Friday, November 9, 2018

The Crisscross Crime (#150)

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

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

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

The story begins on the baseball field — that’s something that hearkens back to the good ol’ days, but they were playing baseball for the Bayport Bombers in Danger on the Diamond (#90) as well, so it’s not unusual. Now, if they’d brought back baseball-loving chum Jerry Gilroy, who hasn’t been seen since 1966, then that would have been awesome. Anyway, Joe’s pitching, Frank’s at shortstop, and Biff takes Chet’s old spot behind the plate. The Bayport Bombers are an out from a win; Joe hangs a curve, but a diving catch by Frank seals the Bomber victory. Rather than head to Mr. Pizza, Frank and Joe need to pick up their mother’s car from the shop. While Frank pays, Joe spots a break-in at a nearby bank. The robbers take off when the alarm sounds, and when Frank drives by in Laura’s car, Joe has their video camera and tells Frank to follow that car!

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Chase for the Mystery Twister (#149)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

It’s a bad book, that’s what it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A videotape of the tornado that left the weird debris patterns — dubbed the “mystery twister” by Frank — shows up; Frank and Phil debunk the video after Frank steals it from Glover. Joe gets Phil into trouble by breaking into the fraudster’s semi; Phil is knocked out, and when yelling for help while the truck is roaring down the highway predictably fails, Joe manages to knock down the rear door with a “huge” tractor (118). (If you think a huge tractor will fit in a semi-trailer, you too are a farm noob, sadly uninformed about tractor sizes.) The tractor is part of the fraudsters’ insti-tornado kit, which they used to knock down the house with the weird debris pattern; I think the amount of damage the kit would have to pull off in a short time is only a little more believable than a supervillain keeping his lair secret when it has been constructed by a crew of hundreds.

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

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

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Ice-Cold Case (#148)

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

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

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

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

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

  1. They must have access to the lake without motor transportation because the Kwans would hear a vehicle driving by;

  2. They must be around the lake frequently, since they react to what the Hardys do quickly;

  3. They must be from out of town or have out-of-town connections, as the stolen goods haven’t shown up in any local pawn shop or with any fences; and

  4. Their access is, for some reason, concentrated in the winter months, which is when all the robberies occur.
Who meets those criteria? Not Ray Nelson, the jerk who played football with Joe; he has alibis for too many of the robberies, and besides, Ray claims to have helped the Hardys “find that kid who ran away … [and catch] Rob Dee stealing stuff from the gym lockers” (15). (We haven’t seen Ray before, but since Frank and Joe don’t contradict him, we should believe him.) Since Ray didn’t do it, his friends, John and Vinnie, are similarly in the clear; besides, they work at Burger World, which I don’t think any self-respecting teen thief would subject himself to. (Burger World: Circumnavigate your taste buds with Burger Flavor!®) The idea that the culprits are the Kwans, peripheral characters introduced only to serve as an entre for the Hardys into the case, is laughable. None of the fishermen are fleshed out enough to be the villain, except for chief ice hole Ernie Tuttle; however, Ernie is not a criminal — just a cranky old man who runs (and lives in) a fishing shop on the lake.

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

Come on, guys! You’re supposed to be good at this!

It may be time to play the Moron Game!™ (modified version). Joe Hardy, why are you a moron?

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

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

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

That’s … an unrealistic reading of the situation, Joe. You can’t expect beat up someone and have them thank you. It just doesn’t work that way. Maybe you can show your wit (or lack thereof) through humor, when Phil offers to help despite his aversion to being outside in the freezing cold?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you think they were really trying to kill us?” (111). Frank doesn’t believe so, but as we’ve established, Frank may be a moron!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Trial and Terror (#147)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Mystery suspect!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Carnival of Crime (#122)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Mystery culprit.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 30, 2018

Sabotage at Sports City (#115)

Sabotage at Sports City coverThe ultimate in over-the-top ridiculousness for the Hardy Boys was when they went to pace in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85). It was stupid to think NASA would train a trio of — let’s face it — non-genius teenagers in less than a week, then shoot them into space to fight crime.

So Sabotage at Sports City (#115) will not overcome that mountain of wish-fulfillment and authorial laziness. But it may come in second, as the Hardys are allowed to investigate a terroristic threat at the Summer Olympics with little oversight and little need to cooperate with real law-enforcement agencies. Honestly, you’d think this would be exciting, but after reading this, I’m more interested in the Olympics than I am this book. I hope you’ll forgive me.

(Before I start, I have to mention that stupid cover tag: “Frank and Joe swing into action — to save the Summer Olympics!” That’s awful. I came up with a better one in about two minutes: “Frank and Joe have Olympics fever — and it could be fatal!” I’m sure, with some [or no] thought, you could do better than the Simon & Schuster copywriter or I did.)

I have long joked that Frank and Joe had insisted upon their amateur detective status because they were waiting for their opportunity to detective in the Olympics. They don’t get a chance to do so here; they detect at the Olympics, sure, but they have no competition and there’s no medal stand.

So: Chet Morton has a cousin, an Irish cousin, named Sean O’Malley. Sean is a marathon runner competing at the … at the … you know, the city and year of these Olympics are never mentioned. Sports City was written in 1992, when the Summer Olympics were held in Barcelona, Spain, but the boys are only “a thousand miles from home” (2). The 1996 Coca-Cola Games — er, Olympics — were held in Atlanta, which is a little under 900 miles from New York. That’s close enough, and unless Frank and Joe went back in time to the 1904 Olympics, held in St. Louis, I don’t think we’re going to find a Summer Olympic venue that fits that description better. On the other hand, the Tuscarawas River is mentioned as a site near the Games, and that’s in eastern Ohio, so who knows?

Frank, Joe, and Chet are at the Olympics to watch Sean, but that doesn’t stop them from getting tickets to the plum events: the decathlon, gymnastics, and front-row tickets for men’s basketball. Men’s basketball! In 1992, no Olympic event was more anticipated than men’s basketball, as the U.S. team featured professional players for the first time. It was a team of legends: of the twelve team members, only then-collegian Christian Laettner is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but he is — like eight of his teammates — in the College Basketball Hall of Fame. They were stars, with opponents seemingly more interested in getting photos with the Dream Team than beating them; they were dominant on their way to the gold, with their closest game being a 32-point whipping of Croatia for the gold medal. The team playing in Atlanta four years later (still called the Dream Team) was not as impressive, but it had five holdovers and another five Basketball Hall of Famers on its twelve-man roster. That Dream Team also went undefeated, with its narrowest victory a 22-point win over Lithuania; unlike the original, the 1996 version didn’t score 100 points every game — they topped the century mark only four out of eight times, and their lowest point total was 87.

Also: according to Charles Barkley, the 1992 Dream Team received death threats, making my discussion of the team even more appropriate for this book. (It’ll become apparent why later.)

Anyway, Joe holds onto the envelope with tickets as if it “held a couple of thousand dollar bills” (2). He’d better; I think the tickets might be worth more than a couple grand to scalpers. The envelope also holds tickets to gymnastics — always a hot ticket — and the decathlon. Chet (or Sean!) must really have some pull!

When Chet meets up with the Hardys, he’s cramming three ice-cream sandwiches into his face, concerned about a threatening letter sent to the chairman of the Olympic Committee, threatening to set an Olympic record by killing 53 people. (The real record is 11, when Palestinian terrorist group Black September killed 11 Israelis during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Anti-abortion terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph killed two non-athletes by bombing Centennial Park during the ’96 Olympics.) Fifty-three happens to be the number of marathon runners, explaining Chet’s extreme nervousness.

Sabotage looks to be on the program, as the lighting of the Olympic cauldron causes an explosion that knocks the torchbearer down the stairs. (The ’92 Olympic cauldron was lit by a flaming arrow, which was extremely cool; in ’96, Muhammad Ali, visibly affected by Parkinson’s, lit the cauldron. Sending Ali tumbling down the stairs would have been a tragedy.) Joe immediately pronounces the man dead from across the stadium. He’s wrong, of course; no one dies in a Hardy Boys book.

Despite the accident and death threat, Frank, Joe, and Chet are allowed to stroll through the Olympic Village to meet Sean for lunch (at a restaurant called “Track Meat”). During the meal, Frank realizes the marathon event has 53 entrants, which does nothing to reassure Sean. Chet recommends the Hardys, whom the narrator says have “earned reputations as hot young detectives” (2), to investigate the threats. Sure, why not? I can’t think of any difficulties that would be caused by their usual slipshod manner of investigation at one of the world’s premiere events. Security? Language difficulties? These trifles do not concern the Hardys! Sean thinks he can get security clearance for the Hardys through his coach. This works almost immediately, with the head of Olympic security giving them both security and athlete passes.

The next day, the swimming events are canceled because of an overabundance of chlorine in the water. (In the 2016 Rio Olympics, a pool’s water turned green because of a lack of chlorine.) Joe thinks this smacks of a “huge terrorist plot. International maybe” (19), which, sure — overcholorinating water is one of the biggest avenues of international terrorism. That’s why you have to sign a registry to buy chlorine — or at least that’s what the guy down at the pool supply store tells me. Anyway, the only witness falsely IDs a swimmer, so Frank and Joe give up on that angle. Joe doesn’t think the “terrorist” is an athlete, which Frank agrees with in the most awkward way possible: “I knew I was related to you for a good reason” (28). The reason you’re related to him is because your father inseminated your mother twice, dipstick.

Fortunately for Frank and Joe, the sabotage escalates. The uneven bars are greased, causing a Chinese athlete to injure himself. Sean and his roommate get a threatening note. Frank thinks another marathoner might be trying to scare off his competition, so Frank and Joe start looking into the field, particularly the frontrunner, Maddox “Mad Dog” Pomereau. They learn nothing, but during lunch, they meet Sean’s Swedish swimming athlete-with-benefits, Sigrid. (Well, that’s my interpretation, anyway.) Sigrid has a mad-on for Olympic officials after a failed appeal in the previous Olympics, so Frank and Joe expand their suspect pool to the female half of the Olympic population. Later, a flash of anger and getting caught snooping in a locker causes the brothers to consider American boxer Charles “Chili Pepper” Morgan as a suspect.

As you can tell, Frank and Joe have no idea who to investigate.

After a hit-and-run incident, Sean’s roommate is forced to miss the race. The next day, Frank, Joe, and Chet are in the stadium, watching the decathlon while waiting for the marathoners. The standout decathlete is American Adam Conner, an ambidextrous athlete who has somehow overcome his weak events while his twin, Cory, had to abandon his decathlon dreams after an injury; Cory is pursuing a career in awful announcing. Adam wins the event with a record 9,100 points — and as the current world record, set in 2015 by Ashton Eaton, is 9,045, it would still be the world (and Olympic) record.

Sean and Mad Dog lead the marathon, with most of the rest not getting much attention. Most of those mentioned are American or European, with only one “African” (66) runner mentioned; Today, Africans — particularly East Africans — dominate marathoning, but that wasn’t the case at the ’92 Olympics; Hwang Young-Cho, from South Korea, took the gold, and Koichi Morishita, a Japanese runner, took the silver. (Germany’s Stephan Freigang finished third.) But East Asians dominated the event, with Japan placing three of the top eight runners and South Korea taking two of the top ten. The only African runner in the top 20 was Salah Kokaich from Morocco; he finished sixth. By the ’96 Olympics, the demographics had changed again, with the medals being taken by Josia Thugwane (South Africa), Lee Bong-Ju (South Korea), and Erick Wainaina (Kenya) respectively. But in 2000, a trio of Ethiopians swept the medals; in 2008, it went Kenya, Morocco, and Ethiopia. In the last two Olympics, the only non-African nation to take a medal was the US, which snagged bronze in 2016.

Anyway, Mad Dog edges out Sean, and an unnamed Nigerian finishes third. Frank and Joe lose their balance in the crowd’s excitement. (Joe gets his concussion for the book.) Smelling conspiracy, they look for the terrorists but find no one. Later, in Sean’s room, they find a cake decorated with shamrocks and Olympic symbols; suspecting nothing, they dig in. But the cake is a lie laced with knockout drops. While they’re unconscious, someone steals the cake, the Hardys’ wallets, and both sets of Olympic IDs. In a low point, a security guard prevents Frank from claiming the cake, found in the garbage, as evidence. Joe happens across Sigrid, but she’s obviously not their suspect. And just to reassure regular readers, Joe gets attacked by a Great Dane, the dog of Cory’s video editor, Vinnie. Vinnie claims he’s been ordered not to let the boys see any video.

In a rare bit of decent detecting, Frank and Joe try role-playing to figure out who the culprit is. That doesn’t really work, but the watermark on one of the threatening notes matches those from the broadcast center. Later, they get a call from someone who has info on the culprit; Frank and Joe inform the security head the next day when they get replacement IDs. Catherine Barton, the head of security, in turn informs the FBI. (The Feebs in turn have informed Barton that Sean’s roommate was hit by a drunk, not a terrorist.) The FBI has already noticed the watermark clue — sorry, Frank! It’s almost as if the FBI has investigated crimes before!

As it turns out, the tip was a waste of the Hardys’ (and the FBI’s) time. On the way back to the Olympics, the brothers run out of gas on the railroad tracks, and their car is hit by a train. Frank and Joe are delayed for hours — hours! — answering questions after having caused a train accident. That’s somewhat accurate, at least. They also have to apologize for the destruction of one of security’s cars, which seems a bit light.

But in a discussion with Chet, Frank has a brainstorm: The Conners are the culprits, making threats and pulling pranks to cover for Cory’s impersonation of Adam in Adam’s weak events. After breaking into Cory’s room and convincing Vinnie to let them see some tape (Vinnie doesn’t resist much, to be fair), they’re convinced that Adam’s ambidexterity is an excuse to conceal Cory’s different handedness. Afterward, the Hardys are attacked by two masked men about the Conners’ height; they’re saved by a wandering security guard.

The next day, the Hardys convince the IOC to give them a hearing. All their evidence is circumstantial, leaving the Conners smirking, but when Frank notices Cory’s tie was tied in a right-handed style forty minutes after it was tied left-handed. Cory immediately crumbles, and the twins confess to everything except pushing Frank and Joe during the marathon. (That was just crowd enthusiasm.)

Justice wins, and Frank and Joe are victorious! Chet has a silver medalist in the family! But unfortunately, he has no photos of the Olympics, even though he was snapping away throughout the events — he forgot to load his camera. [sad trombone] Oh, Chet, all you’re good for is giving Frank and Joe opportunities to show their awesomeness!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew: The Big Lie

Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew: The Big Lie coverIn Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie, the teen detectives are forced to investigate a crime that hits closer to home than usual.

As Big Lie begins, Frank and Joe are suspected of murdering their father, Fenton, a Bayport police detective who had been arrested on corruption charges. Although the brothers aren’t arrested themselves, the suspicion has caused them to lose their girlfriends, their chums, and their jobs. Nancy Drew, however, offers help for her own reasons, and the three set out to infiltrate Bayport’s underworld and unravel who is behind the death of Fenton Hardy.

Hardy Boys fans will recognize The Big Lie’s setting. Bayport is a crime-ridden burg, with a police force headed by Chief Collig, and Frank and Joe Hardy battle against lawbreakers — with the help of Nancy Drew, like in the Super Mystery series. But this is not the Bayport from the original series or from the Casefiles or any other sequel series. The city has a tourist-trap, postcard-perfect reputation that doesn’t gibe with the relentlessly generic city of 50,000 the boys inhabited in their own books.

The changes don’t stop with the feel of Bayport. In The Big Lie, Fenton worked for the police, not as a private detective. Frank and Joe’s part-time job is at a lobster restaurant, not as amateur or assistant PIs. Chet and the rest of the chums are nowhere to be seen, and Callie and Iola are glimpsed mostly in shadow; Iola’s name doesn’t ever appear in the book. Nancy’s supporting cast, save for her father and a couple of flashback panels with George, is similarly absent. Fans looking for Easter eggs and references to the classic series will likely be disappointed; the Old Mill (from Hardy Boys #3, The Secret of the Old Mill) makes a cameo, repurposed into an inn, but that’s it. The plot gives writer Anthony Del Col opportunities to insert other Hardys characters into the story — for instance, Peterson, the less competent Bayport detective, could have easily been Oscar Smuff or Con Riley — but he refuses the offers.

Instead, Del Col has made Bayport into a pan-Stratemeyer Syndicate city. In addition to teaming up with Nancy Drew, the Hardys attend a party hosted by the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift makes several appearances, and the Rover Boys — the Hardys’ even more rambunctious forebears — are vital to the plot. The inclusion of these other series characters elevates the story into something unique, although a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew fan may feel like the story is more missable because of it; this is not the world the characters usually inhabit, after all. The characterizations for supporting characters also get shaped into the holes they are meant to fit into; Chief Collig, for instance, is depicted as too much of a thug, smacking Frank’s head against a table during interrogation.

The Big Lie is not a noir series, no matter how the publisher, Dynamite, tries to sell it. Frank, Joe, and Nancy are fundamentally good people, not morally compromised in any way; they are forced to realize their fathers aren’t who they thought, but that’s part of most people’s maturation process. Nancy is not a femme fatale; Frank and Joe are not hardboiled detectives. (Nor is Nancy, and Frank and Joe are not hommes homicides.) Few characters are out-and-out cruel, and although the heroes run cons on the criminals, the reader doesn’t get the feeling that any betrayals that happen within the story have much of an impact — save, of course, for the teenagers’ revelation that fathers aren’t who they seem to be. (Mothers seem to be, though.) A revelation of infidelity before the story begins actually weakens the story, decreasing the impact of the faithless character’s greater crimes.

On the other hand, the story’s level of violence, featuring shootings and murders, is much higher than the typical juvenile, though in retrospect the number of concussions and poisonings the Hardys endure is shocking. The Big Lie, at least, imbues each blow with power and shock; punches have consequences, and Werther Dell’Edera’s art gets across the brutality in a way that the softboiled narration of a juvenile series cannot. Even after the violence, Dell’Edera’s art shows the impact of violence; Nancy being interviewed with the blood of a shooting victim still on her hands is an effective image.

Del Col gives the reader backstory and narration through first-person text boxes, with the point of view shifting between the three protagonists throughout the story. The different narrators are denoted by different color boxes, and the shift between them comes between issues … mostly. Switching between points of view waters down the narrative voice, however, and it’s easy to miss the switch between them because they are colored with weak pastels, and the colors denoting each character aren’t consistent throughout the series.

The mystery itself is better than most of the plots in the Hardy canon or in the spinoffs — if, for no other reason, the story seems to have consequences within The Big Lie’s world. By taking away the protagonists’ usual supporting casts, however, Del Col shrunk the suspect pool to a suspect puddle, where the guilty can be deduced because they are simply the only people left. Pages spent on the heroes’ convoluted infiltration of a could have been better used for straightforward investigation, leading the detectives down blind alleys with false leads. Tom Swift’s aid is integral to the plot, but he is less a character than a plot device; despite his importance, he appears in few panels and doesn’t have a single speech bubble.

The name given to the secret organization behind the crimes, given in the denouement, is perfect, though.

Dell’Edera’s art is heavy on shadow and frequently light on detail, appropriate choices for a series in which motivations are obscured and iconic status makes it hard to pin down detailed descriptions. I don’t care for Frank or Joe’s haircuts, but they are teenagers — bad haircuts come with that territory. (I do enjoy Nancy’s multiple earrings in one ear: fitting for a girl just beginning to rebel.) As I mentioned before, the fisticuffs in The Big Lie are more visceral than in any Hardy Boys book. Dell’Edera saves his best work for the Rover Boys, particularly the two older ones, Ricky and Teo: Ricky’s a natty dresser, and Teo is a rough, occasionally frightening thug. Colorist Stefano Simeone has chosen a primarily pastel color palette, which is a mistake, I think; it matches the color boxes, but the weaker colors dilute some of the art’s effect.

Fay Dalton’s covers are fantastic; I don’t know if they can be bought as prints, but they would make great gifts for Nancy Drew fans (especially the cover for #3). The covers combine retro styling with a great sense of who the characters are, managing to create a nostalgia not for what the characters ever were but for what they might have been, had their stories possessed a harder or clearer edge. Dynamite’s decision to include the covers only at the back of the collection, lost among the series’ variant covers, is criminal.

This The Big Lie should be a diverting journey for those a fondness for nostalgia, and it could pique the interest of fans of crime comics. I’m not sure whether the series has legs; everything is wrapped up very neatly, and The Big Lie makes no mention of a sequel series.


Friday, February 9, 2018

The Demolition Mission (#112)

The Demolition Mission coverThe Demolition Mission is, in some ways, an old-school Hardy Boys book.

The opening pages promise a certain kind of Hardy Boys story as Chet pulls up to the Hardy home in a POS jeep he’s just purchased through some “pretty shrewd dealing” (2). Predictably, the brakes don’t work, and as he is about to crash into the Hardys’ van, he and Joe manage to have a conversation during the split-second crisis — yelling complete sentences at each other, with Joe next to the van and Chet in the jeep’s driver’s seat. The conversation is a little lacking; Joe and Chet don’t digress into a discussion on the ontology of perception — how can we know the imminent collision, for instance, is truly real? It’s a missed opportunity here for the Dixon 5000 writing machine.

But Mission isn’t about how Chet got ripped off (although he probably did): It’s about how Fenton fobs Frank and Joe off on a client, and then Frank and Joe wanders around Bayport for 125 pages, wrecking cars and getting the snot knocked out of them.

Five concussions (of the knocked cold variety). Three car accidents, one of them in which the jeep is knocked off a hillside (and no one is hurt, despite lax seat-belt safety) and another one caused by a literal bomb inside a racecar. That crash count ignores Joe’s demolition derby practice, when his car gets T-boned and knocked on the passenger-side door. Callie is kidnapped, a villain tries to kill the Hardys through smoke inhalation (but they escapes because of Joe’s knot lore), and the heroes explore (semi-)secret tunnels. The boys fortuitously overhear a criminal conversation at a diner, but they miss an important clue about identity of the speakers. Really, all that would be needed for Hardy Boys Blackout Bingo would be a sudden storm and a trip on Barmet Bay in which the boat malfunctioned (preferably simultaneously).

Anyway: Fenton is working for the Treasury Department, so Frank and Joe are asked — not hired, really, since no one mentions money — by engineer Felix Stock to protect his new high-performance car, the Saurion, ahead of a race against Miyagi Motors’ Sata Speedster at Bayport Motor Speedway. This is what is known as a bad decision: within an hour of Frank, Joe, and Chet’s arrival, Joe destroys the Saurion’s transmission to save his own life during a sabotage attempt, then the car is stolen. Crackerjack work, boys. While everyone is looking for the Saurion, all the shelving in Stock’s parts warehouse are knocked over, domino-style, and Joe allows the culprit to get away without even an idea of how the escape was made.

Felix has no confidence in the cops, so he doubles down on his Hardys reliance. The police show up only when Con Riley arrests Chet for a crime Con knows Chet didn’t commit. (The book can’t even decide whether Riley is an “officer” [60] or “detective” [115 and 141].) Frank and Joe know the cops are most useful off the page, though. I mean, in the digital world of the ‘90s, it’s easy for the Hardys to get help from the police to identify fingerprints: After snapping an “electronic picture” of the print, Frank “transfer(s) the signals from the digital disk into our laptop fax machine, then send(s) it through the modem” to the police (91-2). Simple!

As a side note: Man, Bayport’s criminal ecology is fascinating: the police are ineffectual and the city’s best crimefighter has graduated to bigger ponds, so the city should be flooded with criminal rackets. And it is! But these rackets are so pathetic teenage boys outwit them continually. Perhaps we’re seeing the Hardys prey upon the lowest strata of criminal enterprise, the weakest of the villainous herd that are sacrificed so the rest may thrive. I would love to read an exposé, but Bayport’s various newspapers — the Examiner is mentioned in this one, although Callie is no longer a stringer there as she was in The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) — are not up to the task. The Third Estate’s weakness is another symptom of the rot that has set into Bayport society.

At the Circuit Diner on Shore Road, the boys overhear a threat against Katie by key employees of the demolition derby, which will be held the day before the Saurion / Speedster race. The boys’ tour of Miyagi Motors, where Callie is interning, reveals nothing, but a robot arm pimp slaps Frank. (This is probable concussion #1.) It’s just an accident! Nothing to see here! Definitely nothing to report to OSHA.

On the way back to the speedway, Chet’s jeep is forced off the road by a white panel truck. Callie falls out of the jeep while it careens down a hillside, but neither she nor anyone else is hurt. (Auto accident #1; Callie is “dazed,” but I made an executive decision that it isn’t a concussion.) When the Hardys get back home, Fenton is there, but Frank and Joe ask for no help from him, other than to use his computer to run license plates. The plates don’t exist, which means the criminal has access to license plate counterfeiting equipment. Nothing comes of this.

What should be vitally important, though, is that Frank and Joe have found a random bit of electronic equipment near Felix’s garage. The next day, Grayson’s Electronics identify it as a radio-control circuit. Given that the Saurion had a sudden malfunction when Joe was driving and another prototype has a sudden, dangerous malfunction later (auto accident #2), RC criminals should be the obvious culprits. It takes three concussions for Frank to put it all together, though.

Instead, Joe joins the demolition derby to spy on derby coordinator Dwain Rusk, who they overheard at the diner. In a practice session, Joe’s junker gets knocked on its passenger-side door because Joe doesn’t know the rules. Joe survives by getting into the back seat just before the collision. (I have no idea how that works, and I can’t recommend it as a safety procedure.) When Rusk says Joe has guts, Joe “[tries] to look modest” (69), which suggests he fails to look modest.

After lunch, Frank realizes the Saurion may be hidden in the raceway’s underground tunnels and is so excited he blunders immediately into a pit in a darkened shed; Joe follows him into the inky void (concussions #2 and 3). Joe, in fact, hits the concrete floor so hard he forgets he’s carrying a penlight and then “rouses” Frank by slapping him, which can’t be good for brain health. But the boys find the car and the thief; unfortunately, the thief gets the drop on them with a flare gun, has Joe tie up Frank, then bops Joe on the head. (Concussion #4, and Joe’s second in an hour.) The helmeted crook lights a fire to kill the boys through smoke inhalation, but before they are overcome, Frank frees himself from Joe’s “slipknots” (83), and the boys escape with the Saurion.

The double concussion and smoke inhalation don’t stop Joe from driving in the demolition derby a few hours later. Why should they?

Frank, though, is concerned about Callie’s absence. He receives a note from her explaining the delay, but it’s not written in her handwriting. He figures out that Felix’s shift former mechanic, Marvin Tarpley, was around when Callie was last seen; when he confronts Tarpley, the mechanic intimates he stuffed her into the trunk of the junker Joe’s driving in the derby. To save Callie, Frank gets Joe to throw in the towel, even though he was one of only two drivers left.

Callie’s sangfroid is amazing. She’s abducted, then stuffed into a dark trunk and jounced around who knows where. This should be traumatic! But her reaction after being freed from the trunk? “‘When you invited me to the demolition derby,’ she said dryly … ‘I never thought I was going to be demolished.’”

This sort of emotional reserve is shared by other characters. When Joe drives the car for less than five minutes and destroys its transmission, no one — not the car’s designer, and not the car’s usual driver, Katie — is angry at him; they completely believe his contention that the only way to stop the malfunctioning car was to shift it into reverse while it was traveling at full speed. (Remember: this happens within an hour of Felix meeting the boys.) I mean, I might believe Joe’s assertions about what the car did, but seeing the state-of-the-art machine I designed, built, and staked my business on destroyed by a teenager would at least rattle me. I imagine I would be somewhere between screaming curses at the kid and wailing sobs, but that’s just me.

I’m not saying the book doesn’t portray people’s reactions to crises convincingly; no no no. I’m saying the lesson this book tries to teach kids is that keeping your cool is the ultimate virtue. And also that crashing cars is kinda cool.

Frank and Joe run into Tarpley the next morning after a little B&E in one of the speedway owner’s office. The boys get away with just a blow from a tire iron to Frank’s shoulder; Tarpley just gets away. Frank shrugs off the injury. But the boys discover Katie helped Tarpley escape, which means Joe gets to drive the Saurion in the big race. Frank says one of Joe’s ambitions is to drive in the Indy 500 (64), but that doesn’t mean he’s qualified. Felix is in a bind, though, and Joe’s right there — and when the Hardys visit Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Double Jeopardy (#181), Joe does get to drive an F1 car (and claims to have driven an Indy car previously), so obviously Joe has a skill: conning people into letting him drive race cars.

(Cringeworthy moment: Felix admits the reason he hired Katie to drive was because he had a crush on her. Ewwww.)

While Joe, Chet, and Felix get ready for the race, Frank investigates other leads, then gets drawn into a trap by the most convincing lie of all: that was in another car crash. Once he’s trapped, Frank is conked on the noggin for concussion #5 (third for him). While the race is roaring along, Frank comes to, escapes easily from the raceway’s tunnels, and tracks down the villains — Katie, Tarpley, and one of the speedway’s owners — with Callie and Chet.

They snatch away the controls, but a bomb has been set to explode in the car 77 minutes after the race’s beginning. Seventy-seven minutes gives Joe long enough to win the race — seems like poor planning to me: why cut it close? Why not have it explode long before then? — and the bomb takes out only the brakes. Joe survives the crash, and everything turns out OK. (At least until the chronic traumatic encephalopathy sets in during the Hardys’ forties.)

The three villains reveal they were sabotaging the Saurion to get control of Felix’s automotive intellectual property and the track itself, but that’s not important, nor is their double crossings, which don’t make any real sense. The important bit is that Frank and Joe were hit on the head several times, there were car crashes, and no one got too upset about it later.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Three Investigators: The Secret of Skeleton Island

I admit, to my shame: I am not a one-juvenile-mystery-series man. I also dabble in reading the Three Investigators series. When I was a kid, the Three Investigators were my drug of choice when I ran out of the pure Hardy stuff. However, since the Three Investigators were a sideline, even though I read a lot of the volumes as a child, I have no idea which ones now.

But fortunately, my local library system has several Three Investigators books, and from time to time I indulge my sense of nostalgia by picking up a book. At the end of last year, on a whim, I put a hold on The Secret of Skeleton Island, the sixth book in the series; while returning home from the library with the book, I explained to my wife that the Three Investigators were very different from the Hardy Boys, especially in the ‘60s, when the Three Investigators series began.

The Three Investigators are, like the Hardys ostensibly are, a bunch of middle-class teens who investigate crimes. Unlike the Hardys, Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews, and Pete Crenshaw didn’t trot the globe. They stuck mainly to Southern California for their setting, and they got around the area mainly by riding their bicycles. Two of them had semi-regular employment. (Maybe three, but I can’t remember whether Second Investigator Pete had to work.) Unlike the Hardys, they didn’t have their father, his assistants, or the police at their beck and call to assist them; the Three Investigators had to rely on the clever Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup, in which they called five friends and offered them a reward for specific info, and if those friends didn’t have it, the friends were instructed to call five more friends and ask them. (And those second-degree friends would each ask five more friends, and those friends would ask five more, etc. etc.) It was — if such a thing could be said without snickering — a more realistic approach to teenage crimefighting.

(On the other hand, there’s a limousine the boys summoned when they needed it, and they knew director Alfred Hitchcock, who listened to their reports, introduced the books, and often referred their services to others. Realism only goes so far when it comes to the pre-teen literary crowd, I suppose.)

The Secret of Skeleton Island, published in 1966, contradicts everything I said to my wife, without even a how-do-you-do. Author and series creator Robert Arthur sends the boys to a film set on the East Coast so the boys can be filmed scuba diving, with the proposed short film giving the movie crew a way to generate a little extra revenue and stay in practice while a location setting is rebuilt. In reality, though, the boys are undercover investigators, trying to figure out why the set is being sabotaged and discover (if necessary) the secret of the ghost that haunts the island the movie crew is working on. Also: the island (or the waters around it) have a pirate treasure.

This is a Hardy Boys plot; honestly, it’s as if Arthur stole the Hardy Boys writing machine (the Dixon 5000) from the Stratemeyer Syndicate for an afternoon, fired it up for a single plot, and then put it back before anyone realized it was missing. He probably didn’t have the time or inclination to read the instructions; he didn’t realize you have to cycle the Dixon 5000 through a lot of runs before you get to anything approaching an original plot.

The pirate treasure and scuba diving on the East Coast is straight out The Secret of Pirates’ Hill (#36), which came out a decade before this book, and Arthur does not significantly improve on that story. (He does add some bits of verisimilitude, like the tides spreading and hiding the treasure, but that change is more than ignorable.) The title itself is more than reminiscent of the book after Pirates’ Hill, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37). Like Skeleton Rock, Skeleton Island mentions the supernatural without doing anything to develop the concept; the “ghost” in Skeleton Island is soon exposed as a hoax. The Three Investigators series often does better with the supernatural, usually building an eerie frisson between hard reality and the possibility of the strange, but any possibility of weirdness is dashed early in Skeleton Island in favor of a humdrum mystery.

The “undercover on a movie set” idea was used in the revised The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21), although that was released a few years after Skeleton Rock. (Ironically, the Hardys had to head west to get on a movie set, while the Three Investigators head east.) While the Three Investigators work this case for Alfred Hitchcock, the boys’ jobs — and their guardians, for the most part — remain completely unmentioned. The kids’ undercover identity is immediately blown, and they are put in jeopardy both by their own stupidity (jumping into a car with the first person who calls their name) and adults’ (using a party line without realizing it’s not a private line — stupid California elites). These are classic Hardy moves, and this echoes many adventures; probably the first time was when Frank and Joe hopped into a strange man’s car while traveling west during the original Hunting for Hidden Gold (#5).

In Skeleton Island, the Three Investigators are rescued by Christos, their own earnest, amusing ethnic sidekick for the adventure. The helpful local color is a feature in many Hardy Boy adventures; The Mystery at Devil’s Paw (#38) might be the relevant reference for this one, but there are so many to choose from. The sidekick is even a Greek kid in America, just like Evangelos Pandroplolos in The Shattered Helmet (#52), although Helmet was published after Skeleton Island. (I can’t imagine that the Stratemeyer Syndicate was copying Arthur in any way; I think Arthur just stumbled on a Hardy Boys element before the Hardy Boys series itself did.)

Like many Hardy Boys stories, most of the adventure happens on the water or on small islands in a backwater arm of the Atlantic. (Christos has his own boat, which is sunk in an “accident.”) On the other hand, like the worst of the Hardy Boys stories, the story is divorced from any of the quirks and fun of the boys’ home setting that gives the series its distinctive flavor. Just like in a Hardy Boys book, the adults, who include one of the Three Investigators’ father, are ineffectual, unable to find any clues as to what’s going on. The adults — including the police — contribute nothing, not even serving as decent blocking figures. There’s even a character with the last name “Morton,” for Fenton’s sake.

Skeleton Island isn’t a complete rip-off of the Hardy Boys, even given the similarities. The characters are just different enough to keep the outlines from matching up everywhere. As always, the Three Investigators have too much ratiocination to allow anyone to mistake one of their plots for a Hardy Boys story; for instance, Jupiter, the smart member of the Three Investigators, manages to solve the crime before anyone is captured by the bad guys. (However, because he’s the fat, unathletic one — and because he has a cold — Jupiter gets left behind and has to summon the authorities to bail everyone out, just like the overweight Chet Morton.) The book eventually disdains gold doubloons from the 18th century as mere trinkets, baubles only worth anything if gathered in quantity, whereas a Hardy Boys book would treat them as significant souvenirs if not major treasures.

(The Hardy Boys are right on this one: a Spanish doubloon was made of gold. Today, the forty doubloons found by Christos, Pete, and Bob would be worth around $50,000 just from the value of their gold, let alone their historical value. Admittedly, gold’s value has outpaced inflation over the last quarter century, as that amount of gold in 1966 would be worth only around $1,400 — about $10,000 in 2017 money.)

Part of me wonders if Arthur, because of sales or editorial pressure, decided to make a more deliberately Hardy-like book. “All right,” I imagine him saying, cracking his knuckles over his typewriter, “if the Hardy Boys are so damn popular, then by Holmes, I’ll give them a Hardy boys book! But it will be a better book than any Hardy Boys book!” (Then in my mind he cackles maniacally, but I doubt Arthur was a cackler. He was a pro.)

In any event, the results are disappointing. I would say that a dud of this magnitude this soon in a series — this is #6 — could signal imminent cancellation. But the Three Investigators lasted for 43 books, almost a quarter of a century, and outlived their patron, Alfred Hitchcock. (He was replaced by the fictional Hector Sebastian in later books and in revisions of the early volumes.) Better days are ahead for Jupiter, Pete, and Bob, and even though I might not write about them, I’ll enjoy reading them.