Friday, March 30, 2018

Sabotage at Sports City (#115)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 16, 2018

Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew: The Big Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, February 9, 2018

The Demolition Mission (#112)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Three Investigators: The Secret of Skeleton Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 26, 2018

Terror at High Tide (#145)

Terror at High Tide coverPoor Frank and Joe. After their tropical beach vacation in The Secret of Skeleton Reef (#144), the brothers are forced to take a non-tropical beach vacation in Terror at High Tide (#145). Just hang in there, boys; another trip to the Caribbean is only nine books away.

Frank and Joe are visiting the surfing paradise that is Nantucket to visit Callie, who is interning at a local newspaper. Why Nantucket, and why a newspaper? Well, Callie has a friend in Nantucket; Alicia Geovanis is the daughter of a museum curator. (How Callie met Alicia is never mentioned, but I suppose it hardly matters.) As for her newspaper aspirations, Callie did work at the Bayport Examiner in The Smoke Screen Mystery, so I suppose it makes sense — as much as anything in a Hardy Boys book needs to make sense, at least.

Terror at High Tide begins with an uncredited writing assist from Cliché Bot, who writes the first few pages. A sample of his work, from the first paragraph of the book: “Surf’s up … Those waves are awesome. Ready to catch a few?” You will be unsurprised to learn Frank also later says, “Cowabunga!” while surfing. Oh, Cliché Bot … please change as soon as you can.

After Frank and Joe’s desultory surfing, they join the ladies on the beach. In the ‘70s and ’80s, this might have led to a little pairing off, with the boys doing whatever heteronormative, society-approved things boys are supposed to do with girls. But no, in this case, Joe never interacts with Alicia in that way, although she offers both brothers “an energy boost” (in the form of soda, not knockoff Enzyte). To be fair, Frank and Callie don’t engage in the hanky or the panky either. That’s not the kind of place a Hardy Boys book is; for all I know, that may not be the kind of place Nantucket is, despite all the limericks to the contrary.

Besides, Callie knows what the Hardys are really after. When Alicia says Nantucket is a great place to relax, Callie says, “Frank and Joe … claim they’re here for a week to visit me, but sooner or later they’ll be solving some mystery that would completely baffle anyone else” (4). Frank and Joe take it as a compliment, but I don’t think she means it as such; it has the plaintive sound of someone who’s wondering, “Why won’t you pay attention to me? Why aren’t I good enough?”

You’re good enough, Callie. You just can’t compete with mystery when it comes to either Hardy’s heart. No woman can.

The mystery arrives on pg. 5, when Frank finds a balloon marked with name “Ebony Pearl.” The Ebony Pearl was a passenger ship that sank off Nantucket in 1957. The Ebony Pearl doesn’t really exist, of course. The closest analogue to the fictional shipwreck I could find was the Andrea Doria, an Italian ocean liner that sank near Nantucket in 1956. Unlike the Pearl, the Andrea Doria wasn’t done in by its boiler; instead, it collided with a Swedish ocean liner, the Stockholm. Forty-six of the 1,660 on board died.

Rather than looking for other flotsam and jetsam that might have washed up on the shore, Alicia and her Bayport cohorts take the balloon to her father at the Nantucket Shipping Museum, which has an exhibit on prominent shipwrecks, including the Pearl. George Geovanis, a survivor of the Ebony Pearl disaster, immediately pronounces the balloon authentic. His assistant, Roberto Scarlatti, violently disagrees — emphasis on the “violently,” as he brandishes a harpoon at Geovanis. The curator warns Scarlatti that the next time he makes a threat, he’ll be fired and the police called. I think that’s generous; if I waved a weapon at my boss, I’d expect an a pink slip and incarceration.

Like the Ebony Pearl, the Nantucket Shipping Museum exists only in the imagination or Franklin W. Dixon, but a (somewhat) similar institution does exist on the island: the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum, which has a permanent exhibit (the Robert Caldwell Collection) dedicated to Nantucket’s history of shipwrecks. (The Shipwreck Museum is part of the Egan Maritime Institute, which, according to its website, “is … devoted exclusively to celebrating the rich maritime history of Nantucket Island.”)

Since Callie is working for the local paper — the Island News — and because Nantucket is the most boring place on Earth, the discovery of the balloon makes the front page of the paper. Well, I suppose something has to, and “Sun Rises in the East” can’t be a banner headline every day.

Whew, only a few pages in, and the book has already put me to sleep. Let’s see — it’s 2018!?! Well, I don’t suppose much happened in 2017 … What’s that? He did? And then he … Huh. But — both sides? But that’s —

No, no. Just stop. You’re not making things any better.

Anyway, after supper that night, the kids head to the museum, where they interrupt a break-in. In between the vandalism and general mayhem, Joe is attacked by a “huge black object” (23), which isn’t very racially sensitive. Nor is the revelation that the “object” is an octopus. I’ve never heard that slur before, but the ‘90s were a different time, I suppose. (No, no, I heard you: “both sides.”) The Hardys have interrupted a break-in, but rather than sending one of the ladies to call the cops, the boys call Callie and Alicia up to a ransacked office after they’ve determined the criminal is gone. The four poke around the museum for a while — Frank says, “I want to look around some more for some clues before we call the police” (29) — rather than immediately engage law enforcement. Frank, I know the Bayport PD is ineffectual / incompetent / corrupt, but that doesn’t mean the Nantucket police are as well.

But Alicia’s already called the cops, and thankfully, the Hardys are white enough to avoid being shot or incarcerated, despite being found in the middle of a museum break-in. And the police don’t slam Joe against a wall when he suggests they take fingerprints of the crime scene — in fact, they seem like they appreciate the suggestion. They make it clear that’s all they’re going to do, though. It’s late! They’re tired! Give them a break.

The next day, Alicia drops by the B&B Frank and Joe are staying at — the Great White Whale, which is an excellent name for a Nantucket business — to say her father didn’t make it home the night before. The police have said not to worry, which is good advice that covers for their general laziness. Frank says not to jump to conclusions, which also good advice. Besides, after Frank and Joe take the case, it becomes Joe’s job to jump to conclusions. And even if Alicia’s father has been kidnapped, Frank says, “I’m sure your dad is fine. … It’s in [the kidnappers’] best interest to treat their captives well” (42). Sure, Frank: Violent criminals never forget their best interests when something disrupts their plans.

After someone attempts a little vehicular homicide against the Hardys, they and Alicia make half-hearted attempt at questioning suspects: Scarlatti, since he’s the more recent person with a grudge against Alicia’s father; Ferrier, the editor-in-chief of the local paper, because George Geovanis was last seen at his party; and Harrison Cartwright, the guy seen arguing with Geovanis at Ferrier’s party. Ferrier has a dune buggy like the one that attempted to run them off the road and is a bit of a skeeve; Scarlatti has a house with a secret passage; and after interviewing Cartwright, they immediately — immediately! — get a flat. Before they can even change the tire, they spot a “suspicious” figure in a cranberry bog. The lose their quarry but find a cufflink that may have come from the Ebony Pearl. Frank also triggers a trap set for the boys at a local (boring) historical site, the Corn Mill, but they blow their chance to figure out who set it.

Alicia begins acting strangely, telling Frank and Joe to leave the island. Despite not taking any blows to the head, the Hardys are incapable of putting two and two together and are baffled. While the Hardys talk the case over with Callie, Joe posits that Alicia discovers her father was behind the museum break-in and is discouraging them to conceal the crime and her father’s fake kidnapping. That’s clearly stupid, but Frank seconds that wild conclusion.

So what do Frank and Joe do after this brainstorm? They and Callie break into Scarlatti’s house! Of course. It all makes sense!

During the standard B&E of Scarlatti’s house, the Bayporters meet Alicia in the secret passageway. The bond forged in committing a crime and then escaping detection causes Alicia to level with them: the kidnapper’s warning to not to talk to the Hardys or call the police caused her volte-face earlier. The kidnapper also he left a ransom demand: a manuscript about shipwrecks Geovanis was writing. (Joe’s theory about Alicia covering up for her father is never referenced again.) Later, when Joe calls Alicia’s reluctance to inform the police “silly” (108), Alicia gets angry at him. Don’t put up with his boysplaining!

The next morning, Joe calls in a favor, having Con Riley run background checks on the suspects. Research at the newspaper morgue reveals the Ebony Pearl’s purser was named Carter Harris, whose name and age is similar to Harrison Cartwright’s; Harris is supposed to have gone down with the ship. Con’s checks don’t turn up anything on Cartwright before the Ebony Pearl’s sinking. The kids hypothesize Geovanis might have recognizes Harris and threatened to expose his secret survival (and possible theft of passengers’ valuables from the Ebony Pearl).

Fortunately for the boys — and us readers — Cartwright reveals himself almost immediately. When Frank and Joe drop by to ask a few questions, Cartwright tries to kill them with the dune buggy again. In the ensuing car chase — Frank marvels, “Unbelievable … This guy doesn’t give up” (122), which isn’t that amazing since the boys will reveal his crime unless he stops them — Frank foregoes the safety of driving to town in favor of a briefly seen uniformed man near a lighthouse. Great strategy, Frank: Trap yourself in the most isolated part of the island. But Cartwright gives them a warning instead.

These baffling decisions — to attempt murder again, then let the boys walk — are all part of the character of a man who has made horrible decisions all his life. Why live near a museum that has a large exhibit to the disaster he used to fake his death? Not only are there most likely photos of the crew on exhibit there, it’s one place researchers and survivors — in other words, the people best positioned to recognize the purser — would most likely be found. Honestly, this man picked the worst place to hide from his past, but since it still took decades for him to be found out, maybe he’s not the dumb one.

Frank and Joe arrive at Cartwright’s house just in time to see him speed away in a motorboat with both the Geovanises; evidently Alicia arrived just in time to be kidnapped for the denoument. Frank and Joe swipe a motorboat to pursue, and because it wouldn’t be a Cliché Bot book without a finale involving sharks and the Hardys’ boat starting to sink, well, that’s what happens: Cartwright leaves the Geovanises to die as the tide rises, the boys scrape the stolen boat on some shoals, and they have to swim to get to the bound captives. But the shark turns out to be a dolphin, the Geovanises are rescued, and the boat stays afloat long enough for the Hardys to beat up Cartwright and steal his boat. Hooray!

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.