Friday, April 11, 2014

The Secret of the Soldier's Gold (#182)

The Secret of the Soldier’s Gold coverPlot: When Fenton heads to Portugal to consult with a police friend, Frank and Joe look for a missing suitcase full of World War II gold.

“Borrowing” from the past: The plot is vaguely like The Secret of the Lost Tunnel, in which Frank, Joe, and Chet help a general track down some missing Civil War gold. Unlike Lost Tunnel, the Hardys have no adult supervision, and the gold was hidden only about 55 to 60 years before (as opposed to 80 some-odd years in Lost Tunnel. Also, Frank and Joe have replaced Chet with an attractive young Portuguese woman, and that’s never a bad thing.

Languages are always a concern for the Hardys in a foreign country. Frank and Joe do not know Portuguese, although they do pick up a few words during Soldier’s Gold. They did not go to Portugal in the original canon, although they did go to Brazil, another Portuguese-speaking nation, in The Masked Monkey (#51). In Soldier’s Gold, Frank is taking Spanish at Bayport High School and claims to have received an A in German class last year. On the other hand, he has trouble realizing “Frau” is a German honorific. His language experience can be seen in the Shadow Killers post.

Frank and Joe are confronted by a trio of fascists with a Doberman, and later they are confronted by mastiffs when they break into a walled estate. The boys have been menaced by Dobermans twice in the original canon: the revised A Figure in Hiding (#16) and The Night of the Werewolf (#59). Additionally, they were chased by Dobermans in Panic on Gull Island. They faced a mastiff in The Arctic Patrol Mystery (#49).

When Frank and Joe ask Fenton what he knows about Lisbon during World War II, Fenton laughs and says, “I don’t know anything firsthand.” Since the character was created in 1927 as a man approaching middle age, at some point in the series’ floating continuity, he probably served in the war — at the very least, he must have been draft eligible. Essentially, he could have been a World War II veteran anywhere between The Short-Wave Mystery (#25) and Masked Monkey. However, evidence of his service is scant; Lost Tunnel mentions Fenton served a summer in an officer’s training camp, but it’s unclear when that was.

Frank mentions he and Joe are track-and-field athletes. Their history as track athletes is discussed in The Mystery of the Black Rhino (#178), but they’ve never competed in field events. Neither Frank nor Joe mentions their gymnastics experience, which would have been relevant; Frank has worked out on the parallel bars, and both performed on the trapeze in “Big Top” Hinchman’s circus in The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21). In fact, Frank and Joe had an entire barn fitted with gymnastic (and boxing) equipment. The barn lasted from The Tower Treasure (#1) to The Hidden Harbor Mystery (#14).

Joe also makes an impressive dive off the Ponte de 25 Abril, and Frank hopes he can replicate his diving form in his next competition. Joe has never been a competitive diver; the closest he ever came was in Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84), in which he was captain of the Bayport High swim team and a record-holder in the 100-meter freestyle.

While renting a motorboat on the Tagus, Frank and Joe show their marine operator’s licenses. Frank and Joe have been puttering around Barmet Bay since the Coolidge administration, but the original canon never mentioned they had a license to do so. They have pilot’s licenses (for airplanes), fishing licenses, driver’s licenses, licenses to operate short-wave radios, and even a permit to hunt with their falcon, Miss Peregrine — but they never bother with licenses for boating.

When the rented motorboat’s gas tank is shot, the brothers decide to abandon ship. Joe says, “The same thing happened to us once in Barmet Bay … We made it to shore then.” I can’t find what Joe is referring to, even expanding the definition of “same thing” to any shortage of gas or danger of explosion.

Euphemisms: Frank and Joe’s relationships with Iola Morton and Callie Shaw are usually spoken of elliptically by the narrator. In Soldier’s Gold, Iola and Callie are “two of the most popular girls in school,” and they “often spent time” with Frank and Joe. I’m impressed by the vagueness of the description. What do they do when they spend time together? Go on dates? Shoot rats at the dump? Discuss Proust? And does Callie and Iola’s popularity rub off on Frank and Joe, or are the girls bucking social convention by being seen in their presence?

Perhaps in gratitude for bestowing their time on the unworthy Hardys, Frank and Joe buy them “cool-looking Portuguese shoes” in Lisbon. The narration says the boys “thought Callie and Iola would like” the shoes, but I’d hate to see the results of their shopping expedition. I’d be amazed if the boys know Iola’s and Callie’s shoe sizes, and what do high-school boys think looks “cool”? Sneakers? Stilettos? Bedazzled flip-flops?

Of course, neither Iola nor Callie spend any time with the brothers in Soldier’s Gold, although Frank and Joe do worry that the girls will be jealous that they are going to a freshman girl’s birthday party. Since I think Iola already knows Joe waits until he’s out of town to step out on her, I think they are safe as long as they’re in Bayport. (Iola should perhaps be worried about Isabel, the girl they meet in Lisbon. Isabel actually gets to help investigate!)

We know who’s in charge: When Frank and Joe learn of the missing gold, they immediately want to talk it over with Fenton. Fenton needs to be at police HQ to talk to Chief Collig, but he says, “It won’t hurt if I’m a few minutes late.” No, Fenton, why not waste the time of an important public servant to have a discussion with your sons that could easily be taken care of later in the day or week? Collig should expect it, really. He knows how famous you are.

The March of Technology: It takes Frank and Joe fifteen minutes to place a person-to-person call to Bayport through the hotel switchboard. This book was written in 2003. Are Portuguese telecommunications really that slow? Perhaps my expectations for intercontinental calls are too optimistic.

Later, the Hardys acknowledge the existence of cell phones, asking Isabel to call the cops on hers. She says she left it at home to recharge.

Not smart enough to be scared: When Frank and Joe visit the estate where the gold is supposed to be buried, they see guards with machine guns and guard dogs patrolling the ground. Later, they put into action a plan to sneak onto the grounds, but the men with machine guns barely enter into their plans. Why should they? Frank and Joe have never been shot with a gun. Later, when they leave a hole in the ground at that estate, they briefly worry that they might be confronted by the police, who might be infiltrated by neo-fascists. That worry disappears almost as soon as they voice it.

Later, when they believe the fascists have the gold, they are puzzled about why a different group of fascists are following them. Perhaps because they’re fascists, and they always like to get the boot in? Or this group of fascists don’t know the others have the gold? Or because they want to eliminate the witnesses to their gold theft?

There’s a secret code for you: While talking with English-speaking fascists in Lisbon, Frank and Joe resort to Pig Latin to communicate secretly. I admire Joe’s cleverness; understanding a foreign language doesn’t mean total, native mastery, and Joe exploits that.

Food … of … the … world!: The Hardy family visits Picanha, a restaurant that serves only one dish: picanha, which is rump steak served with salad, rice, and beans. The author gives no indication whether restaurants serving only picanha or one-item restaurants are common in Portugal, or whether Picanha is a special Portuguese restaurant that rips off tourists who are too overwhelmed to have an idea what to order in a foreign country. At least there won’t be any surprises.

Frank and Joe also sample some Sumol, a real Portuguese soft drink. From its corporate page, it looks broadly similar to Mountain Dew in look, although Soldier’s Gold mentions it comes in many flavors.

Practice, practice, practice: Joe is bopped on the head as he enters his hotel room. He and Frank then pursue his attacker down the fire escape, jumping from the final landing to the ground. Frank is sure that the impact of hitting the ground didn’t help Joe’s head wound any, but “he was impressed that it hadn't kept Joe from running after the intruder at full speed.” If there’s a family that knows how to cope with head trauma on the fly, it’s the Hardys; they certainly have enough experience with it.

Famous amateur detectives!: The news that Frank and Joe have a treasure map gets out among Lisbon’s police officers. Numerous people are suspected as the leak, and Frank and Joe force themselves to consider that the cute girl they like might be the one who spread the news. That’s good thinking!

Most of the rest of their brainwaves are bad thinking, though. They solved the case with a simple personal ad; if they’d thought of contacting Lisbon’s German population in the beginning, it would have saved them a lot of headaches. (It wouldn’t have been much of a mystery, perhaps, but who knows?) When they saw the home where the gold was buried was heavily guarded, they should have investigated the past of the person who owned the house. You know, just in case that’s important. It doesn’t end up being important, but it could have.

Later, they decoy pursuers into thinking the gold is buried in a botanical park. When the pursuers confront them, they feign fear and run away. They do not, however, try to sneak back and see who was following them.

Logic tricks: When Frank and Joe learned the buried suitcase held bricks, not gold, they had to think of explanations for why the bricks had been buried. Frank uses some tortuous logic: the man who buried the gold and was later captured by the Nazis had let the secret out, so when he was able to get to the gold after the war, he buried the bricks to make it appear he lied. But whoever got the information from him — under torture, in a prison camp — would likely have had a head start over the former POW and would likely have gotten to the gold first.

Jealous enough to start firebombing: After finding the gold and returning it to their client — with surprisingly little difficulty in transferring millions of dollars of gold from Portugal to the U.S. — they are offered a reward. Frank and Joe refuse, so their client offers to make a donation to Bayport High School. Joe says, “Bayport High School is just about to become one of the most envied schools in the country.”

Geez, Joe. BHS already had you and Frank, who pull sports championships out of orifices they are not usually pulled from. What ostentatious monument to prosperity is BHS going to get — a new gymnasium? A tech campus? Gold-plated urinals? If I lived in nearby Bridgewater or Hopkinsville or Southport, when I heard this I would hate Bayport with an intensity that would cause my hair to spontaneously combust.

Opinions: Soldier’s Gold is a solid story. True, Frank and Joe’s investigation leaves a great deal to be desired — they charge into everything, just like always — the book has a lot to like. Neo-fascists are sinister yet believable villains, blending into society and making Frank and Joe suffer a tinge of paranoia. This anonymity gives the villains a reason not to kill the Hardys: an investigation might ruin their disguise.

Also: Nazi gold makes everything cooler.

Grade: B+.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Emperor's Shield (Casefiles #119)

The Emperor’s Shield coverPlot: Frank, Joe, and Callie go to Germany to help Fenton’s college roommate locate a Roman fort and its fabulous treasure.

“Borrowing” from the past: In Shield, Frank can understand and speak German, with some difficulty, after taking two years of high-school German. In The Jungle Pyramid (#56), the boys had both taken German classes, enough to speak the language roughly. (Before that, in Danger on Vampire Trail [#50], Joe knew what he’d picked up from TV.) The boys “perfected” their German when visiting the country in The Submarine Caper (#68). That book marked the boys’ only previous journey to Deutschland; they visited Dusseldorf, Frankfort, Munich, Glochen, and Lumburg.

Frank and Joe (mostly Frank) is in Germany to help Dr. John Maxwell, who was Fenton’s college roommate. We don’t know much about Fenton’s college life — except that he was a pole vaulter who cleared more than 16 feet, as revealed in The Sting of the Scorpion (#58) — but his acquaintances pop up with surprising frequency. Whenever the boys need an expert — a helicopter pilot, a FBI agent, a director of the State Experimental Farm, psychiatrist, prison warden, judge, head of NASA security, doctor in Morocco, Army general or Navy officer — Fenton will know one. Either they are an old / good friend or they served together in the army or police or Fenton will have run across them in his investigations. Perhaps that’s why Frank and Joe can use Fenton’s name so freely to get out of trouble: he knows everyone important.

The teens run into angry German shepherds at one point. They’ve run into German shepherds before: The Mystery fo the Aztec Warrior (#43), The Haunted Fort (#44), and The Demon’s Den (#81). Shepherds are the most common canine menaces for the boys in the original canon, narrowly nosing out Doberman pinschers and wolfhounds.

Joe takes over in an aerial disaster, guiding a stalled plane into a controlled glide, managing to save himself and the pilot. In the digests and Casefiles I’ve read, Frank is usually the pilot, but Joe is as experienced behind the stick as his brother. As I’ve mentioned before, both he and Frank get instruction from a pilot named Stewart in The Short-Wave Mystery (#24). Jack Wayne — Fenton’s personal pilot — starts teaching them in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37); both brothers make an emergency landing in that book. They get their pilot’s licenses in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39) and learn to fly seaplanes and float planes in The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42). By The Stone Idol, they’ve moved on to helicopters, and in The Sting of the Scorpion, they fly baby blimps.

At the end of The Emperor’s Shield, Frank, Joe, and Callie go skiing in the Alps. Frank and Joe are experienced skiers, starting all the way back in The Cabin Island Mystery (#8). That was cross-country skiing, though; their first downhill skiing was in The Jungle Pyramid, in which they skied the Alps — the Swiss Alps, though. (They also go cross-country skiing in Cave-In, #78, and Open Season, Casefiles #59.)

Lazy and awful: I’ve complained about covers before, but man, that cover is awful. First of all, it’s a picture cover, which are almost always boring, and secondly, it’s lazy even for a picture cover. Trenchcoats and fedoras? Which cover designer did Pocket Books get for this one — Clichés R Us? (It’s a cliché name, see.) I know the cover was designed to tie into the Hardy Boys TV series, just as all the covers from #105 to 121 were, but that TV series ran for thirteen episodes in 1995. This book was published in 1997; by that point I could hardly have looked for “the exciting TV series!”

The March of Technology: Oh, man, the ‘90s. If you need a refresher about how good we have it today, read The Emperor’s Shield. All the bad memories will come rushing back. The archaeology crew is forced to use a “microwave-size” scanner. Frank dials into a server, then uses Telnet to connect from the server to Web — specifically to what looks like a newsgroup. Later, to send a file to a server, Frank has to program the server’s number into a modem. Nowadays we don’t have to even think about servers or modems to move information around, and Telnet, for most of us, is a dim memory — if we remember it all.

Let the Hardys teach you geography: Shield has a lot of German geography, although I’m not sure it does a good job of pinning the towns and waterways to any context.

The book takes place in southwestern Germany, mainly within the (unmentioned) state of Baden-Württemberg. (For those who have a picture of Germany in their head, that’s down in the lower left of the country, bordering France and Switzerland.) The chums fly into Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg and a city of 5.3 million. From there, they take the autobahn south — presumably taking the A81, which runs north and south from the city — passing by the Neckar River; the Neckar is a tributary of the Rhine, running north through Stuttgart until it merges with the Rhine at Mannheim from the East. The narrator contends the Neckar was the border of the Roman Empire at its largest; Wikipedia puts the border a little east of the Neckar, but even if Wikipedia is completely accurate, the assertion is close enough to accept as true.

On the drive, the heroes spot the Black Forest and the Zugspitze. I assume it’s the Zugspitze; the narrator calls it the Zugspitze Mountains, but I believe the author is referring to the peak in the Wetterstein Mountains, which is the highest in Germany (9,718 feet). Perhaps the narrator isn’t thinking of the Zugspitze, though, as it’s in Bavaria’s border from Austria, quite a distance to the east of the Hardys’ path. On the other hand, it’s the highest point in Germany; who knows how far away you can see it?

The Hardys’ destination is Kolbingen. Again, I think it’s Kolbingen; the town’s name is “Köbingen” in the book, but Kolbingen’s location is the right spot, about an hour and a half from Stuttgart. The town’s population is about 1,300. They later attend a winter festival in Esslingen am Neckar, a city of about 92,000 that is less than ten miles from the center of Stuttgart.

Hidden for years, unearthed by the Hardys: Dr. Maxwell is well ahead of the curve in this book, using satellite and aerial images to find the road and fort he’s looking for. Satellite archaeology has become a viable way to search for the past, especially given cheap and free views from space. (Think of Google Earth images, for instance.)

I was surprised to find the Roman emperor Decius, the eponymous emperor, was not made up by this particular Dixon. Decius (or Trajan Decius) ruled from A.D. 249 to 251. Decius was the first emperor to die in battle vs. a foreign enemy, killed in battle (along with his son and co-emperor, Herennius Etruscus) against the Goths in northeastern Bulgaria at the Battle of Abrittus. Evidently that legendary shield Maxwell was searching for was less than effective against, you know, people trying to kill him.

Less convincing is the condition of the artifacts in the fort — “the air is so cool and dry … that everything’s been almost perfectly preserved.” So perfectly preserved, in fact, that Frank and Joe think nothing of picking up swords and daggers from Decius’s treasure trove to defend themselves.

Mid-life crisis at 17: Joe rents a car to get him, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend around Germany. What does he choose? A red Porsche 911 Turbo, utterly impractical except to stroke Joe’s ego; it barely has enough room for Callie in the back seat, and when they go to a festival with a fourth person, they have to take the train instead. (Frank doesn’t get to drive it often, despite being the person who can read the road signs.) Unfortunately, Joe doesn’t even get a decent car chase. What’s up with that? Don’t Americans always like the car chase?

Duplication of effort: When Dr. Maxwell disappears, certain aerial photos go with him. Joe volunteers to re-acquire the photos from the original photographer. The photographer volunteers to take Joe along with him as he takes the photos again. But why didn’t the photographer keep the negatives? I mean, that’s standard practice, right? For exactly this reason?

Dream big, baby: Stymied for a moment in their investigations, Callie suggests going to the snow festival in Esslingen. Frank tries to avoid having fun with his girlfriend, but eventually gives in: “‘It looks as if Callie gets her wish,’ Frank mumbled.”

Ha! If Callie got her wish, she’d probably have a better boyfriend. The narration does call her Frank’s “girlfriend,” so she’s got that going for her, but the pair only vaguely resembles a dating couple. Sure, Frank gives Callie a kiss on the cheek at one point, but then again, Callie gives Dr. Maxwell’s assistant, Stephi, a farewell kiss on the cheek, so that doesn’t mean much. When Frank and Joe rescue Callie from kidnappers, Frank “clasped her hand briefly.” Such untamed emotion! Callie tries to get a rise out of him while impersonating a wealthy collector, calling him “Honey,” but he doesn’t respond. At least Frank knows not to contradict Callie when reading new year’s fortunes; Callie says her fortune means she will become class president, and Frank keeps his mouth shut, despite his doubts.

Contender for the three most ‘90s’ words ever: “Everyone started moshing.” That’s a complete sentence, written by an adult (presumably), for money. It’s perfect in its ‘90s-ness without being self-consciously ‘90s. Bravo!

The author follows this sentence by saying, a little later, “The band cranked for well over a half hour.” Is “cranked” a synonym for “played” or “thrashed” or whatever that I just wasn’t hip enough to have heard in (*checks copyright date*) goodness, 1997?

We can be heroes: Frank and Joe not only save Dr. Maxwell from being entombed in an archaeological dig but they also save the villain’s unconscious henchmen from the same fate. Impressive, but to add to the degree of difficulty, the two brothers lug the goons out in fireman’s carries up a 15-20 feet tall ladder. I can’t imagine carrying 150 to 200 pounds of dead weight up a makeshift ladder. Well, I can, but my imagination demands I spend 20 minutes before climbing securing the dead weight so I don’t drop it. But Frank and Joe — man, I can criticize them for poor first aid techniques, but they can save lives when they need to.

Opinions: A story set in Germany in winter should be full of local color, but except for the schneefest — snow festival — and new year’s fortunetelling, we don’t see much of Germany beyond the clichés. The schneefest itself is mainly candied almonds and moshing, which isn’t representative of Germany. I don’t think it is, at least.

A foreign culture, the winter cold, youth, exciting new technology: Emperor’s Shield could have been a lot more interesting. Unfortunately, Frank spends most of his time looking over photos and fiddling with his computer, and the detecting is mainly accusations, a harebrained impersonation scheme, and chases. Fortunately, Frank and Joe don’t get to use the local police as their lackeys.

Grade: C-

Friday, March 14, 2014

Racing to Disaster (#126)

Racing to Disaster coverPlot: Joe is in California to compete in a mountain biking competition, but sabotage plagues the participants.

“Borrowing” from the past: Mountain biking is a sport the Hardys did not engage in during the original canon. They used normal bicycles as transportation in The Flickering Torch Mystery (#22), although that was during World War II, and they were needed to save gasoline. When they competed in the
eponymous Speed Times Five race
(#173), one of the components of the competition was mountain biking (along with kayaking, cross-country hiking and climbing, city biking, and a personal watercraft race). Although the race in Racing to Disaster isn’t an X Games competition, it is similar to the type of events Frank and Joe have competed in during Danger in the Extreme (the Max Games in #152) and Extreme Danger (the Big Air Games in Undercover Brothers #1).

In addition to mountain biking, the narration says Joe is a “natural athlete” — no joke — and that he’s “an accomplished wrestler.” (He even uses an unspecified “wrestling” move that involves grabbing an opponent’s upper arm and yanking downward.) That’s a sport the boys aren’t often associated with; Joe’s participation with the BHS wrestling team was mentioned in The Four-Headed Dragon (#68). However, they’re the Hardy Boys; it’s not a martial art unless they can throw some half thought-out version of it at some villain. So Frank and Joe outwrestle thugs in The Hooded Hawk Mystery (#34) and The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge (#45), with Frank using a half-nelson in the latter. Frank also uses some generic wrestling hold in The Clue of the Screeching Owl (#41), and Joe throws a hammerlock on an adversary in The Roaring River Mystery (#80).

The narration claims Frank and Joe are “avid water-skiers.” This is the first I’ve heard of it.

When confronted by a mountain lion, Frank asks, “Has anyone here done any lion taming? … I sure haven’t.” I would have sworn one of the boys had worked with lions during their circus employment, but they hadn't — both brothers performed on the trapeze for “Big Top” Hinchman’s circus in The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21), Joe was a clown for the Big Top Circus in Track of the Zombie (#71), and Frank fed the elephants while Joe worked the snake tent in Blade. They did run into a lion in Zombie, however.

Mountain lions — also known as pumas, cougars, and catamounts — are a bit more common in Hardy Boys stories, though. Their experiences with Puma concolor is covered in Open Season (Casefiles #59), and they also confronted a cougar in while tracking down an ersatz D.B. Cooper in Ghost of a Chance (#169).

You don’t need a degree in biology to open a resort, I guess: The boys were warned about the local wildlife, although in a confusing manner. More than once, Dixon points out signs around the resort that warn competitors about “mountain lions, cougars, and wolves.” Unfortunately, mountain lions and cougars are, as pointed out above, two names for the same animal. Perhaps the double naming was an intensifier, rather than a mistake?

No, wait, it’s definitely a mistake.

Get to know your sport: Joe (and the Wolf Mountain Annihilator competition) breaks mountain biking into three divisions: downhill, hot-rodding, and cross country. Cross country and downhill do exist in modern mountain biking competitions; the former is a distance race that generally encompasses different kinds of terrain, and the latter is, as you might imagine, riding bikes downhill. There is no such thing as “hot-rodding,” a race that incorporates bike tricks, and the name is so distracting it seems obviously false. However, the idea is similar to freeriding, which can include jumps, obstacles, quarter pipes, and different lines through a course that allows for riders to demonstrate their style.

I’m still puzzled by some decisions made by the event organizers. In a mini-cross country heat, Frank and all the racers behind them are diverted by an incorrect sign — the old Merry Melodies trick. Bad luck for them, but the race organizers give them a second chance. However, they make everyone — even those who correctly completed the course — race in a rematch. Why not just allow those who were disadvantaged to re-run the event? Their times could be compared to the times of others, and the winner of the heat would be determined from that.

The organizers also disqualified a racer who had sabotaged his own bike, also banning him from events for a year. Why? He’s only harming himself! No other racers were affected!

In Racing, Wolf Mountain is a ski resort three hours northeast of Los Angeles, with its slopes given over to the Wolf Mountain Annihilator in the fallow summer. Wolf Mountain does not seem to exist; the sites with the closest resemblance to it are White Wolf Mountain, a ski resort near Lake Tahoe, and Wolf Mountain Resort in Utah. Neither offers mountain biking during the summer, and White Wolf seems more notable for its location between two large resorts and its litigation with one of them.

Color blinding the enemy: Joe wears a neon green and yellow helmet. I’m sure those colors aren’t uncommon in competitive racing, but you’ll notice the cover artist chose not to use them.

Middle-aged boy: Frank calls Joe “kiddo,” picks up a salad in the chow line, and keeps his press pass in his wallet. These are things an uncle does, not an 18-year-old boy; actually keeping the press pass in the wallet isn’t really an age thing, but I’ve never seen a press pass small enough to keep in a wallet, in my admittedly limited experience. Usually they get clipped to a pocket or hung on a lanyard, right?

Is this your first case?: Frank and Joe don’t make a great impression with their detection. Frank asks the worst questions in his role as a reporter, a cover story event organizers give him to allow him to investigate. Joe blows that cover ID anyway. The excuse Frank uses to get a look at a piece of evidence — “I just want to see for myself” — is unsubtle at best. Frank does manage to talk his way into a locked area with secret bike technology, but so did a suspect, and the saleswoman clearly didn’t understand the idea of secrecy; her boss told her not to show the bike “to just anyone,” so she shows it to three random kids and a nosy star. The boys also fail to alert anyone in authority after they receive a written threat, and Joe neglects to bring his fingerprinting kit along. (Technically, he thought he didn’t need it at a bike race, but he’s a Hardy — he always needs his detecting gear, and he brought along his lock picks.)

This lack of fingerprinting equipment forces Frank and Joe to send a shell casing (erroneously called a bullet by the narrator) all the way across the country to their police lackey, Con Riley. Evidently they don’t have cops in California — or at least cops who will do the Hardys’ bidding.

Next, on Rescue 911: After a competitor takes a spill, getting thrown from his bike and being knocked unconscious by the impact, the Hardys immediately yank him to his feet. Because they’re always following that first-aid advice, which is … um … never move a … no, wait, almost got it — always move a crash victim as soon as possible. Yes, that’s it.

Part quick thinking, part innovation, but mostly stupid: In the climactic scene, Frank and Joe are in the cross-country race. Frank loses his bike while pursuing the leader, who is also the perp. Rather than leaving Frank and his 155 pounds (for the 6 feet, 1 inch Frank? who has the musculature of a natural athlete?) behind, Frank tells he’ll ride on Joe’s handlebars.

In the middle of a cross country bike race, through the mountains. Sure, why not?

And before you ask, of course they catch up with the leader. Why wouldn’t they?

A bicycle race built for two: I’m even more baffled about why Frank was there. I don’t know why he’s in the race in the first place — they were only going to keep an eye on Moreno, their suspect, and surely only the better cyclist would be needed. Frank is not prepared for a cross country race; Joe has to remind him about how to shift for the downhill race, and Frank himself asks why he wasn’t out training with Joe. (Because he had no idea he’d be entered into a competitive mountain bike race, I’d imagine.) Matching Frank’s pace in the cross-country race would surely slow Joe down.

I’m even more baffled, though, at how such an ill-prepared Frank, on a bike even less suited for the competition than Joe’s, manages to keep up not only with Joe but stay ahead of all the other competitors. Is Dixon saying mountain biking is not that hard? Because it seems plenty hard to me. Of course, the author’s grasp of the sport and equipment may be a bit lacking; one passage refers to Joe’s bike’s back wheels.

That’s a weird relationship: After the culprit has been caught and confessed to his crimes, his sponsor reacts in a way no human would react to working with an attempted murderer: “exasperated” and “amazed.” OK, “amazed” makes some sense, but “exasperated”? Is it because it’s only attempted murder? Or is it because it’s multiple attempted murders, and he’s exasperated by the compulsive behavior?

Quit while you’re ahead: So Joe, who comes to the Annihilator as an amateur, qualifies with a good enough time to compete against the professionals. He does well in the downhill, has some bad luck in the “hot-rodding,” and is extremely impressive in the cross country section of the race, as mentioned above. He does this with a single bike and off-the-shelf equipment, which is not even close to the quality the other competitors have. But at the end, Joe declines to pursue mountain biking competitions any further. Good heavens, he’s outstanding at it, and he gives it up because it’s “too much work”! Which, since he gives up on the sport in favor of detective work, makes me believe he’s putting a minimal amount of work into detecting, as I always suspected he did.

Opinions: I’m not sure Dixon knows much about the topic of mountain bike racing. Or about the human body, as Frank and Joe, gifted athletes that they are, show no fatigue between races, despite the high level of competition and the grueling nature of some of the races. He also doesn’t know cougars and mountain lions are the same thing or that teenage boys don’t often eat salads without prodding or how to describe a realistic wrestling move or … everything’s a big mess, and that’s after you get past the idea that Joe has somehow become almost professional-level good at mountain bike racing. It’s all preposterous.

The mystery’s not so great either, but the horrible racing action covers up that shortcoming.

Grade: D+

Friday, February 28, 2014

Top 10 Cool Things the Hardy Boys Have Done (Part II)

The continuation of what I started, a fortnight ago:

5. Traveling to Antarctica. The Hardys have been to lots of places most people will never get to go to — Iceland, India, Hong Kong — but Antarctica is a destination that impresses even seasoned travelers. So of course Frank and Joe have ventured to the continent, traveling there in The Stone Idol (#65).

So how do they get there? Already in South America, they take a plane to Punta Arenas, Chile, and the U.S. Navy flies them and their father to Byrd Station. Why does the Navy take the time to serve as their airline? Because Fenton is working for the man, unraveling a ring that steals materiel from naval bases. While Fenton investigates the base, Frank and Joe are sent to an outpost, posing as scholarship students. Fenton says, “You’ve got enough science from Bayport High to fit in without any trouble.” Sure, why not?

Although they do spend most of their time on the icy continent indoors, they do fly over the Antarctic through the South Pole on a clear day, getting a great view of the Antarctic landscape. They also visit a penguin rookery, where Joe Hardy, the great investigator and terror of the animal kingdom, is menaced by a penguin. It’s not all mystery tourism, though: they get lost in the snowy wastes, and Frank and Joe are later knocked out and left to die in the snow. But they get their man! (Fenton does not.)

4. Traveling to Easter Island. Travel to Antarctica is expensive and relatively rare, but it’s a trip that is relatively easy to arrange. (National Geographic Travel was even advertising trips to the Antarctic on Jeopardy! for a while.) But Easter Island is a different matter, even more remote from human habitation than Earth’s frozen continent. The island is 1,200 miles from Pitcairn Island, the closest inhabited piece of land, and Pitcairn Island has fewer than 100 people. Chile, which claims Easter Island (Rapa Nui to its inhabitants), is 2,100 miles away.

So after stopping off in Antarctica in The Stone Idol, Frank and Joe went to Easter Island. They charter a flight there to pursue a suspect authorities assured them would be jailed as soon as he arrived. On Easter Island, they meet quaint people with quaint beliefs, see the biggest tourist attraction (the stone heads), and are hit in the heads by a goofball wearing a costume. You know: normal Hardy Boys stuff.

3. Helping (temporarily) to foil the Cuban Revolution. While the Hardy Boys avoided being dated in one aspect by omitting almost all direction references to the Cold War or USSR, the dénouement of The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37) shows the problem of tearing your stories straight from the headlines if you expect the book or its characters to last for more than a decade or so.

By 1957, when Skeleton Rock was published, news of unrest in Cuba would have reached the United States. Many Cuban groups hated the despotic President Fulgencio Bautista, although the pro-business U.S. government supported him. Demonstrations and student riots were frequent by 1955; an officers’ coup in 1956, led by Gen. Ramon Barquin, failed. A pair of student groups stormed the Presidential Palace in an attempt to assassinate Bautista, but Bautista survived. And of course Fidel Castro and his guerillas had been fighting the government since their return from exile in 1956.

So who was trying to overthrow the Cuban government in Skeleton Rock? White American crooks, mostly, led by Durling Hamilton, a fat guy in a white suit. What’s his plan? Well, his gang tries to steal nuclear material, which he hopes to use to build an atomic bomb. Somehow — and here’s where the miracle happens — they believe this will allow them to seize control of Cuba. Probably it’s a blackmail plot, but it’s difficult to say exactly. In addition to this sterling plan, the “revolutionaries” steal air cargo to gain what they need for their cause. They smuggle diamonds to finance the revolution, although their method of smuggling is ventriloquist dummies. (Yes, they operate a company that distributes ventriloquist dummies, and they put diamonds in the heads of some of them to get them into America.) They also deal in a stolen wonder drug.

When you get down to it, Hamilton’s gang seems less a revolutionary cell than a successful criminal gang that has decided to expand too far. Instead of going into narcotics or something else profitable, Hamilton succumbed to the Fallacy of the Unbounded Middle and went into nation stealing. It’s an understandable, if tragic, mistake, and the diversified nature of the gang’s activities give the Hardys more threads to pick at to make all its schemes unravel.

The choice of villain shows how little those in control of the Hardy Boys books understood Cuba: criminal syndicates loved Bautista and his government. The mob was sad to see him go. But the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which wrote the outlines and commissioned authors to write the books, were racially sensitive enough to not want to make poor brown people the villains, vanquished by the mighty white Hardys.

Fenton gets a medal from the Cuban government for his efforts. Frank and Joe are rewarded not by the Cuban government but by an airline the gang preyed upon; they are given a “special radar outfit” for … Fenton’s plane. It’s a poor reward for Frank and Joe, but given how much they’ve made over the years, they don’t get to complain. Tony gets a “special boat trip” in the Caribbean from the Cubans, which sounds like code; someone on the cruise is going to get chopped up and fed to sharks. Hope it’s not Tony! Chet gets a family of ventriloquist dummies, which will gather dust in his closet as soon as he gives up his ventriloquism hobby — which should be about 10 minutes after the mystery ends.

In real life, the end of Bautista’s reign in Cuba came soon after this book was published. The U.S. embargoed weapon sales to Cuba in March 1958, and on New Year’s Eve 1958, Bautista fled the country with an immense fortune. In 1966, the story was revised, and the fictional banana republic of Tropicale was substituted for Cuba.

2. Rescuing the president from kidnappers. The Hardys are patriots, having received commendations from the Defense Department for their achievements in The Bombay Boomerang (#49), but they went beyond mere patriotism by rescuing the kidnapped president in The Billion-Dollar Ransom (#73).

The story of how Frank and Joe Hardy meeting the most powerful person in the world starts the way so many great stories do: with a magic show. Fenton is hired to provide security for a magic tournament, and he brings Frank and Joe along as cheap labor. But a third of the way through the book, Fenton is hired by the government for an important job, and he has to drop the piddling gathering of magicians; in fact, Fenton has been hired to help protect the president as he secretly goes to the Bayport Naval Hospital to remove a tumor. Unfortunately, Fenton does his usual semi-glutteal job, and the president is kidnapped; fortunately, the case dovetails with Frank and Joe’s investigation, and the best magician in the contest is a kidnapper.

To make a long story short, Frank, Joe, Fenton, and the Secret Service recover the president, who has his operation. (Which president is he? That’s a secret! His wife’s name is Marge, though.) What do Frank and Joe get for their heroism? Ice cream and cake with the president. Other than that, they get two things: jack and squat.

1. Space flight. No one can underestimate how awesome this is: Frank and Joe went into space aboard the fictional space shuttle Skyfire in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85).

It isn’t like Frank and Joe wanted to be astronauts. No, Frank and Joe wanted to be nothing but teen detectives. But — *sigh* — they and their father were roped into helping investigate sabotage at Cape Canaveral. They weren’t random choices; they were called in by Harry Stone, the head of security at NASA and a former NYPD colleague of Fenton’s. (In the Marvel Universe, the superhero Ms. Marvel was also head of security at Cape Canaveral before she gained powers.) Now, Harry isn’t looking to hire Fenton and the Hardys; he’s hoping for a favor. What can he give in return for this favor?

Passage for Frank, Joe, and Chet on the Skyfire, proving sometimes it really is who you know that gets you the cool stuff in life.

Of course the boys are stoked, despite riding on a vessel with a name that sounds like a synonym for a mid-air explosion. Participants in the sort of program that put teacher Christa McAuliffe on the Challenger have cancelled — given the attempted sabotage, that seems like a wise choice — so Stone is able to offer their slots to the dangerously underqualified and untrained Hardys. And Chet. Unlike McAuliffe and her backup, who trained for about six months, the Hardys have less than a week to learn everything they need to know before they head into space, and they have to cram in an actual investigation while they do so.

The mystery isn’t completely resolved by the time they are supposed to launch, so Frank, Joe, and Chet (an unpaid load, if ever there was one) carry their investigation into space. There, by threatening to let a fellow astronaut drift helplessly to his death and risking an explosion on the Skyfire, Frank gets a confession about the sabotage, which was designed to distract attention from attempts to steal the Longeye satellite, a device meant to aid the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and help the military as well.

The next scene after Frank threatens to kill another human being in the vacuum of space is a picnic, with plenty of hamburgers and potato salad. Because Frank and Joe (and Chet!) are just normal kids! Who do remarkable things!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Top 10 Cool Things the Hardy Boys Have Done (Part I)

Warehouse Rumble coverWarehouse Rumble (#183) is not a good Hardy Boys story. The plot is slight, the investigation is absent, and the boys lack all initiative. Most of the supporting cast isn’t around; Iola and Callie would rather be working at a food bank than oohing and ahing over their boyfrirend’s booboos, and the rest of the chums are off doing those quirky things Bayport teens are always doing (building ice boats, inheriting a curio shop, etc.). The rest of the Hardy clan is somewhere nearby but rarely appear, like good servants or bad waiters. Chet brings in a new character, though, a girl who is a friend: a redhead named Daphne Soesbee, who is absolutely nothing like Scooby-Doo’s Daphne Blake, in that she is not clumsy.

Frank, Joe, Daphne, and Chet compete on a reality show named, unsurprisingly, “Warehouse Rumble.” Most of the book focuses on the competition, which sounds surprisingly fun: two-person teams compete on indoor obstacle courses that are decorated with a post-apocalyptic theme. The kids wander through mazes, run across catwalks, shoot targets with a laser gun … if the warehouse wasn’t going to be knocked down after the show, the owner could charge admission and make a lot of money, I think.

Frank and Joe do well on the show, although — shockingly — Daphne and Chet do better. For most people, doing well on a network reality show would rank as one of their coolest accomplishments. And that’s even if you compared them to more commonplace, but still important, milestones: raising kids, finding and loving a spouse, working fulfilling jobs. But with Frank and Joe, a reality show appearance wouldn’t even rank in the top ten coolest life events.

Which made me ask myself, “What are the ten coolest things that have happened to Frank and Joe?” When that question is asked on the Internet, a top-10 list must soon appear. Today, I’ll post #10 through 6; in two weeks, I’ll finish it off with the top 5.

10. Christmas on Cabin Island. Spending Christmas break on an island in Barmet Bay is a low-key adventure, but that’s what makes it so remarkable. Children were never going to investigate the dangerous, thrilling corners of the underworld the Hardys touched upon. That sort of adventure just wasn’t in the cards. It was, however, just possible that they could convince their parents to let them spend a school vacation with a couple of friends on a small, local island where no one else lived, as the Hardys did in The Mystery of Cabin Island (#8).

They travel over the frozen bay on ice boats; the frozen bay isolates them, giving them a feeling of independence, and their ice boats allow them to navigate the ice in a way few others can. They stay in a cabin untroubled by the rules of adults: they decide when to eat, what to eat, and when to sleep. They tramp around in the snow all day, and there’s no one around to tell warn them about firearm safety or hover over them. (Someone should do that with Chet, though. He’s horrible with firearm safety.) They control everything they behold.

Of course there’s a mystery, which involves a code, missing stamps, and some pushy bullies. That’s beside the point. A week on Cabin Island is the real thrill.

9. Pilot’s licenses. Flying was a luxury in 1930, when Frank and Joe solved The Great Airport Mystery (#9). That story marked the first time the boys flew, stowing away on the plane of a villainous pilot. In The Mark on the Door (#13), they fly for the first time as legitimate passengers, heading south to tracking down a runaway witness in Mexico. After that, using airplanes to get around becomes common for Frank and Joe, and it was inevitable they would learn how to fly themselves.

In The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20) — an awful book in most respects — Frank is allowed to fly a small plane under supervision. In 1945’s The Short-Wave Mystery (#24), Frank and Joe both are instructed on the fine points of flight by a pilot named Stewart. Unusually for the series, the progression from “interested in becoming pilots” to licensed pilots looks well thought out. The Secret of Wildcat Swamp (#31) mentions they have flown with Jack Wayne, Fenton’s private pilot, “many times before.” In The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37), they’re learning to fly from Jack, and both brothers make an emergency landing. Both have become “expert” pilots under Jack’s teaching in The Mystery at Devil’s Paw (#38), and they get their pilot’s licenses in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39).

Not content with mere pilot’s licenses — because Frank and Joe aren’t content with anything, really — they are licensed for float planes in The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42), and they have flown helicopters by The Stone Idol (#65). Because their father is rich and owns his own plane, that means Frank and Joe can fly anywhere they want, whenever they want.

8. Looting Guatemala. In The Clue of the Embers (#35), Frank, Joe, Chet, and Tony head to the fictional mythical realm of Texichapi, part of the real modern nation of Guatemala. Using medallions owned by Tony’s late Uncle Roberto, the Hardys and their chums discover a lost city of gold. Sure, they’re captured by the also-fictional Kulkul tribe, and Tony gets tortured for a bit. But it’s all in the service of adventure!

The Hardys turn the city and its artifacts over to the government of Guatemala. In return, the president gives them a letter of congratulations and first pick of the loot — as presidents traditionally do for foreign interlopers who stumble upon priceless bits of their nation’s history. Archaeologists assume this rule will hold, unless told otherwise: most artifacts go to museums, but the discoverers get to keep one or two valuable knickknacks that take their fancy. In this case, Chet chooses a “large, jeweled bowl.” Tony takes an “ancient, gold-encrusted bow and arrow.” The Hardy Boys think of others when they loot priceless antiquities; it’s what makes them better people than most of us. Frank picks up a “delicately carved bracelet of gold” for his mother, while Joe selects a small golden idol for Aunt Gertrude.

At that point, Indiana Jones shows up, shouting, “That belongs in a museum!” Or maybe that’s just what happened in my head.

7. Become mighty capitalists. In The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39), Frank, Joe, Chet, Tony, Biff, Phil, and Jim Foy buy a Chinese junk. The boys are not just admirers of traditional Chinese transportation; they purchased the ship as an investment. As a summer job, they want to run a ferry service to Rocky Isle, a nearby picnic spot, and they think the unusual boat will serve as an advertisement and an inducement to use their service.

Frank and Joe can engage in no activity that won’t lead to a mystery, though. (I’m sure the boys have stumbled upon mysteries while raiding the fridge in the middle of the night: The Mystery of Who Took the Last Piece of Apple Pie, perhaps.) Of course criminals want the junk, named the Hai-Hau. The criminals had stolen the ship to smuggle goods into America before the Hardys et al. bought it. Why do the criminals want the Hai-Hau back? Because a treasure map, giving the location of blue amber mines, is hidden aboard, and Tony accidentally discovers it. After the criminals are arrested, the teens receive a reward for finding the map: a 10 percent interest in the blue amber mines, split among the seven boys.

Is the ownership in the mines worth anything? Who knows? None of the boys ever mention it again, but they wouldn’t; no one wants to be the target of high-school moochers. The mines would explain why they are always flush with cash, though. And it amuses me to think of Jim Foy, who appeared in only this mystery, retiring from boy adventuring on the proceeds.

6. Regime change on Barracuda Island. In The Twisted Claw (#18), Frank and Joe infiltrate a pirate ship. A pirate ship, in 1939! While posing as common sailors, they discover their ship, the Black Parrot, and a fleet of other ships (many with “Parrot” in their names) are part of a worldwide smuggling organization. Hey, it’s not piracy, but given that traveling on the open Atlantic would become extremely hazardous in just a year, it’s still pretty daring.

The “pirate” ring, a descendent of a 19th-century pirate fleet, is based on Barracuda Island, which is claimed by no foreign nation, populated by relatively quiescent natives, and ruled by a self-proclaimed king. After the yearly gathering of the pirate fleet, where the captains report to the king and split the spoils, Frank and Joe incite a mutiny on the Black Parrot at sea and get off a radio signal to their father. He arrives in a U.S. revenue cutter, which subdues the ship; the U.S. Navy sends in a fleet of warships to seize the island.

Welcome to the American empire, Barracuda Island! Hope your natives enjoy the experience as much as the natives of all other territories who have hosted the American soldiers!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Danger on the Air (#95)

 coverPlot: After an on-air interview at WBPT is interrupted by an explosion, Frank and Joe stick around to find who is terrorizing the station.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe head for Mr. Pizza and the mall after Joe saves a man from death; the mall and an unnamed pizza shop show up in The Blackwing Puzzle (#82). Mr. Pizza, which is managed by chum Tony Prito, shows up frequently in the Casefiles — the Hardy Boys Wiki lists three of the books it appears in — and I’m betting it shows up in other, later digests. Unfortunately, all I can find in my notes is an appearance in Prime-Time Crime (#109), another TV-related mystery.

In Danger on the Air, Frank and Joe spend a lot of time at WBPT — serving the Bayport area since 1953 — but it never showed up in the canon. However, WBPT is an important part of Prime-Time Crime and is mentioned in Beyond the Law (Casefiles #55).

Frank and Joe (and Chet) are referred to as football players; Joe’s football experience is mentioned in Daredevils (#159). Joe also plays college football as a field goal kicker in Foul Play (Undercover Brothers, #19).

Frank jumped on the football train later than Joe and Chet. Joe first played in The Sinister Sign Post (#15), with Chet serving as an eligible receiver, but the text specifically says Frank wasn’t a member of the team. By 1953’s The Crisscross Shadow, Frank’s a three-way player who is the punter, quarterback, and captain; Chet was a two-way player, lining up as a center on offense and wearing #34. The Yellow Feather Mystery (#33) mentions Frank has been on the team for three years, meaning he either joined as a sophomore or skipped a year somewhere along the line. He’s a star in The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo (#47), a member of the offensive backfield in The Shattered Helmet (#52), and a participant in The Clue in the Embers (#34), The Mysterious Caravan (#54), The Vanishing Thieves (#66), and The Blackwing Puzzle (#82). Chet also was listed as a center in The Wailing Siren Mystery (#30) and The Mystery of the Aztec Warrior (#43), a lineman in The Arctic Patrol Mystery (#48), and as a player in The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46), Danger on Vampire Trail (#50), The Mysterious Caravan, and The Blackwing Puzzle.

The Hardys almost get thrown off Barmet Cliffs, near the Westview Apartments; Barmet Cliffs are said to be honeycombed with caves and full of abandoned mine shafts in What Happened at Midnight (#10). Bayport’s Grommet Park is mentioned as part of a blown ransom handoff; few of Bayport’s parks have been mentioned in the canon, although Seaview Park is also part of a ransom payoff in Mystery of the Samurai Sword (#60), and Bayport Memorial Park and its “Alfresco Disco” are part of The Apeman’s Secret (#62). Although it’s not a park, Shorewood Nature Center, a nature preserve, appears in A Will to Survive.

After saving a man’s life on local TV, Joe is besieged by autograph seekers at the mall. He is overwhelmed by the attention, but I’m not sure why. Frank and Joe have received a great deal of publicity over the years, and they are even referred to as “local celebrities” by a TV producer early in Danger. In The Sting of the Scorpion (#58), we learn Frank and Joe have fans, and the brothers give an interview to a reporter from the New York Daily Star. Their travel plans are on TV in The Arctic Patrol Mystery, and they’ve been told their exploits have been read about by people in upstate New York (The Night of the Werewolf, #59) and California (The Four-Headed Dragon, #69). Joe made the front page of the Bailey Herald for saving his father’s papers from a fire in The Secret Warning (#17). Their picture has been in the paper “quite often,” according to The Crimson Flame (#77), and they’ve been interviewed for TV “half a dozen times” (The Blackwing Puzzle).

In Danger Frank and Joe mention a few previous crimes they’ve solved, although I don’t think they are referring to any published adventures. Frank mentions a bank robbery in which blurry videotape of the robber was their only evidence for a while. (The Hardy boys fought bank robbers in the The Missing Chums [#4] and The Secret Panel [#25], but both mysteries are so old videotape would probably not have been used for identification or deterring robbers.) The High Rise Bandit robbed apartments in the Westview Apartments “a few months ago,” but neither Frank nor Joe mention capturing him or her. When an interviewer asks the boys what was their “most exciting” mystery was, Frank responded, “I guess it was that time we discovered this ring of smugglers —” That could refer to a previous book, although there’s nothing to narrow it down; for that matter, “ring of smugglers” could refer to almost any previous book.

Where Is Bayport?: It takes two hours for the boys to get from Bayport to Manhattan by train. On Amtrak’s Northeast Regional schedule, two hours from New York to the east is somewhere around or east of New Haven, Conn. (Despite New Haven’s declining population, it is and always has been too large to be Bayport.) It takes about two hours to get to Philadelphia, so if Bayport is in New Jersey, it would be the near southern end, although no Amtrak routes seem to run directly from southern New Jersey to NYC. On the New Jersey Coast Line run by New Jersey Transit, two hours from New York gets the rider to about Asbury Park, N.J., although at certain times, trains can reach the line’s southern terminus, Bay Head, in a little more than two hours.

At one point, the time of sunset is mentioned: 8:40 p.m. (actually, 15 minutes before 8:55 p.m., but I did the math). You might think that could narrow the possibilities, but unfortunately it doesn’t add up; even on the longest day of the year, none of the candidate cities has a sunset that late. You have to move to the north or west to get a sunset after about 8:30, and unfortunately, that isn’t conducive to selecting cities along the Atlantic seaboard, where all the cities are either south or east of New York (latest sunset: 8:31 p.m., EDT).

Priorities, man: After meeting movie star Wayne Clintock, Frank and Joe can’t wait to relay their brush with fame to the people they know. Frank thinks of Callie, his girlfriend, first; Joe counters with Chet, their best friend. In Joe’s position, I probably would have thought of my girlfriend next, if for no other reason than through the power of suggestion, but Chet has been referred to as the brothers’ best friend, so I guess I understand. But the next person Frank thinks of is Aunt Gertrude.

Gertrude. Why …? But … The purpose of telling people about celebrities you’ve met is to impress them or to share something with them because you’re so close. I’m not sure how Gertrude rises to the top of either list for Frank, but it happened.

I’d buy a ticket to that: Because Clintock is a movie star, Frank and Joe bleat about the films he has starred in. Drop Zone: Danger sounds like a rejected Hardy Boys title, while Hogan’s Law, War in the Streets, and The Last Blast are unremarkable titles. (There’s something of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 feel about all of them.) Clintock’s most recent film, Badge of Honor, shares a name with the fictional TV series in the movie L.A. Confidential, although Danger came out before the book or movie.

Beat the Hangman, however, is a movie I’m intrigued by, and one I’d actually stop to watch a few minutes of if I came across it on cable. Clintock plays a “mysterious gunman” in the movie, which, along with the name, suggests it’s a Western. The name echoes the title of the 1953 film Beat the Devil, although that John Huston / Humphrey Bogart film was a parody of film noir, so there’s probably not a connection.

Those were the days: A cameraman mentions WBPT was originally supposed to be the flagship station of a fourth television network: the McParton Network, named after its founder. In the discussion, the boys and cameraman mention ABC, CBS, and NBC, but evidently this Dixon or the publisher had no confidence in Fox, which became the fourth network when it began primetime broadcasts in 1987. When Danger on the Air came out in 1989, Fox had network programming for two hours on both Saturday and Sunday nights. In fall 1989, it expanded into Mondays, and it had expanded into all nights by 1993.

Although skepticism that a fourth network could be sustained was abundant when Fox started, other networks outside the big three of ABC, CBS, and NBC existed in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The DuMont Television Network was the most successful, running from 1946-55, debuting two years before ABC’s and CBS’s television offerings. (Like McParton’s fictional network, most the video of DuMont’s shows were destroyed.) Paramount started in 1948 as well but went off the air in 1956. DuMont was done in by a variety of factors: getting the short end of AT&T’s limited broadcast technology, lack of a radio network to solidify finances and recruit talent, competition from its corporate partner, Paramount, and ABC, NBC, and CBS monopolizing the three VHF stations in most markets, forcing DuMont to expand into UHF channels, which many TVs of the era could not receive.

Privilege rejected: In New York, Frank tries to get an appointment with the head of Mediatronics, an electronics company. The company’s busy president, however, rejects Frank’s idea of a meeting out of hand — as almost any corporate leader would, no matter what previous books tried to tell us.

Questionable grasp of “hottest”: The villain plans to sell the original recordings of Mrs. Brody’s Boardinghouse, long thought lost, to a television station for a half million dollars. “Some people,” he says, “… believe that the revival of ‘Mrs. Brody’s Boardinghouse’ is going to be the hottest thing on television in years.” I will point out it’s not the villain who thinks this but whomever he’s going to sell the tapes to. However, I highly doubt the 35-year-old reruns of a black-and-white series would be “hot,” even if they hadn't been seen since they originally aired.

The child doesn’t drop far from the family eaves: After catching Frank and Joe eavesdropping, Ettinger, the head of Mediatronics, angrily asks the boys whether their parents taught them any manners. He fails to take into consideration that Fenton, as a private detective, probably taught the boys to eavesdrop.

Enhance!: The Masked Marauder, the criminal who opposes the Hardys in Danger, is caught on video tape. Of course the image is from a distance and blurry; of course a video technician is on hand to gradually improve the image through successive iterations until the suspect is clearly seen. No one yells, “Enhance!” but they might as well have.

Maybe the Hardys should be in charge of the police: When a producer at WBPT goes missing, Frank and Joe try to interest the Bayport Police Department in the case. As the Masked Marauder has already been caught, the police decline to investigate; Con Riley shrugs and says, “We’ll do our best to find her, but … If you guys hear from her again, get in touch with us right away.”

The interesting question here is whether Frank and Joe are justified for taking over crimefighting in Bayport because of police incompetence, or has Frank and Joe’s hypercompetence taught the police to not even try? I lean toward the latter, but that explanation requires a bit too much metaknowledge from the characters.

Opinions: A lot of Danger that is not focused on the mystery is devoted to fame. Should we want it? What are its pitfalls? What are its privileges? Joe is sure he wants to be a movie star, but he freezes up during an interview on live TV, and he’s overwhelmed by a crowd of autograph seekers after people watch him save a man’s life on TV. Joe seems to be fine with the kind of fame that makes him recognizable or gives him access to secrets, but he’s terrified of fame’s other aspects.

Frank and Wayne Clintock deal with other aspects of fame. Frank is unable to secure an interview with Ettinger, despite being a renowned teen sleuth and the son of Fenton Hardy, and he’s actually unrecognizable enough to sneak into the Mediatronics offices. Clintock has to deal with the ignominy of people seeing his awkward teenage years in Mrs. Brody’s Boardinghouse after he’s spent decades building his reputation as a tough action hero; when you’re famous, nothing is forgotten. And because everyone thinks they know him and his motivations, he becomes the prime suspect for the attacks on WBPT. Everything works out in the end, but fame certainly complicates his life.

That being said, the author stops looking at the fame aspect once the investigation kicks into gear, with no one really noticing or contacting Joe a day after his on-air lifesaving; it would have been interesting seeing how friends and family dealt with Joe’s fame other than Chet kidding him about it. This aspect of the story gives way to a better-than-average mystery, with someone using technology to cover his tracks, and Frank and Joe learn about the differences between appearance and reality on TV. They won’t remember the difference, but that’s OK.

Grade: B. Enhance!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hiatus

I’m going to stop posting to this blog for a while. I don’t know how long, but hopefully it will not be as long as the last hiatus, which was about two years long.

So I’ll be back. In the meantime, keep reading those Hardy Boys books!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Program for Destruction (#87)

Program for Destruction coverPlot: Frank and Joe investigate sabotage at Arnold Stockard’s CompuCar Company.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe mention they’ve taken Callie and Iola to the Bayport Diner, and Joe enjoys its banana cream pie. Joe claims it’s in a residential neighborhood close to their home, but the previously mentioned Bayport Diner was on the edge of town, bordered by woods in The Night of the Werewolf (#59). The Bayport Diner also appeared in The Vanishing Thieves (#66), The Outlaw’s Silver (#67), and The Track of the Zombie (#71). In The Secret of the Lost Tunnel (#29), Shorty’s Diner, a downtown establishment, was mentioned, and Mike’s popped up in The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28). An unnamed Bayport diner owned by Nick Papadapolos appeared in The Mummy Case (#63). Tom and Mary’s Diner was located on Shore Road outside Bayport in The Mysterious Caravan (#54).

Laura Hardy’s car is described as a failing station wagon — “on the verge of falling apart” with a broken radio and odometer. Laura had never been specifically given ownership of a vehicle before; the family had owned a sedan (The Disappearing Floor, #19, and The Yellow Feather Mystery, #33) as well as other unspecified models in the past.

The Hardys have a home computer, and Frank admits to doing a “little tinkering” with it. It would be important in later mysteries, but prior to this, there was little mention of home computing. In Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84), Chief Collig sells the boys “surplus computer parts” at the same time he gave them their supervan, and in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85), there’s a computer in the van.

The boys tune in rock station WBAY while in their CompuCar. Previously, the only radio station mentioned in the Bayport market is WMC in The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20). WBAY has been a CBS affiliate in Green Bay, Wisc., for half a century. WMC is used by a TV and AM and FM radio stations in Memphis, Tenn; the AM station has been WMC since 1923.

The March of Technology: This is a book reliant on the idea of pushing the frontiers of technology. CompuCar Co. makes cars that are, to a degree, voice operated — drivers can command the car to accelerate, slow, or change the radio station. Although voice-operated driving hasn’t arrived yet, cars have been able to change the radio and deal with other electronic devices, like cell phones, for a few years now, making Program for Destruction only about two decades ahead of the times. Taking its cue more from Knight Rider than Car and Driver, however, the car can talk back to its users. That automated systems can talk to users is a coincidence; the CompuCar can say “You’re welcome” to the user’s “Thank you” and has other responses that seems to indicate a higher level of intelligence than today’s electronics.

At one point, the Hardys loaner CompuCar starts having random failures. After the car almost kills the boys — the author cannot resist having the computer say one of the Hardys’ commands “does not compute” — they remove its “program disk” for analysis. Where do they analyze it? In their home PC. Frank says, “I just hope it’s compatible” before … before they “slid the CompuCar computer disk into the machine.” Which leaves the question of how they were interfacing their computer with the program disk. Is it a standard 3½" or 5¼" floppy? The “slid” seems to indicate it wasn’t hooked up through cables, which you could do with a pair of hard disks. Perhaps they remove their computer’s hard drive and put the program disk in its place. That would explain why Frank is not worried about the computer virus the program disk has infecting their home PC. (Frank acts as if “virus” is a new term, which surprisingly, it is — the term began being used for self-replicating computer programs only in the early to mid-80s. Of course, what Frank is describing today is probably better described by the general term “malware,” since he has no evidence of the program’s virus-like replication.)

The Hardys do have a “car phone” — not yet called a “cell phone” — in the far-flung year of 1987. When their car fails, however, they have to use a pay phone. A pay phone! Ha!

Who do you think Henry Ford was?: One of Stockard’s former employees gives this condemnation of ex-boss: “Stockard’s supposed to be a genius, the next Henry Ford, but he only cares about making money; he doesn’t care about the people who work for him.” In the ‘80s, was the public opinion of Ford as a mechanical genius who was also a humanitarian? Because that’s not what we think of him as today. He was a man who wanted to make lots of money, and he made it through using a manufacturing process that streamlined automobile assembly. It’s said he wanted to pay his employees enough that they could afford the cars they were assembling, but he sure fought the unions hard.

We remind you: Joe is not a lawyer: Joe notices one of the suspects has a brochure for Rio de Janiero, and Joe’s immediate thought is that the suspect is planning to leave the country. “If Krisp broke the law in America and fled to Rio,” Joe thinks, “he couldn't be arrested and brought back to the United States.” This is very wrong; America has had an extradition treaty with Brazil since the ‘60s, which would allow the U.S. to request Brazil to arrest and return citizens who have committed certain crimes to the U.S. To be fair, Krisp might be considering vanishing in Brazil, but that’s not what Joe’s suggesting.

You never know: Frank says he’s read about the CompuCar in “my” car magazines, which indicates to me that he’s a subscriber (or a regular newsstand buyer). I wouldn’t think of Frank as the kind of guy who would buy car mags, but I usually think of them as having scantily clad women leaning on hoods of cars. Probably the kind Frank subscribes to has in-depth reviews of cars — Car and Driver, that sort of thing. Frank has catholic tastes when it comes to knowledge anyway.

Are you sure you’re a detective?: When their top two suspects are assaulted, Frank and Joe reconsider who might be behind the sabotage. They also have to figure out why someone crept into a house to knock them over the head. Collig decides it’s a warning, something to shut them up. The boys reject that sort of simplistic analysis and decide it’s so they’ll be unseen at a time when sabotage is occurring at the plant. Good enough, as far as it goes … except they assume the sabotage won’t happen at midday, when the pair are clubbed, but that night, after the two have had several hours to recover and establish an alibi … with, say, the police or a doctor, which are the people you consult with after you’ve been assaulted.

The culprit reveals Collig was, of course, correct.

Opinions: For an ‘80s cybercrime mystery, Program for Destruction is pretty impressive. Interoperability issues aside, the idea of a virus not only sabotaging the computer in a car (although straight failures would be more likely than switching functions) but corroding worldwide banking is an good idea. On the other hand, the investigation is simplistic — actually, “simplistic” insults the simple among us — and the reader will likely figure out the culprit while Frank and Joe are still trying on fanciful theories of assault. There are only five possible suspects in the entire book, and once you figure out the red herrings and decide to drop the unlikely ones, there’s only one person left.

It was refreshing to return to the digests after so many Casefiles. Early in the book, Frank assumes Joe is too much of a screwup to walk a letter to a nearby post office for their father when the van isn’t working. In the Casefiles, Joe would really have been too lazy to walk a few blocks; in the digests, Joe has not only walked to the post office but picked up Laura’s dry cleaning. And Frank apologizes. I know which series is more realistic, when it comes to the behavior of teenage boys, and I know which series is more pleasant to read.

Grade: B-. Simple but sweet.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mission: Mayhem (Casefiles #93)

Mission: Mayhem coverPlot: At Space Academy, Frank and Joe space-investigate a series of space-accidents that may or may not have targeted terrestrial actor Greg Fontana.

“Borrowing” from the past: The Hardys are no strangers to space exploration. In The Skyfire Puzzle (#85), the last digest before the year-long hiatus that presaged the beginning of the Casefiles, the Hardys actually went into space on the space shuttle Skyfire. It was a logical development; after going to Easter Island and Antarctica, two of the most remote places on Earth (as they did in The Stone Idol, #65), where else is there to go? The Hardys trained and took off from Kennedy Space Center in Skyfire; they visited Kennedy Space Center in Sky Sabotage (#79) as well.

Frank and Joe both identify themselves as pilots in Mission: Mayhem, although they don’t actually fly. Frank’s flying experience is listed in Power Play (Casefiles #50); in addition, Frank claims to have “dead-stick landed” a plane without engine power. I have no idea whether that has been shown in the books, though. A précis of Joe’s experience can be found in In Plane Sight (#176).

Just in case you care: Frank and Joe are six feet and six feet, one inch tall, although Mission: Mayhem makes it vague about which brother is which height.

Joe’s skills: While watching other students perform a mock shuttle launch, Joe watches a “pretty young woman with blond hair, not much older than he was” perform her complicated mission-control duties. Joe’s first thought? “At seventeen, Joe knew he wasn’t ready for a job like this.” Come on! Joe’s looking at a pretty girl. He shouldn’t be thinking about, you know, complicated stuff like life and a career.

Later on, however, Joe does raid the lockers in the girls’ barracks, trying to pick the locks. So that’s something … and by “something,” I mean “creepy.”

Frank’s skills … : Are, of course, nonexistent. He sneaks off late at night with one of the female students, but it’s to compete against her on the multi-axis trainer — a sort of a gyroscope that spins students along all three axes. He tells himself he doesn’t know why he would do something so stupid; he suggests it will allow him to get to know her better or perhaps he wanted to succeed at the challenge the trainer presented. He does not suggest the most likely rationales: hormones, adrenaline rush, or competition with the girl. This is a boy who is repressing something, and that “something” is likely “adolescence.”

Joe suggests Frank wanted to “soften up the ice queen.” I’m not sure what dirty, dirty thing “soften up” is youth slang for, but I am interested in finding out.

Excuses, excuses: Laura and Fenton allow the boys to “take time off from school” to complete the week-long program. This ranks among the weakest excuses Frank and Joe have ever used to get out of school to do whatever they wanted; the only one that comes close is the revised Short-Wave Mystery, in which Fenton just writes the boys an excuse to show the school for the three days they miss. Yes, heating-system breakdowns, a collapsed school roof, and teacher’s conferences are extremely convenient, and the Hardys have had more summer and winter vacations during the theoretical year of high school most of the mysteries take place in than I ever had. But at least the writer was trying; it wasn’t just, hey, let’s go to Space Camp instead of school.

Do you want space fries with that space burger?: “Space” is an adjective that, if this book is to believed, is used so often in Huntsville that it loses all meaning. There’s Space Camp, of course; Frank and Joe are enrolled at Space Academy, which is a physically and mentally tougher course for older students. (Today, what Frank and Joe are doing is Advanced Space Academy, which is for high schoolers; Space Academy is for the junior high set.) They watch movies in the Space-Dome, and there’s also a Space Museum. There are others, too — I just stopped paying attention after the Space-Dome. They watched the movie Speed there — not the one with Keanu, but one that talks about how perception of speed has changed over the centuries.

While at Space Academy, Frank and Joe pass by the space shuttle Pathfinder. The Pathfinder is fictional, of course. The U.S. space shuttles were Columbia (1981-2003), Challenger (1983-6), Atlantis (1985-; last flight planned for June 28, 2011), Discovery (1984-2011), Endeavour (1992-; last flight planned for April 29, 2011), and Enterprise (1974-; never capable of space flight and now an exhibit at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian). As mentioned above, the Hardys went into space on the space shuttle Skyfire.

Let us take a moment to remember America’s space shuttle program, which will come to an end soon after 30 years. Hopefully it will not take another 30 years before America sets its sights that high again.

Wrong, Brainiac: Two allegedly smart people make dumb mistakes in this book. When a fire breaks out in student barracks, Frank tries to beat it out with blankets and then a mattress, both attempts failing. Another student wisely uses the fire extinguisher, which Frank “completely forgot.” Well, it was a crisis situation, so you could forgive Frank if he didn’t face crisis situations every couple of days. The other one is worse, in its way, especially since an astronaut teacher lets the mistake pass uncontested: Maria Galewski, class know-it-all, claims “Frank could graduate from college in the time it would take to travel to Mars.” No — it would take less than a year to get to Mars (about nine months), and the round trip would take less than two. We all know Frank is brilliant — as he himself immodestly says, “I know a lot about a lot of things” — but I don’t think he could finish a college degree in a year or even two.

Physically phit: Joe complains that running two miles in twelve minutes will mean he will have to average six minutes a mile. Well, Joe’s good at math, but not evidently at running; six miles a minute isn’t that impressive for a high school athlete. I was not a very good cross country runner when I was in high school, but I could almost do that over more than three miles. (Not quite, but I was the worst varsity runner on the team, eighth on a team of eight.) Whatever happened to the vaunted Hardy athletic ability? They’ve participated in five school sports and are “star athletes”; they’re also top sprinters and track stars at Bayport High (as per The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, #37, and The Demon’s Den, #81). In Game Plan for Disaster (#76), Frank and Joe were completing five-mile runs, although admittedly the book didn’t say they were completing them with any sort of speed.

Casual sexism is the best sexism: When the Hardys’ team leader says trainees are divided into six-man teams, Maria, one of the female students loudly clears her throat, forcing the former astronaut team leader to acknowledge that yes, females can be interested in being astronauts. Not so surprising for a book from 1994; not so surprising now, really. On the other hand, Dixon makes a point that Maria is a hyper-motivated jerk; when an asthmatic student collapses during a two-mile run, her first words to the student are, “You should keep yourself in better shape.” She also locks Frank into the multi-axis trainer until he succeeds at the replicating the sequence of flashing lights that are flashing at him. Frank almost passes out but succeeds; Maria says he needed the proper motivation.

Glory!: I have made the point that in the real world, the Hardys would not be very good investigators, as they have little or no conception of basic rights and seem to be more interested in their own glory than actually protecting people. Mission: Mayhem continues that theme. When their trainer gets booted from the program without a chance to defend himself, Frank is indignant, although basic Constitutional rights have never been a major concern of his before — and this is just an employment situation, rather than a criminal investigation. Frank also has an opportunity to get a suspect booted from the Space Academy premises — a move that would likely save lives, if the suspect was guilty, or clear the suspect, if more “accidents” happened. However, Frank wants to expose the malefactor, so he keeps Barron, the suspect, near.

Such is fame: A teenage actor is inserted into Space Academy to study for his next role; he tries to convince everyone he’s famous, but no one is buying it since his fame came from his role as a child. When he and his personal assistant are expecting everyone to recognize him, Joe shrugs. So what if he’s an actor? Will his name — or the name of his father — keep him out of jail in any state or in several other countries? No. No, it will not.

Snark: While Frank is trying to get info from a counselor by sounding sympathetic, Joe keeps butting in with his own comments, which are decidedly unsympathetic. Frank gives Joe a sharp look to keep him from talking: “Joe’s opinion he could get any time. … He hoped Joe would get the hint and either get with the program or stop talking.” This is one of those times I sympathize with Frank; even though he didn’t fill Joe in on what the plan is, Joe should have figured it out.

Whatever happened to Scott Randolph?: Another actor is mentioned as a potential rival to the actor at Space Academy; his name is Scott Randolph. Randolph Scott was a famous movie actor from the ‘30s to the ‘50s, mostly famous for his more than 60 Westerns. He was also rumored to have had an affair with Cary Grant, but that claim is hotly disputed.

Generic equivalent: Joe compares an instructor with bulging muscles to “the cartoon character made out of car tires that he’d seen in commercials.” Afraid to invoke the name of the Michellin Man, Joe? Is it out of some prurient, anti-commercialism? Or are you afraid that if you think the name too forcefully, the Michellin Man will emerge out of thin air and take you (or your soul) to France? Yes, it’s a horrible fate to contemplate, but it won’t really happen. The Michellin Man looks like a lumpy, horrifying beast called up from some mephitic abyss, but he’s just an advertising icon. There’s a subtle but identifiable difference.

Boffo?: Frank says the villain was hoping for a “boffo climax.” Joe wisely pretends not to understand what “boffo” means, as no East Coast teenager should ever admit to knowing that word.

Opinions: The culprit is obvious, the story ignores some of the Hardys’ more unforgettable adventures, but there’s something about Mission: Mayhem that I like. There’s a female character who is more than the equal of the boys, although she’s a bit aggressive about it; the Hardy Boys books have never been subtle. The “accidents” are (mostly) plausibly seen as accidents, although everyone seems to overlook the arson incident. Space Academy is a place the Hardys could logically get into and that Frank might be logically interested in. (Why Joe attends is a question best left unexamined.) Most importantly, there isn’t anything that makes me want to hurt Franklin W. Dixon. This is a Frank novel, as most of the challenges are mental rather than physical. Joe looks like an idiot for most of the book, but his stupidity is plausible for a 17-year-old boy. Somewhat implausibly, Joe doesn’t distinguish himself on the physical challenges, but there aren’t that many to deal with. The message is clear: space is a place where the mentally tough will distinguish themselves.

Grade: B-. Unexceptional and inoffensive.