Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Schedule / Prime Time Pirates / Loup Garou / real authors

As I mentioned in last week’s update, this week’s book will be Trouble at Coyote Canyon (#119) because I’ve already covered #117 (The Baseball Card Conspiracy) and #118 (Danger in the Fourth Dimension). The next book after Coyote Canyon will be #121 (The Mystery in the Old Mine), as neither my local library nor I have #120 (The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping).

***

To help Frank prepare for Four O’Clock Scholar in The Prime-Time Crime (#109), Joe asks Frank who won the 1979 World Series. Frank guesses the Phillies, which is incorrect; the correct answer is the Pittsburgh Pirates. Twenty-five years after The Prime-Time Crime, 1979 is still the Pirates’ most recent championship. Coincidentally, the cover artist who took over with #113, Daniel R. Horne, is a Pirates fan and put a greeked version of a classic Pirates cap on the cover of The Baseball Card Conspiracy.

***

In Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades, Chet tells Joe that he should play Loup Garou, which neither Frank nor Joe has heard of. (“Loup Garou” is a French phrase for a werewolf-type creature — or just a werewolf, if you like direct mapping of one culture onto another.) It could be a joke on the Hardys expense, making fun of their lack of musical knowledge, but I bet the author is referring to a real band. I can’t find any information on a musical group that would have existed at that time with that name. Anyone know who Chet’s referring to?

***

According to a site that bills itself the Hardy Boys Unofficial Home Page, Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades was written by Chris Lampton. That site has Lampton down as the author of nine books, beginning with Danger on the Air (#95) and ending with The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120). Lampton himself, however, says he wrote ten digests. (Both Lampton and the Hardy Boys fan site above mention Casefiles #65 as well.)

The complete list of Hardy Boys books Lampton claims to have written are:

Looking at that list, it’s fair to say Lampton was a pretty good Dixon. Dungeon of Doom, The Secret of the Island Treasure, and Prime-Time Crime are excellent books, and the only real objection I had about End of the Trail was that it was so short. None of the others were bad, really, although they had their shortcomings.

Most of his books were set around Bayport, with much of the action set around some new interest / hobby of the Hardys or Chet. (That’s not exactly an unusual description of any Hardy author, really.) You can pick out some areas Lampton concentrated on: TV and radio broadcasting, computers and video games (his bio says both are interests), and sci-fi / fantasy fandom. He introduces the boys’ work at WBPT, but he’s not the only writer who used it: another (unknown at this time) writer picked it up for Spark of Suspicion (#98).

Also, this list shoots a hole in my theory that the same person wrote Video Villains (#106) and Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124). Since both books mention the video game Hack Attack, I thought the two probably shared an author. It turns out it was either an observant editor or writer who picked up the game’s name from Video Villains. According to the Unofficial Home Page, the author of Dangerous Beat was Frances [sic] Lantz. That should be Francess Lantz, who wrote many juveniles, including the first six Luna Bay surf series books.

At his blog, Lampton talks about writing Terminal Shock, which he mentions he originally titled The Computer Clue. He also mentions another article about Terminal Shock written less than three months ago.

Lampton has written a number of non-fiction books, mostly for the publisher Franklin Watts. His fiction includes three sci-fi / fantasy books under his own name (The Seeker, Cross of Empire, and Gateway to Limbo). He also wrote three books under the name Dayle Courtney, the pseudonym for the author of the Thorne Twins book series. The Thorne Twins was a series of nineteen books in which twins Eric and Allison used Christian principles to solve mysteries.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Renegades (#116)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades coverSo Joe gets yet another “job” in Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades: he’s a disc jockey at WBBX, which evidently plays classic rock.

Joe started out as a summer intern at WBBX, but he was promoted when a DJ, Keith Wyatt, proved unreliable. After getting the job, Joe immediately becomes insufferable, explaining such difficult-to-understand radio slang as PSA (“public service announcement”) to Chet and Frank. But he’s getting respect from the station management, as Joe’s show is the most popular in his time slot among listeners 12 to 25. (It’s an odd age range, mixing pre-teens with adults, but it’s one Arbitron uses.) Also, Chet is intimidated by the grade-school math Joe uses to make the music and pre-recorded segments, like the news, run on time.

On the other hand, Chet references Joe’s bout of stage fright in Danger on the Air (#95) to put the youngest Hardy in his place. Joe’s witty rejoinder is to call Chet a “spazzo,” and I have to admit, the boys’ verbal sparring here is excellent. Teenage boys always give each other crap, even if they’re good friends, and that’s what Chet, Joe, and Frank do here.

For those playing along at home, WBBX hasn’t been mentioned before; the only radio station that has been mentioned is WMC in The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20). In this book, WBBX has been around a while, but since its first record played was “I Am the Walrus” from Magical Mystery Tour, the station can’t be older than 1967. (Side note: “I Am the Walrus” was actually the B-side of “Hello, Goodbye.”) WBBX, in reality, is an AM gospel station in Kingston, Tenn.

The mystery begins when a pirate radio station, Skull and Bones, knocks WBBX off the air during Joe’s shift by broadcasting at WBBX’s frequency. While Frank discusses the situation with Bill Crandall, the station manager, a fake grenade crashes through the window. Frank rushes outside and finds Wyatt, who denies throwing the grenade and calls Joe a “wimp” (does being a DJ require a superabundance of masculinity? Do DJs have to engage in combat with other DJs and vicious callers? Perhaps toss control boards through windows?). Frank and the police are forced to accept Wyatt’s protestations of innocence. Crandall and the FCC ask the brothers to investigate so that they can jail the pirate leader, Jolly Roger.

As Joe is about to end his shift, he gets shocked by a booby-trapped control board. He’s fine, of course — he has been shocked badly four times in the canon, including getting hit by lightning in The Disappearing Floor (#19) — and he waves away Crandall’s offer of an ambulance. That should teach Wyatt not to call Joe a wimp (if Wyatt had anything to do with the sabotage, which he didn’t).

Frank suggests they follow Wyatt to the Seven Thirty club, which Joe immediately remembers: “Oh, yeah … It’s a real dive, in a crummy neighborhood” (34). How do you think Joe knows about dive bars? Is he secretly a hipster who thinks it’s ironically cool to visit run-down bars? Does Iola crave the danger presented by the sleazy environs and rough habitu├ęs and insist Joe accompany her, flirting with thugs and lowlifes and forcing Joe to fight them?

Oh, sorry, drifting into fanfic again. I really should look into something that will stop me from doing that. Do you think electroshock would work? I mean, it has no effect on Joe, as we’ve established, but he’s a Hardy, impervious to tissue damage and learning.

You might think being underage would make my little Iola fantasy implausible, but Frank and Joe waltz in without opposition, so I see no reason why the Seven Thirty Club would get uptight about an underage girl. Anyway, Frank and Joe immediately spot Wyatt. He’s relatively forthcoming, telling Frank and Joe that Jimmy Collins hires DJs for Skull and Bones after Wyatt gets in a shot calling the brothers “Hardydum and Hardydee” (36). (The insult doesn’t make sense, but Joe still bristles.) The discussion degenerates into an insult contest — Joe wins on points — before Wyatt’s burly friends chases the Hardys away. Joe actually gets to use a karate kick during the escape, but the truth is they had to flee. Hopefully, they edited that part out when they met Iola and Callie at Mr. Pizza later.

The next day, the Hardys get a ride to the SS Marconi, the home of Skull and Bones, from the irritable and insane Capt. Steelheart. Collins hires Frank and Joe as the DJ combo of “Big Brother and the Renegade Kid” (57); when Wyatt shows up looking for a job, the Hardys convince him not to rat them out by promising to do Wyatt a favor. (I’m sure they will never pay off this favor.) While they work for a totally illegal radio operation, Chet fills in at WBBX with delightful radio incompetence; as a bonus, he receives a gas bomb on his first day.

Frank and Joe’s next step is to find out who owns the warehouse Capt. Steelheart uses as his base. For some reason, Frank and Joe are able to find property records at the library instead of the courthouse; the records and a friendly librarian tell them the warehouse is owned by former radio station owner Ben Harness, who now is a record producer. After Harness’s secretary stonewalls them, Frank and Joe track Wyatt instead. They find him heading out on Barmet Bay on a motorboat. Frank and Joe follow in … in … in …

A rented motorboat. No mention is made of the Sleuth. Honestly, I don’t think the Sleuth has been mentioned yet in the digests; looking over my notes, it seems the Hardys’ motorboat appears only in Crime in the Kennel (#133) and High-Speed Showdown (#137). (During a hovercar chase in The Secret of Sigma Seven [#110], Frank mentions his love of speedboat racing without mentioning the Sleuth.) Wyatt meets a mysterious man; when they follow that man’s boat to his estate, they are quickly caught and “frisked with professional efficiency” (91). (Which is more than Iola and Callie can hope for — zing!) The rich guy is Harness, who allows Frank and Joe to annoy him with questions for longer than I would have, but even his patience runs out eventually. Frank and Joe conclude Harness is working a payola scam with Wyatt.

Frank and Joe think they’re getting somewhere, but Crandall pulls the rug from under them: WBBX is going under, so who cares if they find out who Jolly Roger is? Station owner Charlie Horwitz, who just bought out his partner, promises to give Joe a recommendation if he ever applies at another station, but everyone — even the reader, especially the reader — knows that’s not going to happen.

Of course Frank and Joe soldier on; of course they’re in over their heads. After pulling all the circuit breakers at Harness’s offices, they pose as electricians to look at his records. They learn the Jelly Roll Corp. is renting Steelheart’s warehouse, but Jelly Roll is as fake as Chet’s latest diet plan: the only thing at the company’s address is a wrecking ball, which someone tries to use as a blunt object against them. They manage to escape, of course.

While working their shift at Skull and Bones the next day, Joe figures out who Jolly Roger is when he matches Horwitz’s signature to the address on the envelope the gas bomb was mailed in. Unfortunately, Frank doesn’t cut his mike while they’re talking; Collins stops the revelation from hitting the airways, but he calls his boss to take care of the Hardys. Horwitz and his bodyguard arrive on his yacht to take care of the Hardys permanently, then decides to eliminate Collins and Wyatt as loose ends as well. Just as the explanations end and the executions are about to begin, Steelheart and his men set off an explosion on the Marconi. Horwitz was using Steelheart’s smuggling operations — golly, it’s nice to have a smuggler in the books again — to blackmail him into cooperating, so Steelheart decided to blow up his own ship to spite his blackmailer. Steelheart isn’t all that stable.

A chase between Steelheart’s barge and Horwitz’s yacht ensues, with everyone including the bodyguard chasing Horwitz. (The bodyguard didn't appreciate being abandoned on a sinking ship, and he puts bullet holes in the yacht’s gas tank in retaliation.) Joe not only ends up knocking Horwitz out, but he also sneers at the unconscious man — sneering is what villains do, Joe — and calls him “cream puff” (146). Thus ends Horwitz’s brilliant plan to cheat his business partner out of half of WBBX (Skull and Bones would have gone off the air after the sale was final) while thumbing his nose at old rivals, like Harness and Steelheart.

Another successful mystery. But when Joe wants to return to his “job,” he finds that Chet and his malapropisms are even more popular than Joe was among the youth. Ah, the fickleness of the entertainment business! Also, the fickleness of Chet and Joe, because neither of them will ever talk about their radio careers again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sabotage / Renegades / Coyote Canyon

So, bad news if you were interested in seeing a write-up of Hardy Boys #115, Sabotage at Sports City: I don’t have it, the local library doesn’t have it, and I ain’t spending $4 to buy it online. (Maybe I will in the future, but not now.)

That means the book I’ll be writing about for Friday is Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades (#116), a story of pirate radio and Joe Hardy’s career as a disc jockey. Riveting! Trouble at Coyote Canyon (#119) will come after that, since I’ve already written about The Baseball Card Conspiracy (#117) and Danger in the Fourth Dimension (#118).

If you’re wanting a little peek into the future after that, I’ll be covering:

  • The Mystery in the Old Mine (#121)
  • The Robot’s Revenge (#123)
  • Mystery on Makatunk Island (#125)
  • Day of the Dinosaur (#128)
  • The Treasure at Dolphin Bay (#129)

That will take me up to Sidetracked to Danger (#130), which I’ve already covered. Since I’ve written about all the books from Sidetracked to Desert Thieves (#141) as well, I’ll be taking a break after Dolphin Bay, and I’ll start up again in late September / early October. I realize that the many hiatuses this blog has taken might lead you to be suspicious that it won't start again, but I promise it will return in the fall.

Probably.

I mean, why wouldn’t it?

I suppose something could get in the way — a life-changing event, the return of Osiris, a good sale at my local bookstore, a really serious hangnail …

But the chances of something like that happening are really slim.

Really. Cross my heart, even.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals (#114)

The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals coverAt the beginning of The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals, we are supposed to accept the proposition the Hardy Boys series has long insisted was true: that Frank and / or Joe could be defeated in an athletic competition.

Bayport High’s track team is set to take on Holman High, another of the revolving rivals Bayport has competed against. Outside the track facility, Joe almost gets in a scuffle with Holman’s Eric Dresser, who, like Joe, competes in the 100-meter dash. In fact, according to a Holman teammate, Dresser “almost” set the state record in the event. Someone should tell him “almost” counts only in hand shoes, horse grenades, and thermonuclear war, but it unnerves Joe as he goes into the locker room the two teams share. Wait — they share a locker room? Bayport’s athletic department is not making enough money off the Hardys.

Joe slips into his brand-new Wombat athletic shoes … listen, “Wombat” is an awful name for a shoe company, but if I go into why, we’re going to be here all day. Suffice it to say wombats are not fast animals, and if you’re going to name anything after a marsupial, it’s going to be the Tasmanian devil (although Warner Brothers would probably sue you) or the extinct thylacine. Frank is doing well in his event — the long jump — and has a chance to win, but before his competition ends, he watches Joe run. Joe is neck-and-neck with Dresser until his Wombats blow out and give him a twisted ankle. Joe wants to accuse his rival because Dresser was messing with Joe’s shoes before the meet, but it’s obvious he didn’t do it; Dresser’s name might as well be “Red Herring.” The problem must be with the shoes.

The narration never says how Frank finished in the long jump, but Holman High wins the meet. It’s likely that this has happened before, but I can’t remember it. Even more remarkable is that Joe resists Dresser’s needling and lets Bayport teammate Fred Tolliver call Dresser out on his lack of class.

Joe still believes Dresser is the culprit, and he bristles when Frank thinks the accusation has no merit. “Logic … That’s all I ever get from you is logic [sic]” (14). Joe knows, subconsciously if not in a way he can enunciate, that the Hardy Boys never get anywhere using logic. Cases are solved by random blundering and the ineffable machinations of chaos, not through logic.

After a brief stop at Benlow’s, where other shoe buyers nearly riot over their defective Wombats, Frank and Joe head home. Gertrude and Fenton make a brief appearance, then are heard of no more in Counterfeit. Back in the family cellar crime lab, the brothers notice an ultraviolet quality control mark in Frank’s genuine Wombat sneaker but not in Joe’s; on Monday, they head not to school (because why would they do that?) but to the Wombat corporate offices in Holman Heights, about twenty miles from Bayport. After a brief misunderstanding — one which Joe apologizes for — Frank and Joe gets Karla Newhouse, the head of customer relations, and Winston Brinkstead, VP of national sales, to “hire” them to investigate the counterfeit Wombats. Well, no money changes hands, but Brinkstead and Newhouse do loan Frank and Joe their authority, which is as good as Frank and Joe get in the digests.

Almost immediately, Frank and Joe get a baseball with a threatening message written on it thrown at them. I appreciate that someone has decided to use an aerodynamic object with a writing surface to deliver the message, but the threat is lacking: “Back off, or you’ll be out of the game for good” (40). The “game” pun just isn’t good enough. Also, the baseball is Wickford brand (Ted Goring model), which sounds like a line of cricket goods, not baseball.

While Frank and Joe are poking around local Wombat retailers, Frank gets a chance to use his martial arts skills to beat up a pair of attackers. (“Martial arts” in general, not any specific one.) Unfortunately for him, he was attacked by three guys, and he ends up unconscious. After he regains consciousness, Frank and Joe decide they’ve questioned enough shoe sellers and decide one of them — Joe, in this case — needs to go undercover at Wombat’s factory. The standard discouragement follows: someone drops a stack of shoes on Joe, someone tries to poison Frank, a gang tries to road haul Joe … you know, the usual stuff. (Joe does meet Norm Weiss at the factory; Norm’s a cool guy who loves Wombat shoes and gives Joe a cover story when Joe takes too long investigating. Frank and Joe don’t meet too many helpful, nice people in the digests.)

Frank and Joe go to Con Riley, who has “mixed feelings about taking help from” the Hardys (96). I’m sure I would, too — on one hand, they make things easy, gift wrapping investigations, but you’d also have to wonder about your competence after a while. On the other hand, if Frank and Joe are more competent than the crooks, that’s all that matters. Con suggests Frank and Joe were attacked by a criminal from a previous case, but that’s stupid: Frank and Joe’s enemies never come back. They get thrown into the Black Hole of Bayport and never return. No one asks about the Black Hole, lest they end up there as well.

Joe realizes his foreman is part of the counterfeit shoe ring while playing a pickup baseball game during lunch. Frank, back at Benlow’s, is attacked in a dark storeroom and uses a “rabbit punch” (106) that he hoped hit his opponent in the throat. (I’m not sure what Frank and Dixon think a “rabbit punch” is, but it’s a punch to the back of the neck or head. It’s illegal in boxing because it’s too dangerous.) The attacker is either the owner, Benlow, or Dresser, who works for him, but Frank doesn’t know who.

But Frank and Joe are making progress! Since the only one they know who is in on the conspiracy is the foreman, Lincoln Metairie (really), the boys head to the warehouse, where they hear about something happening that night. (The gang also disposes of its paperwork by tearing the evidence into pieces, as if they hadn't heard of paper shredders.) When the brothers return that night, they are fortunate the gang is punctual, as the boys are about to fall asleep at around 10 o’clock or so. Frank and Joe sneak in and find Metairie and three others wrapping up the operation; the boys are discovered, and in the tussle afterward, Joe is captured and Frank knocks himself out on a handtruck.

Metairie and one of his co-conspirators take the trussed-up Hardys in their own van, planning to sink them in a deep pond. But Metairie decides to add a co-conspirator to the body count — one who was in favor of sparing the Hardys — and knocks him out, planning to split his $62,500 among the others. ($62,500 in 1992 is the equivalent to more than $100,000 today.) But of course no knot can hold the Hardys; Joe springs free, and after he surprises Metairie, Frank kicks him into the pond. Saving Metairie has to wait until Frank is freed of his ropes, though; it wouldn’t do for Joe to rescue the villain single handed. The Hardys then call the BPD, which calls the Holman Heights police (because that’s where the Wombat factory is).

At the police station, Joe obliquely references the stateroom scene (“the scene where everybody ended up in a small room”) from A Night at the Opera (“that Marx Brothers movie we saw a while back”). Why can’t he just say the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera? No one’s going to get mad. It’s a hilarious scene, and more young people should know about. Anyway, Frank and Joe reveal retailers (like Benlow) are involved in the scheme, and they out Brinkstead as the mastermind. Brinkstead blusters, but Metairie promises to testify against him. The criminals in the Hardy Boys books are always running a weird version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, except instead of making their choices isolated from the other, one prisoner always confesses in front of the others so everyone loses. It seems like a low-reward strategy, but what do I know?

The boys’ reward is a new pair of Wombats for Joe, but it doesn’t help him defeat Dresser in the rematch. (Although Wombat’s return policy should have resulted in him getting a new pair anyway.) Dangit, Joe, what’s the point of solving these mysteries if the rewards don’t help you become more famous and more accomplished? You did all that work to save a large corporation some money! Corporations aren’t your friends — they’re just taking advantage of you.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Radical Moves (#113)

Radical Moves coverYou know, Chet gets laughed at for his numerous hobbies, but no one says anything about all the avocations Frank and Joe pick up for a mystery and then never refer to again.

Take, for instance, Radical Moves. Frank and Joe start skateboarding; Joe, in particular, is pretty good at it. Will this be referred to again? No. No, it will not. Just like Joe playing video games in Attack of the Video Villains (#106) and both brothers firefighting in The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105), skateboarding will be forgotten. And how many hobbies has Chet had in that same eight-book period? Two, if you count his attempts to win a costume contest in The Secret of Sigma Seven (#110). Well, three, if you count him playing video games with Frank and Joe in Video Villains, but frankly, Chet didn’t expend enough enthusiasm for the video games or the costume contest to qualify, and in neither case was he completely blind to his incompetence.

So Radical Moves is based on the idea that Frank and Joe are skateboarders now, and Joe’s pretty good. The narrator explains skateboarding to the readers, often using Frank’s thoughts, and yes, it sounds exactly like a middle-aged guy explaining the latest hip youth craze to aliens. By page 40, I was thoroughly sick of the word “thrash” and all its variations, and I despaired that I still had more than 100 thrashin’ pages left to go.

While at the Bayport skatepark a few days ahead of the Bayport (*ugh*) Thrashathon, the Hardy brothers meet Zach “the Hawk” Michaels, whom Joe immediately recognizes as a great professional skateboarder. Frank embarrasses himself by asking about skater lingo (“Hey, just what is a thrasher, anyway?” [3]), and Joe embarrasses himself with his adulation of the Hawk. Zach emulates the Hardys’ stilted speech, and I’m sure he’s making fun of them without them knowing it. But after Frank and Joe foil an attempt to steal Zach’s skateboard by a motorcyclist all in black, Zach decides they’re all right and takes them up on their offer to investigate the attack, even if he’s not willing to tell Frank and Joe about his past.

If you’re wondering: By the time this book was published in 1992, Tony Hawk had been a professional skater for a decade, and he’d been winning championships for almost that entire time. (We have always had Tony Hawk with us.) That’s obviously what the author is referencing with the “Hawk” nickname; when Zach performs a “pop off” — going up over the edge of a half-pipe, then descending — Frank “could see why his nickname was ‘Hawk’” (9). Given that actual hawks can get quite a bit higher (Frank doesn’t seem all that impressed by Zach’s altitude) and aren’t that good at skateboarding, I have to think it’s a reference to Tony.

Zach introduces Frank and Joe to the skateboarding world gathering in Bayport: Rick “Rocket” Torrez, a competitor who is Zach’s ex-best friend; Barb Myers, who sponsors Rocket, used to sponsor Zach, and now doesn’t like Zach very much; Maggie Barnes, a skateboarding reporter “on cable” (18; Joe repeats “on cable” throughout the book, as if skateboarding is equally likely to be found on C-SPAN, The Nashville Network, or ESPN); rival Danny Hayashi, who Zach says “leaves a bad taste in my mouth” (28; I just bet he does, wink wink nudge nudge); and Chris Hall, president of Scorpion Boards and Danny’s sponsor.

Zach is evasive about the root of his bad blood with Barb, Rocket, and Danny, and he won’t tell the brothers about secret deals he’s making with skateboarding companies; Frank and Joe find this extremely suspicious, although why should he trust Frank and Joe with intimate details of his personal life? And why would he divulge information about deals that could net him a fortune? (He eventually tells the brothers about his plans to sell his skateboard design to Hall, and Frank blabs it to Rocket like a total Chet.)

The attacks / attempted thefts keep coming. At Zach’s house, the mysterious rider pushes Zach into an empty pool, then drives off with Zach’s board; in the ensuing chase, Joe tries to run him off the road — total villain behavior from Joe — and the motorcyclist tries the half Ghost Rider, swinging a chain at the Hardys van. (Not a flaming chain, unfortunately.) The chase ends in the Bayport Mall parking lot when the motorcyclist takes a spill going around a delivery van. The rider beats up Frank and Joe but loses the board before he flees. The motorcycle is stolen, which closes up the lead the Hardys bade Lt. Con Riley to follow up on. While the Hardys and Zach were chasing the thief, Zach’s workshop is trashed.

Zach eventually reveals his secrets. Rocket hates him because they used to work together, but Zach robbed the place for skateboard components, and Rocket was fired; Zach then quit Myers’s team out of guilt, which caused Myers to hate him. Zach apologizes to Rocket and says he’ll get Rocket’s job back, even pay back their former employer, but he doesn’t admit he stole Rocket’s idea for a skateboard. (He does say he’ll split the profits 50/50, though, after Frank spills the beans.)

Frank and Joe are left home alone for the second straight mystery; this time the adults are on vacation. It’s a good thing, though, because someone turns on the gas in the Hardy home to … discourage Frank and Joe? No, it seems more likely that someone was trying to kill them, since they were asleep when the gas was turned on and no vague threat was issued, as the villains so often do. Frank and Joe are not concerned, though. I mean, they survived, after all, and the house didn’t explode. Why should they care?

Well, perhaps because Joe at least is left with a “fuzzy feeling and … [a] throbbing at his temples” (77) the next morning. That suggests there might be lingering effects they might want to get checked out, but whatever — that’s not the Hardy way. Frank uses the gas as an excuse to laugh at Joe’s suggestion that someone is watching Zach’s home from the vacant house across the street. Joe’s right, though, and they find food wrappers and a cup with lipstick on it when they finally investigate. Immediately Myers becomes a suspect. Frank and Joe even let the police know about the break-in … eventually. But they don’t visit Riley to tell him what’s going on; they don’t want to get caught up in his “questioning” and “investigating” and “documentation.” The Hardys have to be free to fly and “carve large” (78), just like the Hawk, dude!

Later, Zach cracks his shoulder after someone pours silicon lubricant at the bottom of the pool he uses for skateboarding practice. Zach asks Joe to compete in his place, but after another failed attempt to steal Zach’s board, the Hardys, Zach, and Rocket construct a decoy board. (Frank cannibalizes “an old shortwave radio that had been gathering dust in a closet” [116] for some of the electronics, in case you wondered what had happened to their shortwave sets.) They let the board be stolen and follow the thief to the Bayport Arms Hotel, and they hear the thief’s first name — Danny — before the tracker and bug are destroyed.

After they figure out who the thief is, Frank and Joe are stumped at what to do next. Although it’s true that they might not have much evidence against Danny, they have two weapons in their arsenal they never use, despite how effective they would be: they could accuse Danny of the many crimes that went along with his mugging attempts (fleeing the scene of an accident, assault and battery, and attempted murder), and they could call upon the Bayport Police Department to use its full majesty and authority against him. I mean, this guy attempted to gas Frank and Joe to death! He’s more than a petty thief or even an industrial spy — he’s a menace! Well, really, it was his employer who broke into the Hardy home, but they could still say that unless Danny gave up his boss, Danny was the one who was going to go to jail.

While Joe competes, Frank uses library resources to discover Myers’s company is great shape, so she could pay for Zach’s board design if she wanted. Hall’s company, however, is about to go under, so he probably couldn’t pay Zach anything, despite what Hall promised Zach. Frank is so excited by this discovery he “almost [forgot] to return the volume … to the periodical room” (136). My God, Frank — you’re a monster!

At the competition, Joe battles Danny, but Danny uses his board to knock Joe down. Danny is DQed, and Frank advises having Danny arrested while he investigates Hall. Frank picks the lock on the back of Hall’s truck and finds lockpicks, silicon lubricants, and a black motorcycle riding costume. Hall smacks Frank upside the head and drives away, but Frank rallies the skateboarding community, who pursue Hall. Joe and Rick grab onto the back of Hall’s truck — bad example for the kids! — before vaulting onto the back of the truck. Frank, following on a borrowed board, chases down Hall when he abandons his truck.

Oh, that lipstick on the coffee cup? Total red herring. Myers previously dated Hall and hoped to be cut in on his new skateboard deal (or theft). So … she watched Zach’s place from the vacant house with Hall, witnessing his attempted larceny, vandalism, and bodily harm? Geez. And she gets away scot-free, despite her horrible morals.

The bad guys are arrested; Zach gets Rocket his job back and convinces his old employer to produce his radical board design. Joe, despite his high-intensity training with Hawk and relatively good showing at the *sigh* Thrashathon, decides to give up skateboarding and thrashing.

Thank Odin for that, at least.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Schedule / Notes on Fear on Wheels

The next digest I’ll be writing about is #113, Radical Moves. I don’t have #112, Demolition Mission, and neither does my local library. If I ever get my hands on a copy, I’ll fill in this blank later.

After Radical Moves will be The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals, #114. Unfortunately, I’ll have to skip #115, Sabotage at Sports City, when its turn comes up because, again, I can’t easily lay my hands on a copy, and I’m not going to spend $4 or more to buy a book on eBay or Amazon every time this happens.

If you want to send me a copy, though, let me know in the comments.

***

Some stuff I’ve been meaning to post but just keep forgetting:

The back cover of Fear on Wheels has some odd copy. The description ends like this:

“The only way the Hardys can put [the blackmailer] out of business is to ride straight into the mud pits of his raging diesel-powered bulls!”

I understand “diesel-powered”; I assume some of the trucks and hot rods involved in the show use diesel fuel. But I’ve never heard monster trucks, classic cars, or dragsters referred to as “bulls.” (None of the vehicles drive through mud pits in the book, although I have seen that in truck / tractor pulling contests.)

Using “diesel” and “bulls” so close together concerns me. The only connection I can see between those words is that they are both used, with another slur, to rudely describe certain masculine lesbians. (From what I saw on the Internet before writing this, those terms are sometimes used within the LGBT community but are still seen as insults when used by those outside the community.) But the book only has one female character, Jessica, whose sexual identity is unexplored in the book … although it does describe her as having a “tough, boyish look” because of her black jeans, t-shirt, and boots (17). (That’s her on the cover, although she doesn’t look boyish to me.) That description kinda fits with those slurs, and her career spent on motorcycles would emphasize that masculinity to some people. But you have to squint to make those terms fit well — especially when the next sentence says she has a “childish” face when viewed up close, and her makeup “made her dark eyes look huge.”

And Jessica isn’t the blackmailer, which means puts us back at the beginning: I have no idea why whoever wrote the copy used the word “bulls.”

***

If Fear has a major weakness, it lies in the idea that people are interested in what Grant Tucker is selling. Well, let me rephrase that: obviously people are interested in attending auto shows and auto stunt exhibitions; there’s a reason I know a monster truck named Bigfoot exists, after all. But the ghostwriter (or editor) seems to think the auto stunts can find a place on TV in the early ‘90s, and I’m not sure that’s true. Tucker sold the rights for a live television broadcast of his show, but it’s never stated what kind of television station it is. Is it a local channel airing the show? Maybe, but setting up for an entire TV show — you have to figure it’s going to be an hour broadcast at least, maybe two or more — is beyond a lot of local affiliates’ capabilities. It’s definitely not one of the major networks; they would have much better things to air than a regional stunt show. It could be a cable network, but it’s doubtful any of those (like ESPN) would air it live; the show would benefit greatly from editing.

And then Jessica is rumored to be trying to make a stunt-show pilot for TV. It’s easy to envision a reality show featuring stunt motorcycle riding being successful (or at least being plausible enough to make it to pilot) today, but in 1991? That’s difficult to believe.

Also: Tucker thinks the threats of violence will cause the TV people to back out of the broadcast. Yeah, because TV people hate spontaneity and the prospect of being live at the scene of a tragedy / news event.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Three-Ring Terror (#111)

Three-Ring Terror coverIn 2016, it’s kinda sad to read about the Hardy Boys working a circus mystery.

In the Hardys’ heyday, circuses and the Hardy Boys series were extremely popular. But by 1991, when Three-Ring Terror was published, neither had the cachet they previously held. The Hardy Boys were still popular, of course, but with the original series up to #111 and a dozen titles being published per year across two series, none of the individual books felt as special as they once had. At the same time, the number of circuses was shrinking as their costs rose and ticket sales fell. Today, more than a decade and a half into the 21st century, the Hardy Boys have had their second reboot in less than a decade and seem to be looking for a hook that will attract young readers, while ethical concerns (like the treatment of animals) are chipping away at what little appeal the modern profusion of entertainment options have left circuses.

I believe I’m going to try to forget about that line of thinking and start talking about what happens in the book.

Anyway: Three-Ring Terror. The cover makes it look like some sort of cloning and / or time travel book, with Frank and Joe fighting in the background while Frank and Joe perform on the trapeze in the foreground. But that’s not what the story is about!

Chet wants to be clown, and when the Montero Brothers Circus hits the Bayport Arena with their circus training program, he has his chance. He gets a “clown internship” (4), and he’s planning to spend the entire winter vacation learning the trade; when I was a kid, that would have been extremely unimpressive, as winter vacation was usually about ten days long if you counted Christmas and New Year’s Day. Anyway, Chet’s so eager that Frank and Joe don’t remind him of his numerous hobbies or his propensity for dropping them. In fact, they’re sold on his enthusiasm being more or less permanent: “Boy, you’re serious about this clowning thing,” Frank says after letting out a whistle (26).

Actually, Chet’s already been a clown before, performing as Chesterton the Great for Solo’s Super Carnival in The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo (#47). The last time Chet worked for a circus, in Track of the Zombie (#71), he manned the refreshment stand for the Big Top Circus, which seems like a step back. On the other hand, he planned to stick with the circus for the entire summer, along with Biff Hooper, Phil Cohen, and Tony Prito, so who knows what he got up to? OK, he probably quit after two weeks, either because something else caught his fancy or the Hardys needed his help, but the possibility remains he might have performed in some capacity at the Big Top Circus.

When the Hardys first are introduced to Montero Bros. Circus, Frank and Joe are amazed by the tiger act, although whenever tigers pop up in a Hardy Boys book, I can’t help but remember the boys bringing down a tiger by winging rocks at it in the original Disappearing Floor (#19). The tiger is forgotten when a mystery gets its hooks into them: a juggler drops a ball covered with rhinestones and gropes through Chet’s bag for it, and when Frank confronts the juggler about him rifling through Chet’s stuff, the juggler pushes Frank into the refreshment table and makes a break for it. The juggler escapes easily, while Frank is soaked with soda and punch — ha! — but the boys find a secret code inside the ball: CN / 1220, JL / 103, GU / 214.

The boys are on their own, as Fenton is in Philadelphia “to run a check on someone” at police headquarters (perhaps calling in a favor from Commissioner Andrew Crawford that his boys earned in Shield of Fear [#91]), and Gertrude and Laura are in New York to visit friends (23). They can’t consult ask their father for help, then, or even get a hot meal when their simple secret code mystery is superseded / confused by sabotage at the Montero Brothers Circus. OK: Paul Turner, dean of Circus U. and a member of the circus’s board of directors, doesn’t want to believe the series of accidents is anything malicious, but listen, all y’all, it’s sabotage.

Turner’s job is endangered as more “accidents” occur (such as short stilts being sawed partially through, causing Chet to fall *gasp* five feet), and Frank and Joe are stumped by the both the sabotage and the code. But that may be because their brains had a bad reaction to clown white or something: they find “Bo Costello” and “Clown Alley” remarkably funny names, for instance, and after Turner is stuck in a cannon, the opening of the barrel pointed out of reach above their heads, their rescue is delayed for the minutes it takes them to recall the ladder Turner just used to climb into the cannon. Their work ethic is also top-notch again: when they have an indication that something important, perhaps another act of sabotage, will happen at the circus the next day, they decide to take a night off and watch the circus instead: “One night’s not going to make a difference … we need some R and R [after less than two days of work],” Joe says (97).

Eventually, Frank and Joe link the letters in the code to three people: trapeze artists Carl Nash and Justine Leone and Turner’s assistant Georgianne Unger. Nash and Leone are just performers, but Turner thinks Unger might want to oust him in a circus coup so she can take his job. Turner also says Bo Costello, the director of admissions, would be a better choice to take his job.

(Note: “Circus coup” is one of the coolest things I’ve typed in a while.)

The revelation about the initials doesn’t shed any light on the code itself, so the brothers argue about the code’s purpose and meaning. Joe comes up with a cockamamie theory, but he defends it against his brother’s reasonable objections; when Frank comes up with his own hunches, Joe gleefully punches holes in them. It’s the rare sort of not-nice brotherly interaction between Frank and Joe that rings true while maintaining their partnership, and that’s very much to Three-Ring’s credit.

The only progress they make is to ID the juggler who dropped the ball, Ralph Rosen. The boys spot and chase him a couple of times, but he eludes them. The second time he escapes because Frank and Joe are in clown costumes, but they discover Rosen has just handed another rhinestone-encrusted ball to Leone, who admits she’s supposed to give the ball to Nash. There’s no code inside the ball, but one of its rhinestones does turn out to be a real diamond — so add jewel thefts to the crimes in the book.

Oh, about the clown costumes … early in the novel, Joe is adamant that he will not be a clown: “No way will I put on a clown costume,” he says (41). But he already has performed as a clown, as part of the Big Top Circus in Track of the Zombie. (He was also a clown for the school variety show in the same book.) When Chet invites them to the circus, Joe is afraid Chet will show up in his clown getup: “You wouldn’t embarrass us like that, would you?” (89). When Frank suggests wearing clown costumes to blend in, Joe says, “No way are you getting me in that [costume]” (106). Of course he wears the costume; he protests the wig and clown white separately, but gives way both times. Unfortunately, the comedy of the situation is underplayed, with the author not really referring back to Joe’s embarrassment after he dons the costume.

Back to the mystery: Nash is definitely implicated, as he also was the best suspect for a break-in at the Hardy home; the burglar fled through a window in a very trapeze-like move, and the thief roared away in a car with Texas plates. (Nash is from Texas.) Nash showed up to relieve Chet at the refreshment table the first night, after Rosen lost his juggling ball, so Frank and Joe surmise that might have been a botched handoff between Rosen and Nash. Since Costello assigned workers to the refreshment table, Frank and Joe use a safety pin to perform an investigatory B&E to Costello’s office. (Not even lockpicks! I’m disappointed Frank and Joe didn’t come prepared.) They note dates that correspond to numbers in the code — December 20, January 3, February 14 — marked on Costello’s calendar, and then the realize the letters correspond to appreciations for each city the circus is in on those days; Bayport is abbreviated BP, which becomes CN by moving the first letter one forward in the alphabet and the second two back, while Indianapolis goes from IN to JL and Fort Worth is transformed to FW and GU.

As soon as they make this revelation, Frank and Joe are discovered by Costello and Nash. They tie the two up while they admit the code refers to handoffs of stolen jewels; Costello fences the gems in a different city from the handoff. To get rid of the boys, Costello rigs a fireworks explosion in his office, then he and Nash take off. Frank and Joe manage to escape before the pyrotechnics go off, of course, and they easily find Costello and Nash, who aren’t even trying to hide.

The criminals make a break for it, and they climb onto the trapeze to … well, it’s not really clear what the two are going to do after making it onto the trapeze platforms. The narration hints they’re going to try to escape on a catwalk, but that’s not clear. The brothers climb up the trapeze after them and manage to subdue the crooks. This sounds absurd — two newcomers to the trapeze being able to work at such a height and outfight experienced trapeze artists — but Joe and Frank worked the trapeze in “Big Top” Hinchman’s circus in the original Clue of the Broken Blade.

Rosen isn’t captured at the end, most of the evidence the boys needed was in Costello’s office when it blew up, and no one explained why Costello’s gang needed such complicated handoffs, but other than that, everything’s wrapped up neatly. Great job, kids!

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Secret of Sigma Seven (#110)

The Secret of Sigma Seven coverThe title for #110 is The Secret of Sigma Seven, which in the book is also the title of a movie stolen from a Hollywood director. But the story might as well be Frank and Joe Go to a Science Fiction Convention.

After Frank and Joe mock Chet’s attempts at cosplay (although they don’t call it that — the term hadn't been popularized in America yet), the boys meet Brian Amchick, a guy from Frank’s trigonometry class. Frank deigns to remember one of the little guys who flit through his life, and Brian agrees to introduce Frank, Joe, and Chet to the ins-and-outs of science fiction conventions and their terminology.

BayCon is being held at the Bayport Inn, which has showed up when Chet worked there in Spark of Suspicion (#98). No one brings up Chet’s previous employment in this book, though. Chet is excited about BayCon’s costume party because the prize for the best costume is “a trip to Florida to watch a space shuttle launch” (2). That’s a nice prize, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal to Chet since he HAS BEEN TO SPACE in a space shuttle.

Let me repeat that: he, along with Frank and Joe, have been in space. They were able to go in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85), the last digest before the year-long hiatus of 1986. But no one mentions this; no one even remembers it either. Joe even says, “Maybe the shuttle will take you along. Then you can become a real space cadet” (3).

Putting aside the undeserved nature of Joe’s putdown, why does no one remember the chums going into space? If I had gone into space, I would never stop talking about it. I’m loathe to hold up The Big Bang Theory as any indication of reality, but after engineer Howard Wolowitz traveled to the International Space Station in that series, he hasn’t shut up about it. Chet should be like that.

Frank and Joe aren’t there for the costume party, though. They have come to BayCon to see The Secret of Sigma Seven, the fifth movie in a sci-fi epic. Sigma Seven is scheduled to make its debut at the convention, and the movie’s director, Simon Devoreaux, has even come with the movie, to give it a brief introduction and serve on a few panels. Frank, Joe, and Chet have enjoyed the previous four installments of the film franchise, and they can’t wait for #5. They end up disappointed, however, as the print of the film that was to be shown at BayCon is stolen before it can be screened.

Frank and Joe decide they aren’t going to investigate unless Devoreaux asks them to, and he’s not interested in talking to them at all. Fortunately for Frank and Joe, Linda Klein, the convention’s organizer, wants them to find the film, so they agree —

Wait. Why is it fortunate for them? They aren’t getting paid, and the person who would benefit the most has no interest in them. Before Klein asks for their help, Frank says, “Maybe we’d better leave this for the Bayport police” (15). He’s right! Well, he would be right, if the Bayport Police could be bothered to do anything, but they don’t appear in the book. In the 21st century, the FBI would probably be called in, either because of the movie studio’s clout or because of copyright infringement concerns, but we don’t see them either. The field is clear for Frank and Joe!

They get their first suspect: someone roaming around Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con wearing different costumes and a green medallion. (Why keep wearing something that identifies him, when he’s in disguise? The answer: He didn’t think it would matter.) The suspect tries to kill Devereaux by giving a real but fake-looking gun to a con-goer and telling him to shoot at Devereaux; he almost tricks Joe into falling down an elevator shaft as well. The suspect seemingly aims a driverless hovercar at Sigma Seven’s special effects director, Jack Gillis. (Gillis tells Chet he has no plans to mass produce the hovercars because he’s “already rich” [39]. If that’s not a reason to suspect him of something, I don’t know what is.)

Frank and Joe wend their way through the convention, accumulating a meager pile of suspects. Acerbic writer Richard Feinbetter hates Devoreaux because he believes Devoreaux’s movies ripped off one of his stories. Feinbetter’s friend, fellow author Arlen Hennessey, hates Devoreaux’s movies in an artistic sense, but he too believes Devoreaux ripped off Feinbetter. The brothers also suspect George Morwood, a “huckster,” as Brian says, who sells video cassettes of movies at the con. He seems shady, and since the Hardys suspect the movie was stolen for the bootleg market, they keep an eye on him. (The author does nail how surly dealers at cons can be, almost like they are reluctant to sell stuff to you.)

I don’t have a suspect for who Hennessey is supposed to represent, but Feinbetter sounds like Harlan Ellison, a cantankerous sci-fi writer who has a propensity for suing those he thinks have wronged him or stolen his intellectual property. (Ellison has claimed the TV show Future Cop and the movie The Terminator were based on his works, and he won damages in those suits. He sued over the movie In Time but later withdrew the suit. He has been involved in numerous other lawsuits and has been extremely critical of how others, like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, have treated his scripts.)

The fit isn’t exact, though; Feinbetter is a writer from the Golden Age, back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, while Ellison is recognized as part of the vanguard of the ‘60s New Wave. Also, the story Devoreaux is alleged to have stolen from him involves “the Federation of Worlds series of novels”; Ellison has written few novels, and the Foundation / Empire series of Isaac Asimov seems more likely what was being referred to. Of course, “Federation” also calls to mind Star Trek, but that existed as a TV show before it engulfed all media forms.

Also: Feinbetter shoots Frank, Joe, and Brian with a gag gun with a flag that says, “ZAP! You’re star dust!” (55), which I bet Ellison would not do.

Frank and Joe’s detective ethic is less than sterling. They go to lunch without Chet after agreeing to rendezvous with him before the meal, and they don’t even remember him until after they pay the check. Fortunately, Chet’s not in danger; he’s just buying a new costume. After lunch and a panel session, they decide to “take a few minutes off” (65) and visit a sci-fi prop exhibit. When they break into Morwood’s hotel room, they don’t even use their lockpicks: they use a Swiss army knife. In an attempt to get more investigation opportunities, they stay at the Bayport Inn overnight and are introduced to another con tradition by Brian: sleeping on a hotel room floor. (Brian also says staying awake for the con’s full 72 hours is also a tradition; he’s right about both.) Frank and Joe, who are apparently middle-aged, have a rough time sleeping on the floor; Joe even falls asleep during surveillance the next day. (And almost gets stepped on by an elephant, but that’s not important.) With time running out to find the film on the last day of the con, Frank and Joe decide to take a break and watch a movie.

Still, the boys have a high opinion of themselves; Frank says they can perform miracles, although perhaps not on schedule.

After a spear is tossed at Frank, both boys are threatened by a motorcycle gang (not the Flying Skulls from Fear on Wheels, though), and two attempts on Devoreaux’s life, the brothers figure out who did it: Gillis. They aren’t sure why until the FX man tells them he resented Devoreaux; the idea for the movie series was Gillis’s, but Devoreaux relegated him to special-effects director. Gillis paintballs Frank and Joe in the face, which is hilarious to me but should have been painful to Frank and Joe, before fleeing in a hovercar. They recover quickly and pursue Gillis on a low-speed chase in a hovercraft of their own; both vehicles eventually go over the Barmet Cliffs. Somehow, the hovercrafts’ fans take them from terminal velocity to floating on water, and the chase ends when Gillis’s hovercraft is run over by a motorboat.

Brian is impressed by Frank and Joe’s detective work, which Joe claims was, like usual, fueled by “logical thinking and a few brilliant deductions”; Chet cuts him down by saying, “I thought it was usually dumb luck” (147). Joe gets him back on the book’s exit line, though, when Klein insinuates Chet’s about to eat the convention into a financial loss. “‘Chet cut down on his eating?” Joe said with a grin. ‘Now, that’s science fiction!’” (149). I admit: I laughed.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Prime-Time Crime (#109)

The Prime-Time Crime coverLike Smoke Screen Mystery, I read The Prime-Time Crime more than a decade ago, and I barely recall it at all. However, like the previous book (Fear on Wheels), Crime is a pretty good Hardy Boys book.

One of the reasons I like it is that it shows Frank on a scholastic / scholar / quiz (whatever you want to call it, but the right term is “scholastic”) bowl team. He and two teammates play against Littonville High on Four O’Clock Scholar, which is a great name for the show. Frank is the game’s MVP, answering more questions than anyone else and leading Bayport to a victory. Frank certainly seems to enjoy the experience, contracting a severe case of quiz fever: “During the first commercial, Frank leaned back in his seat. His heart was racing. He was exhilarated over how well he had done” (16).

I too know that feeling of excitement and nervousness, that adrenaline that emerges despite doing something so non-life threatening and relatively inconsequential. I played scholastic bowl in high school, and I too participated in a regional scholastic bowl TV show, Scholastic Hi-Q. That sort of success, that show of mental superiority: It gets to you; you keep wanting to play … well, Frank doesn’t, but Frank’s weird.

So is Four O’Clock Scholar, which doesn’t have much going for it other than its name. The rules are weird: if a player rings in to answer a question but is wrong or can’t come up with an answer, his or her teammates get a chance to respond. This has to be a way to give Frank chances to answer questions correctly and make his teammates look foolish, but it’s a horrible rule: it just encourages teams to ring in early rather than when they know the answer. (If a player has confidence in their teammates, she knows they’ll have time to think while she makes a mistake.) The show is broadcast live, which is ill-advised, given the studio audience made up of students from each school; a delay would be advised, given high schoolers’ lack of self-control and tendencies toward crudity.

The station manager says Four O’Clock Scholar is in danger of cancellation, as parents are the ones watching rather than students. Given the way Jeopardy!’s ratings skew, it’s more likely the students’ grandparents watch than anyone else. (Frank, ever the weird one, says he and his friends watch the show every day. The station manager says he and his friends are “an unusual crowd.”) Low ratings — or at least low ratings in key demographics — isn’t surprising given the dog of a time slot, 4 p.m. … every so often? And how often can adults watch a 4 p.m. TV show? WBPT broadcasts one show on Sunday, then tries to broadcast another on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether other shows are broadcast in between; even more unclear is what time of year it is because Frank and Joe are not going to school on weekdays.

Perhaps the show’s problem is with terminology: when Bayport wins their game, they are told they are in the championship tournament. But the “tournament” seems to be one game rather than, you know, a series of games. I don’t know, man.

The real treats of the book are Steve Burke and Debbie Hertzberg, Frank’s teammates. When Four O’Clock Scholar’s host, Clarence Kellerman, is kidnapped before their game, they decide they will find him because obviously this amateur detecting thing isn’t so hard; Steve’s going to be a scientist, after all, and Debbie’s read tons of mysteries. Given Frank and Joe’s reputations, the two have to be trolling the brothers. Frank doesn’t fear them initially, saying, “I don’t think they can harm anything” (26). Within twenty pages, he’s backpeddling: “I knew it was a mistake to let that pair help search for Clarence” (45). We were always at war with Steve and Debbie, Joe.

How are we supposed to feel about the two amateur amateurs? On one hand, we could be expected to look at them and see how difficult this detecting business is. We might identify with Frank and Joe as readers, but we probably couldn’t do what the Hardys Boys do. Solving mysteries is hard, and it takes more than being “smart” and reading books. You have to know how to investigate and put the pieces together. Steve and Debbie can’t do that.

On the other hand … I chose to look at Steve and Debbie as a parody of Frank and Joe’s behavior in most books. The newbs seize upon station manager Ted Whalen as their chief suspect, and they don’t let anything deter them. Even Joe — Joe! — points out they are jumping to conclusions, but Steve and Debbie are hearing none of that. They plan how to break into Whalen’s home, a suggestion that makes Frank expressly come out against breaking and entering. A Hardy! Speaking out against a little investigatory B&E! Debbie and Steve sneak into the station against Whalen’s express orders, although to be fair, so do Frank and Joe. For a few minutes, Debbie forgets she has the key that will allow them to escape a deathtrap. (Well, that’s more Chet-like, but you get what I’m saying.) Debbie almost falls from a roof as she’s trying to spy on Whalen. They jury-rig a camera to keep tabs on Whalen, only to broadcast the executive eating a sandwich over the air. Even when people try to kill Debbie and Steve, they don’t give up, despite having no real reason to try. When they search for Clarence in the WBPT’s basement, they are clubbed over the head and stuffed into boxes.

All of those things seem like things Frank and (particularly) Joe would do, especially that last one. Debbie and Steve’s presence keeps Frank and Joe honest: they have to actually investigate rather than accuse people and run around aimlessly. When Joe asks a stupidly accusatory question of a suspect, Frank chastises him, and Joe apologizes: “It just slipped out. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Steve and Debbie too long” (83). But the question he asked would have been unremarkable in dozens of other books, which is why I come down on the side of Steve and Debbie being a parody.

When it comes to investigating, though, I have a question: where are the police? The woman at WBPT who hires the brothers says, “The police seem to be losing interest … most of the investigations end up going nowhere, or the people return on their own” (81). For most missing people, yeah, that sounds right, but Clarence is a local celebrity who hadn't missed a Four O’Clock Scholar in fourteen years. It seems the police should be interested. But we don’t see the cops at all, so I guess we have to fall back on BPD incompetence as the explanation. Or maybe Bayport is such a crime-ridden burg that they are so swamped with other crimes that they cut bait on a disappearance that could be a publicity stunt.

I also appreciate Prime-Time Crime because Chet gets in a couple of zingers instead of being exclusively the butt of Joe’s jokes. And he not only mocks Joe’s intelligence, but he also mocks Iola (or Iola and Joe’s relationship; either is fine with me): When Iola threatens at dinner at Mr. Pizza not to talk to the Hardys if they don’t tell her about their case, Chet warns, “If you keep making promises like that, they may never tell you about the case” (45). Even the villains get some snappy patter when they capture Joe, who figures the mystery out first.

Oh! That’s right: there was a mystery. Well, it turns out Clarence was kidnapped after he realized the two brothers who run WBPT’s home-shopping show were fences, reselling stolen goods on air. Their sales were rather indiscriminate, as it turns out; Clarence recognized his ex-wife’s wedding ring, which still had her initials engraved inside. After Joe figures things out, they kidnap him as well, but Frank frees them, and with an assist from Steve and Debbie, they catch the villains.

In the end, love is triumphant. Steve and Debbie start dating (but never stop bickering). Frank tells Joe they’re going to get “dressed up” and take their girlfriends for a “night on the town” (150) because they didn’t tell Callie and Iola about the case before the Bayport Times broke the case. Frank admits Chet might tag along as well, which isn’t romantic, but there’s going to be food, and who wants the hassle of trying to keep him away from grub? Frank and Joe will almost certainly have time to be as romantic as they want to be (which isn’t very) while Chet has his head in the food trough.

But much like love, Frank and Joe’s services are free: WBPT pays them both jack and squat for their services.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Fear on Wheels (#108)

Fear on Wheels coverFear on Wheels is a very good digest, which I wasn’t expecting. I admit: I don’t see the appeal of automobile stunt shows, and I didn’t relish the thought of reading about the late 20th century’s equivalent of the traveling circus. Still, I ended up enjoying the book.

Grant Tucker’s Hot Rod, 4x4 and Motorcycle Show is being threatened by an extortionist. The show has been afflicted with minor accidents recently, and Tucker shows Frank and Joe a letter demanding a quarter-million dollar payoff to prevent further problems. Joe helpfully identifies it as an extortion note. Heartened by Joe’s obvious skills, Tucker sends the Hardy brothers out undercover (posing as PR interns) to find the extortionist. When Frank asks what Tucker wants the boys to do when they find the culprit, Tucker tells them, “You do what you have to do” (7), which tells me Tucker might have a more informal relation to justice than the Hardys.

Given the number of accidents that have happened already, Frank and Joe suspect it’s an inside job. So: On your marks, get set, suspects!

  • Tucker himself. A cop Fenton knows investigated a complaint by two investors against Tucker but found nothing; he couldn’t tell whether Tucker was “too clever or too honest” (36). Tucker is vague about the details of the extortion note — how it was delivered, what kind of envelope it came in, where the envelope is now. (Also, he hires Frank and Joe instead of real detectives, although Frank and Joe don’t consider that.) Frank suggests Tucker might have faked the extortion note to embezzle the money.
  • Fat Dave and the Skulls. The Skulls, who are more a bunch of brawlers than the criminal cartel you might have seen on Sons of Anarchy, seem determined to disturb Tucker’s show. The obvious argument against them is that a member of the biker gang would be easily spotted walking backstage at the show; Frank and Joe suspect the Skulls might have an inside man.
  • Jessica Derey, a motorcycle stunt rider. Frank and Joe spot someone dressed like her riding with the Skulls, and they think they see her helmet at the Skulls’ clubhouse. Rumors say she wants a large sum of money to film a TV pilot featuring motorcycles. During one of her practices, she takes a spill as she avoids a ramp coated with oil, but Frank is skeptical she could have seen the oil at the distance she claims.
  • Matt Nazer, the chief mechanic. A former stunt rider himself, he became part of the crew after an accident reduced the range of motion on his knee. Frank and Joe catch him in the garage with a crowbar at night. Plus, he has a suspicious last name. Frank and Joe don’t mention this, but that’s probably because they live in a pre-9/11 world.
  • Bruce Sears. Bruce had a stunt show with Keith that folded. Once great friends with Keith, Bruce seems to hate him now and pulls pranks on him. (Keith returns the favor.) Frank, Joe, and Matt find him putting a firecracker in Keith’s dragster one night after everyone else has left. On the other, the wheel flies off his deuce coupe during a practice, and he barely manages to keep the car under control.
  • Keith Helm, “the Dragging King of the Quarter Mile.” Why isn’t he just the “King of the Quarter Mile”? Anyone who knows about drag racing understands what the “quarter mile” means. Anyway, his dangerous prank rivalry with Bruce makes him a suspect, and Frank and Joe are attacked while on an errand Keith allegedly summoned them for. Also, he has a Flying Skulls tattoo on his shoulder.

The most obvious suspects are the Flying Skulls, a motorcycle gang headed by Fat Dave. They’ve caused trouble for Tucker before, and the day before Tucker’s first show at the Bayport Arena, the gang shows up, looking for trouble. But Frank thinks quickly, and he offers the Skulls free tickets to the first show (the non-televised one). Mollified, Fat Dave and the Skulls drive away.

That’s the first of many good decisions Frank and Joe make in Fear. In addition to actually investigating — questioning suspects, trailing them, sitting on stake outs — Frank and Joe consult Fenton. Good heavens! He fills them in on the Flying Skulls and Tucker, but he forces them to do their own work by not giving them too much information. Later, they do the unthinkable: they accelerate through a yellow light while pursuing a suspect.

Frank and Joe also use their basement lab! The first time their lab was placed in the basement was in The Twisted Claw (#18), when it was specifically designated a fingerprint lab. The basement lab showed up numerous times, with more equipment added: a darkroom, a two-way radio, a tool shop. In The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39), the basement was part lab, part rec room, and after that, the lab was moved above the garage. The basement became solely a rec room until The Sting of the Scorpion (#58), when it was used for fingerprinting once again. But the lab went back to the loft above the garage after that.

Later in the case, Frank and Joe are sent out to pick up Keith, who allegedly needs a tow. But when they get to their destination, they are confronted by a bunch of Skulls. Frank and Joe are restrained by some of the gang while one of them walks up to Frank and Joe with a wrench. The head thug says he’s going to give Frank and Joe a “free sample” of what Skulls plan to give Tucker if he doesn’t play ball with the Skulls. It’s a frightening moment; even though it’s obvious Frank and Joe aren’t going to get wrenched, the narration sells the possibility, in part by not giving readers long enough to think about how Frank and Joe are going to escape. Instead of clobbering the Hardys, though, the Skull smashes the tow truck’s windows.

This doesn’t improve Frank and Joe’s opinion of the Skulls, but Tucker appeases the motorcycle gang by hiring them as security at the Saturday-night, live-on-TV show. This immediately makes me think of the Hell’s Angels providing security for the Rolling Stones at Altamont, but thankfully, events don’t spiral out of control. As it turns out, the Flaming Skulls seem to be competent at keeping people in line. The Skulls also have another power, one they share with the Hardy boys: They can have conversations over the roar of motorcycles, which they use to taunt stunt riders at the Bayport Arena. This causes Frank to give Joe a “disgusted” look (61), although it’s unclear whether his disgust is because of the insults or the Skulls appropriating the boys’ abilities.

Chet blows their cover when he runs into them at a diner, although there’s no way he could have known the Hardys were undercover. (Lesson: Always tell Chet when you’re undercover.) Someone attacks their van, giving them a flat tire. Frank and Joe manage to prevent more flat tires because of the warning given by the weakest car alarm ever, which gives off a “faint peep! peep!” (110), presumably from a key fob. Later, a driverless truck is aimed at them, Tucker, and Jessica, and they manage to escape, with Joe performing a ridiculous stunt to stop the truck.

After following a man who had a mysterious meeting with Keith and Bruce and asking clever questions at the man’s hotel, Frank and Joe discover what Keith and Bruce’s deal is: they’re still friends, but they are pretending to have a rivalry to provide some juice when they jump to another show. All their little “accidents” — even Bruce losing his wheel — were in service of this fake rivalry. Tucker is more amused than dismayed by their plan.

The extortion payoff is scheduled to happen during the big TV show. Frank makes the drop while Joe hides in a nearby truck bed. When he sees someone approach the drop point, he jumps out, surprising Jessica, who heard about the drop and wanted to help. Unfortunately, they are surprised by the extortionist, who clubs them both and locks them in a car truck. Even worse, the car is scheduled to be crushed by the monster truck Bigfoot. Frank rescues the two, but not before the money is taken and a Flying Skull bracelet left nearby. With the help of the Flying Skulls and crew, the backstage is searched and sealed, allowing Frank and Joe to reveal Matt, who stopped performing not because of his injury but because he lost his nerve, as the culprit. Matt is arrested, although Tucker promises to pay for his lawyer.

On the way home, Frank and Joe are given an escort by the Flaming Skulls, showing their thanks for finding the real culprit after Matt tried to frame them. As far as rewards go, the gratitude of a motorcycle gang is pretty good one. (Given the trouble the brothers had with motorcycle gangs in The Shattered Helmet (#52) and The Mystery of the Samurai Sword (#60), having some influence with bikers might help them avoid some pain.)


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Panic / chronology / Hack Attack

The next book in the sequence is Panic on Gull Island (#107), in which Iola goes missing on Spring Break, and no one in the media or law enforcement can muster any interest in a vanished pretty white girl. The Hardy Boys books have some pretty unbelievable plot twists, but that might be the most unbelievable.


***

The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) is set during Winter Break, while Panic on Gull Island takes place during Spring Break. This gives us a definite and plausible time frame for the intervening book, Attack of the Video Villains: somewhere in the first quarter of the year. Video Villains even mentions Smoke Screen, strengthening the chronological ties.

This demonstrates a slow tightening of chronological continuity in the digests. The Secret of the Island Treasure (#100) is set during the summer, and The Money Hunt (#101) falls during Bayport High’s fall break. Terminal Shock (#102) is set during Spring Break, and Million-Dollar Nightmare (#103) takes place during a San Francisco summer. Tricks of the Trade obviously occurs between Nightmare and Smoke Screen, but that’s not much help, as Smoke Screen takes place at the end of the year. There’s a lot of months between those two points, and we don’t even know what part of the summer Nightmare is set during.

So for the characters, those eight books (#100 to #107) take place over about 21 months. Logically, Frank and Joe would have gone up a grade during that time, and they might even have graduated. (Although if they did, they would have to be in college: you don’t get Spring Break when you’re out of school.) Frank and Joe are never in classes, so it’s impossible to tell. For readers, those books were released over about 14 months (#100 was the first digest released in 1990, while Gull Island was the second for 1991). As I’ve said in other posts, I really appreciate this sort of chronological care, even if it makes no sense in the long run.


***

As I mentioned in Attack of the Video Villains (#106), the video game Hack Attack comes up again in Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124). I have to imagine the probability that both books were written by the same ghostwriter is high; why else would the same fictional video game appear in both books? I suppose an observant editor could have realized Dangerous Beat’s arcade scene was a great place to insert a reference to a previous book, and editorial tinkering would explain why Joe is playing the game despite claiming he never wanted to play it again in Video Villains.

On the other hand, maybe Joe is just a teenager and prone to hyperbole.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Attack of the Video Villains (#106)

Attack of the Video Villains coverSo, you know how Frank and Joe are amazing at everything, right? At detecting — of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be a series — but also all sorts of athletic competitions and at knowing little facts and at shrugging off concussions and other injuries (but mainly concussions) and at somehow knowing where the universe needs them to be at any particular time so they can solve mysteries? Of course you do. Well, in Attack of the Video Villains, Joe adds something new to the things he’s absolutely great at …

(No, not at romancing the ladies. The opposite of that.)

Video games! Particularly one called Hack Attack. After Joe wins a regional competition, Frank and Chet accompany him to the national Hack Attack tournament in New York, where he’s one of 25 contestants. It’s difficult to believe that between detecting, school, athletics, and the firefighting training / firefighting in The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) that Joe would have been able to get good at any particular video game. (I would be willing to overlook Smoke Screen, but the author specifically says Joe had hoped the video-game tournament would give them a rest after Smoke Screen.) But I suppose Joe has to do something in his down time … I mean, it’s not like he’s going to be spending any late nights with Iola.

Evidently, by 1991, when Video Villains came out, someone at Simon & Schuster had heard of this “Nintendo” thing that was going around, and she or he wanted to get in on some of that sweet action by making one of the boys a champion player. By the time Video Villains was published, the Nintendo Entertainment System had been released nationwide in American for about five years, long enough for the entire Hardy Boys target audience to have known the NES and its games intimately.

Hack Attack is played on the Videomundo platform, which is presumably similar to Nintendo. (Note the similar ending to their names.) Videomundo has been sold in America for three years, according to Video Villians; that’s not as many years as the NES had been in the US, but it’s longer than Videomundo’s main competitor, Omega. (Omega is probably a reference to Sega, which had been selling games and game systems in America for much longer than Nintendo had been selling the NES and NES games, but the Sega Genesis, Sega’s first success in America after the video game crash of 1983, had been released only in 1989.) Like the NES controllers, the Videomundo controllers have A and B buttons. One of the players says Videomundo cartridges are much larger than Omega cartridges; NES cartridges were about twice as tall as a Genesis cartridge, about the same width, but not quite as thick.

This isn’t the only time Hack Attack appears in the Hardy Boys series. In Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124), Joe plays Hack Attack in an arcade. I made fun of the taxi-based video game, which I claimed “has never been a thing.” This is not exactly true: in 2000, the game Crazy Taxi was released for the Sega Dreamcast, and the game was successful enough to spawn a few sequels. Hack Attack is a strange game, in some ways; the missions are random, and it doesn’t seem to have a standard opening stage. In other ways, it feels like a classic NES game. The player is a taxi driver who delivers his passenger from one city to another, with outlandish and stereotypical obstacles in between (tornadoes in Kansas, for instance). The game frequently sounds goofy but not atypically for games at the time. The author sounds like such an adult when he has the kids discuss it, though.

Anyway, Joe is trying to win the contest and the $50,000 grand prize. He’s up against Jason Tanaka, a Japanese-American who is of course good at video games; Nick Phillips, a nervous guy; Bill Longworth, the previous year’s champion; and 21 other mooks we never see or care about. Unfortunately for Joe’s peace of mind, thieves are stealing Videomundo cartridges from tournament participants, although the criminals eventually focus on a copy of Hack Attack that Chet acquired at a game swap. Although Joe was outraged at the hotel’s lack of action to find the thieves in Tricks of the Trade (#104), he lets the hotel’s lack of action in Video Villains slide. (Maybe he has gained a sense of proportion and realizes video games aren’t as valuable as jewelry!)

The thief has trouble figuring out who has the game, although this advantage doesn’t help the Hardys apprehend him. Joe is particularly frustrated by the thief, a small, wiry guy who regularly outfights and outruns Joe. Evidently Joe’s video gaming skills have caused his physical skills to atrophy. Ha, ha — Joe’s a nerd now!

One interesting thing: the Bayporters have never heard of the Konami Code. Jason shows them how a series of buttons pressed at certain games’ start screens can unlock various upgrades — more lives, better equipment, etc. Jason doesn’t use the exact Konami Code (up up down down left right left right B A), but the first code he uses is the Konami Code with the ups and downs deleted. As Jason says, such codes are used by developers to test the games. No known codes have been discovered for Hack Attack, although Joe says one “might come in handy at the tournament” (35). Jason, suspecting Joe of being a cheater (or willing to be a cheater), gives “him a dirty look.”

Frank and Joe — mostly Joe — spend most of their investigation accusing Omega of the video game thefts. Why would they want to steal games they could legally buy? Who knows! Omega handles the accusations about as well as you might imagine, with one exec pointing an Omega light gun at Frank to freak Frank out when he’s found snooping around Omega’s offices. Frank and Joe’s ineffectiveness continues when they stand by helplessly as Chet gets bundled into a car, but with the help of an NYC stoplight, they manage to recover their friend. The two men are quickly released on bail, which is possible, but getting released so quickly for kidnapping seems unlikely (and expensive).

Joe finishes in third place in the first round, after which the competition is reduced to only the top four. Between rounds, the boys find a weird note dropped by Nick Phillips: “SING EVERY NICE SONG WITH EASY NOTES” (94). Obviously this is a mnemonic; since the letters used are the same as the first letters of the cardinal directions, I thought this might be the pattern to get through a maze. But given what the Hardys learned about video-game codes and Videomundo’s contest coordinator’s ignorance of such codes, everything should come together. Unfortunately, the Hardys are completely oblivious, and Jason gets arrested for the video game thefts.

On the day of the finals, Chet urges Joe to have “a breakfast of champions” (109), which I thought was bourbon and cornflakes but turns out to be pancakes dripping with syrup. Live and learn! With the sound of chiptune jazz in his ears, Joe plays his heart out, but the competition is interrupted by a power outage. The video game thief gropes Joe in the darkness, looking for the elusive Hack Attack cartridge, but he’s disappointed — as is Joe, for that matter, since the guy didn’t even buy him dinner first.

Frank and Joe finally figure out Nick’s mnemonic works only with the cartridge everyone wants; when they input the code, the game plays itself. They realize Nick was going to use it to cheat, but they don’t figure out the rest: that someone behind the scenes at the tournament has to have been involved to put the cartridge in Nick’s machine. When the kids inform the contest director of everything they have learned, he turns on them immediately. He and Chet’s kidnappers threaten the boys and tell them the criminal plot (Nick was going to cheat in return for a lifetime of games, while the contest coordinator would pocket the $50 Gs.)

The kids escape to the New York subway system, destroying the rigged cartridge on the way. They lead the thugs into the tunnels, and all of them almost get hit by a train. The boys manage to leap onto the back of the train as it goes by, pulling the ringleader with them, and then dump the guy off at the police station.

In the finals, Joe plays the game of his life, but he loses to the freed Jason. (Bill comes in third; Nick is DQed.) In return for his phenomenal playing, Joe gets “a ton of Videomundo game cartridges” (147) that we will never, ever see anyone play. Perhaps that has something to do with how Joe feels; he ends the book by saying, “I don’t want to have anything to do with Hack Attack ever again” (148). He gets over this, of course, since he plays again in Dangerous Beat. Or maybe he just forgets! Memory loss seems a likely consequence of the number of blows to the head Joe has taken.


Friday, April 29, 2016

The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105)

The Smoke Screen Mystery coverI’ve read The Smoke Screen Mystery before, but I don’t remember it at all — not a plot development, not a red herring or stupid suspect, not a jot or tittle — and that surprises me. Yes, I read it more than a dozen years ago, but I believe I should remember more of it, because I’m convinced it was written by the ghost of Dr. John Button (or maybe Dr. John Button, Jr.).

Button, for those of you who don’t know, wrote two of the worst books in the Hardy Boys canon: the original Disappearing Floor (#19) and The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20). He also wrote three others: The Secret Warning (#17), The Twisted Claw (#18), and The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21). Those last three were mostly mediocre, but Floor and Express … they were full of non-sequiturs and botched continuity. The digests aren’t big on continuity, but this one stretches the series’s approach to continuity from “relaxed” to “you’ll be happier if you don’t think about it.”

Examples? you ask. Sure!

  • Aunt Gertrude is a “heavy-set, middle-aged woman” the boys call “Aunt Gert.” Gertrude Hardy has been described as “slightly plump” (Disappearing Floor), “portly” (Flying Express and The Melted Coins), and “solidly built” (The Secret of Skull Mountain), but in almost every other books her weight is mentioned she’s “angular” or “bony.” When her age is mentioned, she’s almost always past middle age (or hinted to be), and she’d never let her nephews get away with calling her “Gert.”
  • Frank and Joe have become volunteer firefighters after taking a 16-week course. When would Frank and Joe have time to take a 16-week course?
  • They still have time to play pick-up hockey. Sure, they sound like aliens impersonating hockey fans — “These blue eyes need lots of rest so they can focus on winging that puck past you and into the goal net!” Joe says (16), his automatic translation protocols malfunctioning — but why hockey? It’s not a sport either of them has played in the canon.
  • Callie and Iola have jobs: Iola works in a real-estate developer’s office, and Callie’s a stringer for the Examiner. Sure, that’s fine — they should have part-time jobs. But neither of those jobs stick, and neither has shown any proclivity for those kinds of work.
  • The Examiner! Bayport has had a bunch of newspaper over the years, most prominently the Times, but never before has it had an Examiner. (See Maximum Challenge for a list of newspapers.) Why couldn’t the author have used one of Bayport’s other fishwraps?

Maybe I’m being too sensitive. I dunno. But Gert? Becoming firefighters on top of detectives, “students,” athletes, and all the rest? Hockey? A new newspaper? It … it’s a bit much for me. I’m going to go lie down for a while.

Back now. Anyway: Frank and Joe, volunteer firefighters. (I would have thought the movie Backdraft might have inspired the plot, but no: Backdraft came out in 1991, while Smoke Screen was published in 1990. No luck there.) During their training and brief time on the job, the brothers have become great at their job … well, maybe it’s more that their co-workers aren’t that good. At one point, for instance, Frank explains to a fire inspector what a Molotov cocktail is, and the inspector doesn’t slap him silly.

When Frank and Joe are off duty, Joe is eager to check out all the new pizza and burger places in Bayport. He and Frank manage to visit Pizzaworks (which all the kids agree is awful), Pizza Your Way, and Burgerworks. (No mention whether Pizzaworks and Burgerworks are affiliated in any way, other than authorial / editorial laziness.) The boys also meet Iola at the Bayport Diner, but that’s not new: it first appeared in The Jungle Pyramid (#56) before being mentioned in four more mysteries in the canon.

Iola works for Donald Pierce, the former White Bishop of the Naughty Hellfire Club and later leader of the cyborg Reavers. Pierce’s buildings are being burned to the ground, evidently while he’s busy trying to kill mutants; after the Examiner blames him for the fires, he “hires” (no money changes hands) Frank and Joe to find out who’s really behind the arson. The boys take the case, with Frank saying they haven’t handled an arson case in a while. I couldn't remember any arson cases in the canon, but firebugs have been involved in six cases in the canon — most recently The Swamp Monster (#83).

Strangely, Joe does not immediately want to blame Pierce for arson; perhaps even he realizes blaming Iola’s boss would not be healthy for his relationship or his body. Frank and Joe’s friend and fellow firefighter, Kevin, becomes their chief suspect, mostly because Pierce fired Kevin from a job as a super. Another piece of evidence against Kevin is that he’s always late to fight fires, which is strange: This might be evidence Kevin’s a poor firefighter, but why would an arsonist be late to fight fires? If he set the fires, he could be right on time — he could even be early, although he’d have to be a stupid criminal to do that.

When Joe falls through the ice while the Hardys and another friend, Scott, are playing hockey, waiting for Kevin, even more suspicion falls on Kevin. But they aren’t thinking straight. Perhaps it has something to do with their very lax attitude toward hypothermia, as they allow Joe to sit on the ice, wet and freezing, while Frank rubs his feet to restore circulation. They then leisurely stroll to the van — Frank takes the time to find the missing “Thin Ice” sign, show it to Joe, and debate who’s responsible — before going home to get a change of clothes for Joe.

They don’t suspect Scott, for some reason, despite the extravagant lifestyle he’s living on a grocery-store salary. Aren’t investigators supposed to look into the finances of possible suspects?

The arsonist takes a break from burning Pierce’s buildings to set fire to the Hardy garage. Well, kinda set fire to the garage: the arsonist hits it with a Molotov cocktail, and Frank puts out the fire with a fire extinguisher after riding home on a fire engine. Frankly, Gertrude should have been able to handle the small blaze, but she wilts in the presence of the fire, and she worries how Fenton and Laura react to the damage. (It seems mostly cosmetic, a blackening of the wall farthest from the house.) This is even more evidence that the Ghost of Button has replaced Gertrude with someone — something — else. Gertrude beat up intruders and sassed everyone; there’s no way she should be reduced to seeking comfort from a neighbor at a small fire. Besides, the Hardy property has seen much worse damage; I mean, the back of the house was gutted by fire in The Flickering Torch Mystery (#23), and Gertrude’s window was broken by a gas bomb in Tic-Tac-Terror (#74). This is negligible in comparison.

The flannel used as the Molotov cocktail’s fuse matches Kevin’s shirt, so he remains the primary suspect. Even a discussion with Kevin can’t clear him. But later, when Joe pursues an investigatory B&E at Kevin’s, he encounters a masked intruder who drives away in the arsonist’s van. Even the Hardys aren’t stupid enough to think Kevin would break into his own home wearing a ski mask. Still, Kevin bugs out of Bayport soon after, and the Hardys are unsure what to think.

Pierce fires the brothers for lack of results — although what does “fire” mean, when you aren’t paying someone and they aren’t using your influence to gain access to anything? — but Frank and Joe stay on the case. They manage to find the arsonist’s van and link it to Scott, although they don’t understand his motive. The revelation that Pierce worked at a New Mexico bank at the same time as Dawson, the Examiner’s publisher, opens a new angle for investigation. Info gathered by Iola indicates Pierce has been blackmailing Dawson for years. The conclusion is obvious: Dawson hired Scott to burn Pierce’s buildings, which allowed Dawson to lambaste Dawson in print. Frank and Joe don’t confirm this until a tense confrontation at Pierce’s office, in which Scott and Dawson hold Frank, Joe, Iola, and Pierce at gunpoint. (Dawson started his campaign against Pierce because he was furious Pierce kept blackmailing him for embezzlement after the statute of limitations ran out. Like the revelation that you built your fortune on embezzlement wouldn’t be worth keeping secret!)

While Pierce’s skyscraper in a cornfield starts burning — Bayport’s town council refused to let him build the twenty-story building downtown, for some unfathomable reason — the kids and Pierce are rescued by a police helicopter, and Con Riley arrests Dawson and Pierce.

And the reason Kevin was always late and unwilling to talk about it? He was trying to get a job with the New York Fire Department, and he didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Good to know he was willing to risk jail for a jinx. It’s not the dumbest part of Smoke Screen, not by a longshot, but it’s still pretty dumb.

As bad as Smoke Screen is, it does have a bit of foreshadowing: Iola says, “If I didn’t have to work during vacation, I’d definitely take off for Florida” (2). The book’s conclusion pretty much guarantees the end of her employment, and Iola takes off for Florida over spring break in Panic on Gull Island (#107) — with disastrous consequences, of course.