Friday, November 18, 2016

The Secret of Skeleton Reef (#144)

The Secret of Skeleton Reef coverThings work out when you’re a Hardy.

You get stuff, not for what you do but for who you are. Well, maybe not so much stuff — stuff can be stolen, as the Hardys know, or broken or exploded — but experiences. Work hard, or work not at all, and the vacations to exotic places (and the equipment needed to fully enjoy that vacation) are handed to you. Want an internship? A chance to be on TV or on stage? Just wait, and you shall be rewarded.

The Hardys’ reward in The Secret of Skeleton Reef is a trip to St. Lucia, a Caribbean island of about 180,000 people. How did Frank and Joe get to this little island paradise? Their new friend, Jamal Hawkins, invited them down to his uncle’s bungalow on the island. Jamal also flew the brothers and himself down there. Jamal knows competition for Frank and Joe’s friendship is stiff, so he’s pulling out all the stops — he’s on a working holiday while Frank and Joe sit on their fundaments.

And honestly, thank Odin the boys were able to slip away to a tropical paradise. They hadn't been to one since The Treasure at Dolphin Bay (#129), which was fifteen books ago. And they’re not scheduled to go on another tropical vacation until The Caribbean Cruise Caper (#154). After that, they have to wait until Typhoon Island (#180), and they have to go on that trip with their *ugh* girlfriends. To endure that 26-book gap, Frank and Joe have to content themselves with trips to London, Italy, Kenya, and France (twice). Quelle peine!

Skeleton Reef mentions Frank and Joe had gotten to know Jamal on one of their cases, but by now, he’s appeared in two books: Cross-Country Crime (#134) and Slam Dunk Sabotage (#140). (Joe says one of those was their “scariest case yet” [3], but he doesn’t say which that was. The former involves Area 51, and in the latter, Biff gets dosed with rat poison.) Frank is described as “seldom anyone’s fool” (2), but as the last mystery, The Giant Rat of Sumatra (#143), showed, he’s often someone’s punching bag.

The boys’ noses for mystery start twitching when a couple of random guys on the beach tell them they’re part of a treasure-hunting crew, searching Skeleton Reef for a sunken ship … but they are “trying to keep thing quiet” (4). Sure, telling a trio of random boys what you’re doing is a great way to keep things quiet. Loose lips sink ships, guys, and then you can get another ship to salvage that ship.

A local calling herself Auntie Samantha wanders by, offering to tell them a story “if you cross my palm with, oh, just a little bit of coin” (6). This sounds like a come-on — as in, “I’ll tell you this story while naked” — but Frank literally gives Auntie Samantha some pocket change and asks for a pirate story. Whatever turns you on, man. Samantha — the only St. Lucia native the boys engage with during the story — tells them about Rebecca, a 17th-century woman who haunted the pirates who murdered her and stole her diamond necklace. Her ghost is still occasionally seen around the islands, according to Samantha.

As soon as Samantha scuttles off, looking for more men to “tell stories” with, the boys find an unconscious woman in the surf. The narrator notes she wore “only” a bathing-suit top and shorts. As if that’s scandalous! What do you expect someone who washed up on the shore to be wearing? Swimwear, that’s what. I think the narrator was trying to shame the poor girl even as she’s dying.

Frank saves her life — only then does Joe realize “she was tan and pretty” (11) — and they head to the hospital. At the hospital, the girl (name: Chrissy) claims amnesia about how she ended up on the beach, and she begs the boys not to go to the cops. That’s not a problem; Frank and Joe don’t trust first-world cops, so why would they involve some Banana Republic policemen?

The next day, while Jamal ferries passengers around the Caribbean, Frank and Joe check out the treasure-hunting ship, Destiny, whose crew is investigating the sunken Laughing Moon. (I unironically appreciate that name.) While there, the brothers prevent a bear of a man, Lou Brunelli, from flattening a shipmate. Joe, who was evaluating Chrissy the night before, turns his attention to Lou: “Lou … [was] not bad looking as far as bears go” (21). The author has to know what he’s saying there, doesn’t he? I mean, I didn’t know Joe paid attention to bears, and I don’t know if he has a thing for them, but … c’mon.

Frank and Joe learn Chrissy was a member of the crew, but they don’t rat her out. They do offer to look for Chrissy, and while they’re waiting for visiting hours at the hospital, they “notice how relaxed and happy everyone seemed” (26) in the tourist areas. Sure, because why would these simple people be worried about anything? Joe does admit to liking the calypso music, which he also got a kick out of in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37). (Note the similarity in titles; both take place in the Caribbean.)

Chrissy has already fled, though, leaving a pillow-and-sheet shaped form in the bed to confuse people. (Hospitals in St. Lucia don’t use electronic monitors?) Frank and Joe use their failure to infiltrate the Destiny’s crew. When the expedition’s financial backer, Montclare, mishandles the winch lowering the anchor, the rope catches Frank’s leg, and everyone sees “blood oozing through the sock” (37). “Good thing you had socks on,” the captain says (38), which is weird. Can socks prevent steel hawsers from cutting through your leg? Are socks vital safety equipment on boats?

Joe, who is qualified to scuba dive, is allowed to watch the underwater treasure gathering; Joe (and Frank) have done a considerable amount of underwater salvage already in the original Secret Warning (#17). (They also scuba dived in The Secret of Pirates’ Hill [#36].) After being frightened by a shark, Joe witnesses one of the crew secreting gold artifacts in her wetsuit, and Frank verifies she doesn’t hand them over to the government archaeologist on board. This makes the diver, Peg, a suspect in the attack on Chrissy: “As you know, where there’s one crime, there’s often another,” Joe says (51).

Peg, though, professes ignorance about what happened to Chrissy: “No one would be out to get Chrissy. … She’s a nice girl from the States.” Tell that to Natalee Holloway, Peg. Frank allows the line to pass. Hardy Boys novels often feel like they are in their own little bubble — Panic on Gull Island (#107), in which Iola is kidnapped on Spring Break and no one cares, is the bubbliest — but that unchallenged line takes the cake. (Not that locals are out to prey on white girls from the United States. But not being concerned that someone would assault her for being young and female seems oblivious, especially from another woman.)

Another pair of suspects pop up: Rob and Davy, Australian jackasses who try to poach treasure from sunken ships after someone else finds the ship. They offer to hire on the crew, but Capt. Flask says he has no room. When Frank and Joe take their motorboat — actually Jamal’s uncle’s boat — back toward land, Rob and Davy firebomb the boat, alleging that they want Frank and Joe’s spots on the crew. Frank and Joe survive the bombing, but the boat sinks, and Frank’s bleeding leg attracts sharks. Jamal rescues the brothers by trailing a rope from his plane, which is truly stupid; the plane and the rope would be flying by at more than a hundred miles an hour, which would make it hard to catch and harder to hold onto.

Back on land, Frank offers to buy Jamal’s an uncle a brand-new boat. Must be nice to be able to throw that kind of money around. No mention is made of going to the police, because who would want to report destruction of private property and attempted bodily harm against a pair of dangerous jackasses?

Things speed up from there. Someone sends the boys the Black Spot from Treasure Island. The boys’ next step is a bit of investigatory B&E: Frank heads to Montclare’s home, while Joe and Jamal go to Peg’s. Frank steps into Montclare’s home through an unlocked door, and in an interview, he gets Montclare to admit money problems. Joe and Jamal break into Peg (and Chrissy’s) place and are still there when Peg returns; they see her clean the encrusted treasures she stole, then they squeeze through a bathroom window. Jamal marvels over the close escape, prompting Joe to say, “Stick with me, Hawkins … I’ll show you every trick in the book.” Oh, I doubt that, Joe — you tease.

To round out the day, the boys fly over the ocean to find the Destiny. They find it at the wrong end of Skeleton Reef, and someone on deck shoots at them. When they get back to the hangar, they learn Peg stole the treasure for Capt. Flask, who is using the gold to interest outside investors into buying out Montclare and funding a pirate museum. Flask says he’ll replace the loot when he’s done.

The next day, Frank and Joe head out to find Auntie Samantha to see if she knows of another wreck the Destiny might have been near. After being shot at with spear guns — later referred to as warning shots, even though one skims Frank’s head and another grazes Joe’s arm — they find Auntie Samantha, who tells them a sunken Cuban fishing boat is at the other end of Skeleton Reef. The boat had been used to smuggle uranium out of Cuba during the Cold War. The source of the story is the “husband of a woman who was the sister-in-law of a friend of a cousin of my very own mother” (123). Obviously, that’s trustworthy.

When they get back to Jamal’s uncle’s at sunset, Jamal has struck out looking for Chrissy, but Chrissy has found her way back in an attempt to jog her memory. Frank and Joe try to feed her lines to reinforce what they think has happened, but she doesn’t remember any of it. The boys take it as confirmation anyway.

Frank gets a brainwave: He has Chrissy impersonate the ghost Rebecca as they row to the Destiny. While the two St. Lucians with rifles are agog, Jamal and Joe swim to the boat, capture them, and throw the rifles overboard. Unfortunately, Brunelli puts a knife to Frank’s throat, and two other Destiny divers turn the tables on the boys and Chrissy. The trauma does jar Chrissy’s memory: She had joined the uranium hunt but had chickened out after she realized uranium’s destructive power. Brunelli tossed her overboard, and she barely made it to land.

After Joe uses the anchor trick that caused Frank’s injuries on Brunelli, the battle spills over into the water. In a speargun battle that desperately wants to be Thunderball, the boys emerge victorious. Jamal is relieved that he’s still alive and that he’ll actually get a vacation; Joe is so excited he squeezes Jamal’s arm, which is more than Iola gets usually.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Giant Rat of Sumatra (#143)

The Giant Rat of Sumatra coverThe giant rat of Sumatra is a loose end that Arthur Conan Doyle left in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” In that short story, Holmes says, “Matilda Briggs … was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

Obviously, you can’t leave an opening like that and not expect someone to try to stick a story in it, although you might expect people to jump on Matilda Briggs rather than a rodent as a subject for a story. “Sussex Vampire” originally appeared in 1924, and within two decades, a story about the Sumatran rodent was featured on an episode of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio show. Movies and TV shows — including an infamous Doctor Who serial, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” — have used the concept, and at least seven Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels have had titles that include the phrase “giant rat of Sumatra.”

The Hardy Boys book The Giant Rat of Sumatra (#148) makes eight (well, it comes before many of the others, but for dramatic purposes, I put it at the end). Unlike pretty much all the other stories, the Hardys’ “giant rat” isn't a rodent; instead, he’s a gangland leader in Victorian England who is Sherlock Holmes’s chief antagonist in a new off-Broadway musical uncoincidentally named The Giant Rat of Sumatra. I’m not sure a singing Holmes and Watson is a good idea, but then again, whouda thunk a musical about Alexander Hamilton would be so popular?

The play’s author, Donald O’Lunny, comes to Fenton, hoping the Hardy patriarch will look into some vague intimations of sabotage of the play. O’Lunny is unable to come up with any specific problems he’s encountered — translation: The author ran out of time or space to come up with any — but he’s hoping Fenton will help. I assume O’Lunny wants to hire Fenton, but when Mr. Hardy says he can’t help because he’s got a job in Seattle but the boys can step in, no mention is made of, you know, paying Frank and Joe for their help.

Also: the narrator says Fenton has “enlisted the help of his two sons on many tough cases” (2), which was often true when the Stratemeyer Syndicate controlled the books (#1-83 or 85), but it hasn’t happened much in the digests up to this point. Together, the boys and Fenton solved the mystery in The Desert Thieves (#141), but they were on vacation together rather than working one of Fenton’s cases. Fenton fobbed the theatrical sabotage in Reel Thrills (#127) onto his sons and Chet; that time he and Laura were heading to Paris. The last time Fenton wanted Frank and Joe to work on a case with him was Danger in the Fourth Dimension (#118), which was 25 books (and four years) before Giant Rat Before that, the Hardy males worked together in Shield of Fear (#091). So: two mysteries out of nearly 60 … that’s not “many.”

Frank and Joe are sent undercover to the Bayport Orpheum Theater, where Giant Rat is working out the kinks in its preparations for Broadway. Frank’s cover is as O’Lunny’s assistant, while Joe … Joe gets to be an actor, prancing around in the background as one of Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. His mother is very proud of him, but by the end of the story, the other actors (without much malice) tell him he’s not very good. We shouldn’t be too surprised, as readers; when one of the stars explains a rather simple plot to him, “Joe looked stunned” (9) — most likely because the explanation focused on a romantic subplot, and Joe has trouble with this emotion you call “love.” (Joe also says, “I don’t know why they call these things plays. Being in one is hard work, not play” [11]. *ugh* If I could reach you, Joe, I would hurt you.)

Remember, Joe: There are no small parts, just crummy actors. You should have been a stagehand instead.

On opening night, the play has a few small snafus: Some VIPs are given duplicate tickets, and a scenery flat nearly falls on the show’s star as he’s arguing with his Watson. O’Lunny smoothes over the former by finding the displaced theater-goers other seats and inviting them to a champagne reception — one that serves potato chips! — although Frank and Fenton are rude enough that they don’t really deserve it. (Fenton rolls his eyes at the inconvenience, and Frank gets darn near belligerent.) Joe pulls Sherlock Holmes (Charles Battenberg) out of the way of the flat, while Frank and some stagehands catch the flat before it falls.

These incidents don’t rise to the level of sabotage — they’re inconveniences, really, since the flat wasn’t life-threateningly heavy — but it gives the boys an idea of what they’re dealing with. (It also introduces me to the word “shindy,” meaning “a noisy disturbance or quarrel,” which I’ve never seen before.) But if I know anything about a Hardy Boys mystery, it’s that the violence will escalate when the boys start investigating, and usually they’ll be the victims. That’s what happens here, as Frank gets sandbagged — literally — while wandering backstage. He manages to avoid passing out, but he’s woozy and unsteady. No one suggests the emergency room.

Before they go home, the Hardys discover a death threat against Battenberg spray painted on a flat. The custodian sees them in front of the damaged scenery and draws the logical conclusion, but the Hardys talk their way out of things and take a sample of the paint. Later, after Joe uses social engineering to guess the theater’s computer password, Frank and Joe discover the ticketing program (written in BASIC! in 1997!) had been altered to double book seats. Seems This implicates Hector, one of the Irregulars, who is also a computer programmer. Why does he want the play to fail? Well, he was offered a part in a TV pilot but turned it down because he’d accepted the role in Giant Rat already. If the play were to fail … well, he’d be out of a job, since the role in the pilot has probably been recast, but for some reason Frank and Joe think producers hold small roles open indefinitely.

Who else might want the play to fail? Battenberg will have to turn down a movie role to continue with the play. Ewan Gordean, who plays Watson, thinks his friend, Will Robertson, should have been Holmes instead of Battenberg. Li Wei, the lyricist, has a secret meeting with Tertius Lestell, a financial backer Gordean says can’t be trusted, after Gilbert Hornby, the producer cuts her favorite song. Even O’Lunny appears to have paint spatters on his shirt that match the graffiti. (Mr. Hiroto, a forensic chemist Fenton knows, says it’s spray talc. He also makes it clear Frank and Joe are burning one of Fenton’s favors; I wonder what the old man will say about that.)

During the next day’s practice, an effigy of Holmes is hanged in front of the cast. You know, effigies get a bad rap these days; they’re too associated with racism. But I long for the days when you could let the bastards in charge know you weren’t going to take their crap with a crude representation of one of them set on fire in the night, followed by some violent chanted slogans. Mom would hand ‘round the Molotov cocktails …

Anyway, the fishing line used in dropping the effigy seems to implicate Gordean, an avid fisherman. Later in the performance, ammonia is put in the fog machine, which creates hazardous fumes. Villains pulled the same trick in Reel Thrills (#127), although that was on a movie set rather than on the stage. (Is the author the same? Reusing this distinctive trick and shuffling Fenton off while Frank and Joe investigate show-biz sabotage makes Giant Rat seem a lazy copy.) Everyone escapes, but Frank is attacked by one of the Irregulars, Max, after Frank finds the ammonia bottle. Max blames Frank for the prank, which is ridiculous; everything gets smoothed out again.

The sabotage continues, of course. Joe almost falls through an open trap-door meant for Battenberg, but he manages to save himself through his “martial arts training” (89). The light system gets shorted out just before the performance one night. Lestell arrives after a performance to look over everyone’s shoulder, obviously setting up a meeting with someone in the cast or crew; Frank and Joe stake out his hotel the next morning, obviously believing detectives and suspects should keep bankers’ hours. This is the brothers’ most common failing: They like sleep more than mysteries, whatever they say.

As the other suspects get cleared, suspicion slides to Hornby, who’s doing an awful job promoting the play. Well, I say Hornby becomes a suspect, but for some reason, Frank doesn’t twig to the possibility when Hornby yells at Frank for looking at a collection of headshots. Hornby claims they’re private, which is ridiculous: They’re headshots. They’re meant to promote actors and the play. Frank’s a little slow in Giant Rat; later, he’s impressed when Joe quotes the “whenever you’ve eliminated the impossible” line, despite that coming up several times in the past.

But remember: Frank’s been hit hard in the head. He gets conked again on the head and placed, unconscious, on the turntable stage so he’s likely to be crushed; Joe saves him, but Frank gets a long gash on his leg. Frank refuses a hospital visit, although that’s only for the bloody leg wound, not the head injury. Even Frank can’t ignore Hornby as a suspect when he and Joe find an important file has been deleted from the computer — a computer Hornby was one of the few to have access to — although it takes both him and Joe a while to admit it.

Now the game is afoot! (But not before Battenberg accuses Frank of being the saboteur; Frank drops the name of the rarely mentioned Chief Collig to slip the charges. A BPD officer actually calls Frank “Mr. Hardy” [129] after the false accusation.) After a stage gun fires a real bullet, narrowly missing a cast member, Frank and Joe have an incentive to wrap up the mystery. (Frank’s head injury’s hardly constitutes an inducement. I’m beginning to think he likes them.)

When they search the play’s office, the Hardys find all the evidence on the pranks; Hornby sees the jig is up and tries to make a break for it. Like with everything else, Hornby fails, and he’s caught by Joe after the chase spills onto the stage. His motive? Thinking the musical was going down the tubes, he hoped to cash in on a $1 million insurance policy on Battenberg’s availability to play the lead role. With Hornby out of the way, Lestell steps in to make The Giant Rat of Sumatra into a hit. Hornby’s henchman, Max, escapes, and it’s uncertain whether anyone will be bothered to bring him back to face justice.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Lost in Gator Swamp (#142)

Hi! This week I decided to do something different, mainly because it will give me more time to do other things. I bought an app called LitBot 2999 from ConHugeCo, which promises to analyze texts in a real, nearly human-like manner, using electronic sources. I hope you enjoy the results as much as I enjoy the time I’m doing something else!

Lost in Gator Swamp coverSometimes it only takes a few pages to realize how awful a book is. In the case of Lost in Gator Swamp, it takes less than two.

Gator Swamp begins with Frank, Joe, and Chet riding in a hydroplane piloted by Dusty Cole to the Swampland Rodeo in Florida. That sentence has a lot to unpack, like one would unpack a suitcase full of slightly rotten tomatoes and spiders.

“Rodeo” is an inauspicious start. Why would the Hardys wander a thousand miles from home to watch a rodeo, even if it takes place over several days? They have been lured to this rodeo to sate Chet’s burgeoning cattle-roping hobby, but the Hardys themselves have no real interest in the sport. Yes, spending time with a best friend is one thing, but the Hardys don’t have to enable every damn hobby Chet comes up with.

The next bit of trouble is “Florida.” The Hardys have been to Florida before — Panic on Gull Island (#107) was their most recent visit, but they went to the Sunshine State frequently in the ‘80s— and “Florida” goes with rodeo like “pizza” goes with “motor oil.” Florida is more of an agricultural state than those outside of the state usually think, but it’s not a cowboy state, and the area where this rodeo is held — the swamps around Miami — is a thematically poor place to hold a rodeo. It’s also a poor area to be a cattle rancher, and cattle ranching is the occupation associated with rodeo.

Swamps are also an unthematic place for a guy named “Dusty” to be living, as swamps are not dusty locales. Oh, people named Dusty can live in the swamps; that’s no crime. But this particular pilot / rodeo competitor / fishing camp operator, Dusty Cole — the pun is marginally preferable to “Dusty Rhodes” — seems too perfect a fit for the swamps to have gained the nickname Dusty.

It’s true that life isn’t thematically consistent. It isn’t consistent at all, really. But a Hardy Boys book is literature, of a sort. It has needs beyond what is possible. It needs to come together into a coherent whole, and it needs not to make readers ask questions about rodeos in a swamp before they can get into the story.

And then — then! — Franklin W. Dixon uses confusing terminology. “Hydroplane” is usually used to describe a boat, one that has a lifting surface that elevates it out of the water, similar to the ferry Frank and Joe protected in the revised Mystery of the Flying Express (#21). (That ship was a hydrofoil, though.) The term is sometimes misused to describe an airboat, those swamp boats with a big fan in the back. According to Wikipedia [UPGRADE TO SCHOLARLY SOURCES FOR ONLY $20 / MONTH!], though, a hydroplane is sort of a speedboat. The author, on the other hand, thinks a hydroplane is a seaplane, specifically a floatplane — like the plane the Hardys flew in The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42) and were passengers on in the revised Hidden Harbor Mystery (#14). That definition shows up on the Wikipedia disambiguation page for hydroplane, but “floatplane” and “seaplane” are much better terms.

That’s just page 1. On page 2, readers are treated to this ham-handed characterization:

“Egrets!” Frank shouted. He glanced at the travel book he had brought with him from the Bayport Library.
“Anybody else hungry?” Chet asked, stuffing a handful of potato chips into his mouth.

The author makes his point in the most obvious way possible: Frank is studious and boring yet prone to random ejaculations, while Chet eats to get attention; paradoxically, Chet’s constant use of food as a proxy for a personality has caused people to grow tired of Chet’s eating displays. It’s just so disconnected and stupid and lazy and stupid and stupid and stupid and stupid —

(Sorry. LitBot got hung up there, and I can’t get it to restart. I think it may have committed suicide. I’ll have to write the rest myself.

Once the Hardys get to the colorfully and unbelievably named Frog’s Peninsula, they learn a mystery is afoot. A bank has been robbed in Miami, but the airboat the thieves stole for their getaway is found at the bottom of Florida Bay. Everyone thinks the thieves are dead, claimed by the storm that sank their pilfered boat, but not the Hardys! No, no. The Hardys figure the thieves are still around. Clever boys! Unfortunately, they can’t see the thieves, even when they look them in the eyes, and it takes them a while to figure out the bank robbers have stuck around Frog’s Peninsula.

The reader will not be fooled. With weird lights, strange animal behavior in the swamp, and suspiciously acting newcomers, the villains and their motivations couldn’t be more obvious if they wore trucker caps with “Bank Robbers Do It in the Swamp (‘It’ Refers to Searching for Lost Loot)” written on them. In fact, headgear does play an important part in this book: Frank, Joe, and Chet suspect one of the rodeo riders of being a thief because he wears a distinctive cowboy hat that one of the thieves wore. But, as it turns out, hats can be worn by people other than their owners. An astonishing twist!

Frank, Joe, and Chet also spend an inordinate amount of time suspicious of a local Native American, Reuben Tallwalker. Reuben is obsessed with the spiritual and ecological status of the land, yet for some reason the kids think Reuben might be a bank robber. It is not their finest moment. I can only imagine their thinking has been swayed after Reuben makes a slashing gesture across his throat toward the Hardys. (He thinks the Hardys are behind the strange happenings in the swamp.)

So Frank, Joe, and Chet, with help from Reuben and other locals, solve the case. Along the way, Frank and Joe are asked to square dance by a pair of girls, who are never described, never named, and their reactions to their partners taking off after a suspect go unnoted. (While dancing, they “dig for the oyster” [35], which is not as interesting as it sounds.) The boys hit the swamp highlights — they survive a couple of alligator attacks, and Joe almost drowns in quicksand — and steal a pedal boat, which sinks when a disguised robber attacks it. No one gets mad about the theft or lost boat, though; the boat’s owner actually apologizes for getting angry at them.

To his credit, Frank does quickly connect the dots between an alligator stolen from an alligator farm and the big gator that shows up near Dusty’s fishing camp. And when the boys need information about the robbery to continue with their unauthorized, unpaid investigation, Frank comes up with the idea to call Fenton, who can get information from anyone in law enforcement.

No other adults believe their hunches, of course, and Chet and Joe are partially discredited by the thieves’ unexplained bilocation. But they continue with their investigation. Chet and Joe board the thieves’ boat as they are about to recover the lost loot in another storm, and they free a pair of captives from the hold. (Joe gets a job offer from the police officer he frees; unsurprisingly, he ignores the chance to join a backwater police department.) Then, with an advantage of two-to-one over the thieves, they completely botch everything, getting only a partial message to allies before being recaptured. Frank manages to steal — er, borrow — Dusty’s hydroplane and makes it in time to rescue the captives after they are thrown overboard by the thieves. And who do you think catches the bad guys?

The Coast Guard, of course. The Coast Guard cutter’s presence is never explained; it’s doubtful they were summoned, as the people Joe contacted lost their radio during the conversation and were still struggling to get it back when Frank stole the plane. Presumably the Coast Guard was performing storm rescue efforts and happened across the chaotic scene with two boats trying to bring down a hydroplane.

All in all, Gator Swamp is a sad entry in the Hardy Boys series and a rough hour or so of my life when I could have used something uplifting. That’s to say nothing of the effect this book had on LitBot 2099 … Poor LitBot.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Trick-or-Trouble (#175)

Trick-or-Trouble coverRarely have I read a Hardy Boys book I enjoy and respect as much as I have Trick-or-Trouble.

Really, the first fifteen pages are near perfect: lots of playful but slightly cruel patter, camaraderie, and realistic behavior from the teenagers. I mean, I literally laughed with the characters more often than I laughed at them in this book. Trick-or-Trouble is a low-stakes, Bayport-based adventure that remains more-or-less plausible throughout. The teenagers act — more or less — like teenagers, albeit ones who have had their hormones surgically removed. (Although see the end of the entry about that last bit.)

In Trick-or-Trouble, Bayport’s teens are gearing up for a Halloween contest organized by Bayport merchants. Frank and Joe’s friend Daphne Soesbee and her mother have written Halloween- and horror-themed clues that will direct contestants around the city to claim prizes. Most of the prizes are small, but some are impressive, with the top prizes being a motorcycle, classic VW bug, and a reconditioned RV. This is a more sensible plan than most Hardy Boys contests: The clues are given out by merchants, who will also hand out most of the prizes directly, and each contestant will have to show the physical clues that led them to solve the riddles. Since Iola and Chet Morton have volunteered to help Daphne and her mother, who runs the Book Bank (a bookstore located in a former bank, complete with a still functional vault), Frank and Joe team up with Callie to figure out the clues.

This is the first book I’ve covered that Daphne has appeared in, but she also appears in Crime in the Cards (#165) and Warehouse Rumble (#183). (She also comes up in Bayport Buccaneers, the sixteenth Undercover Brothers book. That book, like Warehouse Rumble, has a TV game show based more on physical ability than mental.) As you might guess, the same author wrote all the books with Daphne: According to The Hardy Boys Unofficial Home Page, Stephen D. Sullivan wrote those three digests plus nine more. He also claims to have written Bayport Buccaneers and at least one more Hardy Boys book . Sullivan has written a great deal of licensed work, including Dungeons & Dragons stuff … and holy crap: For those of you who are Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, he wrote the adaptation of Manos: The Hands of Fate.

That last credit is pertinent because Sullivan slips in a lot of horror references in Trick-or-Trouble. To wit:

  • Frank and Joe’s redheaded classmate who attends a costume party as a witch is named Allison Rosenberg. Red-haired Alyson Hannigan played Willow Rosenberg, a witch, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 1997-2003.
  • During a car chase, the Hardys follow a suspect down Howard before their quarry takes a quick turn on Phillips. H(oward) P(hillips) Lovecraft is a legendary but controversial horror writer; he specialized in cosmic horror and created the Cthulhu Mythos in the 1920s.
  • Soon after, the chase takes them down Ashton. This is an allusion to Clark Ashton Smith, a horror writer who corresponded with Lovecraft and also wrote in the Cthulhu mythos.
  • The contest’s celebrity guest of honor is Vincent Blasko. The first name is certainly a reference to long-time horror movie star Vincent Price; I’m not sure what the last name refers to, but it could be a nod to Marvel Comics villain Belasco, a wizard who served the Elder Gods (similar to the ones created by Lovecraft) and ruled a strange dimension where time is non-linear.
  • During the contest, Blasko’s movies are played at the Browning Theater. Tod Browning was a movie director who made many horror films, including the original Dracula and Freaks.
  • One of the businesses participating in the contest is Romero Remodeling. George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, which helped cement zombies in the popular consciousness and changed the creatures from their association with voodoo to a more secular undead monster.
  • Frank, Joe, and Callie win a prize from Corman and Cross Electronics. I don’t know who Cross is, but Corman is a reference to low-budget movie director Roger Corman, who made many sci-fi and horror films during his career, stretching from the ‘50s to the modern day.

I’m probably missing some references, but that should give you an idea of how Sullivan’s mindset. (He also names the blockheaded BPD cop the Hardys run into several times after himself, although Officer Sullivan’s first name is “Gus.”) For some reason he names several streets after Wisconsin cities: Racine, Waukesha, Kenosha. (Probably because he worked for TSR, the company that made Dungeons & Dragons. It was based in Lake Geneva, Wisc., at the time.)

Anyway, to get back to the story … the contest’s opening ceremony / teen dance party is held at the old Niles Mansion, which had fallen on hard times but is being renovated. Of course! Bayport always has a mansion that’s falling apart or otherwise in need of renovation. Frank and Callie go as a gypsy couple, but when they suggest Joe go as a werewolf, Joe says, “Iola doesn’t go for beards” (9).

*cough* Moving right along from that set-up line … At the party, the kids meet their competition: fellow teens Allison Rosenberg, Ren Takei, Brent Jackson, and Missy Gates and Jay Stone. The Hardys are friendly with Allison and Ren, but Brent carries a grudge against Joe resulting from a football rivalry, and he needles Joe about Iola’s absence. (Brent gets the better end of the exchange, which explains why Joe maintains the grudge.) Missy and Jay are part of “a self-styled cybergang who also dabbled in cars and motorcycles” (17). A cybergang! What could I possibly add to that?

During the party, which features a DJ who combines “an eerie mix of techno pop, creepy classical music, horror movie soundtracks, and Halloween novelty tunes” (15), the lights are turned out. Frank and Joe are merely inconvenienced because they have their flashlights. Callie is surprised by this for some reason. Callie, do you know these guys? Their father taught them a half dozen places to conceal a flashlight on the human body; if you’re lucky, maybe Frank will teach you some of them. The power outage does little other than annoy some bats, which are set loose in the mansion, and give some contestants a head start. Later, the trio sees Allison robbed of her clues by a man in a devil mask. Frank nearly catches the thief, but he’s lightly hit by a car driven by Howard “Harley” Bettis, a friend of Missy and Jay’s who now works at Magnum American Motors. (All three were in The Spy That Never Lies, #163.) After being a thug in Spy, it looks like Harley’s trying to go straight — or is his job a cover for criminal activities?

(HINT: Harley will be playing Red Herring for this mystery.)

During the next few days, the Hardys use the Internet to try to decipher clues, with mixed results. At night, from dusk to midnight, Callie, Frank, and Joe hit local stores, winning occasional “instant win” prizes, like free coffee, food, and CDs. (Dusk is earlier in this book than it is today; Trick-or-Trouble was published in 2002, when Daylight Savings Time started on the last Sunday in October rather than the first in November.) Joe shows his poor judgment by eating something called a “clam roll,” which I’d never heard of but is evidently fried clams served in a hot dog bun, at the Kool Kone. Huh. The clam roll evidently has a disastrous effect on Joe, as he gets banned from the Kool Kone for getting into a fight with Brent. This turns out to be irrelevant.

It wouldn’t be a Hardy Boys mystery unless someone tried to inflict bodily harm on the kids. Someone tries to whap them with the blades of an abandoned windmill while they investigate a puzzle clue; later, they are hit with a landslide of pumpkins. Later, the three trail a suspect to a theater, and of course the fire curtain is dropped on them.

The trio visits Tony at Mr. Pizza — hi, Tony! — but he’s no help. At the Book Bank, Chet is lured away with pizza (not from Mr. Pizza, though) so someone can rifle the clues. Frank, Joe, and Callie almost catch the robber, but instead they are locked in the vault and have to wait for Chet to free them. “Man, I hate waiting to be rescued,” Joe says (75); his blasé acceptance of this potentially dangerous situation says a great deal about his life experiences. No clues are missing, though, and since physical clues are needed to claim a prize, this baffles Ms. Soesbee and the teens. With nothing stolen, Ms. Soesbee declines to call the police, citing the adverse publicity. (Since the Bayport Police Department solves nothing, this is a rational decision.)

While the Bayport Chronicle reports on the contest winners — Allison is ahead, having won the VW Bug, a leather jacket, and an MP3 player — the Hardys and Callie have been shut out. When they finally are first to a prize — two pairs of walkie-talkies — they are attacked by a man in a motorcycle helmet who steals a parade float. Frank and Joe swipe another decorated car and chase him through downtown Bayport to Bayshore Drive, following him onto the beach. Unfortunately, their car gets stuck in the sand, and the villain escapes.

Of all the prizes to win, though: Frank and Joe should have no use for walkie-talkies. Instead, they treat the victory like they’ve never even considered owning the devices before.

Frank, Joe, and Callie come across three figures (later revealed to be Allison, Brent, and Ren) trading clues. They aren’t collaborating on solving the clues; they’re just trading extra clues to one another. Callie is incensed by this, saying the three are trying “to fix the contest” (105), but since cooperation is explicitly allowed — Frank, Joe, and Callie are allowed to compete as a team, for instance — I’m not sure what her problem is. Allison tells her the same thing when Callie runs her down, and she’s right.

With the contest running down, Ren begins to give Allison a run for her money, winning a handheld computer, a pager, a skateboard, and Bayport Barons tickets. (I don’t know what sport the Bayport Barons play; I don’t think they’ve ever showed up anywhere else in the series.) On the last night, when Frank, Joe, and Callie show up at Magnum American Motors to claim a prize — a motorcycle helmet — they find Magnum’s owner, Rod Magnum, knocked out on the floor. Callie asks, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to find someone prone and motionless on the floor, “Is he dead?” (126). She’s not concerned; she’s merely asking for information. Later she says, “Blows to the head can be serious” (127), but we all know that’s not the case in a Hardy Boys book, where the words “concussion protocol” are anathema.

The motorcycle that is Magnum’s grand prize for the contest is still there, but someone has stolen his clues. Frank and Joe run down Brent, who fled from Magnum as they arrived. Brent claims he ran because he saw Magnum on the floor and didn’t want to be blamed. The Hardys are unsure whether to believe him; Harley does work at Magnum and is their favorite suspect.

Their chase disrupts the Halloween parade, which prompts an angry mob to head for the Book Bank. Why are people mad at Ms. Soesbee? Because she really pushed for the Halloween contest, and it isn’t going as smoothly as it might. Nothing goes smoothly in Bayport, though, so I’m not sure what these people are hoping for. Vincent Blasko talks them down, the press wanders away in search of another shiny object, and the contest continues.

(Charmingly, Ms. Soesbee’s big commercial concern is a new chain bookstore at the mall. Chain bookstores put a lot of local bookstores out of business, but then those chain bookstores were destroyed by Amazon. It’s the circle of commercial life.)

Callie, Frank, and Joe discover one of the clues has been altered; learning the original wording sends them to the abandoned Northwestern railroad trestle north of town. There, they find the devil-masked man, who turns out to be Ren. He denies altering the clue, saying he’s arrived to claim the prize at the trestle. He offers to split the prize with the Hardys and Callie, but when a motorcycle-riding man shows up and starts swinging a chain at everyone, Ren turns on the Hardys. But flame-resistant Ghost Rider turns on him as well. In the end, Ren and the motorcycle rider are subdued, and Joe finds the prize: the motorcycle, which Rod Magnum, the cut-rate Johnny Blaze, was trying to prevent people from winning.

The mystery is solved. Ren attacked the Hardys and Callie at the windmill and pumpkin farm and stole Allison’s clues to win more prizes; Rod broke into the Book Bank, altered the clue and led the Hardys on a merry car chase through Bayport, faked a head injury, and burned the last night’s clues because he couldn’t afford to give the motorcycle away as a prize. Rod also probably hired Harley as a fall guy if things got too hot. As a reward, Frank, Joe, and Callie are given their choice of flying or boating lessons; both are appropriate for the Hardys (although they should know how to do both). Callie chooses flying lessons. By the next mystery — In Plane Sight, also by Sullivan — both Frank and Joe will have their pilot’s certifications, which Joe finished only because of this prize.

Although I said the teens had their hormones removed, that’s not entirely true. Sullivan hints that some physicality exists between the brothers and their girlfriends. For instance, when Iola teases Joe, she ruffles his hair. Callie puts her hand on Frank’s shoulder and calls him “the best arm in Bayport” when a rival girl (Allison) calls him “a sports hero” (16). Joe offers to take Iola out for a “midnight ride” (59), which is definitely a euphemism. Frank gives Callie “a quick hug,” although that’s after she calls him and Joe “weirdos” (61). Callie returns the favor after she’s told they’ve won either flying or boating lessons.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Kickoff to Danger (#170)

Kickoff to Danger coverYou know, I’ve never considered the idea that I would ever question a Hardy Boy book’s characterization of Biff Hooper, but now I’ve read Kickoff to Danger (#170), and well, that day is here.

Kickoff is a weird title. On one hand, it’s a Bayport-based mystery that uses the Hardys’ chums and supporting cast. Those kinds of mysteries are really my favorites. The book also makes a concession to reality — more than one, really, as not only does Frank leave the football team to take an advanced computer course, but someone outperforms a Hardy on an athletic field. I approve, and if either of those changes would have stuck, I’d have overlooked all the book’s problems.

On the other hand, too many supporting characters are introduced; it would be OK if I expected to see any of them again, but Kickoff will likely be the only appearance for various school personnel and students. And sometimes Kickoff portrays recurring characters all wrong. For instance, Biff Hooper goes along with what the popular kids are doing, which isn’t too out of character, but what the popular kids are doing is bullying everyone else in the school, and Biff participates, even when the bullying involves ganging up on Chet Morton. Iola Morton doesn’t appear in the book despite Chet being accused of whacking Biff in the head with a coal shovel. A subplot in which a meek teacher is run out of school goes nowhere. In another scene, Frank and Callie discuss football like people who have heard of the sport but are unsure of the terminology. Given that it’s debatable whether the kids speak like real teens (or real humans) in the first place, though, maybe I shouldn’t dock a Hardy Boys book for its dialogue.

What pushes the book into “good book” territory is the violence and a random bit of Hardy Boys continuity. For the former, Biff gets whanged so hard with a coal shovel that he’s put in a coma, and later on, someone gets very close to killing him. The two incidents give a bit of extra weight to the events of the book, even if it’s strange the events go from bullying to assault to attempted murder.

The bit of continuity that is dredged up is that Seneca Tech is Bayport’s cross-county football rival. Do you know what book originally revealed that Bayport vs. Seneca Tech is the big game for both squads? The Sinister Sign Post (#15), published way back in 1936. (Kickoff was released in 2001.) And how did that game turn out? Bayport won, with Joe out with an arm injury. Frank was not on the squad at all — just like in Kickoff.

Kickoff begins with Callie and Frank commiserating over the difficulty of trigonometry. (The “commiseration” extends to physicality, as Callie ruffles her boyfriend’s hair. So that’s what they’re calling it these days!) Both are planning on college; in fact, Frank is taking a toughie of a college computer programming course, which is why he isn’t playing football. The course seems to have removed all of Frank’s fun circuits too, as he calls a football player who jumps off a loading dock on his way to practice a “clown” (4). While watching Joe practice, he spells out the plot to Callie: new student Terry Golden is awesome at the footballs, is getting scouted by college programs, and is a giant jackhole whose entourage wants to be the same as he is.

Callie’s reaction? She’s sad because she “liked dating a football hero” (7). You should have thought of Callie, Frank! It’s not every boy who has a girlfriend who will ruffle his hair, if you know what I mean, and I think you don’t.

After practice, Golden gives a puff-piece interview with the Beacon, the school newspaper; after the reporter leaves, he and his cronies bully Chet, snapping their towels at him. Biff helps them, which takes all the fight out of Chet. The next day, Chet’s still feeling the effects — after Golden steals his dessert at lunch, Chet throws in the towel and tries to get in good with the Golden Boys.

After deciding not to head to Mr. Pizza to see Tony Prito, Frank runs into the aftermath of the rivalry that will drive the book: he finds Dan Freeman, debate club champ and Beacon photog, after he has been pantsed by the Golden Boys. Freeman refuses to rat out his attackers, though. The next day, the Golden Boys shove other students around, and they nearly push Phil Cohen down the stairs; only the quick reactions of Joe and Biff save him. (This is Phil’s only appearance in the story, so all you Cohen fanatics better appreciate it.)

Frank and Joe approach the football coach to have him talk to the unruly athletes, but he refuses, which sets the scene for “tragedy.” After a big win vs. Seneca Tech, the Golden Boys stage an elaborate prank in which they steal the debate team’s backpacks; when the debate nerds follow the thieves into the basement, other Golden Boys are there to pummel them. Chet, who thought he was in on the joke, gets beaten too, and when Frank and Joe follow the chaos, they find Chet with a black eye and a coal shovel in his hand, standing over Biff’s unconscious body. Joe considers violating the rules of the Fentonian Mysteries by wiping the fingerprints from the shovel, but Frank — steady, faithful Frank — chastises his brother for his weakness. The evidence is preserved, and surely those who have kept it holy shall be blessed.

Biff is taken to the hospital, and the Hardys learn he was trying to foil the assault on the debate team. (He did a poor job of it, though.) Chet’s taken to police headquarters, and his name is released on the evening news. Mr. and Mrs. Morton come by, in a panic; additionally, Mr. Morton is in a “blue velour jogging — or rather, leisure — suit” (66), which is inexcusable. Honestly, man, have more pride than that. Also: You should shave our head, since you’ve “lost almost all the hair on the top of his head except for a little tuft just over his forehead” (65-6). You’re going bald. Own it.

Fenton gives the Mortons good advice — get a criminal defense lawyer, not a real-estate lawyer — but he gives the information in a jerkish, “haven’t I done enough for your family?” sort of way. The Mortons are not pleased, and Laura calls her husband on his bedside manner.

The school is useless in the investigation, the TV news has no interest in finding another suspect, and the Bayport Police Department is, after all, the Bayport Police Department. Frank and Joe feed Con Riley a lead — the coal shovel should have been filthy, but it was wiped and had only Chet’s fingerprints, meaning someone else had used it and wiped his / her fingerprints — but that goes nowhere. It’s up to Frank and Joe to investigate! They suspect Golden whacked Biff, although they should have suspected one of the nerdlingers: A shovel is a tool, and intelligent creatures use tools, not knuckle-dragging morons.

They are immediately threatened with a shunning, although a weak-minded Golden Boy reveals his co-conspirators by flinching when Joe guesses their names. Coach Devlin belatedly tries “discipline,” although his version of discipline involves — as it often does for middle-aged men physically in charge of young men — yelling and making the boys run. This doesn’t stop one of the larger Golden Boys from taking a swing at Joe; in response, Joe uses “that move [Frank] taught … where you catch the guy’s wrist when he throws a punch and use that to twist his arm” (95), then tries to stuff the attacker into a locker. (The guy won’t fit, sadly.) Nice move, Joe!

But retribution comes: someone throws a 2x4 at the Hardys’ van, shattering the windshield and nearly hitting Callie. After taking Callie home and securing Con’s help, they randomly accuse Golden Boy Wendell Logan. He cracks, admitting tossing the caber at the van, but he knows little else. And he doesn’t know much about the attack on Biff, either. Frank and Joe are convinced the law would be useless against Logan, so they don’t press charges. They could at least sue the jerk-o for damages!

On the way home, an SUV tries to bump the Hardys off the road repeatedly. After a narrow escape, they learn the SUV was stolen from near Golden’s house. Fenton complains about the repair costs, but we all know the Hardys have SUPER INSURANCE — it’s the only way they could afford their destructive lifestyles — so they should be OK. Nobody files any charges with the police, although Joe does let Con know over the phone.

The next day, Frank ditches a chance to see Callie, instead going with Joe (who is skipping football practice himself) to see Biff at Bayport General Hospital. Frank “silently promis[es] to make it up to her later” (128). No, you won’t, Frank. You never do, you non-football hero.

At the hospital, the Hardys find Dan Freeman battered in the bushes and a fire alarm blaring at the hospital. Freeman tells the Hardys that Golden pulled the alarm and is using the confusion to slip in and attack Biff. While Joe fruitlessly attempts to get hospital security interested in a possible murder — they will be struck down by a righteous, Fentonian god for their inaction — Frank and Freeman go to rescue Biff. Freeman admits he whanged Biff; in the dark, he didn’t know who he was hitting. But Golden worked Freeman over after Freeman backed out of his own plan to kill Biff. Freeman tries to pass his murder scheme as a, you know, thought experiment, but really, once you’ve started thinking about murdering somebody, you’re on thin ice.

Thankfully, Frank prevents Golden from putting an air bubble in Biff’s IV, then beats him up before he can physically assault Biff. He keeps him down until the guard assigned to protect Biff can return. And that is that! No one mentions what Golden is going to be charged with, just that his football career is down the tubes. Freeman is suddenly less attractive to colleges, but no one expects him to serve any jail time for his conspiracy to murder Biff. Joe gets in a dig about “NFL” standing for “National Felons’ League” (147), and Biff is forgiven for his heel turn. We will never speak of this again!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Post-hiatus schedule update

Now that I’ve gone back and written about the books I picked up over the hiatus — Breakdown in Axeblade (#94) and The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120) — you’d think the next book on my agenda would be #142, Lost in Gator Swamp.

Well, you are wrong, chum breath. I will write about #142 — it will be the first post in November — but I’m going to be more seasonal with the next two. The next post will be Kickoff to Danger (#170), which focuses on Bayport High football, and the one after that, the one just before Halloween, will be Trick-or-Trouble (#175).

The plan from there will be to read the books more or less in order, filling in the books I haven’t yet covered after #141. Unfortunately, I don’t have a few of the books at the moment, so there will still be gaps beyond Demolition Mission (#112), Sabotage at Sports City (#115), and Carnival of Crime (#122). (That last one sounds awful. I’m not looking forward to it.) Additionally, I reserve the right to pick a book that goes with the season when I want to.

And in case you’re wondering, the last two digests I plan to cover are the first and last ones: The Mystery of the Silver Star (#86) and Motocross Madness (#190).

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120)

The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping coverI like the digests’ habit of giving Chet jobs instead of just hobbies; the teenage years is the time when someone can flit from job to job and not make it look like he’s incompetent or a serial killer. In the digests, Chet has been a DJ (Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades, #116), an airport shuttle driver (Spark of Suspicion, #98), a salesman for an ersatz Amway (Tricky Business, #88), a zoo intern (The Search for the Snow Leopard, #139), an ice cream salesman (The Mark of the Blue Tattoo, #146), and maybe a few others I’ve forgotten.

In The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping, Chet is a cook and assistant manager at “Happy Burger,” a new diner. Assistant manager! Who would put Chet in charge of other human beings? Or, for that matter, put him in charge of ordering supplies or bookkeeping or anything else that requires close attention and dedication? I mean, I’m not making Chet’s shortcomings up out of thin air: on page 3, after being told he’s botched the books again, Chet reveals he doesn’t know how to use a calculator (or perform basic math, maybe): “It’s that electric calculator he’s got back there. I can never remember when to press the plus key.”

It’s addition, you moron, not differential calculus. It’s pretty evident when you should press the + key. Your boss, Fred Hawkins, is right to yell at you, although sternly telling Chet to clean his station and to “try to eat only five hamburgers a day” (5) hardly counts as treating him “pretty rough,” as Iola claims. She also says, “Even Dad doesn’t hassle you that much,” although I’m not sure how to take that. Does that mean Chet and Mr. Morton have an adversarial relationship? Or are the readers supposed to realize that, given Hawkins’s mild rebuke, Chet’s relationship with his father is probably normal?

Chet reveals to his chums (Joe, Frank, and Callie) and Iola that Happy Burger is doing poorly, business-wise, so that does help explain why someone with no experience and no prospects is given a position of authority. Not even the rest of the Hardys’ teenage crowd wants to hang out at Happy Burger, as they all prefer Mr. Pizza.

But Chet’s qualifications soon become moot, as the Hardys, their girlfriends, and Chet see Hawkins seemingly abducted by a UFO. Chet claims this is “a close encounter of the third kind” (11) but that’s not true; the third kind involves human contact with an extraterrestrial entity. Since the kids can’t confirm that anyone was driving the UFO, it’s a close encounter of the fourth kind: Abduction.

The Bayport Gazette is on the scene soon after the police decide to ignore the kids’ UFO report, and a story in the next day’s paper makes Happy Burger the most popular place in town. UFOlogists, the media, and random curious bystanders flock to the Happy Burger, keeping Chet busy and making Happy Burger — at least temporarily — a success. The Gazette has to be considered a success as well; it’s never appeared in a Hardy Boys story before, from what I can tell, and it’s created a media event out of a bunch of stupid kids seeing a UFO.

Fenton and Laura are in Europe for both work and pleasure, and Gertrude (back to being “plump,” as she was in The Smoke Screen Mystery) warns them to be careful after they decide to look for Hawkins. Given Happy Burger’s success, the police and the boys are leaning toward the idea that Hawkins staged his own disappearance. Good to see some competence being displayed! And then after showing that bit of competence, Frank and Joe spend 40 pages wandering around Happy Burger and the shopping plaza it’s in. What do they discover? Well, Happy Burger is deeply in debt — no surprise there — to a guy named William Harbison and … nothing else, really. They avoid the media, even though they’ve worked at both radio station WBBX, which Joe mentions (in Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades), and TV station WBPT, which neither mentions, even though both did spots for the station in Danger on the Air (#95) and Spark of Suspicion.

The brothers do meet the cast as they wander aimlessly for what feels like forever: Hawkins’s wife, Clarissa; author Hodding Wheatley, who writes about UFOs; and fringe UFO devotees, including the belligerent Carl Thurmon. Since this book was published in 1993, the same year The X-Files hit the air, the people who believe in UFOs are seen as kooks. Frank and Joe don’t consider the possibility that Hawkins’s disappearance is an abduction at all.

After Frank and Joe joke about Joe learning to be a detective from TV shows — I’m not sure Frank is joking — the brothers visit Harbison, who’s a loan shark. Joe plays the tough detective role to the hilt, growling at Harbison and invading his personal space to intimidate him. They get nothing but a denial from Haribison, but I admit: acting like a bit of a thug is a nice technique and a good change of pace. Also, it made me laugh.

The next day, the media attention has only grown, with Sandra Rodriguez, host of Mysteries Today, doing a live show from the “tiny town” (83) of Bayport. No details about Mysteries Today are ever given; is it syndicated? Is it a show about the paranormal, or is it more Unsolved Mysteries? All we learn is that Rodriguez has a boyfriend — “Mr. Matt Hunk Everton” (74), as the jealous (or attracted) Frank calls him — who is also a helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet. Someone claiming to be the aliens interrupts MT’s signal, saying Hawkins will be returned in Bayport Meadows soon, but all they find is a letter on Happy Burger stationery, saying “Help.”

For their next magical trick, Frank and Joe decide to follow Matt’s helicopter. “It shouldn’t be too hard to tail a helicopter” (90), Frank says, forgetting that helicopters fly much faster than city traffic, don’t have to follow roads, and never have to stop for lights or stop signs. Other than that, sure! But of course it works, and after Matt drives away from the abandoned farm where he lands his helicopter, the Hardys break into the barn, finding the fake UFO inside. A metal hitch at the craft’s top allowed the phony ship to be towed by a cable from a helicopter — Matt’s helicopter, of course. Matt returns and tries to threaten the Hardys with a gun, but Frank and Joe easily disarm him. The gun was unloaded anyway.

Matt confesses all: The kidnapping was all Hawkins’s idea, although he needed Rodriguez’s show’s backing for funding. After Hawkins signed a letter absolving Rodriguez and Matt of all wrongdoing, they agreed to help. But Hawkins was supposed to reappear in Bayport Meadows, and now he’s truly missing.

This calls for someone to jump to a conclusion, and since about 50 pages remain in the book, the Hardys jump to the wrong one. They follow Harbison to the man who gives him money to loan, Amos Woodworth IV, a prosperous legitimate businessman who is, reassuringly, also a smuggler. Haven’t had one of those in a while, and it’s nice to know they can still pop up. Unfortunately, goons discover Frank and Joe snooping around Woodworth’s home as fake pool men, and worse yet, Woodworth recognizes them as “those detective brothers everyone talks about. The Harley brothers” (115). Luckily, though, he gives them a stern talking to and makes them promise to let him know when they find that welcher, Hawkins.

The brothers go to Clarissa, who admits she learned the kidnapping was a fake. At the Hawkins home, Joe spots the angry UFOlogist, Thurmon, in a picture of a Vietnam veterans’ gathering — the same one at which Hawkins pitched his loony plan to Matt. The Hardys track down Thurmon and a tied-up Hawkins at an isolated cabin via Thurmon’s fellow UFO enthusiasts. Frank and Wheatley nearly talk Thurmon down, but a TV report playing in the background reveals Frank is a detective (and Joe’s brother; Thurmon hates Joe, as all hotheads do). In the ensuing scuffle, Frank gets a bleeding head wound, and Thurmon burns the cabin down, but the fake UFO, towed from Matt’s helicopter, shows up as Thurmon is about to kill Frank. Amazed at seeing what he has long sought, Thurmon lets his guard down, and Joe emerges from the UFO to subdue the violent kook. The police are close behind.

Everything ends well. Hawkins isn’t arrested for anything; he merely has to apologize. I’m sure he did something wrong, though. I suppose he didn’t file a false report, but he knew one would be filed, and he did waste Bayport Police Department resources looking for him, even though he wasn’t in danger. Or maybe not — the BPD didn’t seem to care about Hawkins’s disappearance, so perhaps they didn’t spend any time looking for him. Woodworth is investigated for his loansharking, and Hawkins’s loan is transferred to a legitimate bank at a better interest rate. I’m not sure that’s how it works, but then again, I’m not acquainted with this state’s stringent usury laws. Rodriguez seems to suffer no consequences for organizing a hoax and then broadcasting it as if it were a real story. At least Thurmon is arrested for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon … but not attempted murder or arson, despite having the Hardys — super witnesses! — to testify. Well, I guess a plea bargain from Thurmon makes more sense than Hawkins and Rodriguez getting off without consequences.

Remember, kids: Crime does pay! Just make sure it’s non-violent crime that doesn’t victimize any private citizen. Then you too can pull your generic hamburger stand out of the toilet and into prosperity!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Breakdown in Axeblade (#94)

Breakdown in AxebladeI know I said I was going to return from my hiatus with The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120), but I lied. Well, not really a lie — I found Breakdown at Axeblade (#94) at a used bookstore, and since it was an earlier digest, I decided to start with it instead.

In Axeblade, Frank and Joe drive into the movie Bad Day at Black Rock. Despite having three more arms between them than Spencer Tracy’s lead character, Macreedy, does in the movie, they seem to combine for about half the brains, which makes the challenge of getting out of a corrupt town about the same for Macreedy and the Hardys.

While on a summer vacation road trip, Frank and Joe’s super-duper ex-police van develops engine trouble in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. The van limps into Axeblade, a town of 300 people, without giving up the ghost; I was disappointed the brothers weren’t forced to use the knowledge they gained in Seven Stories of Survival, but maybe that’s for the best, since they don’t even think about how they’d have to survive if the engine quits outside of civilization.

Frank says the van has a bad fan belt, while Joe says it’s the water pump; the smiling garage mechanic, Bill Hunt, says it’s both. Frank imperiously tells him to get cracking then, but Bill says the repairs will take a few days, as he doesn’t have a replacement pump. Bill’s demeanor changes when the brothers say they’re going to camp in the nearby national forest the van is being fixed. (Which forest? Who knows! Take a look at this map if you want to make a guess; the text gives us no real hints except that it’s near a four-lane highway and some grasslands.) Bill tells them they should drive on to nearby Lawton — or stay with him, or at a motel. Lots of bears around, you see.

But Frank and Joe are not dissuaded. They go camping, and while being pummeled into unconsciousness during the night, they are warned to leave the area. They wake up dumped by a four-lane highway, several miles from town. After hiking back to Axeblade, the sheriff rebuffs their attempts to report a crime, and a desk clerk tells them the vacant motel is full up. (Frank and Joe don’t question why a town of 300, in the middle of nowhere, has a motel at all, especially since the town seems to discourage tourism.) After spending the night in their van, Joe is unsuccessful at “flash[ing his] baby blues at the waitress” (22) to get free food; the brothers can’t get any service at the Morning Glory Restaurant. Even the drugstore won’t sell a sticky bun to them.

Fortunately, they don’t get the cold shoulder at Becky’s Café, operated by the eponymous Becky and her adopted Vietnamese son, Kwo. Becky’s husband had an “accident” a few years before, and she blames rancher Ben Barntree, who runs Axeblade. Kwo supplies that a weekly fleet of tanker truck dumps toxic waste on Barntree’s ranch, the B-Bar-B. (I like to think the B-Bar-B raises several hundred head of Ken, Skipper, and Barbie dolls.)

After Frank and Joe get in a scuffle at the café, they remember some of Fenton’s advice: “Sometimes people start a fight to change the subject” (38). Since they were talking about Barntree’s toxic waste dumping at the time, the boys decide to head out to the B-Bar-B. Becky loans them her husband’s classic Harley and tells them her husband’s not the only opponent of Barntree’s to die from a fall … and suddenly Axeblade is looking a lot more like a Casefile repurposed into a digest.

The reconnaissance of the B-Barbie is a dud; the boys are chased around and around by dogs, then are showed off the ranch by Barntree and his cronies. The boys do get a ride in a groovy van with “an expensive, detailed airbrush painting on the side — a skeleton riding a beautiful galloping mustang horse with fiery eyes” (46). The van’s owner, Robbie McCoy, is a bit of a jerk, though.

Back in Axeblade, Bill’s sister, Sara, invites Frank and Joe to supper, despite being married to one of the cowboys who tangled with the Hardys at Becky’s Café. Before they go, the interior of their van is set on fire, although the blaze is quickly extinguished. The arson causes Frank to contemplate homicide, although not on the arsonist: he “wanted to strangle the old man” (65) who stood around squawking that their van was burning. Good to know Frank has a dark side.

It is then, and only then, that Frank and Joe think to call someone to let them know they’re in a dangerous place where they don’t understand the rules. They call home, but Fenton and Laura aren’t there, so they give up. I mean, who else could they call for advice / aid? Well, in no particular order:

  • Con Riley or Ezra Collig, from the Bayport Police Department
  • Sam Radley, who has worked for Fenton (although he hasn’t appeared since The Revenge of the Desert Phantom, #85)
  • Gertrude, who probably isn’t with Fenton and Laura
  • The Mortons, who have probably been drawn into enough of Frank and Joe’s nonsense to know the drill
  • Any of their other chums
  • Anyone of authority who owes them from a previous case, like Andrew Crawford, the police commissioner of Philadelphia, whom they helped in Shield of Fear (#91)

Of course Frank and Joe don’t do that. Why would they? They’ve been beaten, shunned, and threatened. That’s just an average vacation for them. Their reluctance to call home becomes stranger after they are arrested; the address Sara gave them was vacant for the week, and the brothers are accused of stealing silverware, which was planted in their van. The brothers realize the cop is corrupt, so they call … Becky. Sure, why not? With all their contacts in law enforcement, a café owner who was friendly toward them seems the right call.

(Also: Joe is arrested while playing the arcade game Flyswatter. It’s one of his favorites … probably right up there with Hack Attack.)

Becky is reluctant to help them, and when she leaves, she tells the sheriff she was wrong about Frank and Joe, who are sure they’re sunk. You idiots — no matter what she thinks, she has to tell the police that. Otherwise, she’ll be arrested (or killed) next. Becky returns later, seducing — as much as anyone is ever seduced in a Hardy Boys book — the sheriff over pie and drugged coffee. (The sheriff is already talking marriage.) Frank and Joe can’t see this middle-aged steaminess, but then again, they don’t realize the sheriff’s complaints about the funny-tasting coffee and his difficulty forming words indicates he’s, you know, been drugged. Morons. If anyone should recognize the symptoms of being doped, it’s those two dopes.

Becky frees the halfwit Hardys, then loans them a car. Frank and Joe drive the car to the toxic dump site. Turns out, it’s on federal land! Whodathunkit? The dumping is actually killing animals; Frank and Joe see a dead raccoon and squirrels. Unfortunately, Frank and Joe don’t cover their tracks well, and Barnwell’s men start searching for them. The brothers run across a random missing boy; they tell him to yell for help, but he has no real effect on the story.

The brothers hide in the mountains, but Joe is awakened by a rockslide that gives Frank his second concussion of the book — his eyes don’t focus when he wakes up, and “his brain [was] temporarily scrambled” (114). Geez, that sounds bad. Joe’s more broken up about Barntree’s pollution than any possible TBI his brother has, though. I see the logic: The bill they’ll have to pay for repeated blows to the head won’t come due until they reach an age they will never be allowed to reach.

Barntree’s forces catch the Hardys without much trouble the next day, and Barntree wants to kill them; fortunately, some of his men are squeamish about killin’, including Robbie (the guy with the cool skeleton on his van). Barntree agrees to just tie them up and leave them in his basement for a while, but he and his wife know they’re going to have to kill the boys. While Frank suggests to Joe that their next vacation be to Hawaii — something that doesn’t happen until The Treasure at Dolphin Bay, #129 — they manage to free themselves with Frank’s pocket knife.

After radioing Kwo to get the police from Lawton, they escape from shotgun-packing Mrs. Barntree, who misses with both barrels, despite the basement’s close quarters. They tie her up and try to delay Barntree and the toxic-waste tankers. Joe fails to slow Barntree, though, losing a more brutal than usual fight with the rancher: Joe gets his head slammed against the steering wheel, and he throws Barntree out of his jeep after grabbing him by the “seat of his neck” (138). (That should be scruff, I’m guessing.) Frank bluffs Barntree, though, threatening his wife, and Joe puts Barntree in handcuffs. Barntree is furious when Frank tells him they left Mrs. Barntree in the basement: “Our mom and dad didn’t raise kidnappers,” Frank says (142), although after being serial kidnapping victims, you’d think Frank and Joe would have picked up some tips.

The cops arrive in time, with the aid of Robbie, who got cold feet. Everything is sorted out, but Frank and Joe can’t leave town, even after they unload everything onto law enforcement … because Bill still doesn’t have their water pump.

*sad trombone*

Still, other than Frank and Joe being, you know, morons, this is one of the better digests. ON the other hand, Frank and Joe are so often incompetent that I can’t really hold that against Breakdown in Axeblade.

Friday, August 12, 2016

On Hiatus until October 7

Before this year, I’d written about Hardy Boys digests without an overall plan, choosing to mock whatever came into my possession. Because of that, the only string of consecutive books that were on the site were #130-141, and that was an accident. It just happened that I’d picked up some books in the 130s, and I’d started with #140 eight years ago.

But at the beginning of this year, I decided to go through the books I owned (or could borrow from the library) in numerical order. The #130-141 block neatly divided the digests into two halves, and now that I’ve finished The Treasure at Dolphin Bay (#129), I’m (mostly) done with the first half. To reward myself for a job well done (or a job done), I’m going to take a two-month hiatus.

On October 7, I’ll be back, and I’m planning to start plowing through the last 49 digests then. Well, I’ve already posted many of those books — only 27 books remain. I’ll be using the hiatus to find the books I don’t already have and to enjoy not thinking about whether Frank and Joe’s technique of angrily accusing persons of interest of wrongdoing is the best way to solve crime.

I still haven’t covered six of the first 56 books, but I hope to return to those books eventually. As a matter of fact, I just picked up The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120), and that will be the first book I’ll write about when I return from the hiatus.

Hope to see you in October!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Treasure at Dolphin Bay (#129)

The Treasure at Dolphin Bay coverWhen the first word of a book is “Cowabunga,” the reader’s expectations must necessarily be adjusted downward. This is a natural response, and rarely is it not the prudent course.

The first word of The Treasure at Dolphin Bay is, indeed, “Cowabunga.” Joe says it, not as he catches a wave or even imitates a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. He shouts it as he jumps into a jeep. Does leaping into a jeep require that level of excitement? Or is it sarcasm from Joe? It has to be the former, as sarcasm is a foreign concept to Joe. In any event, “cowabunga” is a prelude to the book’s use of other surfing / Hawaiian words, like “brah,” so readers have that to look forward to. Readers will also have to get accustomed to flip-flop sandals being referred to exclusively as “thongs”; it’s a bit jarring when the local head of police is described as wearing thongs, but if Frank and Joe can handle it, so can I.

In Dolphin Bay, Frank, Joe, and their parents are in Hawaii for a Christmas holiday. This is the boys’ second trip to Hawaii; the previous one was a stopover in The Firebird Rocket (#57), although they learn to surf in that brief time. This time, Frank and Joe are even luckier: Unlike every other teenager who has ever been on vacation to a distant location with his or her parents, Frank and Joe see their parents only at breakfast, and then they have the rest of the day to themselves. Oh, they might meet for supper, but if the boys’ investigation runs too long, well, that’s fine. It’s not like Fenton and Laura want the boys around most of the time anyway; the first two days of the book, they’re busy “playing golf.” I can only assume that’s a euphemism for something you don’t speak of in front of your children, or perhaps they picked something boring to say they were doing so Frank and Joe would just leave them alone.

They needn’t have bothered. Frank and Joe find a mystery immediately; there’s always a mystery, and Laura and Fenton, of all people, should realize that. After two days of rain, Frank and Joe head to the Institute of Cetacean Studies at Nai’a Bay, where Joe is hoping to swim with the dolphins. (Both the ICS and Nai’a Bay on Maui are fictional; “nai’a” means “dolphin” in Hawaiian.) After the dolphins perform for the crowd, one person per day gets to swim with the dolphins; I’m not sure how the ICS reconciles this with their emphasis on “humane research” (4).

Joe is the one chosen to swim with the dolphins; Joe can’t believe his luck, but I’m sure the readers can. Choosing him is a bit of a waste, though. Technically, Joe’s never swam with dolphins before, but he (and Frank and Fenton) have ridden porpoises, in Sky Sabotage (#79). Even though it’s not mentioned here, perhaps Joe remembers the experience — he’s quite eager for the dolphin to swim between his legs, if you know what I mean. (I think you do.) Unfortunately, Mr. Joe’s wild ride is interrupted when his dolphin finds another of ICS’s dolphins, who has been shot by a speargun. They soon discover the researcher who worked with that dolphin is missing.

Frank, Joe, and an intern, Stan, head out on a boat to look for the researcher, Jack Lord — sorry, I mean, “Jack Storm.” Stan mentions there’s a lost treasure reputed to be near Devil’s Hat, the island Storm was working around, and locals frequently search for it. A pair of brothers, the MacAllisters, lurks around the island, but they’re there to protect their fishing rights … and in this case, they also kick Joe in the stomach while attempting to bully Joe, Frank, and Stan. For some reason, despite being fearsome bullies, they “scrambled” away after landing the kick (23). That’s not something people who have the advantage do.

The kids don’t find Storm, but another ICS researcher, Jerry Finski, has collected Storm’s “mangled dinghy” (25). The effects of a mangled dinghy can be severe for a man, so it’s obvious Storm is in trouble. Strangely, though, the Maui police won’t look for Storm until he’s been missing for 48 hours, despite the boat’s condition and the dolphin’s injury suggesting foul play is involved.

The next day, Joe is saved from a random shark attack by an ICS dolphin. It’s not the boys’ first run-in with the soulless predators of the deep; they ran into sharks in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37), Sky Sabotage (#79), and the revised Twisted Claw (#18), and they specifically encountered a great white in The Vanishing Thieves (#66). While Fenton and Laura are busy with “golf,” Frank and Joe talk to Uncle Billy, who runs a scuba shop while not looking for the treasure; he points a speargun at them, which he thinks is a funny joke. Would he think it funny, were the positions switched? Spearguns ain’t toys, man. The boys do learn the treasure is a strongbox full of stolen jewels, which were lost after the thief’s plane went down.

After the Hardys stop by Storm’s home, the MacAllisters try to run them off a mountain road. Frank and Joe rent a speedboat to follow them onto the water, with Joe nearly renting a speargun for protection. He should have stuck with his instincts, though, because the MacAllisters shoot at the Hardys’ speedboat with spearguns. The spears come close enough to hit the boat, but Frank and Joe aren’t hurt. Still, this is a serious matter. Frank and Joe report the incidents to the cops, trying to get the McAllisters arrested for Storm’s disappearance, and the cops do nothing.

Wait wait wait wait wait wait wait wait. Wait. WAIT. What the McAllisters did — what Frank and Joe know they did, what they saw and reported to the police — is reckless discharge of a weapon, at the very least. I would argue to the police that it was two separate attempts at murder, but I’m not a lawyer; still, I think if the police wanted to squeeze the MacAllisters for information, they could arrest them for the most severe plausible charges and then demand their cooperation on the Storm case. But the police do nothing when it comes to the MacAllisters, and the fishing brothers pass from the story without answering for their crimes.

I’m beginning to think these cops aren’t very good, and it may have nothing to do with the thongs.

The incompetence of local police isn’t the only consistency with other books in the series; just like in Mystery on Makatunk Island, Joe doesn’t like fish. It’s a small consistency, but it’s something. Another consistency: like Chet in The Phantom Freighter (#26), Joe calls soda “pop.” (If you want to know what that means about the location of Bayport, see this map.)

After Frank and Joe break into Storm’s home again, learning he was looking for the treasure and taking his fingerprints, Frank nearly gets his “once in a lifetime” chance to swim with the cetaceans. As it turns out, the dolphins don’t want to play with him — ha ha, Frank. (If you’re reading this and you’re not into dolphins, too bad. Dolphins, according to Frank and Joe, are amazing. Smart, too: with a little training, the dolphins could probably solve mysteries.) While searching for Storm, Frank, Joe, and Stan are shot at by a real gun from an unidentified trawler; after eluding it, they run out of gas because of a faulty gas gauge. The next day, the Hardys’ regulators malfunction during a dive, and Frank has to give Joe mouth-to-mouth to revive him. The boys blame Uncle Billy, who supplied the faulty motorboat and scuba equipment, but he convinces them he’s innocent.

Fingerprints identify Storm as an alias for Jack Mobley, the son of the man who stole the lost treasure. When Storm’s ICS co-worker and covert girlfriend steals a dolphin to search for either the treasure or Storm (or both), Frank, Joe, and Stan head out to Devil’s Hat to look for them. Instead, they find Storm diving beneath Finsky’s trawler. By the time Frank and Joe reach Storm, he has found the treasure. Through sign language and something between telepathy and plot convenience, Storm accuses Finsky. Frank realizes Finsky had the opportunity to sabotage their fuel supply and rebreathers; his trawler could have been the one that shot at them. Now Finsky’s possession of Storm’s boat seems more sinister.

Finsky swims after Storm, but Storm escapes with the treasure via dolphin. In the struggle with Finsky, Frank is shot with a speargun in the arm and loses consciousness; Joe puts Frank on the back of a dolphin, which takes Frank to safety. Sure, why not? Dolphins are amazing, I tell you. The Hardy Boys of the sea, really. Anyway, Joe follows Finsky and defeats him in an aquatic battle. How, you might ask? I would have jerked Finsky’s respirator from his mouth because air is a person’s weak point underwater. No, Joe uses a “move involving pressure points” from “one of his karate magazines” (142).

I swear to Dixon, I am not making that up. It’s not exactly Thunderball, but it is better than we should have expected from a book that starts with “Cowabunga.”

Anyway, Finsky confesses to kidnapping Storm and making him look for the treasure, saying, “What do you think it’s like for a scientist, living from grant to grant, job to job?” (144-5). After ICS boss Helen Cho cut his research, he reached for the brass ring. Too bad! At least you shot a Hardy Boy, though. That’s something you’ll be able to brag about while you’re doing hard time for kidnapping and attempted murder.

I know I haven’t talked about Cho much — at all — but she comes across as the most incompetent administrator ever, and given how bad the police are, that’s saying something. Cho doesn’t realize that two of her researchers are using company time to hunt for treasure, and a third, Storm’s girlfriend, is aiding one of those two and carrying on a secret affair with him. And Cho’s smartest move? Letting a couple of teenagers help search for Storm, a move she herself calls “crazy” (18). Yet Cho’s the one who’s probably going to escape with her reputation intact, despite authorizing tourists to play with the dolphins she’s supposed to be taking care of. Cowabunga, brah!


Friday, July 29, 2016

Day of the Dinosaur (#128)

Day of the Dinosaur coverBayport has a lot of old mansions, and most of them are abandoned. (It certainly seems that way, at least.) In the original canon, Frank and Joe encountered nine abandoned Bayport showplaces — that’s one every nine (or so) books! The ratio is even greater if we consider the mysteries set primarily in Bayport.

When Simon & Schuster took over the series, it curtailed the amount of time Frank and Joe spent around large, derelict buildings; Cold Cash Caper (#136) had an abandoned mansion, and Warehouse Rumble (#183) takes place in a formerly deserted warehouse, but that about all I’ve run into so far. Day of the Dinosaur is mostly set in an old, Bayport-area mansion — but the Sackville mansion, located on the outskirts of Bayport, isn’t just rotting away. Instead, it’s being refurbished into a prehistory museum, focusing on dinosaurs, and the money for doing so was left by old man Sackville. Let’s hear it for superior estate planning!

Frank and Joe visit the museum, which is about two weeks from opening, to see the animatronic dinosaurs. When I say “visit,” I mean “trespass,” but fortunately they meet their old friend Sally Jenkins, whose father is a detective who worked with Fenton. (Mr. Jenkins was never mentioned in the canon.) Sally is an assistant exhibitions director at the museum, scrambling to get the museum ready in time for its opening. She’s more than happy to have Frank and Joe volunteer, which they do because they like to get access to all the coolest stuff in Bayport and aren’t afraid to use their connections to do so.

What follows is an odd mystery; Frank and Joe have no client, not even by their nebulous “amateur” standards, and no one gets arrested at the end. I don’t know if those two things make Day of the Dinosaur unique, but it’s certainly unusual.

Before they get hired as unpaid gofers, Frank and Joe get a tour from Sally. She shows them the museum’s prize exhibit, a 15,000-year-old clay sculpture of a buffalo from southern France, which I thought was nonsense — clay sculptures that old? — but it turns out to be a real thing. (Shows what I know.) They also meet Dan Parker, who has created the Dinobots, and his rival, academic paleontologist Carl Lubski; Dr. Clarence Smith, the museum director; and Tom Smedly, the head custodian.

How do Frank and Joe get to spend the week working at the museum during the school year? You’ll be surprised to know they aren’t out of school because of some breakdown in the school’s physical plant or some vague administrative holiday … well, they’re not out of school all day because of vague administrative holiday; the first day they work, they have to go to school for only a couple of hours because of “some teacher’s meeting” (10), while on subsequent days they get out early because their last scheduled class is study hall.

Frank and Joe’s support staff is largely missing in this book. Chet, for some unspecified reason, is grounded, and the rest of the gang isn’t mentioned. For most of the book, Fenton is out late / gone early working on a case. Gertrude is in Arizona, visiting “an old friend,” although I think we all know she doesn’t have friends, just people she’s known for a while and doesn’t hate. However, Laura, that perpetual non-entity, is around to cook meals for the boys. She gets no lines, but this is the first time I can remember her appearing in a book in a long time. I can’t even remember a digest I’ve covered this year in which Laura does as much as she does in Dinosaur.

Despite no actual mystery presenting itself, Frank and Joe can’t stay out of trouble. Joe gets a jolt of electricity while trying out Parker’s virtual reality helmet without permission; I thought it was a security feature, but it turns out to be a short in the system. Well, serves you right, Joe. Smedly almost drops a light fixture on Frank’s head — and more importantly, almost on the buffalo sculpture. It’s at this point the Hardys suspect a mystery, although this seems unjustifiable paranoia: by now, Frank and Joe should be used to electrical shocks and heavy objects almost falling on their heads. These things should be second nature to them; Frank is certainly no Flitcraft.

Still, weird things keep happening. A Dinobot picks up Joe in its mouth, and only Frank’s quick thinking saves the day. Parker blames Lubski, saying he must have sabotaged and reprogrammed the Dinobot, but Lubski has shown no programming experience. (Still, it turns out he did do it as a prank.) Lubski can’t be blamed completely, as the Dinobot attacked after Parker and Joe were trying to repair a problem with the Dinobot still on. That has to be an workplace safety violation of some sort.

Lubski almost gets stepped on by a Dinobot the following day — a definite accident, but one that prompts a bit of investigatory B&E from the boys. For some reason, they break into Lubski’s lab. Although Frank and Joe are acting like criminals, I am happy to see Frank uses the proper tool for the job this time: lock picks. (For some reason, Frank didn’t have to go to the van to get them; he just had his lock-picking tool in his pocket.) They find nothing of interest, other than Lubski and Parker having different theories about dinosaur extinction.

The day after that, the bison gets chipped when a wheel falls off the dolly Smedly was using to move it; the sculpture has to be taken to the restoration shed. After work, Joe follows Smedly and discovers him visiting the tony home of Raymond Casada, a name that means nothing to either Hardy boy. Later, the brothers break into the museum, eluding the worst security guard ever. They discover Smedly’s personnel file is missing and spot a figure sabotaging a Dinobot, but the intruder flees before he can do any real damage.

Fenton’s on the couch with Laura when the boys get home, but Frank and Joe don’t ask him if he knows anything about Casada or any criminal connections he might have. Because why fall back on such expert resources? Fortunately Sally clues them in later: he’s a “wealthy antiques dealer … suspected of dealing in forgeries and stolen artifacts” (111).

While Frank and Joe are unloading roof tiles the next day, an unattended Dinobot rampages through the restoration shed. Joe prevents it from running into the lake, but the shed — and the bison sculpture inside — are ruined. Smith quickly sweeps up the sculpture’s remains and double bags them, sealing in that prehistoric goodness. Smedly was injured by the Dinobot, but from the wounds, the Hardys suspect he started the Dinobot and aimed it at the shed. He’s taken to Bayport General by concerned roofers; one of them says, “I’ve had plenty of concussions myself. I know how the guy feels” (108). Plenty! Maybe concussions are just something that happens around Bayport — you’re not a man until you get your first one.

Frank and Joe avoid a concussion on their way home when their van is run off the road. “Not another dent on that side [passenger] of the van,” Joe says (115), blithely ignoring the possibility they could have been killed or seriously injured. They think they recognize Smedly’s pickup as the one that hit them, and the driver, although wearing a ski mask, was also wearing Smedly’s bandanna, or one like it. This, of course, makes Smedly one of the dumbest criminals the Hardys have faced. Couldn’t he at least have stolen a truck to run them off the road?

Now the boys know something’s up. They break into the museum again to get a sample of the destroyed buffalo sculpture, but they find Parker is a step ahead of them. The next day — Saturday — a friend of Parker’s examines the fragment, and she declares it a fake. Somehow they convince Sally to approach Casada as a buyer, but while she and Frank discuss matters with Casada, Joe sneaks into Casada’s office. He’s caught, but he manages to find a receipt for the buffalo, made out to Smith. I have to say I’m disappointed in Casada; he should have had his butler / thug punch Joe a few times or at least intimidate him. But no: all three fakers are politely escorted to the door. I think Burn Notice has led me to expect too much of such criminals.

Sally, Parker, and the boys set a trap: they convince Lubski to tell Smith that he thinks the sculpture was a phony. That night, they find Smith in the process of burying the shards under concrete on the museum’s grounds. (I’m not sure what staff would have made of the sudden appearance of a patch of concrete on the museum grounds, but after the shards are entombed, Smith wouldn’t care.) Smith confesses he unwisely purchased a fake with the museum’s money and blackmailed Smedly, who had lied about his job experience and competence, into destroying the fake. Smedly was as competent at destruction as he was at his job, though, and things spiraled out of control.

That’s where matters are left; the police are not involved, and crime triumphs! The museum trundles toward its opening with a new director. Smedly vanishes. Smith resigns and heads for a tropical vacation. And Casada isn’t mentioned at all, meaning he gets away with peddling a forgery. Great work, Frank and Joe!