Friday, May 27, 2016

The Secret of Sigma Seven (#110)

The Secret of Sigma Seven coverThe title for #110 is The Secret of Sigma Seven, which in the book is also the title of a movie stolen from a Hollywood director. But the story might as well be Frank and Joe Go to a Science Fiction Convention.

After Frank and Joe mock Chet’s attempts at cosplay (although they don’t call it that — the term hadn't been popularized in America yet), the boys meet Brian Amchick, a guy from Frank’s trigonometry class. Frank deigns to remember one of the little guys who flit through his life, and Brian agrees to introduce Frank, Joe, and Chet to the ins-and-outs of science fiction conventions and their terminology.

BayCon is being held at the Bayport Inn, which has showed up when Chet worked there in Spark of Suspicion (#98). No one brings up Chet’s previous employment in this book, though. Chet is excited about BayCon’s costume party because the prize for the best costume is “a trip to Florida to watch a space shuttle launch” (2). That’s a nice prize, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to Chet since he HAS BEEN TO SPACE in a space shuttle.

Let me repeat that: he, along with Frank and Joe, have been in space. They were able to go in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85), the last digest before the year-long hiatus of 1986. But no one mentions this; no one even remembers it either. Joe even says, “Maybe the shuttle will take you along. Then you can become a real space cadet” (3).

Putting aside the undeserved nature of Joe’s putdown, why does no one remember the chums going into space? If I had gone into space, I would never stop talking about it. I’m loathe to hold up The Big Bang Theory as any indication of reality, but after engineer Howard Wolowitz traveled to the International Space Station in that series, he hasn’t shut up about it. Chet should be like that.

Frank and Joe aren’t there for the costume party, though. They have come to BayCon to see The Secret of Sigma Seven, the fifth movie in a sci-fi epic. Sigma Seven is scheduled to make its debut at the convention, and the movie’s director, Simon Devoreaux, has even come with the movie, to give it a brief introduction and serve on a few panels. Frank, Joe, and Chet have enjoyed the previous four installments of the film franchise, and they can’t wait for #5. They end up disappointed, however, as the print of the film that was to be shown at BayCon is stolen before it can be screened.

Frank and Joe decide they aren’t going to investigate unless Devoreaux asks them to, and he’s not interested in talking to them at all. Fortunately for Frank and Joe, Linda Klein, the convention’s organizer, wants them to find the film, so they agree —

Wait. Why is it fortunate for them? They aren’t getting paid, and the person who would benefit the most has no interest in them. Before Klein asks for their help, Frank says, “Maybe we’d better leave this for the Bayport police” (15). He’s right! Well, he would be right, if the Bayport Police could be bothered to do anything, but they don’t appear in the book. In the 21st century, the FBI would probably be called in, either because of the movie studio’s clout or because of copyright infringement concerns, but we don’t see them either. The field is clear for Frank and Joe!

They get their first suspect: someone roaming around Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con wearing different costumes and a green medallion. (Why keep wearing something that identifies him, when he’s in disguise? The answer: He didn’t think it would matter.) The suspect tries to kill Devereaux by giving a real but fake-looking gun to a con-goer and telling him to shoot at Devereaux; he almost tricks Joe into falling down an elevator shaft as well. The suspect seemingly aims a driverless hovercar at Sigma Seven’s special effects director, Jack Gillis. (Gillis tells Chet he has no plans to mass produce the hovercars because he’s “already rich” [39]. If that’s not a reason to suspect him of something, I don’t know what is.)

Frank and Joe wend their way through the convention, accumulating a meager pile of suspects. Acerbic writer Richard Feinbetter hates Devoreaux because he believes Devoreaux’s movies ripped off one of his stories. Feinbetter’s friend, fellow author Arlen Hennessey, hates Devoreaux’s movies in an artistic sense, but he too believes Devoreaux ripped off Feinbetter. The brothers also suspect George Morwood, a “huckster,” as Brian says, who sells video cassettes of movies at the con. He seems shady, and since the Hardys suspect the movie was stolen for the bootleg market, they keep an eye on him. (The author does nail how surly dealers at cons can be, almost like they are reluctant to sell stuff to you.)

I don’t have a suspect for who Hennessey is supposed to represent, but Feinbetter sounds like Harlan Ellison, a cantankerous sci-fi writer who has a propensity for suing those he thinks have wronged him or stolen his intellectual property. (Ellison has claimed the TV show Future Cop and the movie The Terminator were based on his works, and he won damages in those suits. He sued over the movie In Time but later withdrew the suit. He has been involved in numerous other lawsuits and has been extremely critical of how others, like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, have treated his scripts.)

The fit isn’t exact, though; Feinbetter is a writer from the Golden Age, back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, while Ellison is recognized as part of the vanguard of the ‘60s New Wave. Also, the story Devoreaux is alleged to have stolen from him involves “the Federation of Worlds series of novels”; Ellison has written few novels, and the Foundation / Empire series of Isaac Asimov seems more likely what was being referred to. Of course, “Federation” also calls to mind Star Trek, but that existed as a TV show before it engulfed all media forms.

Also: Feinbetter shoots Frank, Joe, and Brian with a gag gun with a flag that says, “ZAP! You’re star dust!” (55), which I bet Ellison would not do.

Frank and Joe’s detective ethic is less than sterling. They go to lunch without Chet after agreeing to rendezvous with him before the meal, and they don’t even remember him until after they pay the check. Fortunately, Chet’s not in danger; he’s just buying a new costume. After lunch and a panel session, they decide to “take a few minutes off” (65) and visit a sci-fi prop exhibit. When they break into Morwood’s hotel room, they don’t even use their lockpicks: they use a Swiss army knife. In an attempt to get more investigation opportunities, they stay at the Bayport Inn overnight and are introduced to another con tradition by Brian: sleeping on a hotel room floor. (Brian also says staying awake for the con’s full 72 hours is also a tradition; he’s right about both.) Frank and Joe, who are apparently middle-aged, have a rough time sleeping on the floor; Joe even falls asleep during surveillance the next day. (And almost gets stepped on by an elephant, but that’s not important.) With time running out to find the film on the last day of the con, Frank and Joe decide to take a break and watch a movie.

Still, the boys have a high opinion of themselves; Frank says they can perform miracles, although perhaps not on schedule.

After a spear is tossed at Frank, both boys are threatened by a motorcycle gang (not the Flying Skulls from Fear on Wheels, though), and two attempts on Devoreaux’s life, the brothers figure out who did it: Gillis. They aren’t sure why until the FX man tells them he resented Devoreaux; the idea for the movie series was Gillis’s, but Devoreaux relegated him to special-effects director. Gillis paintballs Frank and Joe in the face, which is hilarious to me but should have been painful to Frank and Joe, before fleeing in a hovercar. They recover quickly and pursue Gillis on a low-speed chase in a hovercraft of their own; both vehicles eventually go over the Barmet Cliffs. Somehow, the hovercrafts’ fans take them from terminal velocity to floating on water, and the chase ends when Gillis’s hovercraft is run over by a motorboat.

Brian is impressed by Frank and Joe’s detective work, which Joe claims was, like usual, fueled by “logical thinking and a few brilliant deductions”; Chet cuts him down by saying, “I thought it was usually dumb luck” (147). Joe gets him back on the book’s exit line, though, when Klein insinuates Chet’s about to eat the convention into a financial loss. “‘Chet cut down on his eating?” Joe said with a grin. ‘Now, that’s science fiction!’” (149). I admit: I laughed.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Prime-Time Crime (#109)

The Prime-Time Crime coverLike Smoke Screen Mystery, I read The Prime-Time Crime more than a decade ago, and I barely recall it at all. However, like the previous book (Fear on Wheels), Crime is a pretty good Hardy Boys book.

One of the reasons I like it is that it shows Frank on a scholastic / scholar / quiz (whatever you want to call it, but the right term is “scholastic”) bowl team. He and two teammates play against Littonville High on Four O’Clock Scholar, which is a great name for the show. Frank is the game’s MVP, answering more questions than anyone else and leading Bayport to a victory. Frank certainly seems to enjoy the experience, contracting a severe case of quiz fever: “During the first commercial, Frank leaned back in his seat. His heart was racing. He was exhilarated over how well he had done” (16).

I too know that feeling of excitement and nervousness, that adrenaline that emerges despite doing something so non-life threatening and relatively inconsequential. I played scholastic bowl in high school, and I too participated in a regional scholastic bowl TV show, Scholastic Hi-Q. That sort of success, that show of mental superiority: It gets to you; you keep wanting to play … well, Frank doesn’t, but Frank’s weird.

So is Four O’Clock Scholar, which doesn’t have much going for it other than its name. The rules are weird: if a player rings in to answer a question but is wrong or can’t come up with an answer, his or her teammates get a chance to respond. This has to be a way to give Frank chances to answer questions correctly and make his teammates look foolish, but it’s a horrible rule: it just encourages teams to ring in early rather than when they know the answer. (If a player has confidence in their teammates, she knows they’ll have time to think while she makes a mistake.) The show is broadcast live, which is ill-advised, given the studio audience made up of students from each school; a delay would be advised, given high schoolers’ lack of self-control and tendencies toward crudity.

The station manager says Four O’Clock Scholar is in danger of cancellation, as parents are the ones watching rather than students. Given the way Jeopardy!’s ratings skew, it’s more likely the students’ grandparents watch than anyone else. (Frank, ever the weird one, says he and his friends watch the show every day. The station manager says he and his friends are “an unusual crowd.”) Low ratings — or at least low ratings in key demographics — isn’t surprising given the dog of a time slot, 4 p.m. … every so often? And how often can adults watch a 4 p.m. TV show? WBPT broadcasts one show on Sunday, then tries to broadcast another on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether other shows are broadcast in between; even more unclear is what time of year it is because Frank and Joe are not going to school on weekdays.

Perhaps the show’s problem is with terminology: when Bayport wins their game, they are told they are in the championship tournament. But the “tournament” seems to be one game rather than, you know, a series of games. I don’t know, man.

The real treats of the book are Steve Burke and Debbie Hertzberg, Frank’s teammates. When Four O’Clock Scholar’s host, Clarence Kellerman, is kidnapped before their game, they decide they will find him because obviously this amateur detecting thing isn’t so hard; Steve’s going to be a scientist, after all, and Debbie’s read tons of mysteries. Given Frank and Joe’s reputations, the two have to be trolling the brothers. Frank doesn’t fear them initially, saying, “I don’t think they can harm anything” (26). Within twenty pages, he’s backpeddling: “I knew it was a mistake to let that pair help search for Clarence” (45). We were always at war with Steve and Debbie, Joe.

How are we supposed to feel about the two amateur amateurs? On one hand, we could be expected to look at them and see how difficult this detecting business is. We might identify with Frank and Joe as readers, but we probably couldn’t do what the Hardys Boys do. Solving mysteries is hard, and it takes more than being “smart” and reading books. You have to know how to investigate and put the pieces together. Steve and Debbie can’t do that.

On the other hand … I chose to look at Steve and Debbie as a parody of Frank and Joe’s behavior in most books. The newbs seize upon station manager Ted Whalen as their chief suspect, and they don’t let anything deter them. Even Joe — Joe! — points out they are jumping to conclusions, but Steve and Debbie are hearing none of that. They plan how to break into Whalen’s home, a suggestion that makes Frank expressly come out against breaking and entering. A Hardy! Speaking out against a little investigatory B&E! Debbie and Steve sneak into the station against Whalen’s express orders, although to be fair, so do Frank and Joe. For a few minutes, Debbie forgets she has the key that will allow them to escape a deathtrap. (Well, that’s more Chet-like, but you get what I’m saying.) Debbie almost falls from a roof as she’s trying to spy on Whalen. They jury-rig a camera to keep tabs on Whalen, only to broadcast the executive eating a sandwich over the air. Even when people try to kill Debbie and Steve, they don’t give up, despite having no real reason to try. When they search for Clarence in the WBPT’s basement, they are clubbed over the head and stuffed into boxes.

All of those things seem like things Frank and (particularly) Joe would do, especially that last one. Debbie and Steve’s presence keeps Frank and Joe honest: they have to actually investigate rather than accuse people and run around aimlessly. When Joe asks a stupidly accusatory question of a suspect, Frank chastises him, and Joe apologizes: “It just slipped out. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Steve and Debbie too long” (83). But the question he asked would have been unremarkable in dozens of other books, which is why I come down on the side of Steve and Debbie being a parody.

When it comes to investigating, though, I have a question: where are the police? The woman at WBPT who hires the brothers says, “The police seem to be losing interest … most of the investigations end up going nowhere, or the people return on their own” (81). For most missing people, yeah, that sounds right, but Clarence is a local celebrity who hadn't missed a Four O’Clock Scholar in fourteen years. It seems the police should be interested. But we don’t see the cops at all, so I guess we have to fall back on BPD incompetence as the explanation. Or maybe Bayport is such a crime-ridden burg that they are so swamped with other crimes that they cut bait on a disappearance that could be a publicity stunt.

I also appreciate Prime-Time Crime because Chet gets in a couple of zingers instead of being exclusively the butt of Joe’s jokes. And he not only mocks Joe’s intelligence, but he also mocks Iola (or Iola and Joe’s relationship; either is fine with me): When Iola threatens at dinner at Mr. Pizza not to talk to the Hardys if they don’t tell her about their case, Chet warns, “If you keep making promises like that, they may never tell you about the case” (45). Even the villains get some snappy patter when they capture Joe, who figures the mystery out first.

Oh! That’s right: there was a mystery. Well, it turns out Clarence was kidnapped after he realized the two brothers who run WBPT’s home-shopping show were fences, reselling stolen goods on air. Their sales were rather indiscriminate, as it turns out; Clarence recognized his ex-wife’s wedding ring, which still had her initials engraved inside. After Joe figures things out, they kidnap him as well, but Frank frees them, and with an assist from Steve and Debbie, they catch the villains.

In the end, love is triumphant. Steve and Debbie start dating (but never stop bickering). Frank tells Joe they’re going to get “dressed up” and take their girlfriends for a “night on the town” (150) because they didn’t tell Callie and Iola about the case before the Bayport Times broke the case. Frank admits Chet might tag along as well, which isn’t romantic, but there’s going to be food, and who wants the hassle of trying to keep him away from grub? Frank and Joe will almost certainly have time to be as romantic as they want to be (which isn’t very) while Chet has his head in the food trough.

But much like love, Frank and Joe’s services are free: WBPT pays them both jack and squat for their services.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Fear on Wheels (#108)

Fear on Wheels coverFear on Wheels is a very good digest, which I wasn’t expecting. I admit: I don’t see the appeal of automobile stunt shows, and I didn’t relish the thought of reading about the late 20th century’s equivalent of the traveling circus. Still, I ended up enjoying the book.

Grant Tucker’s Hot Rod, 4x4 and Motorcycle Show is being threatened by an extortionist. The show has been afflicted with minor accidents recently, and Tucker shows Frank and Joe a letter demanding a quarter-million dollar payoff to prevent further problems. Joe helpfully identifies it as an extortion note. Heartened by Joe’s obvious skills, Tucker sends the Hardy brothers out undercover (posing as PR interns) to find the extortionist. When Frank asks what Tucker wants the boys to do when they find the culprit, Tucker tells them, “You do what you have to do” (7), which tells me Tucker might have a more informal relation to justice than the Hardys.

Given the number of accidents that have happened already, Frank and Joe suspect it’s an inside job. So: On your marks, get set, suspects!

  • Tucker himself. A cop Fenton knows investigated a complaint by two investors against Tucker but found nothing; he couldn’t tell whether Tucker was “too clever or too honest” (36). Tucker is vague about the details of the extortion note — how it was delivered, what kind of envelope it came in, where the envelope is now. (Also, he hires Frank and Joe instead of real detectives, although Frank and Joe don’t consider that.) Frank suggests Tucker might have faked the extortion note to embezzle the money.
  • Fat Dave and the Skulls. The Skulls, who are more a bunch of brawlers than the criminal cartel you might have seen on Sons of Anarchy, seem determined to disturb Tucker’s show. The obvious argument against them is that a member of the biker gang would be easily spotted walking backstage at the show; Frank and Joe suspect the Skulls might have an inside man.
  • Jessica Derey, a motorcycle stunt rider. Frank and Joe spot someone dressed like her riding with the Skulls, and they think they see her helmet at the Skulls’ clubhouse. Rumors say she wants a large sum of money to film a TV pilot featuring motorcycles. During one of her practices, she takes a spill as she avoids a ramp coated with oil, but Frank is skeptical she could have seen the oil at the distance she claims.
  • Matt Nazer, the chief mechanic. A former stunt rider himself, he became part of the crew after an accident reduced the range of motion on his knee. Frank and Joe catch him in the garage with a crowbar at night. Plus, he has a suspicious last name. Frank and Joe don’t mention this, but that’s probably because they live in a pre-9/11 world.
  • Bruce Sears. Bruce had a stunt show with Keith that folded. Once great friends with Keith, Bruce seems to hate him now and pulls pranks on him. (Keith returns the favor.) Frank, Joe, and Matt find him putting a firecracker in Keith’s dragster one night after everyone else has left. On the other, the wheel flies off his deuce coupe during a practice, and he barely manages to keep the car under control.
  • Keith Helm, “the Dragging King of the Quarter Mile.” Why isn’t he just the “King of the Quarter Mile”? Anyone who knows about drag racing understands what the “quarter mile” means. Anyway, his dangerous prank rivalry with Bruce makes him a suspect, and Frank and Joe are attacked while on an errand Keith allegedly summoned them for. Also, he has a Flying Skulls tattoo on his shoulder.

The most obvious suspects are the Flying Skulls, a motorcycle gang headed by Fat Dave. They’ve caused trouble for Tucker before, and the day before Tucker’s first show at the Bayport Arena, the gang shows up, looking for trouble. But Frank thinks quickly, and he offers the Skulls free tickets to the first show (the non-televised one). Mollified, Fat Dave and the Skulls drive away.

That’s the first of many good decisions Frank and Joe make in Fear. In addition to actually investigating — questioning suspects, trailing them, sitting on stake outs — Frank and Joe consult Fenton. Good heavens! He fills them in on the Flying Skulls and Tucker, but he forces them to do their own work by not giving them too much information. Later, they do the unthinkable: they accelerate through a yellow light while pursuing a suspect.

Frank and Joe also use their basement lab! The first time their lab was placed in the basement was in The Twisted Claw (#18), when it was specifically designated a fingerprint lab. The basement lab showed up numerous times, with more equipment added: a darkroom, a two-way radio, a tool shop. In The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39), the basement was part lab, part rec room, and after that, the lab was moved above the garage. The basement became solely a rec room until The Sting of the Scorpion (#58), when it was used for fingerprinting once again. But the lab went back to the loft above the garage after that.

Later in the case, Frank and Joe are sent out to pick up Keith, who allegedly needs a tow. But when they get to their destination, they are confronted by a bunch of Skulls. Frank and Joe are restrained by some of the gang while one of them walks up to Frank and Joe with a wrench. The head thug says he’s going to give Frank and Joe a “free sample” of what Skulls plan to give Tucker if he doesn’t play ball with the Skulls. It’s a frightening moment; even though it’s obvious Frank and Joe aren’t going to get wrenched, the narration sells the possibility, in part by not giving readers long enough to think about how Frank and Joe are going to escape. Instead of clobbering the Hardys, though, the Skull smashes the tow truck’s windows.

This doesn’t improve Frank and Joe’s opinion of the Skulls, but Tucker appeases the motorcycle gang by hiring them as security at the Saturday-night, live-on-TV show. This immediately makes me think of the Hell’s Angels providing security for the Rolling Stones at Altamont, but thankfully, events don’t spiral out of control. As it turns out, the Flaming Skulls seem to be competent at keeping people in line. The Skulls also have another power, one they share with the Hardy boys: They can have conversations over the roar of motorcycles, which they use to taunt stunt riders at the Bayport Arena. This causes Frank to give Joe a “disgusted” look (61), although it’s unclear whether his disgust is because of the insults or the Skulls appropriating the boys’ abilities.

Chet blows their cover when he runs into them at a diner, although there’s no way he could have known the Hardys were undercover. (Lesson: Always tell Chet when you’re undercover.) Someone attacks their van, giving them a flat tire. Frank and Joe manage to prevent more flat tires because of the warning given by the weakest car alarm ever, which gives off a “faint peep! peep!” (110), presumably from a key fob. Later, a driverless truck is aimed at them, Tucker, and Jessica, and they manage to escape, with Joe performing a ridiculous stunt to stop the truck.

After following a man who had a mysterious meeting with Keith and Bruce and asking clever questions at the man’s hotel, Frank and Joe discover what Keith and Bruce’s deal is: they’re still friends, but they are pretending to have a rivalry to provide some juice when they jump to another show. All their little “accidents” — even Bruce losing his wheel — were in service of this fake rivalry. Tucker is more amused than dismayed by their plan.

The extortion payoff is scheduled to happen during the big TV show. Frank makes the drop while Joe hides in a nearby truck bed. When he sees someone approach the drop point, he jumps out, surprising Jessica, who heard about the drop and wanted to help. Unfortunately, they are surprised by the extortionist, who clubs them both and locks them in a car truck. Even worse, the car is scheduled to be crushed by the monster truck Bigfoot. Frank rescues the two, but not before the money is taken and a Flying Skull bracelet left nearby. With the help of the Flying Skulls and crew, the backstage is searched and sealed, allowing Frank and Joe to reveal Matt, who stopped performing not because of his injury but because he lost his nerve, as the culprit. Matt is arrested, although Tucker promises to pay for his lawyer.

On the way home, Frank and Joe are given an escort by the Flaming Skulls, showing their thanks for finding the real culprit after Matt tried to frame them. As far as rewards go, the gratitude of a motorcycle gang is pretty good one. (Given the trouble the brothers had with motorcycle gangs in The Shattered Helmet (#52) and The Mystery of the Samurai Sword (#60), having some influence with bikers might help them avoid some pain.)


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Panic / chronology / Hack Attack

The next book in the sequence is Panic on Gull Island (#107), in which Iola goes missing on Spring Break, and no one in the media or law enforcement can muster any interest in a vanished pretty white girl. The Hardy Boys books have some pretty unbelievable plot twists, but that might be the most unbelievable.


***

The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) is set during Winter Break, while Panic on Gull Island takes place during Spring Break. This gives us a definite and plausible time frame for the intervening book, Attack of the Video Villains: somewhere in the first quarter of the year. Video Villains even mentions Smoke Screen, strengthening the chronological ties.

This demonstrates a slow tightening of chronological continuity in the digests. The Secret of the Island Treasure (#100) is set during the summer, and The Money Hunt (#101) falls during Bayport High’s fall break. Terminal Shock (#102) is set during Spring Break, and Million-Dollar Nightmare (#103) takes place during a San Francisco summer. Tricks of the Trade obviously occurs between Nightmare and Smoke Screen, but that’s not much help, as Smoke Screen takes place at the end of the year. There’s a lot of months between those two points, and we don’t even know what part of the summer Nightmare is set during.

So for the characters, those eight books (#100 to #107) take place over about 21 months. Logically, Frank and Joe would have gone up a grade during that time, and they might even have graduated. (Although if they did, they would have to be in college: you don’t get Spring Break when you’re out of school.) Frank and Joe are never in classes, so it’s impossible to tell. For readers, those books were released over about 14 months (#100 was the first digest released in 1990, while Gull Island was the second for 1991). As I’ve said in other posts, I really appreciate this sort of chronological care, even if it makes no sense in the long run.


***

As I mentioned in Attack of the Video Villains (#106), the video game Hack Attack comes up again in Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124). I have to imagine the probability that both books were written by the same ghostwriter is high; why else would the same fictional video game appear in both books? I suppose an observant editor could have realized Dangerous Beat’s arcade scene was a great place to insert a reference to a previous book, and editorial tinkering would explain why Joe is playing the game despite claiming he never wanted to play it again in Video Villains.

On the other hand, maybe Joe is just a teenager and prone to hyperbole.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Attack of the Video Villains (#106)

Attack of the Video Villains coverSo, you know how Frank and Joe are amazing at everything, right? At detecting — of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be a series — but also all sorts of athletic competitions and at knowing little facts and at shrugging off concussions and other injuries (but mainly concussions) and at somehow knowing where the universe needs them to be at any particular time so they can solve mysteries? Of course you do. Well, in Attack of the Video Villains, Joe adds something new to the things he’s absolutely great at …

(No, not at romancing the ladies. The opposite of that.)

Video games! Particularly one called Hack Attack. After Joe wins a regional competition, Frank and Chet accompany him to the national Hack Attack tournament in New York, where he’s one of 25 contestants. It’s difficult to believe that between detecting, school, athletics, and the firefighting training / firefighting in The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) that Joe would have been able to get good at any particular video game. (I would be willing to overlook Smoke Screen, but the author specifically says Joe had hoped the video-game tournament would give them a rest after Smoke Screen.) But I suppose Joe has to do something in his down time … I mean, it’s not like he’s going to be spending any late nights with Iola.

Evidently, by 1991, when Video Villains came out, someone at Simon & Schuster had heard of this “Nintendo” thing that was going around, and she or he wanted to get in on some of that sweet action by making one of the boys a champion player. By the time Video Villains was published, the Nintendo Entertainment System had been released nationwide in American for about five years, long enough for the entire Hardy Boys target audience to have known the NES and its games intimately.

Hack Attack is played on the Videomundo platform, which is presumably similar to Nintendo. (Note the similar ending to their names.) Videomundo has been sold in America for three years, according to Video Villians; that’s not as many years as the NES had been in the US, but it’s longer than Videomundo’s main competitor, Omega. (Omega is probably a reference to Sega, which had been selling games and game systems in America for much longer than Nintendo had been selling the NES and NES games, but the Sega Genesis, Sega’s first success in America after the video game crash of 1983, had been released only in 1989.) Like the NES controllers, the Videomundo controllers have A and B buttons. One of the players says Videomundo cartridges are much larger than Omega cartridges; NES cartridges were about twice as tall as a Genesis cartridge, about the same width, but not quite as thick.

This isn’t the only time Hack Attack appears in the Hardy Boys series. In Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124), Joe plays Hack Attack in an arcade. I made fun of the taxi-based video game, which I claimed “has never been a thing.” This is not exactly true: in 2000, the game Crazy Taxi was released for the Sega Dreamcast, and the game was successful enough to spawn a few sequels. Hack Attack is a strange game, in some ways; the missions are random, and it doesn’t seem to have a standard opening stage. In other ways, it feels like a classic NES game. The player is a taxi driver who delivers his passenger from one city to another, with outlandish and stereotypical obstacles in between (tornadoes in Kansas, for instance). The game frequently sounds goofy but not atypically for games at the time. The author sounds like such an adult when he has the kids discuss it, though.

Anyway, Joe is trying to win the contest and the $50,000 grand prize. He’s up against Jason Tanaka, a Japanese-American who is of course good at video games; Nick Phillips, a nervous guy; Bill Longworth, the previous year’s champion; and 21 other mooks we never see or care about. Unfortunately for Joe’s peace of mind, thieves are stealing Videomundo cartridges from tournament participants, although the criminals eventually focus on a copy of Hack Attack that Chet acquired at a game swap. Although Joe was outraged at the hotel’s lack of action to find the thieves in Tricks of the Trade (#104), he lets the hotel’s lack of action in Video Villains slide. (Maybe he has gained a sense of proportion and realizes video games aren’t as valuable as jewelry!)

The thief has trouble figuring out who has the game, although this advantage doesn’t help the Hardys apprehend him. Joe is particularly frustrated by the thief, a small, wiry guy who regularly outfights and outruns Joe. Evidently Joe’s video gaming skills have caused his physical skills to atrophy. Ha, ha — Joe’s a nerd now!

One interesting thing: the Bayporters have never heard of the Konami Code. Jason shows them how a series of buttons pressed at certain games’ start screens can unlock various upgrades — more lives, better equipment, etc. Jason doesn’t use the exact Konami Code (up up down down left right left right B A), but the first code he uses is the Konami Code with the ups and downs deleted. As Jason says, such codes are used by developers to test the games. No known codes have been discovered for Hack Attack, although Joe says one “might come in handy at the tournament” (35). Jason, suspecting Joe of being a cheater (or willing to be a cheater), gives “him a dirty look.”

Frank and Joe — mostly Joe — spend most of their investigation accusing Omega of the video game thefts. Why would they want to steal games they could legally buy? Who knows! Omega handles the accusations about as well as you might imagine, with one exec pointing an Omega light gun at Frank to freak Frank out when he’s found snooping around Omega’s offices. Frank and Joe’s ineffectiveness continues when they stand by helplessly as Chet gets bundled into a car, but with the help of an NYC stoplight, they manage to recover their friend. The two men are quickly released on bail, which is possible, but getting released so quickly for kidnapping seems unlikely (and expensive).

Joe finishes in third place in the first round, after which the competition is reduced to only the top four. Between rounds, the boys find a weird note dropped by Nick Phillips: “SING EVERY NICE SONG WITH EASY NOTES” (94). Obviously this is a mnemonic; since the letters used are the same as the first letters of the cardinal directions, I thought this might be the pattern to get through a maze. But given what the Hardys learned about video-game codes and Videomundo’s contest coordinator’s ignorance of such codes, everything should come together. Unfortunately, the Hardys are completely oblivious, and Jason gets arrested for the video game thefts.

On the day of the finals, Chet urges Joe to have “a breakfast of champions” (109), which I thought was bourbon and cornflakes but turns out to be pancakes dripping with syrup. Live and learn! With the sound of chiptune jazz in his ears, Joe plays his heart out, but the competition is interrupted by a power outage. The video game thief gropes Joe in the darkness, looking for the elusive Hack Attack cartridge, but he’s disappointed — as is Joe, for that matter, since the guy didn’t even buy him dinner first.

Frank and Joe finally figure out Nick’s mnemonic works only with the cartridge everyone wants; when they input the code, the game plays itself. They realize Nick was going to use it to cheat, but they don’t figure out the rest: that someone behind the scenes at the tournament has to have been involved to put the cartridge in Nick’s machine. When the kids inform the contest director of everything they have learned, he turns on them immediately. He and Chet’s kidnappers threaten the boys and tell them the criminal plot (Nick was going to cheat in return for a lifetime of games, while the contest coordinator would pocket the $50 Gs.)

The kids escape to the New York subway system, destroying the rigged cartridge on the way. They lead the thugs into the tunnels, and all of them almost get hit by a train. The boys manage to leap onto the back of the train as it goes by, pulling the ringleader with them, and then dump the guy off at the police station.

In the finals, Joe plays the game of his life, but he loses to the freed Jason. (Bill comes in third; Nick is DQed.) In return for his phenomenal playing, Joe gets “a ton of Videomundo game cartridges” (147) that we will never, ever see anyone play. Perhaps that has something to do with how Joe feels; he ends the book by saying, “I don’t want to have anything to do with Hack Attack ever again” (148). He gets over this, of course, since he plays again in Dangerous Beat. Or maybe he just forgets! Memory loss seems a likely consequence of the number of blows to the head Joe has taken.


Friday, April 29, 2016

The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105)

The Smoke Screen Mystery coverI’ve read The Smoke Screen Mystery before, but I don’t remember it at all — not a plot development, not a red herring or stupid suspect, not a jot or tittle — and that surprises me. Yes, I read it more than a dozen years ago, but I think I should remember more of it, because I’m convinced it was written by the ghost of Dr. John Button (or maybe Dr. John Button, Jr.).

Button, for those of you who don’t know, wrote two of the worst books in the Hardy Boys canon: the original Disappearing Floor (#19) and The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20). He also wrote three others: The Secret Warning (#17), The Twisted Claw (#18), and The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21). Those last three were mostly mediocre, but Floor and Express … they were full of non-sequiturs and botched continuity. The digests aren’t big on continuity, but this one stretches the series’s approach to continuity from “relaxed” to “you’ll be happier if you don’t think about it.”

Examples? you ask. Sure!

  • Aunt Gertrude is a “heavy-set, middle-aged woman” the boys call “Aunt Gert.” Gertrude Hardy has been described as “slightly plump” (Disappearing Floor), “portly” (Flying Express and The Melted Coins), and “solidly built” (The Secret of Skull Mountain), but in almost every other books her weight is mentioned she’s “angular” or “bony.” When her age is mentioned, she’s almost always past middle age (or hinted to be), and she’d never let her nephews get away with calling her “Gert.”
  • Frank and Joe have become volunteer firefighters after taking a 16-week course. When would Frank and Joe have time to take a 16-week course?
  • They still have time to play pick-up hockey. Sure, they sound like aliens impersonating hockey fans — “These blue eyes need lots of rest so they can focus on winging that puck past you and into the goal net!” Joe says (16), his automatic translation protocols malfunctioning — but why hockey? It’s not a sport either of them has played in the canon.
  • Callie and Iola have jobs: Iola works in a real-estate developer’s office, and Callie’s a stringer for the Examiner. Sure, that’s fine — they should have part-time jobs. But neither of those jobs stick, and neither has shown any proclivity for those kinds of work.
  • The Examiner! Bayport has had a bunch of newspaper over the years, most prominently the Times, but never before has it had an Examiner. (See Maximum Challenge for a list of newspapers.) Why couldn’t the author have used one of Bayport’s other fishwraps?

Maybe I’m being too sensitive. I dunno. But Gert? Becoming firefighters on top of detectives, “students,” athletes, and all the rest? Hockey? A new newspaper? It … it’s a bit much for me. I’m going to go lie down for a while.

Back now. Anyway: Frank and Joe, volunteer firefighters. (I would have thought the movie Backdraft might have had something to do with the plot, but no: Backdraft came out in 1991, while Smoke Screen was published in 1990. No luck there.) During their training and brief time on the job, the brothers have become great at their job … well, maybe it’s more that their co-workers aren’t that good. At one point, for instance, Frank explains to a fire inspector what a Molotov cocktail is, and the inspector doesn’t slap him silly.

While Frank and Joe investigate, Joe is hoping to check out all the new pizza and burger places in Bayport. He and Frank manage to visit Pizzaworks (which all the kids agree is awful), Pizza Your Way, and Burgerworks. (No mention whether Pizzaworks and Burgerworks are affiliated in any way, other than authorial / editorial laziness.) The boys also meet Iola at the Bayport Diner, but that’s not new: it first appeared in The Jungle Pyramid (#56) before being mentioned in four more mysteries in the canon.

Iola works for Donald Pierce, the former White Bishop of the Naughty Hellfire Club and later leader of the cyborg Reavers. Pierce’s buildings are being burned to the ground, evidently while he’s busy trying to kill mutants; after the Examiner blames him for the fires, he “hires” (no money changes hands) Frank and Joe to find out who’s really behind the arson. The boys take the case, with Frank saying they haven’t handled an arson case in a while. I couldn't remember any arson cases in the canon, but firebugs have been involved in six cases in the canon — most recently The Swamp Monster (#83).

Strangely, Joe does not immediately want to blame Pierce for arson; perhaps even he realizes blaming Iola’s boss would not be healthy for his relationship or his body. Their friend and fellow firefighter, Kevin, is the chief suspect, mostly because Pierce fired him from his job as a super. Another piece of evidence against him is that he’s always late to fight the fires, which is strange: This might be evidence Kevin’s a poor firefighter, but why would an arsonist be late to fight fires? If he set the fires, he could be right on time — he could even be early, although he’d have to be a stupid criminal to do that.

When Joe falls through the ice while the Hardys and another friend, Scott, are playing hockey, waiting for Kevin, even more suspicion falls on Kevin. But they aren’t thinking straight; they have a very lax attitude toward hypothermia as well, allowing Joe to sit on the ice, wet and freezing, while Frank rubs his feet to restore circulation. They then leisurely stroll to the van — Frank takes the time to find the missing “Thin Ice” sign, show it to Joe, and debate who’s responsible — before going home to get a change of clothes for Joe.

They don’t suspect Scott, for some reason, despite the extravagant lifestyle he’s living on a grocery-store salary. Aren’t finances an area investigators are supposed to look into?

The arsonist takes a break from burning Pierce’s buildings to set fire to the Hardy garage. Well, kinda set fire to the garage: the arsonist hits it with a Molotov cocktail, and Frank puts out the fire with a fire extinguisher after riding home on a fire engine. Frankly, Gertrude should have been able to handle the small blaze, but she wilts in the presence of the fire, and she worries how Fenton and Laura react to the damage. (It seems mostly cosmetic, a blackening of the wall farthest from the house.) This is even more evidence that the Ghost of Button has replaced Gertrude with someone — something — else. Gertrude beat up intruders and sassed everyone; there’s no way she should be reduced to seeking comfort from a neighbor at a small fire. Besides, the Hardy property has seen much worse damage; I mean, the back of the house was gutted by fire in The Flickering Torch Mystery (#23), and Gertrude’s window was broken by a gas bomb in Tic-Tac-Terror (#74). This is negligible in comparison.

The flannel used as the Molotov cocktail’s fuse matches Kevin’s shirt, so he remains the primary suspect. Even a discussion with Kevin can’t clear him. But later, when Joe pursues an investigatory B&E at Kevin’s, he encounters a masked intruder who drives away in the arsonist’s van. Even the Hardys aren’t stupid enough to think Kevin would break into his own home wearing a ski mask. Still, Kevin bugs out of Bayport soon after, and the Hardys are unsure what to think.

Pierce fires the brothers — although what does “fire” mean, when you aren’t paying someone and they aren’t using your influence to gain access to anything? — but Frank and Joe stay on the case. They manage to find the arsonist’s van and link it to Scott, although they don’t understand his motive. The revelation that Pierce worked at a New Mexico bank at the same time as Dawson, the Examiner’s publisher, opens a new angle for investigation. Info gathered by Iola indicates Pierce has been blackmailing Dawson for years. The conclusion is obvious: Dawson hired Scott to burn Pierce’s buildings, which allowed Dawson to lambaste Dawson in print. Frank and Joe don’t confirm this until a tense confrontation at Pierce’s office, in which Scott and Dawson hold Frank, Joe, Iola, and Pierce at gunpoint. (Dawson started his campaign against Pierce because he was furious Pierce kept blackmailing him for embezzlement after the statute of limitations ran out. Like the revelation that you built your fortune on embezzlement wouldn’t be worth keeping secret!)

While Pierce’s skyscraper in a cornfield starts burning — Bayport’s town council refused to let him build the twenty-story building downtown, for some unfathomable reason — the kids and Pierce are rescued by a police helicopter, and Con Riley arrests Dawson and Pierce.

And the reason Kevin was always late and unwilling to talk about it? He was trying to get a job with the New York Fire Department, and he didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Good to know he was willing to risk jail for a jinx. It’s not the dumbest part of Smoke Screen, not by a longshot, but it’s still pretty dumb.

As bad as Smoke Screen is, it does have a bit of foreshadowing: Iola says, “If I didn’t have to work during vacation, I’d definitely take off for Florida” (2). The book’s conclusion pretty much guarantees the end of her employment, and Iola takes off for Florida over spring break in Panic on Gull Island (#107) — with disastrous consequences, of course.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tricks of the Trade (#104)

Tricks of the Trade coverWarning: Somewhere in this article is an Arrested Development joke unsuitable for general audiences. If you’ve seen the the show’s pilot, you know which one I’m going to use.

In Tricks of the Trade, Frank and Joe have accompanied Chet to New York to watch a magic exhibition. Frank seems mildly interested in magic, but I can’t tell why Joe has tagged along — unless he’s there to crap on Chet’s enthusiasm, which is plausible and supported by the text. Magic is Chet’s new hobby; although Chet gets new hobbies every week, the narration notes his interest in magic has lasted “two weeks” (2). Ha ha, Dixon. There’s no need for you to dump on Chet too, especially when you couldn’t remember Chet had already had magic as his hobby in The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46). That was a total dog of a book, Frankie W., but you don’t get to erase it from history — that’s a bigger trick than you or Tony Wonder could pull off.

Chet is thrilled to attend performances of (and workshops by) Lorenzo the Magnficent, a master magician and a devoted de Medici cosplayer. Chet is entranced by Lorenzo’s act and his beautiful assistant, the Mysterious Larissa. Frank finds Lorenzo’s act impressive, but I’m more impressed that Frank could stand magicians at all. Were I Frank, I would still be traumatized by The Billion-Dollar Ransom (#73), in which a rogue magician (Zandro the Great) kidnapped both Frank and the president of the United States. (Frank and Joe did receive a medal inscribed “To the two greatest magicians in the world” from the villain’s main rival at the end of Ransom, but given that Frank’s keen detective mind can’t figure out Larissa is using a “farewell kiss” to pass Lorenzo a key just before Lorenzo’s big escapology trick, I don’t think we can put much stock in that accolade.)

I’m sure Joe isn’t watching Lorenzo or Larissa or thinking about that time he saved the president from Zandro the Great; he’s more interested in denigrating Chet’s interest in magic. Joe causes the trio to be late for the train to New York, talks during several performances (prompting a teenager to tell Frank to tell Joe to shut up), gives Frank “a knowing glance” because “they would have to put up with Chet’s excitement for the weekend” (2), and complains about testing out trick handcuffs (“the things you do for your friends,” he says [21]). Frank and Chet think it’s the funniest thing in the world when the trick handcuffs don’t release, which makes Joe even surlier. He can dish it out, but he sure as hell can’t take it.

To be add to the humiliation, Frank can’t pick the lock, so the handcuffs rank among the Hardys’ greatest adversaries.

Lorenzo and Larissa emphasize that their act isn’t slight-of-hand tricks: it’s about illusion. Of course it is; a trick is something a whore does for money … or cocaine. One of their illusions is making the lights of Manhattan, shining outside the hotel window, disappear, but they make the audience close their eyes while they perform the illusion. It’s very reminiscent of radio magic, which I assume was a thing, because radio ventriloquism definitely was a thing. Perhaps the better trick was making a teenager and Chet use ‘50s slang to describe the act: both call it “too much” (40, 118).

At Larissa and Lorenzo’s first performance, a diamond bracelet is stolen; because the hotel doesn’t want to cause a fuss, no one is searched, and the magicians steal away before the search is complete. The hotel management is informed, and they tell the police, but Joe is miffed by what he perceives as a lack of zeal. It’s unclear what Joe would have them do, other than let the Bayporters investigate. The hotel says that’s right out, although they offer to pay for the boys’ supper at the hotel diner. Joe, surly, says he’ll pay for his own meal.

The hotel is not the only organization reluctant to investigate. The hotel has Lorenzo performing, in part, to entertain the board of the American Hotel Association, but even though the victimized woman was a board member, the association won’t question its own members. The board pays for that hands-off attitude when another board member’s emerald earrings are swiped during a later performance.

“Someone’s obviously using the magicians for cover,” Joe realizes (46). Of course they are, Joe. Or maybe the thief is a magician? I mean, stealing jewelry off someone’s body sounds like a sleight-of-hand trick — and I don’t mean an illusion.

Whoever the villain is, he or she tries to scare off Chet and the Hardys with a thrown knife and a weak threat: “You may be the Hardy boys, but we’ve got experience on our side. Go home before it’s too late” (64). Tricks start going badly for Larissa and Lorenzo: a misbalanced blade thrown by Lorenzo nearly hits Larissa, Lorenzo almost saws Joe in half when the trick box is tampered with, and Lorenzo gets the wrong key during his signature escapology trick, forcing Frank and Joe to save him. Someone sets a flash-paper-and-trash fire in Frank, Joe, and Chet’s room, which actually works to the boys’ benefit: they easily extinguish the fire, they get a room upgrade, and no one mentions their clothes smell like smoke. (For some reason, the smoke alarm in their room is barely audible in the hallway, and it doesn’t alert the hotel management at all. I hope they mention this in their Yelp review of the hotel!)

Suspects: Now you see them ...

  • Nat Dietrich, assistant manager of the hotel. Lorenzo reacts violently whenever Dietrich approaches Larissa. Joe also doesn’t like him because Joe thinks he isn’t doing enough to investigate the robberies.
  • Clyde Spector, who works security at the hotel. The boys see him chatting with Larissa just after the first robbery, and later they catch him with the diamond bracelet near the hotel’s safety deposit boxes. When they pursue him, he slips away — almost as if he knows the hotel better than they do! Although the Hardys seem disinclined to search for him, the police eventually find and arrest him. He maintains his innocence.
  • The Mysterious Larissa. Well, she is mysterious, and the boys see her chatting with Spector. She has the dexterity needed to swipe the jewels and access to flash paper. Late in the story, after a third item of jewelry is stolen, the boys find it in her dressing room.
  • Lorenzo the Magnificent. He acts weirdly around Dietrich, and he has the magician skills to pull the thefts. Still, the Hardys seem reluctant to accuse him, partially because someone is sabotaging his act. He pulls a weird practical joke at his old mentor’s magic shop, swiping the money from the till, but for some reason Frank won’t ask Lorenzo if he was the thief, even when Lorenzo strongly hints that he was.

While Frank calls to ask the police to do background checks on the suspects, Chet and Joe go to accuse Larissa. In Larissa’s dressing room, Chet and Joe are knocked out by “poisonous” dry ice (128) — all dry ice is poisonous: it’s carbon dioxide, which isn’t healthy to breathe in large quantities for an extended period — and tied up. They escape their chains by using a Houdini trick Chet remembered. (The trick is basically “wiggle until something comes loose.”) Joe realizes it must have been Lorenzo who tied them up, since Lorenzo’s handcuffs were part of the bonds, so when they get loose, the chase is on. With Frank, who wanders in about that time, they pursue Lorenzo and his associate, Dietrich. Frank reveals Lorenzo was a safecracker, and Dietrich blackmailed him into helping with rob the hotel safe — which the Hardys prevented.

This isn’t the only magician-gone-wrong the boys have pursued. Besides Zandro the Great in Ransom, the boys caught the Incredible Hexton, an agent of UGLI (Undercover Global League of Informants), in The Secret Agent on Flight 101. Poor Lorenzo doesn’t measure up to Hexton, who kidnapped Fenton, was part of an international criminal ring, and had his own Scottish castle; Lorenzo is just an illusionist who was blackmailed into returning to thievery.

Larissa says the jewelry was planted in her dressing room, and she had given Spector the bracelet he was caught with after another attempt to frame her. Spector, in an attempt to divert suspicion from Larissa, hadn’t turned the bracelet over immediately.

The Hardys bask in the thanks of the hotel and self-congratulations. Joe says, “I guess you’d call his robberies sleight-of-hand thefts!” (152). You mean “illusions” — no, wait, I guess you do mean “thefts.” Joe credits his brother with breaking the case open, with his brilliant decision to ask (demand?) the police run background checks on the major players in the case. The hotel gives the boys jack-all for saving its reputation. Better get something in writing next time, boys!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Million-Dollar Nightmare (#103)

The Million-Dollar Nightmare coverSo, while wandering the streets of San Francisco, hoping to take in the tourist spots, Frank and Joe run across a man who has been missing for three years, suspected of one of a well-publicized horse theft. This happens just a day after Frank saw a television series highlighting the theft and the missing man.

You have to admit, that’s extremely unlikely. I mean, it happens — America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries found missing people, both criminal and not, and helped solved crimes — but it’s not something anyone can count on. Well, not unless you’re Frank and Joe Hardy, I guess.

Million-Dollar Nightmare starts with Joe marveling over being able to wear jackets during the summer in the City by the Bay, although I’m not sure why: the brothers always wear jackets during the Bayport summers. (See the cover to Spark of Suspicion for an example.) They stumble across Julian Ardyce, whom Frank had seen on the brothers’ favorite show, America’s Most Mysterious Unsolved Crimes. (It’s a clever name, Franklin W. Dixon is saying. Get it? Get it? Geddit?) Joe had missed the show because he was packing — a weak excuse — but he’s just as hot to follow Ardyce, who was suspected of stealing the thoroughbred racehorse Nightmare. According to AMMUC, Ardyce vanished soon after Nightmare’s disappearance and hasn’t been seen since — until he wandered across Frank and Joe’s path.

Despite being “the two hottest teenage detectives on the East Coast” (2) — I can’t imagine there’s much competition for that title, although I’d like to see the brothers up against the West Coast contenders — the Hardys lose Ardyce after an earthquake. (Two San Franciscans argue whether it was a 3.0 or 3.5 on the Ricter scale, but “Frank felt the floor actually roll under his feet like a roller coaster” (7), plus glasses and plates fall off the tables, so the quake was probably somewhere around 5.0 — not even close to 3.5, which some people wouldn’t even notice.) Frank, in a burst of emotion, “slapped the side of his leg in disappointment” (9). Careful, Frank: If you let your emotions get the best of you, soon you’ll be shouting “fudge you all!” and “golly darn it!”

Frank and Joe are sure Ardyce is a criminal and not someone who, to avoid adverse publicity, went into hiding. (Joe also theorizes Ardyce is racing Nightmare secretly in underground horse races, and he tucks his t-shirt into his jeans. When he orders room service, he gets nachos and a strawberry milkshake. It’s best not to pay attention to Joe’s opinions.) Unable to find Ardyce, Frank and Joe head to Stallion Canyon, home of Nightmare’s owners, the Glass family. Why do the Hardys do this? For “leads,” but mostly they raise the Glasses’ hopes, especially those of their teenage daughter, Nina, and then dash them when Frank and Joe admit they have no idea what’s going on.

Frank and Joe have searched for stolen racehorses before: They found Topnotch in both versions of The Sinister Sign Post (#15), although the criminals in the original version of the story were also arms dealers, saboteurs, and spies; the horse theft is a tacked-on distraction, a clear case of criminal overreach. Nightmare’s abduction is faintly reminiscent of the case of Shergar, an Irish racehorse retired to stud, who was kidnapped by the IRA in 1983. Frank and Joe were not involved with the investigation into Shergar’s abduction, so the ending was far different: Shergar was killed by his bungling captors, and the search for the horse ended up uncovering several IRA weapon caches. Neither horse murder or IRA weapons are seen in Million-Dollar Nightmare.

The Glasses see the Hardys as half full of competence, though, and they give the brothers a run-down of the suspects:

  • Danny Chaps, Nightmare’s groom. He was buying a soda from a vending machine while Nightmare was taken. Police were able to narrow Nightmare’s disappearance down to a 45-minute window, which means Chaps took a long time to get that soda. (Nobody mentions that, though; they concentrate on the convenience of the alibi.) The Glasses fired him after the theft, which they were right to do: it turns out the thieves paid him $1,000 to buy that soda.
  • Buzz McCord, Nightmare’s trainer. He was with the Glasses when Nightmare was stolen, but after the theft, he left the Glasses and opened his own, more successful, ranch.
  • Billy Morales, Nightmare’s jockey. Morales arrived at the track four hours before Nightmare’s race. Since jockeys usually see their rides only a few minutes before the race, this is seen as suspicious; more suspicious is he went home before Nightmare’s disappearance. Billy tells Frank and Joe he was suffering from dizzy spells and couldn’t shake his fear about what would happen if he became dizzy and fell from his horse during the race: “It’s a horrible thing, fear … once you get the fear, it’s all over” (50). Poor guy.
  • Julian Ardyce, of course. He was seen in the stables around the time of the disappearance, and his horse Spats was substituted for Nightmare to give the thieves extra time to get away.

While sorting out the suspects, Frank trots out a Fenton aphorism: “If you’re not sure a suspect’s telling the truth, you’re better off thinking he’s lying … at least at first” (51). Joe’s way ahead of you, Fenton: not only does he not think everyone’s lying, he’s willing to accuse everyone too.

When the Hardys and Nina visit McCord’s ranch to ask what he remembers, McCord diverts them into a horse-riding tour of the ranch. Frank is immediately thrown from his ride, Blackbeard, and knocked unconscious. Although the horse appears difficult to ride, McCord assures the teens Blackbeard is gentle. Given that Frank and Joe are excellent riders, having shown their equestrian abilities in at least ten books, readers know who to believe. (This scene is reminiscent of The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28), in which a malicious ranch foreman gives Joe a bucking bronc that throws the teenager. The foreman, Hank, wasn’t a villain, though — he just didn’t like Frank and Joe.)

A stablehand tips Frank and Joe that a nearby ranch, Wind Ridge, is actually owned by Ardyce. When they investigate, they are turned away at the gate; a bit of trespassing reveals nothing. While driving back to the city, Frank falls unconscious, and the brothers are forced to take his concussion seriously. Well, sorta — Frank gets checked out by Nina’s mom, who’s a doctor, and he rests for a few moments before returning to the case.

The usual shenanigans ensue, with a bit of San Francisco flair. Frank is pushed in front of a cable car. Joe goes undercover at Wind Ridge, but even though he lets himself get baited into fighting his supervisor, he manages to find sketchy evidence Ardyce has visited the ranch and learns of a mysterious, hidden horse-breeding operation at the ranch. (For a criminal operation, Wind Ridge’s hiring practices are shockingly lax.) Joe escapes on Blackbeard, riding him him bareback as he does so. After hitching a ride to a phone, Joe’s picked up by Frank, and they eat at a burger joint called Clown Alley, which is (was — it’s closed now) a real place. The boys are ambushed in their hotel room; the villains tie up Frank and Joe on an Alcatraz to let the tide drown them, then check them out of their hotel and steal their stuff to make it seem like the brothers left town on their own.

Frank and Joe escape their bonds, of course, although they are arrested by the Coast Guard for trespassing on government property. This isn’t their first arrest for a federal crime: They were arrested for robbing a mail plane in the original Great Airport Mystery (#9). Unlike in GAM, where Frank and Joe had to get bailed out by a pair of rich men, Fenton’s word — over the telephone! — is enough to spring the boys. Fenton tells the boys their case is “getting out of control” (86). He makes no attempt to help or rein the boys in, though. Have fun fighting against desperate criminals three thousand miles from home, boys!

Having nowhere else to go and for some reason being unwilling to leverage the hotel’s complicity in the theft of their belongings into new accommodations, the boys impose on the Glasses. Mr. Glass and Nina immediately take Frank and Joe to a barbecue. There, they decide to take a balloon ride — of course there’s a hot-air balloon at the barbecue; isn’t there always? — but as they wait in the basket while the pilot’s getting a lemonade, the balloon is cut loose. Joe acts like a total newb during the flight even though the brothers have flown in balloons in The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46) and The Clue of the Hissing Serpent (#53). While floating through the air with the greatest of difficulty, they think they spot Nightmare at McCord’s ranch.

The balloon’s owner’s lawyer threatens to sue them for theft, but Joe threatens to sue them right back. The threats of lawsuits go out the window when the lawyer realizes he’s talking to the Hardy brothers, and he helps them get back to the mysterious horse. (When they try to figure out whether it’s really Nightmare, they realize they don’t know the ID number tattooed inside its lip. They don’t ask for it later, though.) After returning to the ranch with the Glasses, they find the horse has been moved. Frank realizes it has been moved to Wind Ridge, but even though they confirm Ardyce owns that ranch, no one crumbles at their accusations.

After their failures, Frank and Joe stick around for the Santa Rosa Cup, where the Glasses spot a horse owned by McCord that looks exactly like Nightmare. To secure a blood sample to prove the horse’s paternity, Frank, Joe, and Nina steal the entire horse, using the same method that was used to swipe Nightmare. The plan goes off without a hitch, and with the threat of exposure looming, Ardyce tells reporters McCord stole Nightmare to sell its breeding rights, which Ardyce paid for. (The story of Alydar gives an idea of how lucrative breeding rights can be and how that money can drive people to criminal acts.) Ardyce also gets a dig in at the reporters who hounded him: “‘You don’t know [who stole Nightmare], do you? …’ Ardyce was mocking them. ‘It took two young detectives only a week to discover the truth” (146).

McCord is arrested, and Nightmare is restored to the Glasses. As a reward, Ardyce gives Frank and Joe his signature ebony walking stick, which is topped with a solid-gold horse’s head. The Glasses? They give Frank and Joe nothing, although Nina, riding on Nightmare, gives Joe a chance to use the “riding off into the sunset” line.

Frank and Joe will return to San Francisco in Skin & Bones, and Joe will even rent a horse to ride after a car thief in that book. But of course they will never see the Glasses again — they have truly ridden off into the sunset.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Terminal Shock (#102)

Terminal Shock coverIf you’ve read my recap of Dungeon of Doom (#99), you will not be surprised that I enjoyed how Terminal Shock begins: with Joe being a recalcitrant jerk and someone — Phil Cohen, in this case — calling him on it. Joe wants nothing to do with computers, both because he enjoys his ignorance and because he’s on Spring Break and has declared an embargo on learning: “I think it’s illegal to learn anything over vacation” (2-3).

“If you don’t take [computers] seriously, you’re going to be useless as a crime fighter,” Phil says (2), later adding, “Don’t blame me if your detective career goes down the tubes.”

“Hey!” said Joe. “I’ve been great without a computer until now, and I’ll continue to be great.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” said Phil (3). Man, that’s menacing — especially how he leaves it unclear whether he thinks Joe will continue to be great or whether he’s ever been great.

When Joe goes inside, Frank is using a “microcomputer” — ah, don’t ever change, 1990 — and a modem, which emits a “harsh, roaring sound” as it connects with a local BBS. Joe, always someone who will mock what you like, is deliberately obtuse, not understanding any of the technical information Frank tells him and sounding proud of it. When Joe pronounces sysop as “size op,” Frank corrects him: “sizz op” (6). It’s neither, of course: the second s is soft, and it’s “siss op.” I’m beginning to think Frank might be a newbie too, despite his lectures to Joe about BBSs (bulletin board systems) and modems and CPUs. However, he’s right to call Joe “a font of ignorance” (7), and Joe sounds like a fuddy-duddy: “Why can’t you just pick up the phone and talk?” he shouts at his brother when Frank wants to chat with the sysop (10).

Joe’s technophobia is pushed into the background when the mystery actually begins: the BBS’s sysop, Jim Lerner, sends a chat message to Frank, saying that he’s dying. The Hardys rush to Jim’s home, only a few blocks away, and find him unconscious. In his hand is a note saying, “ShE IS ILL” in block letters. (You can see it on the cover.) When the cops arrive, the boys are pushed aside: when they try to tell a cop they’re detectives, he tells them, “And I’m an astronaut. See you on Mars, boys!” (17). You’d think the Bayport Police Department would give their officers a briefing about what to do when they see Frank and Joe — or maybe they have, and sarcastic dismissal is their official policy. But you’d think with all the crimes Frank and Joe help the BPD solve, the cops would be a bit more accommodating …

Frank and Joe aren’t dissuaded, though. The next day, they return to ask Jim’s mom and girlfriend, Becky, if they know anything. As they pull up to Jim’s house, they see a man sneaking out of Jim’s second-story room. Joe gives chase, and even though the thief trips over a convenient rake — classic slapstick — he still escapes Joe. However, Sideshow Bob did drop his ill-gotten goods: a box with two 3 ½" floppy discs. Ah, floppy discs, I remember thee. But I don’t remember them holding much information, and these two discs contain the entirety of Jim’s BBS, including the private e-mails between BBS users. The private info is encrypted, and everyone — including Phil — is impressed by Jim’s cryptographic skills. I, however, am impressed by whatever compression algorithms Jim used to get everything onto two disks, when the capacity of a floppy in those days was 1.44 MB. Not even a megabyte and a half! How did we run anything in those days?

At Bayport General, a doctor tells Frank and Joe that Jim has been poisoned by an experimental toxin, and probably only the person who administered it knows the antitoxin. (Joe naively says, “I thought a poison was a poison,” which is stupid; he surely knew some snakes have more potent venom than others.) Frank and Joe give the discs to Phil to crack, but when they get home, they find a note demanding the discs “or your lives are in danger!” (46). C’mon, dude: you have to make specific threats, or the Hardy Boys won’t take you seriously. (They might not even know what case you’re talking about.) While they and the cops are waiting to make the dropoff, Phil’s workshop is set on fire. Because of his ultra-cool, super-duper fire suppression system, it does no damage, though.

After a brief meeting with Becky at Mr. Pizza, “a favorite hangout for Bayport teenagers” (57), they head to Digital Delights, a computer store where Jim worked. (Digital Delights conjures up a different sort of image in the Internet Age.) There, the brothers meet Jim’s bosses, their only real suspects: the pleasant Larry Simpson and the sour Jerry Sharp. (Larry says Frank and Joe are “celebrities,” while Jerry claims never to have heard of the boys.) Jerry’s prickly personality makes him a suspect; the brothers’ suspicion is increased when they see Jerry talking with the thief, who is posing as a deliveryman. Jerry gives them the wrong name for the thief, which they take a measured response to; usually, they would breaking into Larry’s office or home when given such a pretext, but for some reason, they don’t.

Probably because Larry keeps helping. He lets them paw through Digital Delights’ invoices — they’re selling computers to Canada and Eastern Europe, to the brothers’ amazement — and he explains user names by comparing them to CB handles. This isn’t the only time the Internet has been compared to CB, I think, but it’s strange to think of 21st-century technology being linked to ‘70s culture.

Becky, Phil, Frank, and Joe try to guess Jim’s password, trying social engineering first and then asking other BBS sysops what his password is on their sites in case he reused a password. In a shocking lack of security, many sysops comply, but it doesn’t help. Then Phil realizes the scrap of paper with “ShE IS ILL” has been turned upside down and really means “711 51 345,” which, duh.

That’s the password, of course. In the e-mails, they learn of a “drop” at Cabot Hill; they and the cops foil the handoff, capturing the receiver and recovering a Workwell computer. (The person dropping the computer, who was in a helicopter, escapes.) The BPD asks for Phil’s help looking at the computer and Jim’s disks, showing we weren’t at risk for a BPD: Cyber spinoff. Phil notes new chips have been installed in the Workwell computer.

Frank and Joe poke around at Digital Delights, where a van is loaded with Workwell computers. Frank is pistolwhipped, and the van takes off. Joe and the concussed Frank follow, but they are run off the road. Continuing on to Jerry’s house, they find the van concealed nearby; while they are in the middle of accusing Jerry, Larry interrupts them with a gun. He tells them the entire story: a Canadian lab has developed super computer chips, and he’s using Digital Delights’ orders to smuggle those chips into Eastern Europe. He and his supplier used BBSs to coordinate their movements — poor, na├»ve, unimaginative Frank calls it “the ultimate in privacy” (128) — until Jim accidentally read one of their messages.

Rather than shooting his hostages, Larry hands the poison to Joe and tells him to drink it. Joe instead splashes it into Larry’s mouth. While he’s sputtering and spitting, the brothers overpower him. Still, Larry escapes after Frank reaches into Larry’s glove compartment and gets a mousetrap on his finger for his trouble. That’s some planning from Larry: trapping your glovebox with a mousetrap on the off chance someone will poke around in it.

Expecting Jerry to call the cops — they never ask him to — Frank and Joe pursue in their van; when a helicopter tries to force them off the road, Joe climbs from the speeding van onto the helicopter’s skid, and from there he climbs into the cockpit. He knocks out the pilot before realizing he can’t land the helicopter. The pilot regains enough consciousness to make a hard landing, and the car chase ends nearby when the police show up. (It takes place near Interstate 78, according to the BPD’s Con Riley, which puts Bayport in northern New Jersey, near New York — Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, or maybe even as far south as Perth Amboy.)

Everything ends happily: Jim gets the antidote, and Joe agrees to take computer lessons from Phil … but with innuendo: “When Phil’s not looking, I’m going to stick a computer game in his disk drive” (152). Whatever turns you on, Joe — hopefully it turns Phil on as well.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Money Hunt (#101)

 coverSo after Dungeon of Doom, a pretty good (if drawn out too long) book, The Money Hunt is a letdown. I mean, I literally fell asleep while reading it.

Money Hunt begins with Frank and Joe planning the route they will take on their fall vacation trip to Florida with Chet and Biff. I’m not sure how many schools schedule a lengthy fall vacation, but Bayport High School certainly seems like the kind of school to do so. Perhaps they even instituted Fall Break in consideration of the Hardys! Or maybe Frank and Joe aren’t in high school; they don’t mention their education at all.

But their vacation plans are hijacked. Fenton gets a phone call from Steve Johnson, a former police colleague — a lot of Fenton’s old pals are mentioned in this book — who’s having trouble at his Maine lodge. Fenton can’t go because he’s injured his ankle, so he volunteers Frank and Joe without asking them if they want to help. Of course Frank and Joe do, but it is inconsiderate for him not to ask first. Just as Fenton doesn’t consider his sons’ opinions, Frank and Joe don’t consider what Chet and Biff want. For Frank and Joe, mysteries are the most important thing in life. Perhaps they could even establish a mystery-based religion, which would allow them excused absences for mystery-related holidays … the Dixonian Mysteries? No, too meta. The Fentonian Mysteries, perhaps. Mystery religions are well established the world over, although this would take the concept in another direction.

Fenton was injured, not in a life-and-death struggle or because a malefactor got the better of him but because he “lost the suspect … when he tripped over a flower pot and severely sprained his ankle” (3). That’s just sad, Fenton. It’s not like you were running from a tiger, like in The Disappearing Floor (#19), or shot in the leg with a poisoned arrow, like in The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28), or even stabbed by Ranse Hobb, like in The Blackwing Puzzle (#82). (He did sprain his ankle in The Short-Wave Mystery, #24, as well.) C’mon, man.

Fenton describes Maine by quoting from the first line of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” — “murmuring pines and the hemlocks,” not the better known, “This is the forest primeval.” He’s trying to get across the idea that he wishes he could go, but it’s not hard to imagine that’s he’s happier in his own home, lying in bed, napping and reading mystery novels, rather than working at a remote hunting lodge. Especially since Steve Johnson’s troubles are so trivial; someone’s setting animal traps that almost hurt Steve’s lodgers, who have also heard mysterious chainsawing during the night. There are also minor thefts and an ATV-riding ghost, but the latter is too stupid to go into. Also — and this is an aside, not important at all, no no no — thirteen years ago, before Steve bought the lodge, four bank robbers from Boston hid out at the lodge while it was abandoned. Three were caught, but only the fourth knew where the loot was hidden.

No mystery is too trivial for Frank and Joe, as they head to Maine to dive head-first into the Fentonian Mysteries. (Chet and Biff can’t go, for some reason.) They fly over Moosehead Lake — which is a real lake in western Maine — on their way to Mirror Lake, which is not. (Well, a few Mirror Lakes exist in Maine, but none of them are near Moosehead.) As Steve drives them back to the lodge in his jeep, the brakes fail, although rather than cutting the brake line, someone’s removed the brake lining. Certainly a twist on a classic, which I appreciate.

They survive, of course, and Steve’s sure one of his guests is behind his problems. Joe tells him they’ll solve the mystery if he can keep his cool: “A happy innkeeper …” Joe starts, and Steve finishes, “Keeps his head?” (38). Is that a proverb? I’ve never heard it, and Google shrugs when I ask it. In fact, Google doesn’t find any proverbs beginning with “a happy innkeeper.”

Let’s keep our heads as well — let’s examine … the suspect pool!

  • Mr. Burns, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Buckley: The Three Bs are “middle-aged businessmen from Providence” (38), but they’re evasive about what their business is.
  • Arthur and Adele Ackerly: She’s a champion trap and skeet shooter, trying out hunting live game for the first time. She’s also a talker; her husband rarely gets a word in edgewise.
  • Len Randle and Mike Mallory: Len says he’s a writer for Outdoor Life magazine on his first assignment, while Mike is his photographer
  • Mr. Peters and Mr. Fletcher: Peters is an elderly man who has come to Maine to watch birds. Fletcher is his assistant and caregiver.

The usual shenanigans occur. The ATV ghost, a figure in white joyriding on the lodge’s ATV, rides by Frank and Joe and scares them into falling into the shallow end of Mirror Lake. Someone throws a hunting knife at Joe, and Adele Ackerly seems the only reasonable suspect. A dummy is left in the fridge with a note warning the boys off. When the boys dispose of it, Len Randle thinks it’s a body and calls 9-1-1. (Joe calls 9-1-1 back and cancels the order for police, which is exactly what a murderer would try to do while he murders more people.) Randle then admits he’s trying to sell an article to a supermarket tabloid, In the Know, rather than an outdoors magazine.

Frank and Joe summon Biff and Chet, and for some reason, the chums are now available. (It’s Frank and Joe’s first full day at the lodge, just 24 hours or so after they left Bayport; why couldn’t Chet and Biff have traveled with them?) While Frank and Joe are poking their noses into everyone’s cabins and the grounds, Frank is locked in a burning shed and is saved by Steve’s handyman, Willy.

When Frank and Joe try to follow the Three Bs, the brothers notice someone has moved the trail markers. More importantly, they literally run into a net trap, and they are saved only by a Chester ex machina: the helicopter Chet and Biff have rented to make it to the lodge flies near them, and Joe uses his red scarf — a not-very-well-made gift from Iola — to flag them down. Fenton managed to get Chet and Biff to Maine quickly by calling on one of his old friends who runs a commuter service, so the two arrive in time to save Frank and Joe’s bacon. Fenton also sends information on the bank robbery, dug up by another old friend at the Bayport Times.

Chet and Biff pretend not to know Frank and Joe. Chet takes on the persona of a worldly hiker, telling everyone about his walking tours in Africa and the Canadian Rockies. His friends give Chet stick for his tales, but he has been to sub-Saharan Africa (in Revenge of the Desert Phantom, #84), and he has been to the Canadian Rockies (in The Mystery at Devil’s Paw, #38). He’s not lying, fellows. But when he and Biff dress up for hiking later, Joe says Chet and Biff look like “an ad for L.L. Bean” (104) in their new hiking gear.

After an attack on Burns by “a ghost,” Frank and Joe use the information Fenton provided to figure out the Three Bs are the paroled bank robbers. Once they reach that conclusion, the real villains — not the Three Bs — move quickly, cutting off the lodge’s radio and telephone communication with the outside world. The kids follow various suspects into the wilderness, but Biff and Chet lose their quarry quickly, and Joe has to turn back when Frank is menaced by a bear. (Bears were common threats in the canon, appearing in seven books. Seven! And the Hardys were threatened by all sorts of bears: black, brown, grizzly, and polar. This one’s a brown bear.)

One thing Franklin W. Dixon has never before tried to pull off as a threat to the Hardys was a deer, but that happens in Money Hunt. After recovering from the bear attack, the Hardys and Biff find Chet tied to a tree, with a buck with a “magnificent rack” (121) standing near him. (The buck is described as a six-pointer; I’m assuming the writer is from a state that counts only one side of the rack, which means the deer could have also been described as a more impressive 12-point buck.) Fortunately, the Hardys, Biff, and the Ackerlys frighten it away by using the advanced wilderness technique of “moving closer.” Before it flees, everyone except Fletcher and Peters gathers around, lured by what is evidently the only deer in Maine. Pooling mental resources, they figure out Peters is the remaining bank robber in heavy disguise.

Now, Frank and Joe have been slow on the uptake not to realize this; that’s not unusual. But Frank … he’s supposed to be the smart one, and he’s been frequently wrong in Money Hunt. He misidentifies the capital of Maine as Portland. He believes the sun sets in the northwest in autumn in Maine. (The book doesn’t correct him on this; that he believes this is supposed to be part of his wilderness lore, and it helps him get his bearings.) He doesn’t realize the musical scale doesn’t include “H.” C’mon, Frank: you’re supposed to be better than this!

When the Hardys return from their forest powwow, they find Peters and Fletcher (an electrical engineer and poacher who found the dying Peters thirteen years before) stealing a float plane. Frank and Joe are kidnapped, of course. Once aloft, Fletcher attaches a device to the plane that will aim it right at the lodge and kill everyone inside (plus Frank and Joe). The two villains, who have the stolen bank loot, will escape to Canada in the confusion. After the villains abandon ship, Frank and Joe loosen their bonds enough so that they can nudge the controls, and the plane miraculously makes an uneventful water landing. (Well, it would be a miracle in the real world. Frank expects it.)

Everyone goes back to the lodge for dinner for a celebratory dinner. The criminals aren’t caught, although Frank and Joe are sure they will be: their electrical boat engine wasn’t charged, and the authorities have been alerted. After all, what are the chances that two men who eluded a search thirteen years ago in the Maine woods could do it again?

Interestingly, Peters might be in the clear for the original bank robbery; the federal statute of limitations is only five years, and the Massachusetts statute of limitations is only 10 years. However, there’s a catch: the statute of limitations is paused (“tolled”) if the accused is not a resident or is in hiding within the state. So depending on how Peters spent the time, he might have been untouchable for the crime!

I kinda hope he gets away with everything. Good luck to you, ATV ghost!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Doom / Hunt / Treasure / Panic / Demolition

So after Dungeon of Doom is digest #100, The Secret of the Island Treasure, a fitting book for such a momentous number. It features the return of Hurd Applegate, a hidden treasure (obviously), and numerous allusions to one of the most famous treasure hunts, Oak Island. If you want to know more, click the link.

So The Money Hunt (#101) will be the next entry. I don’t own a copy of this book, but I will be able to check out a copy from my local public library. Most of the rest of my spring posts will feature the books in order, skipping Panic on Gull Island (#107), which I’ve already covered. The next book I’ll have to skip entirely is Demolition Mission (#112), which won’t be a concern until summertime.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Dungeon of Doom (#99)

Dungeon of Doom coverI started reading Dungeon of Doom worried that it would miss the point when it came to discussing role-playing games. I ended it wondering why Joe was my favorite Hardy.

First, the role-playing game aspect. Chet invites Frank and Joe to watch him and the Greater Bayport Area Wizards and Warriors Club. Why would Frank and Joe want to spend an afternoon off watching a role-playing game? Playing an RPG — sure, I could get that. I do that. But watching? I dunno. If the game is exciting enough that Frank and Joe are interested, they should play; if it isn’t, they’d be bored either way. I suppose watching an RPG makes more sense than going shopping at the Bayport Mall with their girlfriends (also an option), but only a hairsbreadth more.

A role-playing game, for those who are unfamiliar, is a game without a board. Instead, a narrator of sorts tells a story in which the players are also characters. These characters are often heroic personas; at the very least they have abilities that exceed most people’s. The players influence the course of the story by the decisions their characters make. When something happens that involves some degree of chance and / or skill, like diving out of the way of a sudden attack or firing a weapon under duress, players and the narrator (generically called a game master) roll dice. The dice can be the standard six-sided dice everyone is familiar with or dice with more sides: eight, ten, twelve, or twenty are the most common.

The most famous role-playing game is Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy-themed RPG. In Dungeon, Chet and his new friends are playing Wizards and Warriors, an obvious analogue. (Wizards and Warriors was also the name of a 1987 Nintendo game, a 2000 Windows video game, and a short-lived 1983 TV series.) The game master is called the Wizard Master (in D&D, the role is called a Dungeon Master). The description of the game play is largely within the realm of what you’d expect a fantasy RPG to be like. Each character has stats — in this case, stamina, strength, and intelligence — that determine how well he does things. Some characters swing swords; others use magic. Standard stuff, really. There’s even a rule lawyer: someone who knows every rule and is willing to use them to get the most out of the game.

Other aspects are unusual at best. The Wizard Master rolls dice for everyone, which is unusual but not unprecedented. All the players are dressed up as their characters; today, that’s called “cosplaying,” and it isn’t unusual, but few people do it when the only people who see them are a small group of fellow players. Chet’s character uses karate, which is dumb for a European-type setting, but even the original D&D had a class of characters who used martial arts. The only spell used has the stupid name of “Fribjib” and turns people into frogs; most spells have names that relate to what they do, poetically or literally. One of the teens is described as a “champion” W&W player (5), which is strange — RPGs are cooperative, not individual, and rarely does anyone win.

So the RPG is OK. But Joe — Joe’s the worst.

I have that written down a lot in my notes, although usually it’s expressed in saltier language. (I may have compared Joe to a specific bodily sphincter.) When Chet greets the brothers wearing his costume, Joe says he looks “even dumber than usual” (2). When the GBAWWC starts playing, Joe asks Frank, “Is this weird or what?” (8). After being pressured into playing W&W because of a player absence, Joe’s character dies almost immediately because he didn’t bother getting other players’ input, and he whines about it. (He almost resorts to fisticuffs when another player razzes him about it.) Later, when one of the players is enjoying the game-turned-real the villain has put everyone into too much, Joe says, “Maybe you should get out more … Stop playing so many games. Start living a life” (75). This paints the picture of a person who doesn’t want you to like something because he thinks it’s weird — a classic jock bully.

Later, Joe tells Chet he wouldn’t fit through a hole that is “only wide enough for a small Buick” (18). He accuses one of the other players, Derek, of being the villain before there’s any evidence, just out of personal animosity. He assaults Chet to get him to stop singing because “the echoes in this room make it sound like there are four of you … and one of you sounds bad enough” (49). Whenever Derek trades insults with Joe, Joe responds with violence; when Derek meets Joe’s challenge and defeats him, Derek apologizes for the violence, but Joe says, “That and a handful of quarters will buy me a soda” (74) When Derek offers good, constructive ideas on how to get Frank out of a partially triggered death trap, Joe says, “Get lost … I don’t want your help!” (79).

He’s really the worst! If a secondary character acted like him, we’d suspect that character of being the villain. We’d expect him to be the villain.

In contrast, Derek’s a delight. It’s amusing to see Joe fall apart in front of someone as accomplished, in his own way, as the Hardy boys. Derek is the county swimming champion and a football player. He has scholarship offers from MIT and Harvard, where he will study physics or molecular biology. When he tells the others this, Joe says, “I think I’m going to be sick” (37).

Derek needles Joe repeatedly, but he’s funnier than Joe, and he never tries to escalate the situation into assault, which is Joe’s default setting. When Derek finally snaps and challenges Joe to a duel with (fake) swords, he apologizes for thrashing Joe, who’s a sulky dink after being outclassed. (Why didn’t you remember your fencing lessons from the revised Clue of the Broken Blade [#21], Joe?) Derek’s gibe about Chet’s weight is gentle. When he and Frank boost Chet into a hole, Chet says, “Here goes nothing.” Derek’s reply is, “I’d say you’re a little more than nothing, Morton. How much do you weigh?” (62). (Frank’s rejoinder is funny, if a tad crueler: “That’s a state secret … if the Russians found out, they’d build an army of Chet Mortons and eat the rest of the world into submission.”)

Derek has two bad moments: the first is when he says a girlfriend he broke up with “was hardly [his] intellectual equal” (37), which sounds snooty at best and sexist at worst. But he’s a teenage boy; it’s not like he’s probably going to be that good at expressing his emotions. Besides, she might not have cared for intellectual exploration, for all we know, and he’s bad at expressing his opinions of that.

The second bad moment is when he decides to be friends with Joe, the worst person in the world. He even offers Joe tickets to “the big game” in New York (148). He’s even willing to ditch his current girlfriend to go with Joe. What sport is the big game? Who knows! Whatever it is, Frank’s jealous. Stupid, Derek, stupid. You’re going to regret this.

So that’s about it … oh, wait, that’s right. There’s a mystery here.

The plot gets going just after Joe’s character (Sir Joe) dies and he (the real Joe) tries to assault Derek. Tim Partridge, one of group’s members, says another member, Barry, is probably trapped in the Dungeon of Doom. It turns out the Dungeon is where they play sometimes; it’s located on the outskirts of Bayport, in a mine abandoned because it was partially flooded by the Bayport Reservoir. This reservoir must have been built to replace the Tarnack Reservoir, which was new in 1948 when it appeared in The Secret of Skull Mountain (#28). The Tarnack Reservoir, located 20 miles from Bayport on Skull Mountain, replaced the Upstate Reservoir as Bayport’s water supply.

All I can say is that I’m glad the Dungeon of Doom has nothing to do with steam tunnels under a university.

Anyway, Barry suspected something weird was going on around the Dungeon, and he arranged to meet Tim near it. But when he got there, he found a note warning him away. Frank and Joe want to go to the police immediately, but the GBAWWC doesn’t: if the police are called in, they’ll lose their Dungeon, and it would be a shame to do that if it’s a false alarm. Derek says they’ll check out the dungeon, then call the police if anything is wrong. Frank and Joe reluctantly agree to this sensible compromise.

Once they arrive, though, a cave-in traps them in the Dungeon. You have to expect that when you go underground with the Hardy Boys! (See The Flickering Torch Mystery, #22; The Submarine Chase, #68; Cave-In!, #78; The Roaring River Mystery, #80 … that’s not as many as I thought. I must be missing a few.) The dungeon / mine has been set up to serve as a real physical / mental challenge for the kids by a “Secret Wizard Master.” Traps include such classics as the carpet-over-the-pit trap, which Joe falls into immediately, and the shifting-room trap, in which a room is balanced so that when enough people shift to one side, the room tilts and dumps everyone down a shaft. Classic RPG traps, both of them. (The Secret Wizard Master also uses the no-key trick: the kids reach a door they don’t have a key for, so they sit down to figure out the “trick.” The trick is that the door isn’t locked.)

They also have to deal with morons within their ranks. When they find food left by the Secret Wizard Master, Frank makes the unilateral decision to drop it into a mine shaft on the off chance it’s poisoned. Chet lunges at the food and drops the group’s only light. Only by luck does the lantern not fall into the shaft as well.

The Secret Wizard Master, it becomes apparent, is one of the GBAWWC. So now we’ll dive into the suspect pool!

  • Pete Simmons: He’s the real Wizard Master, and according to Win Thurber, he had access to the published adventure the Secret Wizard Master based everything on. Pete says the adventure was stolen before he could see it. More damningly, Pete is a psychology student at Gates College; he’s writing a paper titled “The Role-Playing Game as Adolescent Bonding Ritual.” I admit, with a title like that, I thought he was engineering everything to get more material.
  • Win Thurber: A small kid who attends Bayport High School, although Frank and Joe don’t remember him. (Win says everyone knows the Hardy Boys, though.) He works at Bergmeyer’s, a department store in Bayport Mall, and gets stuff to outfit the Dungeon at a discount. He enjoys games more than anything else, and Frank and Joe accuse him of enjoying their predicament too much. He explodes at Frank and Joe when they condescend to him about his love of games and lack of friends. “Maybe you just haven’t tried,” Frank says. “Try some clubs at school. Make some friends” (76). Joe offers to throw Win a pizza party at Mr. Pizza with their friends: “Maybe you’ll get along with them.” Ugh, popular people have no idea how hard high school is.
  • Derek Hannon: He’s delightful — witty, an athlete, and a brain. He’s only on this list because Joe hates him. If Joe hates him, though, that must mean he’s awesome.
  • Tim Partridge: The 14-year-old who warned them something was wrong. Since his mother was expecting him home, he didn’t go into the Dungeon.
  • Barry Greenwald: Tim’s classmate. He disappeared before the story began — or maybe he only wanted people to think that.

It turns out the Secret Wizard Master is Win, who is really a high-school dropout who is much older than he appears. He has been stealing consumer goods from Bergmeyer’s and storing them in the mine. He and his two goons capture the GBAWWC when the fun of the Dungeon of Doom runs out. Win’s plan is to make the kids swim in the cold waters of the reservoir until they drown, which will keep their bodies hidden for a long time. Despite Joe’s “nasty personality” (129) — hey, Win might be a murderous crook, but he’s not wrong — he accepts Joe’s offer of a sword duel before the executions. He handily defeats Joe, just as Derek did, but he’s not prepared when Joe kicks him in the knee. He stumbles backwards into a strut keeping water at bay. The strut fails, and it’s a race against time to get out.

Well, the characters are racing against time. The readers will likely be checking their watches as the ending is drawn out. But everyone manages to swim to safety, and the good guys catch all the bad guys. Win’s goons are put in jail, Win is released to his mother (despite him being a legal adult), and Chet raids the police snack machines.

The story ends with Chet suggesting a new hobby for himself — spelunking — now that role-playing games have proved too much for the couch warrior. But spelunking isn’t a new hobby; Chet spelunked his way into danger in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39). Joe tells him to “keep his ideas to himself,” although I’m not sure whether that’s because he has cave-related trauma, because he’s sick of Chet’s hobbies, or because he remembers Chet was a spelunker before, even if Chet doesn’t. In any event, it’s nice to know Joe remains consistent to the end: a jerk.