Yes, model trains. Contain your excitement.
“Borrowing” from the past: Not much, really. They do travel by train, which used to be Frank and Joe’s primary way of getting around the country. Frank, Joe, and Jackson take a train from Bayport to Indianapolis, and they also board a party train (see below) for a short excursion. During the first 85 books, Frank and Joe took trains fourteen times, including the titular Flying Express in the 20th book in the series.
Frank and Joe didn’t visit Indianapolis in the original canon, although they were briefly stranded (and almost kidnapped) in Indiana in the original Hunting for Hidden Gold. They also will visit Indianapolis later in the digest series, in Double Jeopardy (#181). That mystery plays to Indianapolis’s claim to fame: motor racing.
To distract a guard, Joe blathers on about “everything he knew about Mustangs and restorations” (49). Although Joe has never been shown to have a predilection for any make or model of car, both he and his brother are good with automobiles. A summary of their mechanical skills can be found in the entry on Double Jeopardy.
The reason Frank and Joe are able to take this fabulous trip to Indianapolis is that they are on winter break. Somehow. The book is set in February, so I’m not sure how that works; even though some colleges don’t start in the new year until February, I can’t imagine Bayport High is still on break from Christmas, and I’ve rarely heard of a separate break between Christmas / New Year’s and Spring Break. In any event, Frank, Joe, and the chums took a vacation to Jamaica over a winter vacation in The Mysterious Caravan, and their investigation in Cave-In occured during winter vacation.
Before heading into the subterranean levels of Indianapolis, Frank packed his supplies: a flashlight, a compass, his cell phone, and a city map. The boys didn’t use cell phones in the original canon — they hadn’t been popularized yet — but they did use a compass (six books) and a variety of sizes and flavors of flashlights (56 books). They even used a map (of Bayport) in The Melted Coins (#25). The real questions are why Frank thought to bring a compass on a trip to see model trains in Indianapolis, and whether he brought the map of Indy from home or bought it in Indiana.
Inaction Jackson: As far as I can tell, this is the only appearance of Jackson Wyatt, the boys’ putative friend, in a Hardy Boys book. Who is Jackson? He’s a train nut, a man who likes model and real trains. At 22, he has already qualified to be a fireman on the train, and he’s learning how to be an engineer …
Yes, Jackson’s 22 years old. At that age, four years is a huge age difference. How did this train enthusiast become friends with the a pair of teenagers he most likely never went to school with? It’s never explained. The only point of shared interest between the Hardy boys and Jackson is an interest in trains, and Frank and Joe don’t seem too enthused by them. Frank says he and Joe are “fans,” although “a real drag” (38) is as far as Joe ventures when asked to comment about a million-dollar theft of model trains.
Most likely Jackson knows how famous the brothers are, and he’s decided that if he spends time with Frank and Joe, some of that attention will reflect onto him. He doesn’t have much to recommend him to the brothers, though, and he hopes the entre to the world’s best model-train collection will interest them. (It’s an impressive collection, but it’s model trains; you have to be really interested in the hobby to travel halfway across the country to see any collection.) Frank and Joe most likely agreed to come with him out of pity and, well, a chance to see Indianapolis. Haven’t done that before!
Joe, you sly dog: Japanese model train collector Yoshio Agawa — “Asia’s top model train collector” (3)! — brought his daughter, Genji, along with him to see the collection. Genji (which is a boy’s name in Japan, as far as I can tell) shows little interest in the trains, but she does like hanging out with Frank, Joe, and Jackson. Especially Joe, it seems; when the four split into two pairs, Genji hangs out with Joe, although she crashes through a rotten subterranean floor despite Joe’s warning of “Don’t go in there!” (53). (Don’t worry; he totally rescues her.)
It’s more likely, I suppose, that Joe engineered the pairing. (Iola is not mentioned in the text.) After meeting Genji, he smoothly suggests, “Maybe you could spend some time with us tomorrow” (17). When her father is a suspect in the theft of the model trains, Joe’s reaction is to groan “Not Genji’s dad” (27). Unfortunately, he misses his chance to impress her when she finds out he and his brother are detectives; the text blandly says the boys “told Genji about some of Frank and Joe’s experiences” (43). C’mon, man! Brag about yourself! You deserve it!
Detective accoutrements: While wandering around a deserted train car, Joe’s “detective radar” (87) perks up, alerting him that he’s not really alone. When Frank suggests looking over surveillance tape again, Joe says, “Frank’s detective button has been pushed” (100). What I want to know is where those pieces of technology were installed on their bodies. Or, if they are external tech, do they get strange looks from the people who see their detective radars and detective buttons?
Always order the special of the house: When eating at the RibRack, what do the boys order? Burgers and fries. Of course. They’ve had ribs before, while in Texas for The Swamp Monster, but they burgers are among their favorites: they ordered burgers in 22 books in the original canon.
If you weren’t there, I can’t explain to you how awesome the ‘90s were: Genji’s seventeenth birthday party is held on an excursion train, which travels from Indianapolis, through the Hoosier National Forest to the south, and back again. That’s not particularly ‘90s, and really, it doesn’t sound like a fun party for teenagers, no matter how much food they cram onto the train. (It sounds fun to me, but I’m a middle-aged white guy with a fondness for Midwestern forests and hills.) But! The ‘90s part is the entertainment on the train: “a boom box and an assortment of CDs” (77). Cool!
Also, Frank repeatedly calls Joe “bro.” This is not exclusively a ‘90s phenomenon, as much as I wish it was. But I think the trend can be traced back to the ‘90s. Also, there’s no excuse for Frank to say “bro.” Ever.
Villains are a weaselly and incompetently murderous lot: The villains swing between formidable and awful. On one hand, they pull off a plot that involves kidnapping the crew of a train at a critical juncture; one of the crooks fells Joe with one punch to the stomach, and he later hops off a near-runaway train with little damage. On the other hand, when one of them shoves Frank in front of a train, Frank has plenty of time to cross the tracks and get out of the way. Also, the point of kidnapping the train crew (and the subsequent mayhem) was to get Frank and Joe to drop the case, but the criminals never said that, and the boys were entirely unclear about why the train had been attacked. Better communication skills wouldn’t have helped the crooks, but it would have allowed everyone to take them more seriously.
The narration uncharacteristically editorializes after the final villain was captured: “From that point on, he behaved like the whining weasel he really was” (147). Perhaps he was a weasel, but he deserves more respect than that; he almost got away with it! (Unfortunately, the boys just happened across him at a food court near the Hardys’ hotel. In all of the city of Indianapolis, he just happened to be at the wrong place!)
You’re learning about trains!: Frank, Joe, and Jackson are awakened every morning at 6:30 by the arrival of the Hoosier State, an Amtrak train that runs between Indianapolis and Chicago, as it prepared to head to Chicago. The Hoosier State leaves even earlier in 2014; according to Amtrak’s June 9, 2014 schedule, the Hoosier State leaves Indianapolis at 6 a.m. on its way to the Windy City. The Hoosier State runs only on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, but the Cardinal, which runs from New York to Chicago, leaves Indianapolis at 6 a.m. on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.)
The boys (and Jackson) stay at a hotel in Indianapolis’s old Union Station; the three share an old Pullman car, still resting on its tracks, refurbished as a hotel room. Shockingly, these rooms are real, and they are still available for guests of the Crowne Plaza at Historic Union Station hotel. The rooms sound cool, but they also sound very noisy.
I don’t think you’re real EMTs: After Frank and Joe save the adult collectors from the Ridiculously Slow Death Trap after a day of imprisonment, the paramedics prescribe “soup and juice right away” (143) for Agawa. Soup and juice? It was only one day; it’s not like he was about to starve. Are these people in the pocket of Big Soup and the Juice Conglomerate?
Opinions: Sidetracked to Danger is a bit bland, and it even fails to live up to the promise of action model trains imply. True, there are scenes on real trains, but those trains are either stationary or the party / excursion train. Neither is worthy of the great Hardy adventure tradition. Combine that with the glittering city of Indianapolis, and you have a book that fails to generate much interest.
Grade: C. In three months, I will forget I ever read this book, even though it has a travelogue of downtown Indianapolis, a place I have been to and probably will return to.