powerboat racer and television actress. The story isn't that interested in her, not so much dismissing her as a suspect and competitor as just forgetting about her, but Frank and Joe do mention she appears in the TV show Brisbane Lane. What kind of show do you think it is? We’re probably supposed to think it’s a Melrose Place clone, but I think there are other possibilities. Indiana Jones-type adventure show with an Aussie protagonist? Daytime soap? A spy show, set in Australia? I like all my Australian ideas, although the major hitch with them is that the name of the Australian city doesn’t rhyme with “lane” — it’s pronounced BRIZ-bin (or BRIZ-bn).

Weirdly, the book is more circumspect in naming (fictitious) entertainment sources in other places. At one point, Aunt Gertrude says she’s “going to watch a rerun of one of my favorite shows” (55), then asks if Frank and Joe would like to join her. They demur, in part because she won’t even name the show. Later Joe challenges Frank to “a computer game … I’ll spot you two power pills and an invisibility spell” (57). Frank accepts the challenge, even though the game isn’t named.

Despite the possibility of high-speed crashes, High-Speed Showdown is kinda dull, and it doesn’t take advantage of the competitive aspects of the sport. I mean, look at that cover, which promises a dull time; it looks like the Sleuth is blathering nonsense to Frank and Joe while they irresponsibly tow a rubber raft that had a couple of cardboard life-sized standees in it. It’s the kind of book that dramatically asks, “Would their meeting with Magnusson leave enough time for a prelunch snack?” (6).

Some might take exception with my stance. For instance, the Amazon page for the book has a single review, which gives the book five stars; the review, which I reproduce here in full, says, “good.” Hard to argue with that, but I won’t budge from my stance.

Unless someone wanted to try to sway me with IOC-levels of subscriptions to Field & Stream … throw in a couple of years of Outdoor Life, and I might be singing the praises of High-Speed Showdown.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Cold Cash Caper (#136)

The Cold Cash Caper coverEven though Frank and Joe aren’t heading out of town in the generically named The Cold Cash Caper, the author has decided to give them a three-day weekend in February — Washington’s Birthday, most likely — so they can enjoy Bayport’s Winter Festival without interruption.

What’s the Winter Festival? you might ask. And why haven’t you heard about it, even though it’s been around for more than two decades? The Winter Festival is a chance for Bayporters to unload homemade sweets and sweaters on one another and spend time outside, all in the hopes of raising money for the local children’s hospital; if the festival raises more than $50,000, the estate of deceased philanthropist Louis Bradford will donate the balance of the hospital’s yearly operating expenses. We’ve probably never heard of the festival because few books have been set in February — The Voodoo Plot, probably, and maybe Hunting for Hidden Gold — and because all other evidence of the event has been thrown in the memory hole. Better not ask any more questions, or you might be thrown into the room with the rats.

Frank and Joe are psyched to compete in the festival’s cross-country skiing and speed skating competitions, respectively, and their interest is piqued even more when they are told they will get to accompany Olympic figure skater David Kennedy around the festival. “His trademark triple axel is truly awesome!” Joe says, even though that is something no actual teenager has ever said. David has been booked to perform in the festival’s closing ceremonies.

Delivering Aunt Gertrude’s culinary contributions to the festival gives Frank and Joe an opportunity for a mild jab at Chet’s weight. At the festival grounds, Joe is jeered by Craig Thompson, the goalie for the Cross Town High hockey team, whom Joe lit up for a hat trick earlier in the season. Putting aside that “Cross Town High” is an awful name for a school — the name frames the school’s entire existence as being opposed to another, implicitly more legitimate (or at least older) school — Joe does not need to compete in another sport, as he already participated on six school teams in the first 85 Hardy Boys books. Joe does not rise to Craig’s bait, perhaps because Craig thinks calling Joe “the hotshot hockey player from Bayport High” (9) is an insult. Craig does get his revenge when Joe takes a spill during speed skating practice; the screws holding the blade to the shoe came unscrewed because of Craig’s sabotage, and Joe careened into a wall.

A note about the festival grounds: they are directly opposite the old Bradford Mansion, which is abandoned and dilapidated. In a story that seemingly replicates itself on every block in Bayport, the house has not been occupied since the wealthy Louis Bradford died, and the building and grounds have gone to seed. If you have read many Hardy Boys books, you know there is a disgraced heir out there somewhere, and he’s probably the villain.

Unfortunately for the festival, a booth is robbed of $2,000. Unfortunately for the Hardys, Chet is IDed as the robber, but they are able to give him an alibi. (Good thing, too; the BPD has picked Chet up for grand theft before, in the original Figure in Hiding.) Officer Con Riley tells the Hardys to work with the festival’s security chief, Dan Meyers, to catch the real robber. Meyers, proving he’s not a local, protests, “That job calls for someone with experience, not boys” (33). He gives in, though, and Chet and Joe find evidence before going home. Someone also hucks a rock at the Hardys’ van as they drive away from the festival. Just to get across that someone is unhappy with the Hardys’ meddling, the rock has an ineffectual threat tied around it.

The next day, Frank and Joe help David Kennedy escape reporters and fans at the airport. They also bring along Kennedy’s coach, Ivan Petrovich. (This could be a reference to Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, of Pavlov’s dog fame, or to the Marvel Comics character Ivan Petrovich, the bodyguard / handler / chauffeur of the Black Widow. Or neither.) David gets a taste of the Hardy life when Craig throws snowballs at them (and triggers an avalanche of deadly, deadly icicles) and when the Hardys pursue the thief who knocked over the “sweater booth” and got away with $1,000.

$1,000 of sweaters were sold in one morning. Huh. Well, allegedly a great number of raffle tickets were sold as well, but still — sweater booth. (The festival also sells “cow mugs,” which evidently are cow-themed coffee mugs.)

David is intrigued by the Hardys’ mystery skills and wishes to subscribe to their newsletter, despite Joe being puzzled about where a thief went when the thief entered one ends of an alley but disappeared before Joe gets to the alley. (He exited the other end of the alley, Joe.) David also doesn’t blink at the various threats to the Hardys’ lives. This will come back to bite him later. The investigation and entertaining David doesn’t stop the Hardys from competing in cross-country skiing (Frank was leading when a pine tree was dropped across the course) and speed-skating (Joe wins the two shorter events, and Frank wins the long-distance one).

So to save time, here are Frank and Joe’s big suspects:

  • Craig, who is so obviously not the true culprit he might as well be named “Red Herring.” Joe calls him “an obnoxious little punk” (127), which is a bit harsh but not inaccurate.
  • Leona Turner, who is one of the organizers of the festival. Her gift shop, which is in financial trouble, is near where the thief miraculously disappeared. She also stands on her rights, refusing to let Frank search the back of her shop, and sports new, expensive jewelry. It turns out she’s a bad businesswoman who is getting married to a rich man; she doesn’t care what happens to her shop.
  • Roger Pender, another festival organizer. His sporting-goods store, which is next to Leona’s, is failing because of a chain store that just came to town. Craig does odd jobs for him as well.

Frank and Joe’s big clue is that the thieves — it turns out there are two of them, working together — travel around in a white minivan. The brothers believe this narrows the suspect list, but Cold Cash Caper was published in 1996; I remember 1996, and white minivans were everywhere. But evidently, Bayport has only one white minivan, and when the brothers see one, it’s always the criminals’.

Later, Frank and Joe get into a scuffle with both robbers. Joe is shoved into a pond, but Frank seems to suffer a small cerebral event while rescuing his brother — he takes Joe home rather than to the hospital and starts saying things like, “What’s that expression? Get right back on the ice?” (114) and that Joe almost became “a contestant in the Polar Bear Club” (111). These cognitive difficulties slow Frank long enough for Joe to put everything together: when David is kidnapped, Joe realizes all the crimes are designed to keep the festival from earning the $50,000 needed to secure hospital funding from the Bradford estate.

The rest of the story writes itself. Actually, the ending would have been better if it had written itself. Chief of Police Ezra Collig won’t listen to the boys, which means they have to do research on their own. Recalling a rumor that the heirs to the Bradford estate would gain the entire estate if the festival didn’t make its $50,000 goal, Frank and Joe discover Dan Meyers, the head of festival security, is Bradford’s grandson. Not coincidentally, his two lieutenants match the description of the two thieves.

Because Collig wouldn’t listen to them before, Frank and Joe decide he won’t listen to them ever. Frank and Joe investigate the festival and Meyer’s and his goons’ apartments and find nothing. They run across the kidnappers’ van; while Joe is calling the cops, Frank is abducted as well. Joe pursues the van but loses it. He despairs; of course, by know the readers all know David is being held in the abandoned Bradford mansion. Joe doesn’t figure it out, but fortunately he stumbles across the van in time and follows it to the Bradford mansion. Despite beating up the two goons, Joe is stopped by Meyer’s gun.

Everything seems lost until Chet leads the festival parade (and the cops) to the mansion. The police arrest the villains, Joe and Craig reconcile, and David performs in the closing ceremonies. The festival makes its $50,000, and the hospital is funded — for this year, at least.

It’s a predictable story, easily forgotten. How do you sell it to an unsuspecting public? Here’s the back-cover copy:

Back cover of The Cold Cash Caper

That’s … badly written, and it’s not accurate — especially not the first paragraph. Frank and Joe don’t volunteer to do undercover security work; they do detective work to clear their friend. They aren’t assigned as David’s “bodyguards,” and they spend more time investigating than doing anything with David. Also: serial robberies are not “bad vibes.” The second paragraph does better, but I never got the feeling the boys were in danger of anything other than a punch in the face.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Hypersonic Secret (#135)

The Hypersonic Secret coverPlot: When the plane flown by the father of Frank and Joe’s new friend, Jamal Hawkins, disappears from radar, the brothers investigate.

I make fun of most of the Hardy Boys books I write about. The Hypersonic Secret is just as worthy of mockery as any, but instead, I want to talk about something else. Frank and Joe induct a new friend into their circle in Hypersonic, which is noteworthy on two levels: one, Frank and Joe haven’t made any new friends since The Tower Treasure, and two, the friend in question — Jamal Hawkins — is black.

African-American characters and black characters of other nationalities are not new to the Hardy Boys series; in particular, William Ellis made an impression on Joe in The Mysterious Caravan, and Peter Walker, a classmate and basketball teammate, served as Frank and Joe’s client in The Voodoo Plot. (If you want to extend this to all characters of color, Jim Foy went into a business partnership with Frank, Joe, and the other chums in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk, and he shared in a sizeable reward with them.) But because of the series’ resistance toward new characters, none of these characters have stuck. They were all one-and-done characters.

Although Hypersonic gives no indication Jamal will be a recurring character, he actually does appear in several other mysteries I’ve recapped on this site: Slam Dunk Sabotage, Danger in the Extreme, The Spy That Never Lies, Speed Times Five, In Plane Sight. And who knows? I haven’t read all the digests. He might have appeared in even more books. No matter how many more books he’s been in, though, those few books represent a step forward, acknowledging the world has changed since the series started in 1927. At this rate, Frank and Joe will meet their first gay person by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

A new character should ideally have a unique role to give that character an excuse to appear in more books. Jamal’s a pilot, and since his father owns a plane service, he can provide Frank and Joe access to planes. Since the Hardy family owns a plane and has a pilot on call, that’s not the best role for a new chum — unless Simon & Schuster is trying to change the status quo to make Frank and Joe seem less privileged. Whether Frank and Joe still have consistent access to a plane is not made clear in Hypersonic; Frank and Joe seem to have piloting skills, although not necessarily pilots’ licenses, and no mention is made of the family plane or Jack Wayne. Jamal does seem to be Frank and Joe’s superior in the cockpit.

Carving that niche from something Frank and Joe could previously do themselves is not the best way to endear him to the reader. There might be something to be gained from Jamal not being from Bayport — Frank and Joe seek him out after he and his high school beat Bayport in football — but the importance of Jamal’s outsider status isn’t clear in Hypersonic either.

If only the author had concentrated on Jamal more — or even the mystery around Bayport. After Jamal’s father’s plane goes down, Mr. Hawkins is missing, and Frank, Joe, and Jamal investigate around Bayport for suspects to the plane’s malfunction. Logically, finding Mr. Hawkins should be the climax of the book. Instead, it’s just another plot point, one that occurs less than halfway through the story. After that, the plot is done with the Hardys’ new friend, and Frank and Joe get to be privileged young white guys again — although this time they get their special treatment because they’re friends of Jamal, who is the son of a real cool ex-USAF guy. They get flown across the country in F-16s, Joe doesn’t get beaten to the ground and arrested when he gets too close to top-secret materials at Palmdale Air Force Base, and they even get to watch a hypersonic jet at Dreamland.

Dreamland! The military base also known as Groom Lake and Area 51! Good grief.

In the second half of the book, the author gets too wrapped up in flying hither and yon, putting Frank and Joe into those F-16s and having them fly around the American southwest with the villain and Jamal. If Jamal’s role was an attempt to make the boys’ experience more relateable, it doesn’t work.

I really like that Hypersonic picks up where the previous book leaves off — Cross-Country Crime is set during Thanksgiving, and Hypersonic takes place in December. However, the book tries to drive home a joke about Frank and Joe not having bought Aunt Gertrude a Christmas gift, but there’s no payoff — no joke about something being Gertrude’s real gift or Christmas arrive without the boys finder a present. Maybe that happens in the next book?

I suppose I’ll find out next time.