Friday, March 20, 2015

The Desert Thieves (#141)

The Desert Thieves coverThe Desert Thieves is not, as I had hoped, a wacky caper about a bunch of scoundrels trying to steal the Atacama or the Gobi or Painted Desert. It is a morality tale set in the Hardy Boys’ world, and like most stories with an emphasis on morals, it is not that entertaining.

Frank and Joe are on winter break — even though last book took place during summer vacation — so Fenton takes them out west on a business trip. After the business is done, Fenton takes the boys to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the Sonoran Desert, where his old college buddy, Winton “Grish” Grisham, is a park ranger. The Hardys make a surprise visit to see ol’ Grish, who hasn’t seen Fenton in 20 years. Twenty years! I know if a college friend dropped by out of the blue after 20 years, I’d probably tell them as politely as possible to take a hike. I mean, 20 years …

Oh, crap. I just realized I’ve been out of college for almost 20 years. That means I’m almost Fenton’s age, and I still haven’t realized my goal of becoming the #1 private detective in America. I’m not even a private detective! I may have wasted my life.

Anyway, Grish — and I’m betting Fenton hung that nickname on him, out of spite — tells the Hardys about the cactus rustling that’s been happening at Organ Pipe. It sounds strange, but in essence it’s the same type of human stupidity that leads to trade in rhino horn or ivory: in this case, cacti are pretty, so people want them for their yards, and the best cacti are in protected environments. Frank and Joe immediately want in on the investigation, and here’s the lesson beginneth.

Grish does not want the boys — “a couple of amateur detectives” (8) — butting into the mystery. He doesn’t have time to be responsible for their safety, and besides, this is a federal matter, not vandalism or a snow-leopard theft. Grish wants to keep the investigation as secret as possible so as not to alert the perpetrators, so having a couple of teenagers blundering around wouldn’t be helpful. Besides, Organ Pipe is large, and according to Grish, the job requires people who know the territory. Joe unreasonably bristles at being called amateur — I mean, Frank and Joe call themselves that, half the time — but Grish’s knowledge of the territory is called into question when Fenton has to remind him he’s on a one-way road and that pickup roaring toward him might be a problem.

Still, I can’t fault Grish for not wanting to work with teenagers who call each other “bro” and “dude” (18) and use phrases like “nuke box” when they mean “microwave” (32).

So after this brush-off, what do Frank and Joe immediately do? Poke around, arousing suspicion, and talking about the case so anyone wandering by can overhear details of the sensitive operation. While they do this, Fenton looks on, bemused and not interested in helping. Although I don’t think the author has youth lingo down, he or she knows kids: if you tell them they can’t do something they want to do, they’re likely to do it anyway, because what the hell do you know? You’re only an adult.

Grish seems to be the model of patience, as he doesn’t put his foot in the boys’ asses, metaphorically or literally, when they tell him they’ve been doing the exact thing he’s told them not to do. He doesn’t tell them to go elsewhere — I’m sure the nearby Sonoran Desert National Monument, Saguaro National Park, and Coronado National Forest are wonderful in the winter. He nods and praises the boys’ efforts, even though they have told pretty much everyone about the investigation by the end.

So, Lesson #1: It is better to ask forgiveness than permission; if you’re good enough, you won’t even have to ask for forgiveness. Those who wouldn’t give you permission will probably thank you.

Of course, because the boys have been telling everyone about their investigation, they are the victim of indirect attacks. Their climbing rope is cut, their gas line is cut, and a rattlesnake — the traditional symbol of treachery — is left in their rented RV. (Also, a not-very-determined coyote tries to drag away a sleeping Joe but gives up when Joe wakes up.) After the climbing accident, Grish tells them to Just. Stop. It. The investigation is too dangerous!

But the brothers ignore him, of course, and Fenton and Joe stumble across the conspirators in a town near Organ Pipe. Fenton is caught by them, and Frank and Joe have to spring into action, with the help of the army of people they’ve told about the investigation. But — shock and surprise — the ringleader of the cactus rustlers is Grish!

Lesson #2: If someone is stopping you from doing what you want to do, they must be a bad person, and time — or your meddling — will reveal that.

Frank and Joe find Grish’s gang in the desert. Frank is almost immediately captured by Grish while trying to rescue Fenton. When the police helicopters show up, Grish slips away with his two captives. But with the unwitting help of a local artist, who shines his headlights in Grish’s face, Joe manages to sock Grish on the jaw, disarming him. Joe decides to give the artist some credit; the artist claims he had a plan rather than just getting lucky, and Joe doesn’t contradict him. This would be magnanimous of Joe if he himself hadn't been floundering around for most of the mystery. He couldn't even get the license plate numbers of the truck that drove away with his father!

Lesson #3: It’s better to be lucky than good. But it’s best to be lucky and good, and those who are both shall be given the keys of the Bayport.

If Grish had just had supper with the Hardys after they arrived and then sent them on their way without telling them about the cactus thefts, they probably would never have known about the criminal activity at the national monument. No, instead he says he mentioned the crimes so he could keep tabs on the Hardys, which is stupid; I mean, if he thought they were investigating the cactus thefts, which he claimed no one outside of Organ Pipe knew about, then it makes sense, but he should have at least felt them out about the case before spilling his guts.

Lesson #4 is something about hubris, although I imagine you can figure that one out yourself.

Here, as Jim Malone sayeth in The Untouchables while teaching Eliot Ness, endeth the lesson. Thank Dixon.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Slam Dunk Sabotage (redux) / Fat jokes and friendship

Since my most recent posts have been tackling the digests in sequence, I’d like to point out the next book, Slam Dunk Sabotage, was the first book I wrote about on this site. Enjoy!

***

There’s one other thing I’d like to discuss relating to the previous book, The Search for the Snow Leopard. I mention Frank and Joe making a fat joke at the beginning that entry as part of my evidence that Frank and Joe are bad friends. Although I don’t necessarily think making jokes at your friends’ expense makes you a bad friend or that fat jokes should necessarily be taboo, Frank and Joe making fat jokes has always seemed to be cruel to me.

In any relationship between friends, there’s likely to be some friendly chaffing going on — shortcomings will be pointed out, and in a healthy relationship, there’s likely to be some give and take involved, each side scoring some points on the other. But Chet’s in a bad situation; his best friends are perfect human beings, and they have few, if any, flaws. He has no way of returning the gibes Frank and Joe regularly dole out to him.

Also, the relationship between the Hardy boys and Chet is unequal, and it always will be. First of all, Frank and Joe are brothers and likely to unite against others. Secondly — and far more importantly — think of the perks Chet gets from being Frank and Joe’s friend. He gets status in Bayport and in the larger world, he gets to travel to exotic destinations, and he even gets real financial rewards sometimes. Being friends with Frank and Joe opens up a world to Chet that he would never have had access to without them. He’s just an average, overweight kid with a lot of enthusiasm. That’s not a bad set of attributes to have, but it’s not likely to allow anyone to travel to five different continents before graduating high school.

So what’s Chet to do? Those rewards are fabulous. Can he really risk angering his benefactors? Or should he just shut up and take their insults? Chet mostly shuts up, and that makes Frank and Joe’s jokes seem more like bullying than the usual kidding friends give each other.

It would be different if Frank and Joe spent time on their insults and managed to pick on something more than his surface shortcomings. Mocking Chet’s stupid hobbies is a better choice; many of them are kinda goofy, and enthusiasm is something that tends to heal over time. (It can be fatally wounded, though, if you attack it enough.) But the series needs each book to pack in the “jokes” with a minimum of explanation, so newcomers to the series won’t be confused, and “fat is funny” needs little explanation.

It’s a series for kids, so I shouldn’t expect too much. But jokes like that teach kids something about the nature of relationships I wouldn’t want them to learn.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Search for the Snow Leopard (#139)

The Search for the Snow Leopard coverYou might think The Search for the Snow Leopard is a mystery that involves travel to a faraway, exotic clime where the endangered species still exists or is used in symbology in some way. You would be wrong.

Snow Leopard is set in Bayport, and it’s a story about Frank and Joe being awful friends to Chet. As with all great works of literature, Snow Leopard starts with a fat joke. Chet has taken an internship at the zoo, and Frank and Joe compare Chet’s appetite to an elephant’s. Of course they do. They then “roared with laughter” (1) over a joke that is just lame as my summary made it sound. Later, when they need to talk to Chet again, Frank makes it clear he was only half listening to Chet when he said what he was going to do next. (Later, they reveal they didn’t even listen when Chet told them the name of the elephant they compared him to.)

They find Chet talking with Salamaji, the princess of the small nation of Fakenameistan — sorry, Rashipah. When Chet tries to impress her by mentioning that Frank and Joe are detectives, Joe grumbles about Chet revealing their true identities. Since when has Frank and Joe’s detective abilities been a secret? And hey, Joe, Chet’s trying to impress an attractive princess from a far-off land — be cool for once in your life. Chet’s never hampered your game when you put the moves on girls when Iola isn’t around, and Iola’s his sister. Frank’s amazed that Chet seems to be attracted to the princess, although I have no idea why an unattached guy liking a rich, exotic beauty who doesn’t treat him like a freak would be remarkable. Maybe Frank thinks Chet should stick with fatties? Later, Joe mocks Chet and Salamaji’s growing closeness while talking to his brother. I think he’s just jealous, though.

Anyway, Frank and Joe keep running around Bayport and the zoo because the zoo director wants them to investigate various animal escapes. After the first three escapes, the animal was captured and returned to its cage before anything bad happened, but then Emi the snow leopard is taken. Not long afterwards, Salamaji is kidnapped. Chet breaks the news to Frank and Joe this way: “‘The princess!’ he cried. ‘She’s been kidnapped!’”

Frank’s reaction: “‘What?’ Frank demanded. ‘Wait. Calm down.’”

I like that Frank can make “What?” a demand, but the rest of his speech seems out of line. Chet seems relatively calm, given the circumstances.

Perhaps Bayporters don’t know how to be friends; one of Salamaji’s friends, who has a key to her dorm room, lets three strange boys (Frank, Joe, and Chet) after when Salamaji goes missing, which seems like a poor choice. Frank and Joe certainly aren’t done being bad friends; when Salamaji’s ex-boyfriend thinks it’s strange that she prefers Chet to him, Frank has trouble concealing his agreement with the ex.

So Frank and Joe are clearly not being good friends with Chet, even though he called them “his best buds.” But Frank and Joe’s jerkhood is not the only thing Snow Leopard focuses on; it’s also concerned with animals. What does this book teach us about the animal kingdom?

  • Zoos are very eager to watch snow leopard sex. As soon as Salamaji donates Emi, her female snow leopard, to the Bayport Zoo, the director phones up someone who has a male snow leopard to secure a “nice husband” (8) for Emi. Euphemisms ahoy!
  • Sometimes it takes a beast to show how much you’ve lost your edge. In the original Disappearing Floor, Frank and Joe take out an escaped tiger by bouncing rocks off its skull until it dies. In Snow Leopard, Frank stands still, staring at an escaped tiger and talking to it, until someone else shoots it with tranquilizer darts. How the mighty have fallen!
  • Tigers are pirates at heart. When the tiger is hit by the darts, its response is, “Arrrrrr!” (14). That’s supposed to be a growl, but I can’t take that idea seriously.
  • Animal lovers really like the acronym “ARF.” Animal rights activists in Snow Leopard use ARF for their organization: Animal Rights Force. However, in the real world, ARF is also the Animal Rescue Foundation, a group that saves pets that have run out time at shelters; ARF was founded by Hall of Fame baseball manager Tony LaRussa and his wife in 1991, five years before Snow Leopard was published. There’s also the Animal Rescue Fund, a name under which several separate animal rescue charities operate across America.
  • Joe would like to experience primate behavior. While watching apes groom one another, Joe asks Frank why he didn’t clean him like that when they were younger. Frank says he wouldn’t do it now, either. Frank’s right to say that, Joe. Your joke was weird.
  • Chimps like soap operas. They watch Days of Destiny every weekday. Perhaps the best part of the book is that Days of Destiny actually sounds like a soap opera name.
  • Vampire bats cause amnesia. Frank thinks he’s never seen vampire bats, even though vampire bats were a major plot point in Danger on Vampire Trail.
  • Animal rights activists aren’t concerned about the law of man. Frank and Joe have a discussion with the Kellermans, the founders and only members of ARF, about the “laws of nature” and “laws of man.” Jeff Kellerman says he doesn’t want to break the laws of man because he isn’t useful to the animal-rights movement in jail. He later breaks the law several times, so he isn’t really worried about prison. But perhaps if the Sayer of the Law told him “he who breaks the law shall be punished back to the House of Pain,” he might change his mind.
  • Snakes are boneless. Or at least they are according to the narrator of Snow Leopard. Perhaps the particular snake being described was bred in an unsuccessful attempt to find an alternative source of the meat for chicken McNuggets.
  • Man really is the most dangerous game. And not just because Frank and Joe deem it acceptable to wear cutoffs as part of their “official summer vacation uniforms” (2). No, it’s because humans can use blow guns. Frank, Joe, and Chet try to rescue Salamaji from a big-game hunter but get caught themselves; the hunter and his two assistants decide to be sporting and give them a chance to survive, “Most Dangerous Game”-style. The trio finds Salamaji while fleeing the hunters; they also find blow guns that allow them to take out two of their pursuers and one of the great cats that Frank released to confuse the situation.
  • Dead animals talk to Joe. While the kids are being chased by the hunters, Joe thinks he can hear the head of a bison telling him, “Don’t let these hunters get you too, kid” (142).

***

Anyway, it all turns out all right. Chet gets a date with the rescued Salamaji at the end of the book, the villains are all thrown in jail, and both snow leopards get to live at the Bayport Zoo. But that ending makes it clear the book has been focusing on the wrong protagonist the entire time … Chet rescues the girl he’s interested in from kidnappers and manages to overcome both her ex-boyfriend and his two awful friends to get a date with her. All hail the mighty Chet!

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Alaskan Adventure (#138)

The Alaskan Adventure coverFrank and Joe head to Glitter, Alaska, a small Athabascan Indian town on the Yukon River, to visit their friend David Natik. David visited the Hardy home in an unpublished adventure, so Frank and Joe decide to return the favor by visiting David just a few days before his first Iditarod. Because that’s exactly what you want, just before you enter your first 1,100-mile dog sled race: a pair of visitors distracting you and keeping you from training.

But it’s good Frank and Joe arrive when they do: David’s aunt and uncle’s home is burned down just minutes after the boys arrive, and a few minutes later, a burning log is thrown through the window of David’s parents’ cabin, where the family has taken refuge. This is just one of many acts of vandalism and destruction that have occurred in Glitter. Obviously something is wrong, and the locals have no idea what it is; in fact, they don’t really link any of the events into a coherent whole …

But Frank and Joe do! Unfortunately, they don’t know why these crimes are being committed. They toy with the idea that old conflicts in the town coming to the fore; they think it might have something to do with David’s and his ex-friend Gregg’s rivalry; perhaps it has something with the theme-park company that wants to come to Glitter and make it into a giant living history exhibit?

Yes, that’s it — the last one. It takes Frank and Joe a while to latch onto that idea, but they figure it out eventually. Suspects include Curt Stone, a theme-park rep who remains friendly to the boys despite all their questions and his inability to tell the difference between “accusations” and “insinuations”; Lucky, a miner and living history exhibit himself, who gives Frank and Joe the helpful advice that they need to “be careful whose nuggets they put their hands on” (38); and Gregg Anderson, who suspects Frank and Joe are behind his troubles, calling the brothers David’s “gangster friends” (122). That comment transformed Gregg from insufferable jerk to all right guy.

None of these is the criminal, of course. The criminal’s grand plan is to get the locals to approve the theme park so he can sell native handicrafts to tourists for a profit, which seems like a lot of work for a small payoff. He seems luckier than good, as well; in a little town where everybody’s got their nose in everyone else’s business, he’s fortunate he hasn’t been seen in his villainous comings and goings. (The worst was when he punctured a boat in the middle of the night; people heard the sound, which was likened to chopping wood, but no one decided to look outside to see why someone was chopping wood in the dark.) The culprit also pulls one of my least favorite Hardy Boys’ villain maneuvers: the hemi-glutteal food theft, in which all of someone’s food is stolen, but rather than taking it away totally, spoiling it, or eating it, it’s abandoned somewhere nearby, allowing Frank and Joe to recover it via their superior woodscraft. (The best example of this is the original Mystery of Cabin Island.)

It is extremely ironic that Frank and Joe oppose the efforts of someone who wants to turn an entire town into a theme park. For the Hardys, that’s what travel is for: you watch the locals and see the neat, weird things they do. Everything they do is put on for your benefit, and you get to eat their local foods. At the end of the trip, you get to claim you “understand” or “helped” the natives. In Alaskan Adventure, Frank and Joe see a real “Native American healer” in action, ride a dogsled, are menaced by local wildlife, buy stuff from a general store, attend a native potlatch, and visit Lucky’s mining operation. They don’t meet David’s parents because — and I swear to God this is true — the elder Natiks are in Fairbanks working at a snowshoe factory.

The author seems to sympathize with the anti-theme park side, since a theme park supporter is causing all the damage and David’s extended family all oppose the park. The sole argument for the park — money — seems shallow compared to the … we’ll say “rich traditions” Frank and Joe witness in Glitter. David’s cousin says her father believes the park will make Glitter’s residents “animals in a circus, showing off for visitors instead of being free to live our lives the way we always have” (29). Sure, the town has its problems, but they mostly stem from a single jackass destroying things to get people to vote for the theme park. But at the end of the story, David’s uncle begins to cave to the theme park idea, claiming he thinks Glitter can work with Stone’s company. Capitalism rules!

Despite the downer of an ending, which shows the power of capitalism, Frank and Joe might get a reward: a testimonial letter from an Alaskan State Trooper commander. Wow. We’re a long way from the early books, in which rewards of hundreds and thousands of dollars just tumbled into their laps.

Frank and Joe have always treated their travels as tourism, as shown by their first trip to Alaska (just after it became a state) in The Mystery of Devil’s Paw. The boys stopped Iron Curtain spies from recovering a lost rocket in Devil’s Paw, which is a lot more exciting than putting the kibosh on a vandal, but whatever. In that book, the Hardys met local Native Americans and ate local foods; unlike in Alaskan Adventure, which featured moose steak and moose-head soup at a potlatch, in Devil’s Paw they ate bear steaks, rice-lily bread, raw salmon, stewed rabbit, and wild rose fruit while attending a native wedding. The wildlife shifted slightly in the nearly four decades between the books: both had the Hardys escaping brown bears, but Alaskan Adventure substituted wolves for Devil’s Paw’s skunks.

The story ends just before David and Gregg take off for the Iditarod, which means the story ends in early March. Unfortunately, neither won, but David is prepared for this. After mentioning Gregg wants to be “first in everything,” David says, “Life’s not like that” (14). It might not be like that for you, brother, but it is for Frank and Joe. Wisely, they refrain from correcting him, but we the readers know the truth.

Random Iditarod facts: In 1996, the year in which the book was published, Californian Jeff King won his second Iditarod behind his lead dogs Jake and Booster. He finished the course in 9 days, 5 hours, 43 minutes, and 13 seconds. Forty-nine competitors finished the race; eleven more dropped out before the end. The fastest first-timer, Cim Smyth, was 18th, finishing more than a day behind King. King won $50,000, while Smyth received $6,000 for his finish. King went on to win two more Iditarods. 1996 was the first time the competition had been completed in less than 10 days; King’s record stood until 2000, when Doug Swingley (along with Stormy and Cola) beat it by almost five hours. The shortest time was set in 2014 by Dallas Seavey, who finished in 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, 19 seconds.

Friday, February 20, 2015

High-Speed Showdown (#137)

High-Speed Showdown coverPower boat racing has reached Bayport in High-Speed Showdown. Unsurprisingly, the Northeast Nationals are also plagued by sabotage. Really, you have to wonder why any organization would hold an event in Bayport. Are the hotels that great? Is the convention center huge? Are the women more attractive?

I’m thinking the answer is massive bribes. Massive, IOC / FIFA-level bribes, with piles of cash, drugs, and complimentary subscriptions to Field & Stream.

Given everything bad that happens at Bayport events, it’s the only real explanation. High-Speed Showdown supports that hypothesis, as the corruption in the powerboat racing circuit the Northeast Nationals is part of is an open secret. The racers, owners, and crew are allowed to bet on all the races, and while the assumption is that each person would bet on their own boat, they are not restricted to betting on themselves. If a governing body allows wagering among participations, corruption is always a danger, as some bright fellow is going to figure out it’s more profitable to lose than to win.

(In addition to the implications of gambling, the book is hazy on the mechanics of gambling as well. At one point, a private investigator based in Las Vegas tells the boys incorrectly what 1-to-4 odds means. The PI suggests a $1 at 1-4 returns an additional dollar on a win, but on a loss the bettor has to kick in an additional $4. This is incorrect. If you bet $1, that’s all you can lose; if you win a $1 bet at 1-4, you’ll receive a an additional quarter.)

When you think about speedboat racing, in which massive, finely tuned engines are harnessed to the lightest hulls possible, you also think of safety, and safety is foremost in High-Speed Showdown. The boys always strap in safely before riding in power boats. The narrator makes sure readers know the Hardys and other boaters know how to pass each other on the water. Before saving a man from drowning, Frank strips off his shoes and shirt and mentions that swimming with jeans is difficult. (Did he keep them on for modesty’s sake?) The brothers have a fire extinguisher on the Sleuth that allows them to take care of a fire on a powerboat. When a speedboat wrecks, Frank stops Joe from going to the rescue: “Let the marshals handle it … if a bunch of civilians like us run straight into the path of the racers, we’ll have a real disaster” (125). When the throttle on the Sleuth breaks, Joe’s first instinct is to shut off the engine rather than flail about with the controls. In the end, as the suspect escapes in a motorboat in the crowded waters of Barmet Bay, Frank elects not to pursue: “Too late! Let him go. He can’t escape. Besides, by trying to run away, he’s just proving that we were right about him” (147). And one of the adult crew members, recalling Frank and Joe’s 15-year-old schoolmate Connie, tells us he’s not into young women: “Cute kid, but way too young for me” (85). He’s totally lying, of course, but at least he’s being cautious about what he says about underage women.

(Another competitor, whom we are supposed to hate, is not so cautious around Connie: “I can handle her kind anytime” [33]. He means he can beat her up if he needs to, but that’s still awful.)

Maybe Frank and Joe have just decided to be boring. They use notecards to try to make links between facts in the case rather than their usual random association of incidents. After learning of a lead in Las Vegas, Frank and Joe contact a PI in that city rather than flying out there. Frank’s so cautious he’s worried he might have upset a member of student government that he says, “I hope we never want something from student government” (89). What I remember wanting from student government, during my high school days, is for student government to go away.

The stakes are very low; no one is injured, except for a guy who has a Hardy Boys concussion and another who was either poisoned or ate bad shrimp salad. The most jeopardy the boys fall into is when they are attacked by men with baseball bats, which is admittedly dangerous for most people, but it’s the kind of thing Frank and Joe handle all the time. The second-most peril they are subjected to is when a firecracker explodes under their van’s hood while they are still in the parking lot. The narration tries to sell by saying Joe heard “a high-pitched whistle … the sound of something deadly coming from under the hood” (117), but that sounds like a bottle rocket, not an M-80. The third-most danger is trying the peach chutney Aunt Gertrude put on their chicken sandwiches.

I won’t go into the suspects except to mention they are all powerboat racers (one of whom has the “gratitude of a weasel” [143], which is well known as the most ungrateful member of the weasel family) or owners plus a couple of student protestors. The actual criminal is a complete surprise — unless you’ve read The Masked Monkey or The Stone Idol or The Vanishing Thieves, in which the criminal thinks Frank and Joe aren’t that bright and hires them to investigate the crimes he himself committed. To be fair, this is one of the books in which Frank and Joe’s career is not widely known; one of their high-school classmates has “heard rumors around school that they’re amateur detectives or something” (35). Magnusson, the event organizer, is surprised when Frank and Joe ask for a copy of a threatening fax, as if he expected them to spend their time investigating running into piers and falling off docks.

But they don’t. They’re too cautious for that.

Actually, one suspect I’d like to discuss is Susan Shire, powerboat racer and television actress. The story isn't that interested in her, not so much dismissing her as a suspect and competitor as just forgetting about her, but Frank and Joe do mention she appears in the TV show Brisbane Lane. What kind of show do you think it is? We’re probably supposed to think it’s a Melrose Place clone, but I think there are other possibilities. Indiana Jones-type adventure show with an Aussie protagonist? Daytime soap? A spy show, set in Australia? I like all my Australian ideas, although the major hitch with them is that the name of the Australian city doesn’t rhyme with “lane” — it’s pronounced BRIZ-bin (or BRIZ-bn).

Weirdly, the book is more circumspect in naming (fictitious) entertainment sources in other places. At one point, Aunt Gertrude says she’s “going to watch a rerun of one of my favorite shows” (55), then asks if Frank and Joe would like to join her. They demur, in part because she won’t even name the show. Later Joe challenges Frank to “a computer game … I’ll spot you two power pills and an invisibility spell” (57). Frank accepts the challenge, even though the game isn’t named.

Despite the possibility of high-speed crashes, High-Speed Showdown is kinda dull, and it doesn’t take advantage of the competitive aspects of the sport. I mean, look at that cover, which promises a dull time; it looks like the Sleuth is blathering nonsense to Frank and Joe while they irresponsibly tow a rubber raft that had a couple of cardboard life-sized standees in it. It’s the kind of book that dramatically asks, “Would their meeting with Magnusson leave enough time for a prelunch snack?” (6).

Some might take exception with my stance. For instance, the Amazon page for the book has a single review, which gives the book five stars; the review, which I reproduce here in full, says, “good.” Hard to argue with that, but I won’t budge from my stance.

Unless someone wanted to try to sway me with IOC-levels of subscriptions to Field & Stream … throw in a couple of years of Outdoor Life, and I might be singing the praises of High-Speed Showdown.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Cold Cash Caper (#136)

The Cold Cash Caper coverEven though Frank and Joe aren’t heading out of town in the generically named The Cold Cash Caper, the author has decided to give them a three-day weekend in February — Washington’s Birthday, most likely — so they can enjoy Bayport’s Winter Festival without interruption.

What’s the Winter Festival? you might ask. And why haven’t you heard about it, even though it’s been around for more than two decades? The Winter Festival is a chance for Bayporters to unload homemade sweets and sweaters on one another and spend time outside, all in the hopes of raising money for the local children’s hospital; if the festival raises more than $50,000, the estate of deceased philanthropist Louis Bradford will donate the balance of the hospital’s yearly operating expenses. We’ve probably never heard of the festival because few books have been set in February — The Voodoo Plot, probably, and maybe Hunting for Hidden Gold — and because all other evidence of the event has been thrown in the memory hole. Better not ask any more questions, or you might be thrown into the room with the rats.

Frank and Joe are psyched to compete in the festival’s cross-country skiing and speed skating competitions, respectively, and their interest is piqued even more when they are told they will get to accompany Olympic figure skater David Kennedy around the festival. “His trademark triple axel is truly awesome!” Joe says, even though that is something no actual teenager has ever said. David has been booked to perform in the festival’s closing ceremonies.

Delivering Aunt Gertrude’s culinary contributions to the festival gives Frank and Joe an opportunity for a mild jab at Chet’s weight. At the festival grounds, Joe is jeered by Craig Thompson, the goalie for the Cross Town High hockey team, whom Joe lit up for a hat trick earlier in the season. Putting aside that “Cross Town High” is an awful name for a school — the name frames the school’s entire existence as being opposed to another, implicitly more legitimate (or at least older) school — Joe does not need to compete in another sport, as he already participated on six school teams in the first 85 Hardy Boys books. Joe does not rise to Craig’s bait, perhaps because Craig thinks calling Joe “the hotshot hockey player from Bayport High” (9) is an insult. Craig does get his revenge when Joe takes a spill during speed skating practice; the screws holding the blade to the shoe came unscrewed because of Craig’s sabotage, and Joe careened into a wall.

A note about the festival grounds: they are directly opposite the old Bradford Mansion, which is abandoned and dilapidated. In a story that seemingly replicates itself on every block in Bayport, the house has not been occupied since the wealthy Louis Bradford died, and the building and grounds have gone to seed. If you have read many Hardy Boys books, you know there is a disgraced heir out there somewhere, and he’s probably the villain.

Unfortunately for the festival, a booth is robbed of $2,000. Unfortunately for the Hardys, Chet is IDed as the robber, but they are able to give him an alibi. (Good thing, too; the BPD has picked Chet up for grand theft before, in the original Figure in Hiding.) Officer Con Riley tells the Hardys to work with the festival’s security chief, Dan Meyers, to catch the real robber. Meyers, proving he’s not a local, protests, “That job calls for someone with experience, not boys” (33). He gives in, though, and Chet and Joe find evidence before going home. Someone also hucks a rock at the Hardys’ van as they drive away from the festival. Just to get across that someone is unhappy with the Hardys’ meddling, the rock has an ineffectual threat tied around it.

The next day, Frank and Joe help David Kennedy escape reporters and fans at the airport. They also bring along Kennedy’s coach, Ivan Petrovich. (This could be a reference to Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, of Pavlov’s dog fame, or to the Marvel Comics character Ivan Petrovich, the bodyguard / handler / chauffeur of the Black Widow. Or neither.) David gets a taste of the Hardy life when Craig throws snowballs at them (and triggers an avalanche of deadly, deadly icicles) and when the Hardys pursue the thief who knocked over the “sweater booth” and got away with $1,000.

$1,000 of sweaters were sold in one morning. Huh. Well, allegedly a great number of raffle tickets were sold as well, but still — sweater booth. (The festival also sells “cow mugs,” which evidently are cow-themed coffee mugs.)

David is intrigued by the Hardys’ mystery skills and wishes to subscribe to their newsletter, despite Joe being puzzled about where a thief went when the thief entered one ends of an alley but disappeared before Joe gets to the alley. (He exited the other end of the alley, Joe.) David also doesn’t blink at the various threats to the Hardys’ lives. This will come back to bite him later. The investigation and entertaining David doesn’t stop the Hardys from competing in cross-country skiing (Frank was leading when a pine tree was dropped across the course) and speed-skating (Joe wins the two shorter events, and Frank wins the long-distance one).

So to save time, here are Frank and Joe’s big suspects:

  • Craig, who is so obviously not the true culprit he might as well be named “Red Herring.” Joe calls him “an obnoxious little punk” (127), which is a bit harsh but not inaccurate.
  • Leona Turner, who is one of the organizers of the festival. Her gift shop, which is in financial trouble, is near where the thief miraculously disappeared. She also stands on her rights, refusing to let Frank search the back of her shop, and sports new, expensive jewelry. It turns out she’s a bad businesswoman who is getting married to a rich man; she doesn’t care what happens to her shop.
  • Roger Pender, another festival organizer. His sporting-goods store, which is next to Leona’s, is failing because of a chain store that just came to town. Craig does odd jobs for him as well.

Frank and Joe’s big clue is that the thieves — it turns out there are two of them, working together — travel around in a white minivan. The brothers believe this narrows the suspect list, but Cold Cash Caper was published in 1996; I remember 1996, and white minivans were everywhere. But evidently, Bayport has only one white minivan, and when the brothers see one, it’s always the criminals’.

Later, Frank and Joe get into a scuffle with both robbers. Joe is shoved into a pond, but Frank seems to suffer a small cerebral event while rescuing his brother — he takes Joe home rather than to the hospital and starts saying things like, “What’s that expression? Get right back on the ice?” (114) and that Joe almost became “a contestant in the Polar Bear Club” (111). These cognitive difficulties slow Frank long enough for Joe to put everything together: when David is kidnapped, Joe realizes all the crimes are designed to keep the festival from earning the $50,000 needed to secure hospital funding from the Bradford estate.

The rest of the story writes itself. Actually, the ending would have been better if it had written itself. Chief of Police Ezra Collig won’t listen to the boys, which means they have to do research on their own. Recalling a rumor that the heirs to the Bradford estate would gain the entire estate if the festival didn’t make its $50,000 goal, Frank and Joe discover Dan Meyers, the head of festival security, is Bradford’s grandson. Not coincidentally, his two lieutenants match the description of the two thieves.

Because Collig wouldn’t listen to them before, Frank and Joe decide he won’t listen to them ever. Frank and Joe investigate the festival and Meyer’s and his goons’ apartments and find nothing. They run across the kidnappers’ van; while Joe is calling the cops, Frank is abducted as well. Joe pursues the van but loses it. He despairs; of course, by know the readers all know David is being held in the abandoned Bradford mansion. Joe doesn’t figure it out, but fortunately he stumbles across the van in time and follows it to the Bradford mansion. Despite beating up the two goons, Joe is stopped by Meyer’s gun.

Everything seems lost until Chet leads the festival parade (and the cops) to the mansion. The police arrest the villains, Joe and Craig reconcile, and David performs in the closing ceremonies. The festival makes its $50,000, and the hospital is funded — for this year, at least.

It’s a predictable story, easily forgotten. How do you sell it to an unsuspecting public? Here’s the back-cover copy:

Back cover of The Cold Cash Caper

That’s … badly written, and it’s not accurate — especially not the first paragraph. Frank and Joe don’t volunteer to do undercover security work; they do detective work to clear their friend. They aren’t assigned as David’s “bodyguards,” and they spend more time investigating than doing anything with David. Also: serial robberies are not “bad vibes.” The second paragraph does better, but I never got the feeling the boys were in danger of anything other than a punch in the face.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Hypersonic Secret (#135)

The Hypersonic Secret coverPlot: When the plane flown by the father of Frank and Joe’s new friend, Jamal Hawkins, disappears from radar, the brothers investigate.

I make fun of most of the Hardy Boys books I write about. The Hypersonic Secret is just as worthy of mockery as any, but instead, I want to talk about something else. Frank and Joe induct a new friend into their circle in Hypersonic, which is noteworthy on two levels: one, Frank and Joe haven’t made any new friends since The Tower Treasure, and two, the friend in question — Jamal Hawkins — is black.

African-American characters and black characters of other nationalities are not new to the Hardy Boys series; in particular, William Ellis made an impression on Joe in The Mysterious Caravan, and Peter Walker, a classmate and basketball teammate, served as Frank and Joe’s client in The Voodoo Plot. (If you want to extend this to all characters of color, Jim Foy went into a business partnership with Frank, Joe, and the other chums in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk, and he shared in a sizeable reward with them.) But because of the series’ resistance toward new characters, none of these characters have stuck. They were all one-and-done characters.

Although Hypersonic gives no indication Jamal will be a recurring character, he actually does appear in several other mysteries I’ve recapped on this site: Slam Dunk Sabotage, Danger in the Extreme, The Spy That Never Lies, Speed Times Five, In Plane Sight. And who knows? I haven’t read all the digests. He might have appeared in even more books. No matter how many more books he’s been in, though, those few books represent a step forward, acknowledging the world has changed since the series started in 1927. At this rate, Frank and Joe will meet their first gay person by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

A new character should ideally have a unique role to give that character an excuse to appear in more books. Jamal’s a pilot, and since his father owns a plane service, he can provide Frank and Joe access to planes. Since the Hardy family owns a plane and has a pilot on call, that’s not the best role for a new chum — unless Simon & Schuster is trying to change the status quo to make Frank and Joe seem less privileged. Whether Frank and Joe still have consistent access to a plane is not made clear in Hypersonic; Frank and Joe seem to have piloting skills, although not necessarily pilots’ licenses, and no mention is made of the family plane or Jack Wayne. Jamal does seem to be Frank and Joe’s superior in the cockpit.

Carving that niche from something Frank and Joe could previously do themselves is not the best way to endear him to the reader. There might be something to be gained from Jamal not being from Bayport — Frank and Joe seek him out after he and his high school beat Bayport in football — but the importance of Jamal’s outsider status isn’t clear in Hypersonic either.

If only the author had concentrated on Jamal more — or even the mystery around Bayport. After Jamal’s father’s plane goes down, Mr. Hawkins is missing, and Frank, Joe, and Jamal investigate around Bayport for suspects to the plane’s malfunction. Logically, finding Mr. Hawkins should be the climax of the book. Instead, it’s just another plot point, one that occurs less than halfway through the story. After that, the plot is done with the Hardys’ new friend, and Frank and Joe get to be privileged young white guys again — although this time they get their special treatment because they’re friends of Jamal, who is the son of a real cool ex-USAF guy. They get flown across the country in F-16s, Joe doesn’t get beaten to the ground and arrested when he gets too close to top-secret materials at Palmdale Air Force Base, and they even get to watch a hypersonic jet at Dreamland.

Dreamland! The military base also known as Groom Lake and Area 51! Good grief.

In the second half of the book, the author gets too wrapped up in flying hither and yon, putting Frank and Joe into those F-16s and having them fly around the American southwest with the villain and Jamal. If Jamal’s role was an attempt to make the boys’ experience more relateable, it doesn’t work.

I really like that Hypersonic picks up where the previous book leaves off — Cross-Country Crime is set during Thanksgiving, and Hypersonic takes place in December. However, the book tries to drive home a joke about Frank and Joe not having bought Aunt Gertrude a Christmas gift, but there’s no payoff — no joke about something being Gertrude’s real gift or Christmas arrive without the boys finder a present. Maybe that happens in the next book?

I suppose I’ll find out next time.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cross-Country Crime (#134)

Cross-Country Crime coverPlot: Frank and Joe interrupt their ski vacation through the Canadian Rockies to help a man wrongfully accused of robbing a bank.

“Borrowing” from the past: It’s November! Specifically, it’s a week-long Thanksgiving vacation for Frank and Joe. Now, few of the books produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate specifically take place around this time of year — The Sinister Sign Post is set in the fall, the revised Short Wave Mystery probably happens in November, and Game Plan for Disaster occurs about the time in November when college football seasons were wrapping up their regular seasons in 1982. But! The boys duck out on their family during the Christmas holidays in The Mystery of Cabin Island, spending the actual holiday and much of the break on Cabin Island …

You know what? I’m going to change the format, because a) it’s my blog, and b) no one’s reading it anyway. Might as well try to pander to a different demographic, like elementary school students trying to cheat on book reports.

So, anyway, the second page tells us Frank and Joe are spending Thanksgiving in the Canadian Rockies, away from their friends and family. That will be the last time Thanksgiving is mentioned in the book. Since Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, that makes sense, but on the other hand, why set the story during Thanksgiving if you’re not going to reference it? Frank and Joe don’t call home to wish their parents a happy Thanksgiving, and they don’t mention the holiday or any of the trappings when they talk to Con Riley, the only other American mentioned in the book.

Anyway, Frank and Joe are cross-country skiing across Alberta, from Banff to Lake Louise, a trip that’s about 35 miles through the Rockies. Frank is looking forward to some downhill skiing at the end of the trip, while Joe wants to do some snowboarding, “hoping to get in some action” (3). While getting breakfast in the real town of Evergreen, the local sheriff paws through their packs. The trust company (Canadian for “bank,” according to the book) has just been robbed, and the sheriff has to clear the boys. Usually, this would be a cue for the brothers to join in the investigation, but Frank insists they have a “date with nature” (8). Don’t worry: it’ll be just as chaste as all their other dates. You don’t have to worry about Joe doing something inappropriate with a maple tree or anything.

Outside of Evergreen, a blizzard hits. Frank’s not worried; according to him, it’s not cold enough for hypothermia. On the other hand, “you never know” (9), which isn’t what you want to hear your nature expert say. Frank and Joe stumble across Mitch Taylor, who has wrapped his snowmobile around a tree. Mitch is unconscious, and when the boys rouse him, they find he’s suffering from memory loss. Amnesia, the boys diagnose, although they’re confident Mitch doesn’t have a concussion. Except loss of consciousness and memory problems are two major symptoms of a concussion. (It turns out Mitch has been lying in the snow for an hour or so before the Hardys reach him. No one is concerned about that — not cold enough for hypothermia, remember.)

In any event, Frank and Joe get Mitch to his cabin and accept his offer of hospitality while the blizzard passes. A radio station, WBNF, broadcasts a description of the bank robber that looks a lot like Mitch. (Note: Canadian radio station call letters begin with “C.”) Frank and Joe are suspicious of Mitch at first but uncertain of the etiquette of accusing one’s host of bank robbery and mollified by his weak excuses, they decide not to worry about it. The next morning, the boys take advantage of Mitch’s hospitality to get in some snow sports before leaving Evergreen behind. No mystery for these boys, nosiree! They’re all about winter sports. “Whoooee,” Joe enthuses as he snowboards down the hill behind Mitch’s cabin — until he’s swallowed up by an avalanche. Frank and Mitch dig him out of the snow, but that makes the book’s second cliché (after “amnesia). If there’s a bear attack, they’ll hit the cliché hat trick.

This rescue guilts the brothers into helping clear Mitch. That they were ready to abandon the man in their pursuit of pleasure doesn’t speak well of them, but there’s still time in the book to find someone more unlikeable. They grill the sheriff when he comes to arrest Mitch, but he refuses to say anything: “I’m might be backwoods, but I’m not stupid” (28). If you’re not stupid, what are you doing in a Hardy Boys book? But then he answers the boys’ questions about the witness who fingered Mitch and about the bank’s security, so maybe he belongs here after all.

Two alternate suspects raise their heads:

• George Dupuy, who owns the local lumber company. Mitch used to work for him, but Dupuy fired him when Mitch ratted him out for unscrupulous logging practices. Now Dupuy is in debt and needs the money; framing Mitch might be an extra bonus.
• Rob Rubel, who’s suddenly flashing money around Evergreen despite being insolvent the week before. He also doesn’t like Frank and Joe, threatening Joe on their first meeting and calling him “Joey boy” before forcing him off the slopes on a subsequent meeting. He claims his grandfather willed him the money, but Frank and Joe don’t take that explanation seriously.

Somehow, neither Frank nor Joe suspects Justin Greeley, the guy who starts a conversation with the non-standard use of “Word up?,” or Bill Forman, the guy who tells Dupuy, his boss, “Go jump in a hole” when Dupuy tells him to actually do some work. Oh, the two guys are always around, and Justin’s the person who put Mitch at the scene of the crime, and they’re two of only three people who know the Hardys are going to do a little constructive B&E at Dupuy’s, an adventure that ends with Frank and Joe being shot at. But surely these two couldn't be responsible! Frank and Joe don’t even rule them out, actually. It never crosses their mind that Justin and Bill could be the thieves.

They are, of course. That’s the way these books work.

They also don’t suspect Tom Gregory, a 12-year-old who calls himself Hot Doggy Dog. (The author evidently has heard of Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose first album had been released two years before Cross-Country Crime was published, but didn’t know that Snoop spelled the last part of his name D-O-double G.) HDD also knew Frank and Joe were going to try to break into Dupuy’s safe, but he gives everyone motorized snowboards, which are surprisingly real things.

While snowboarding with Joe, HDD, Bill, and Justin, Frank scores the cliché hat trick, encountering a brown bear. Although Frank’s convinced standing still is the best course, the boys drive him off grouping together and shouting, appearing to be an even bigger predator. Amusingly, despite the trick’s success, they still argue what the best tactic is against bears.

Frank and Joe solve the mystery, although you have to worry about their tactics. In addition to breaking into Dupuy’s office and safe, the boys rifle Rubel’s apartment and wander into the burgled bank and pick locks there as well. (Why did Frank and Joe bring their lock picks on a ski trip? Especially since thieves’ tools are illegal in many jurisdictions.) B&E is a crime, no matter the reason, and interfering with a crime scene should have gotten them arrested. They also pilfer $100 from Rubel’s apartment to have it checked against the stolen money. When Frank and Joe finally clear Mitch, Joe’s peeved the sheriff is taking credit for what they uncovered. The boy should be happy the sheriff is choosing to overlook the details of their investigation. At the very least, he would have been justified to deport them.

But Frank and Joe aren’t forthcoming either. They don’t share their findings with the sheriff, although that’s SOP for the boys. When they are chased by their attackers at Dupuy’s office toward Evergreen, neither Hardy considers getting help in the town; they are more concerned with blowing through town and losing their pursuer in the woods. Later, they convince the sheriff to let Mitch out so that they can retrace his steps on the morning of the robbery, but Joe thinks the sheriff will let them wander about, unsupervised.

The walkthrough doesn’t really reveal anything new, but it does inspire everyone to look at Justin’s identification of Mitch more closely. They don’t get to expose his lie because he and Bill are already fleeing the jurisdiction. Frank, Joe, and Hot Lion catch up with the thieves, but shockingly, taking a 12-year-old to apprehend bank robbers is not the best plan, and all three are captured. Bill and Justin lift off in a stolen helicopter, but Frank and Joe grab onto the chopper’s skids as it lifts off. Justin can’t shake them off, and Bill can’t shoot them off, so they put the helicopter into a dive and ditch it. Everyone jumps into the snow from about 50 feet, and only Justin is injured.

Let’s stop for a moment. Fifty feet fall, from a helicopter probably going at least 100 miles per hour. Even into snow, that’s going to be a hell of a stop. But for Frank and Joe, it’s only a “bone-jarring thud” (142), and their forward momentum is immediately extinguished. Justin breaks a leg, and he’s the worst off.

With Justin immobilized, Frank and Joe pursue Bill on their motorized snowboards and catch him before he can jump into a chasm, a la Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. After turning the criminals in to the sheriff, Frank, Joe, Hot D-O-single G, and Mitch are ready to unwind — no more snowboarding, no more skiing, no more mysteries. They plan to return to Hot Doggy Dog’s house, watch a movie, eat popcorn, and … wait, what?

“Did I tell you we have a hot tub?” Tom asked the Hardys.
“Now this is my idea of a hard-core vacation,” Joe said.

If Tom were older, I would tell readers to cue the porn soundtrack there and let their imaginations take over. As it is, I have no idea what to tell you.

Grade: C-. A forgettable book, although it reminds me of the slightly better Open Season (Casefiles #59). At least in that one the rural mountain sheriff has the decency to point out the felonies the Hardys commit during their “investigation.”

Friday, November 14, 2014

Crime in the Kennel (#133)

Crime in the Kennel coverPlot: When a dog at the pet hotel is kidnapped while Iola is on duty, she is fired, and Frank and Joe hunt for the dog. (Mostly to find the dog. Her boss was kind of a jerk.)

“Borrowing” from the past: Not much, really. Gertrude’s pie is lemon this time; Gertrude made a lemon meringue pie in The Secret Panel (#25) and The Secret of Skull Mountain (#27). Frank uses the Sleuth to get into position for a trap; the boys don’t often use their motorboat in the digests. When discussing unrealistic career aspirations with a waitress, Joe jokes Frank “was supposed to pilot the next space shuttle” (33). Frank and Joe were astronauts in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85), although neither of the boys were pilots. Frank did get to threaten to space a man, though. That has to be a career highlight, although not one you can joke about to gain the confidence of a potential source.

Oh! Frank and Joe also have cargo almost fall on their heads when they visit the waterfront. This happens many, many times in the original canon — it’s a cliché, like storms when they are on Barmet Bay and the boys’ case dovetailing with Fenton’s and the decaying Bayport waterfront. The latter also appears here; the boys visit the waterfront throughout the canon, although it was best described in The Melted Coins: “Bayport’s waterfront is a picturesque but squalid part of the city. The streets were dark and crooked, crowded with second-hand stores, cheap hotels, and shabby restaurants. There was an unpleasant odor … in the air” (93).

In our last episode, which no one saw: Iola’s former co-worker, Dana Bailey, gushes about reading about Frank and Joe catching thieves at the fairground. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear in any of the immediately previous books. Does anyone know if this appeared in one of the digests? Or was this made up to give Frank and Joe some cheap heat?

All-American boys: If you ever have thought Frank and Joe were absurdly competent, Crime in the Kennel does its best to disabuse you of that idea. The boys are continually beaten and humiliated by their opponents. They leave their van unlocked, and a suspect rifles through their stuff and takes the only bit of evidence they had. While investigating a pet store during working hours, Joe is buried under a pile of bagged dog food. When Frank and Joe break into the pet store that night to look at the store’s records, both are bopped over the head with a mop handle, then stuffed into large dog carriers. There’s so much wrong with that sentence: the breaking and entering, the single blow to the head with a mop handle knocking them out … they deserve to be locked in dog carriers. Frankly, they deserved to be locked in dog carriers and not let out until the staff arrived the next morning, but they manage to escape their impromptu prisons.

Later in the book, both boys are maced by a suspect. After Iola is kidnapped, Joe is chloroformed by her kidnapper and hauled away. Joe spends most of the rest of the book trying to escape his bonds and getting beat up by the kidnapper once he does break free. Joe is humiliated in Kennel, and who does the humiliating? An animal technician with no particular martial arts prowess.

Frank is at a loss against a female opponent. He knocks a paintball gun from her hands, but she slugs him, then bites him and easily regains the gun. On the other hand, Frank makes up for this and getting mop-handled by taking a paintball at point-blank range between the eyes without flinching. That’s going to sting like a mother — that’s going to sting real bad, man. But Frank just wipes the paint away and continues like it’s nothing.

Perhaps their martial arts skills are degenerating. At one point, Frank uses a “partial karate stance” (17). What the heck is that? Do you learn that when you get your half-green belt?

Iola!: I’ve gone over Iola’s fiery, occasionally mercurial, temper before, but she doesn’t display much of that in this book. She complains at the injustice of getting fired, but she doesn’t give her boss any of the heat she would have given to Joe. I suppose dealing with an adult is a different dynamic. After Frank and Joe agree to find the missing dog, Iola immediately takes off for Boston with her mother and doesn’t return until more than halfway through the book. Frank and Joe immediately allow her to deliver the ransom for a different dog; she’s immediately abducted — the abductor says it’s because she tried to remove his mask, but we don’t actually see her try to do that — and spends most of the book tied up or cowering.

Joe does call her a “strong person” (23), though, and he fears her wrath when he and Frank lose the dog they were supposed to be dogsitting for her. (She had agreed to look after the dog, but when she got a chance to go to Boston, she fobbed the dog off on the brothers.) His fear is unfounded, though; she doesn’t attack Joe when she finds out, even though he starts his explanation with “We can explain” (95). (Nothing positive has ever followed “We can explain” in the history of the human race, so obviously Iola can restrain her temper when she wants to.) Her next question was which of the suspects had stolen the dog; perhaps she had merely shifted her anger to a more appropriate target.

Iola does get back at her ex-boss, though. When she has been cleared and Dana has been arrested, she’s offered her job back. She says, “I’ll think about it” (147).

All the news that’s fit to print: The newspaper this time is the Banner. The Banner appeared in The Great Airport Mystery (#9). The Times is Bayport’s most popular paper, appearing in thirteen books (counting both original and revised books).

You know that movie, starring that guy who was on that show: Midway through the book, Frank and Joe are followed by a red pickup, driven by someone wearing a mask. Frank says, “He looks familiar … like that movie character, the green one with the huge teeth and superpowers” (75). The movie Frank is so strenuously avoiding mentioning is The Mask, starring Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz (her first acting role). The Mask was released in 1994, one year before Kennel was published.

It’s so hard to tell the difference, sometimes: Frank believes the dognapper is an amateur because “he hasn’t done anything really serious. … Mostly he’s given us headaches” (79). While I appreciate Frank’s appraisal — he ends up being right, after all — those amateurs give him and his brother a thorough working over. In the canon, the professional criminals generally don’t give the boys two beatings and a chemical attack and a humiliation like the criminals in Kennel.

On the other hand, the criminals aren’t the brightest. They steal the dog Frank and Joe are looking after with the expectation that this act will make them give up the investigation. Perhaps, if they issued an ultimatum or threat — give up now or we kill the dog — it would have worked. But they don’t contact Frank and Joe, so of course the brothers are going to continue looking for the animal. Later on, one of the dognappers attempts a semi-glutteal ransom for the dog, but that goes poorly as well. Also, one of the dognappers says, after being captured, that Frank and Joe don’t have any real evidence against them; unfortunately, Frank had just rescued Joe and Iola from being kidnapped, and as Frank points out, their testimony about what happened is likely to be more than enough to send both of them to prison.

We’re living in the future! (‘90s edition): Frank manages to gain the phone number of the dognapper by using a “caller ID box” (98) when the dognapper calls in a ransom demand, but Frank needs to call the telephone operator to get the number’s location.

Warehouse dog: As shown on the cover, a dog aggressively gets near Frank. In this case, it’s a pit bull terrier. Although Frank and Joe were frequently attacked by dogs, they never ran into pit bulls in the original canon. Doberman pinschers and German shepherds were the most common.

Comments: This is not the best-written digest. I could be charitable and say it seems to be geared for a lower reading level than other digests, but I’m not sure that was what the writer and editorial staff were aiming at. The first two paragraphs of Kennel do not sound as if they were professionally written, and although the book improves from there, the prose never really overcomes the shaky start of passages like, “Iola Morton was Joe’s girlfriend. If Iola was in trouble, he had to help her” (1).

The book does have a couple of genuinely touching moments. After Joe finds Iola after they had both been kidnapped, he asks her if she’s all right; she replies, “Now that you’ve found me” (115). It’s not the most original, but it feels genuine because the characters so rarely express that sort of idea. The criminals are also a boyfriend / girlfriend team, with the girlfriend as a reluctant criminal: “After Price fired you, Mike, didn’t I tell you I would stick by you? … You were after some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t want to be a criminal, but I didn’t want to lose you either. So I went along” (140). The speech manages to generate some sympathy for the poor woman, despite her terrible taste in men.

Grade: C-. I would not want to read another book about the thoroughly average Hardy Boys, but I admit, locking them in the pet carriers was a stroke of genius.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Maximum Challenge (#132)

Maximum Challenge coverPlot: Frank, Joe, and four of their friends compete on the TV show Maximum Challenge when it comes to Bayport; at the same time, a rash of burglaries also hit Bayport.

“Borrowing” from the past: Hurd Applegate calls the Hardy home in the middle of the night, wanting the family to look for his stolen coin collection. The Hardys have helped Hurd before, recovering his stolen jewels and bonds in The Tower Treasure (#1) and his lost stamps in While the Clock Ticked (#11). He turned into a staunch ally of the Hardys, even helping bail them out of jail in The Great Airport Mystery (#9) after they were arrested for robbing the mail. Frank’s down on Hurd in Maximum Challenge, calling the old man “weird” (20). Frank also says, “We managed to nail the last few people who ripped him off” (20), alluding to The Tower Treasure, While the Clock Ticked, and perhaps The Secret of the Island Treasure (#100), in which Frank, Joe, and Chet keep Hurd from being double-crossed by the people digging up the buried treasure on an island Hurd owns.

Joe says Bayport General Hospital is the best in the city. Bayport General appeared in A Figure in Hiding (#16), The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28), and Tic-Tac-Terror (#74). For some reason, though, no one trusts their ambulance; the Hardys transport a man with a broken clavicle to the hospital in their van instead of waiting for the ambulance. Of course, the injured man had to wait for them to change their clothes before they took him to Bayport General, but the important thing is that he didn’t have to ride in an ambulance.

Bayport’s newspaper in Maximum Challenge is the Times, which is the most common paper in the original canon. Fans of the Banner, Star, Press, and News will no doubt be disappointed.

The show: Maximum Challenge is based on the show American Gladiators, a syndicated 1989-1996 show in which amateurs competed against each other and the show’s cast of athletes in physical challenges. The show had several different events, such as an obstacle course (called “the Eliminator”), jousting with padded sticks on raised platforms, a maze, and a climbing wall. All these events, with some modifications, were used in Maximum Challenge.

Maximum Challenge’s shooting schedule is extremely inefficient, though. Each of the five competitions of Bayporters vs. Maximum Challenge’s Champions are held on separate nights. This is grossly inefficient for a TV show. To lower production costs, TV shows will film as much as they can in one day — Jeopardy!, for instance, films five episodes per day. Tearing down and reconstructing Maximum Challenge’s obstacle courses makes that more difficult, but the show could easily have fit the taping into two nights. That way, they wouldn’t have to pay rent on the venue or pay per diems and travel expenses for the crew for an entire week.

Maximum Challenge also stole from the kid’s game show Double Dare, which aired on Nickelodeon from 1986 to 1992. Double Dare combined trivia questions with “physical challenges.” Maximum Challenge had no trivia, but it did have “gloop,” a green, slimy concoction that competitors splashed into when they fell from heights. “Gak” was a similar disgusting substance that figured into many of Double Dare’s physical challenges.

Iola!: In the original canon, it’s hard to say what the boys see in their favorite dates. Neither Iola nor Callie has much of a personality, other than being generally pleasant and absurdly agreeable. Both are pretty; I suppose that’s more than enough for most teenage boys. Callie was valedictorian of their high-school class in The Great Airport Mystery (#9), so Frank may have an appreciation of her intelligence that explains why he’s attracted to her. Iola … well, she “understood the finer points of baseball” (34), according to The Wailing Siren Mystery (#30), which Joe regarded as a plus. Joe also called her a “capable sleuthing assistant” (15) in The Hooded Hawk Mystery (#34), but he rarely allowed her to help with mysteries.

We’ve gotten a better idea of what Joe might see in Iola in other digests. In Past and Present Danger (#166), Iola seems to have temper that leads her to give Joe a couple of “playful” punches. The violence is alluded to in Trouble in Warp Space (#172) as well. In Maximum Challenge, Iola is still fiery, but her emotions are all over the place.

The best description of her is “mercurial.” At the beginning of the book, she kisses Joe when their team wins a spot on Maximum Challenge. A kiss is pretty intense for Joe and Iola, but ten pages later, she was “glaring … hard at Joe” (11) after a practical joke is played on them by the Maximum Challenge crew. She complains that it’s unfair that the Maximum Challenge team has more experience than she and her team do, which seems to miss the point of the show. Before one of the competitions, she engages in a little lighthearted gunplay, pointing a loaded prop gun at her teammates and pouting when it’s taken from her. When she learns the gun had a bullet under the hammer, she faints. Later, Joe accuses her of baying for an opponent’s blood. Before the final competition, she complains when Frank’s nervous and can’t control the volume of his voice.

I’m not saying any of these actions are unbelievable, nor are they unbelievable when taken together. What I’m saying is that no one else is allowed to swing between emotions and criticize their friends like Iola does. I’m also not saying we should blame Iola; as I mentioned in >Past and Present Danger, Joe may have driven her to it. In Maximum Challenge, he mentions that he’s “hugged one or two girls” in his life (106). I doubt Joe’s stopped at hugging, though … he probably moved on to the dreaded K-I-S-S-I-N-G after that.

Speaking of euphemisms … : A heckler — later revealed as one of the pros the Hardys’ team will be competing against — “pointed a mocking finger” at them. I’ve never heard of the middle finger described as the mocking figure before, but live and learn, I always say.

Near current events!: After Iola’s shocking lack of gun safety — not unlike her brother’s in The Mystery of Cabin Island (#8) — Joe mentions a movie where a live round ended up in a gun and killed the star. Joe is probably referring to The Crow, in which a jury-rigged round accidentally lodged in the barrel of a revolver and was later launched at star Brandon Lee when a blank round was fired.

Bayport is … : The team wins the Maximum Challenge competition for “New York area” groups (2). That doesn’t narrow it down much, but it’s another data point.

I don’t think that’s how it works: A woman tells Frank and Joe she had received a gymnastics scholarship to a school she couldn't afford. Usually, this is good news; scholarships pay for college educations, so the question of whether she could afford the college becomes moot. She continues her story as if this meant she couldn't attend the school. Either she meant the scholarship was partial, not covering some aspect of the college experience (room and board is most likely), or NCAA regulations prevented her from making the money necessary for incidental expenses.

In case you were wondering: Frank uses a “five-cell flash” when staking out a jewelry store. That’s a flashlight that requires five batteries — probably D batteries, in this case — to work. As you might imagine from anything using that much battery power, it’s pretty bright.

In the future: After catching the cat burglar, a woman who was blackmailed into robbing local merchants, Joe says he doubts he will ever be a cop — evidently the frisson between ethics and law is too much for him. On the other hand, he doesn’t recognize one of the Maximum Challenge athletes at the beginning of the book because he is wearing a disguise — a raincoat — so maybe he’s looking for a job that will give him a little more leeway.

Other people depend on you, you know: Frank and Joe actually decide not to investigate the burglaries at first so they can be properly prepared for the competition. A wise choice; with four teammates who would suffer if Frank and Joe were unprepared, it would be selfish for them to spend the night running about looking for a cat burglar. I mean, of course they are eventually going to get drawn into the mystery, but that’s because it’s part of the series conceit.

A new front in the war on language: With this book, I’ve given up complaining about the use of “bro” in these books. I hold out hope, though, that “dude,” which Joe uses once, will not be repeated.

Comments: Although the idea of Frank and Joe (and their friends) excelling at yet another thing and increasing their fame beyond all rational bounds is absurd, the actual mechanics of Maximum Challenge are occasionally exciting. The first competition, which combines rock climbing with sniping, is a nice twist, and the maze challenge, which is portrayed as much as problem solving as athletic competition, is genuinely exciting. Also, it gives Phil Cohen a chance to shine, which is nice. The other competitions are less original and exciting, but they are solidly based on American Gladiators, so I can’t complain. I preferred the reality show in Warehouse Rumble (#183), although that’s because the post-apocalyptic trappings of the obstacle courses gave them a little extra oomph.

The kids all act like normal teenagers. I mentioned Iola before, but Biff thinks he can win a contest of strength with a professional athlete and has no idea how absurd that is. The Hardys and their friends endure a great deal of ribbing at school after Maximum Challenge plays an on-air prank on them, and even Aunt Gertrude gives them guff. I think the most realistic moment of the book — perhaps the entire canon — is when one of Iola’s friends laments her defeat in the rock-climbing competition. Iola had an early lead but was overtaken by her professional opponent, and her friend later says, “We were rooting for you guys … Iola did so well at first” (35; emphasis mine). Everyone expects things to keep going the way they start, no matter how much the odds are against it.

The criminal mastermind’s plan itself is stupid. Frank says, “Working for a traveling show would be a great cover for a burglar” (85), which is true — except that the high-profile burglaries could easily be matched to the show’s stops. Which the Bayport police do. The mastermind has insulated himself from the actual thief, so it’s possible he doesn’t care about that. However, he has the thief make the final drop of the stolen goods on the Maximum Challenge set, which is stupid. It’s where everyone can see you! And you might be filmed picking up stolen goods!

Grade: B.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Hardy Boys Ghost Stories

It was a long-drawn-out, moaning sound that rose in volume to a veritable shriek, indescribably terrifying.
“Ghosts!” clamored Chet.
“There aren’t any such things!” snorted Joe.
— The Mystery of Cabin Island (original text), p. 69

The Hardy Boys Ghost Stories coverThe Hardy Boys Ghost Stories is a book that should not exist.

The Hardy Boys series is built upon rationality and coincidence. Frank and Joe follow the form of detective stories, gathering evidence to prove someone has committed a crime and logically building a case against that suspect. (The coincidences are unconnected to the rationality, except inasmuch as it is the primary method by which the boys gain their clues and proofs.)

Although ghost stories are nothing if not a series of improbable events piled atop each other, they have little of the rational about them. Or I suppose they have their own rationality — Event A happens, which causes, as a repercussion, Event B. It doesn’t matter that Event B is impossible and that no one in the history of humankind has ever perpetrated Event A. The story insists that they happened that way, and we suspend our rationality for a moment to enjoy the atmosphere and danger presented by the ghost story.

The Hardy Boys Ghost Stories has six ghost stories in its 137 pages. None of them are that enjoyable.

Here are the six stories, from least spooky to the most:

6) “Phantom Ship.” Frank and Joe are on the Atlantic, and a storm is rolling in. Of course it is; Frank and Joe long ago angered the storm god who watches over Bayport, and seeing the boys on the ocean, he must punish them. He has also smited the Sleuth, which mysteriously stops working, and their radio. Or maybe he has clouded their heads so that they can’t see what’s wrong; that would explain the rest of the story.

Frank and Joe are given sanctuary aboard the Samoa Queen, but only after boarding do the boys realize they are on a ghost ship: a mid-19th century whaler headed for the Pacific. The frightening thing about a ghost ship is the potential for sailing on it forever and being damned for all eternity. That possibility isn’t brought up by either the narrator or the characters, though. So what is the terror of the Samoa Queen?

All the whalers (but one) are mean to Frank and Joe. They don’t like the Hardys, and the captain doesn’t listen to them. (Still, Frank and Joe manage to show their seamanship is better than some of the ghosts. I suppose you get sloppy after a century at sea, no matter how dedicated you are.) Truly, it’s a masterpiece of terror.

Frank and Joe are thrown overboard and land in the Sleuth instead of the open sea. Somehow, Frank and Joe credit their survival to another ghost — one the ghost sailors couldn't see — who kept pointing for them to jump overboard, even though they ignored it. I suppose believing in Ghost Squared (or Super Ghost) makes as much sense as anything else in this story.

On the plus side, Frank and Joe are prepared to use karate against ghost sailors.

5) “The Haunted Castle.” Frank and Joe visit a castle in Scotland, just like they did in The Secret Agent on Flight 101. In this case, Fenton has sent them to help Lord MacElphin deal with a ghost infestation.

The castle is haunted by the first Lord MacElphin, a 17-century pirate named Rollo who bought his lordship with his pirate booty and was generally cruel to everyone. That’s a good starting place, but the author forgot to make his ghost frightening. Sure, he pops up in the dungeon nightly (with an extra matinee on Sundays) and shakes his chains throughout the castle, but he doesn’t do anything threatening. He just shows up and sings sea chanties. I can see wanting to exorcise anyone, living or dead, who sings songs of the sea at any time of day, but it’s not frightening. It’s annoying.

The story also mentions Rollo MacElphin stole the local witches’ meeting grounds; after reading that, it will surprise no one that Mrs. Crone, the housekeeper, is also the leader of the local witches. How does she lead them? Well, she leads them in this frightening chant: “We are witches … We know the magic spells and will bring the powers of darkness down on anyone who tries to cross us!” She’s also trying to keep the current Lord MacElphin from selling the castle so the witches can get their pagan-holy ground back, so she made Rollo visible. (He’s always been in the castle, due to a witches’ curse, but he was invisible.)

Frank and Joe release Rollo from the curse by talking to him twice, being American, and most importantly being named “Hardy.” (The curse can be lifted when “a hardy pair guards the dungeon door.” Convenient!) Poor Mrs. Crone is fired from her job, which breaks the poor woman: “I will go to Glasgow and cease to be a witch,” she declares.

I almost feel for her.

4) “The Mystery of Room 12.” This would be switched with “The Haunted Castle” in the rankings if I could only figure out why it’s supposed to be frightening.

The Hardys — even Laura! But not Gertrude — go to a hotel on the New England coast. The innkeeper tells the guests of a captain who went to sea in the 19th century but had an unprofitable trip, and his ship sank within sight of shore. He went down with the ship, playing his flute, and his widow (and everyone within a mile or two) heard his sad, sad song.

While staying in Room 12, Joe is awakened by a child crying. Frank doesn’t hear the crying, though, and he’s annoyed when Joe wakes him up. The bathroom door opens in the middle of the night, but it doesn’t make its usual squeaking noise. When Joe wakes Frank up to talk about that, Frank threatens to kill him. Reasonable enough. Frank is also prepared to use karate against whatever comes along; since he doesn’t believe in the supernatural in this one, he’s not really planning to karate chop a ghost child.

The non-scary stuff keeps going on — it also includes a woman who kinda looks like a witch, I guess, and a chest that smells like camphor after more than a century — until Frank finally gets his non-believing ass stranded on a local lake with Fenton and Joe has to sleep in Room 12 alone. He is confronted by a little ghost boy, who non-verbally demands he open the camphor-wood chest and get out his flute.

And that’s it. The innkeeper mentions the dead captain had a son — also now dead — and that Room 12 had been the boy’s room. Sorry he didn’t mention the haunting! Well, the joke’s on him: now the chest doesn’t smell like camphor any more.

3) “Mystery of the Voodoo Gold.” This isn’t scary, but at least it doesn’t have a ghost, so it’s not like it was trying to be scary.

In an Atlanta mall, Frank and Joe kill some time by going to a fortune teller. Fortunes cost $10, and the boys have only $11, so they flip a coin to see who will get his fortune told. Frank wins, and the fortune teller informs him his future holds a man with one blue eye who drives a white car, the Green Dragon, and gold. Obviously, Frank will find himself in the middle of an updated Norse myth, with Odin as the one-eyed man, his horse Sleipnir transformed into a white sports car, and Fafnir, a dwarf transformed into a dragon by his greed for gold.

No, not really. Fenton takes the boys to the Green Dragon, a restaurant, where they are accosted by the one-eyed Pierre Buffon, whom Fenton identifies as “one of the most cold-blooded cutthroats in this hemisphere.” Pierre asks the Hardys if they’ve seen an envelope lying around — it’s totally not valuable, but man, he’d like it back — and Fenton treats Pierre as if he’s got excruciating body odor. Perhaps he does.

Later, Frank and Joe find the envelope attached to the bottom of their briefcase — what are the odds? — and the letter inside directs them to a Civil War gold hoard. Just like in The Secret of the Lost Tunnel! Except this time it takes no effort to actually find the gold, even though they’re digging in a thunderstorm. Frank and Joe leave the gold in situ, fleeing the rainwater filling their excavations. Before they can claim it, they get a call telling them Laura is having emergency surgery, and they need to return to Bayport at once. They do, of course, although no one ever tells anyone what the surgery is for.

Frank and Joe don’t inform anyone about the gold, of course, and by the time they check back on it, a month later, it’s been paved over in a massive road construction project. C’est la vie!

There’s also some nonsense of about a voodoo statue watching over the gold; the fortune teller warned them about it. The boys spot it atop the hoard, and they seem leery of its powers. Since I can’t believe Frank and Joe would actually pay attention to the curse the statue is supposed to visit upon those who steal what it guards, I’m choosing to ignore that.

2) “The Walking Scarecrow.” Frank and Joe’s car breaks down while they’re on their way home from a day of backpacking in the Bayport Hills. Joe says they’re a “zillion miles” from anywhere, but it’s the Bayport Hills; how far can it be from anywhere? How far can it be from Bayport?

In any event, the boys decide to walk to the nearest farm to phone for help. Reasonable enough, given that they have no cell phones and for some reason are not able to fix their vehicle. (For Frank and Joe, that’s a horror story right there.) While walking up the road, they are unnerved by a scarecrow. Of course they assume it’s a real person at first; when you meet someone wearing a stovepipe hat, tattered clothes, and weird shoes in a cornfield, you just assume that it’s a farmer, right? Isn’t that what farmers wear? I mean, my dad doesn’t farm any more, but his stovepipe hat with the Case-IH logo stitched on it is still sitting on the back porch.

After passing up the scarecrow, the boys hear footsteps and a voice they attribute to the scarecrow. Frank and Joe totally want to karate chop that scarecrow, but it never gets close enough — it just warns them to go away. The boys ignore the advice and break into an abandoned house … well, they break into a house, but they discover it’s abandoned later. The house has no electricity or phone service, so Joe proposes a false dichotomy: sleep in the car or in the spooky, critter-infested house. (He forgets that they can keep walking down the road to find another house. It should have made him feel stupid the next day when a nearby farmer shows up, but I don’t think he makes the connection.)

The boys fall asleep, but the scarecrow wakes them, telling them to leave again. Frank and Joe give chase, because … it’s a crime to disturb someone’s sleep? I dunno. But while they’re chasing the scarecrow, the house is struck by lightning, and the house burns to the ground. The farmer who lives “next door” shows up and takes them to his house for pancakes and tows their car and is the greatest guy ever!

Why did the scarecrow save their lives? I dunno. Why did it come to life? *shrug* But the story had a spooky house (I was hoping it had been used by a serial killer, and in my head, it was) and it was somewhat atmospheric.

1) “The Disappearance of Flaming Rock.” “Flaming Rock” is the name of a mining town, so get your mind out of the gutter.

In the 19th century, a prospector stumbled into Tucson and told a tale of the inhabitants of an entire town vanishing: their food was still warm on the table, clothing and furniture was untouched. An expedition was launched later, but snows kept it from Flaming Rock; when they reached the town the next spring, they couldn't find the town. In the 20th century, the town had been spotted twice, with both observers confirming the prospector’s details. But each time, they couldn't find Flaming Rock again, either, and the two observers both disappeared mysteriously within a month of their sighting.

Spooky, right?

So Frank and Joe decide to check it out, battling through a rainstorm to do so. And of course, they find the town exactly as the prospector described it! Just as in The House on the Cliff, Frank is seriously intrigued by all this, while Joe is a little afraid. So Frank, ever sensitive to his little brother’s feelings, tells Joe that they’re going to split up. Thanks, Fred.

Their investigations are more stupid than scary. Joe knocks himself out by hitting his head on a coal scuttle and hallucinates an Indian blaming the white man’s crimes against Indians for Flaming Rock’s destruction — or is it a hallucination? The Indian leaves behind a headband that Joe picks up. Frank gets himself locked in a jail cell. Doofus. In the morning, Frank takes pictures of the town, and then they leave.

Back in Bayport, they tell the tale. Joe says he had an “Indian friend” translate the markings on the inside of the headband: it was the name of a chief killed just before Flaming Rock’s end. The ink itself dated back to the 1800s. And Frank’s pictures came out fogged. Spooky! Except for the part where there was no actual jeopardy for the Hardys, who are in no danger of disappearing like the previous re-discoverers of Flaming Rock!