I hope some enterprising writer or editor commissioned / wrote The Lure of the Italian Treasure as a way of writing off a trip to Italy on their income taxes. I doubt that’s true, although I think someone in the creative process for this book has actually gone to Italy. The details feel right.
This is the first time Frank and Joe have left North America / the Caribbean in the digest series. They traveled to Canada in Cross-Country Crime (#134), and then they went to the Caribbean twice — The Secret of Skeleton Reef (#144) and The Caribbean Cruise Caper (#154) — but the last book that sent them overseas was Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84), in which they stopped a civil war in Africa after diverting through Paris. Desert Phantom is so unlike the rest of the series it barely counts, though. If you want a “normal” Hardy Boys book, their last trip out of North America was in The Crimson Flame (#77) — Thailand — and their last trip to Europe was to Germany in The Submarine Caper (#68, also known as The Deadly Chase).
But Frank and Joe don’t make a big deal about their trip to Italy, and even a kerfuffle with customs inspectors in Milan over Joe’s bugging equipment is downplayed as barely worth mentioning (except as foreshadowing). So why are Frank and Joe, average American teens, in Italy, and why should we care, if they’re so blasé? Well, they’re working on an archaeological dig outside Florence. Before you can jump to the obvious conclusion that this is related to Frank’s interests or that Fenton as placed them at the dig to uncover antiquities theft or fraud or some damn thing, we learn that working on an Etruscan archaeological site has been Joe’s dream “for more than a year” (2). Yes, lunkheaded Joe is the one who wants to see Etruscan ruins, and he’s interested enough to not only work as an unpaid student (for credit, maybe, but where?) but to also rope in his brother.
How did they become a part of this program? Who knows! It’s never explained. If you’re in charge and the Hardys show up, you thank your lucky stars, integrate them into the program as well as possible, and wait for the crime and astounding luck to wash over you. And let me tell you: Hardy-caliber luck really cleans out your pores. (Crime, not so much.) It’s not like you usually pay them — The Hunt for the Four Brothers (#155) notwithstanding — for their normal labor or their mystery solving.
And the Hardys certainly bring the cheap labor and unbelievable luck in this one. Joe uncovers an Etruscan potsherd, which allows the Dixon to go over archaeological procedure and introduce our supporting cast: Cosimo Gianotti, a fellow student whose “English was almost flawless, though he spoke with an accent” (5); Julia Russell, an Englishwoman getting her doctorate at the University of Florence; and Professor Mosca, who is nominally in charge of the dig but rarely makes an appearance. Count Vincenzo Ruffino, whose estate the dig is on, and his daughter, Francesca, also pop up about this time. Francesca flirts a bit with Frank, which perhaps inspires Frank, who one-ups his brother by unearthing a box full of jewelry. Frank gets a quick congratulatory kiss from Francesca as a reward.
Now, a note about the jewelry: Among the pieces are “fibulae” and “agrafes” (16). The former term is the plural of “fibula,” which is a brooch or clasp; the latter also describes clasps, usually on armor or costumes. Also, one might guess that jewelry would make the boys think of their mother, aunt, or girlfriends, but elder female Hardys go almost unmentioned, and the only time Iola’s name comes up is to remark that she gave Joe a handkerchief so he would “think of her when he made an important discovery” (2). Predictably, he never gives her a second thought; at least Frank thinks Callie would appreciate one of Florence’s lovely views.
The box is left in situ so that the find can be photographed in context, but after Joe has a misleading nightmare to inject a bit of excitement into the story, the Hardys awake to find the jewelry is missing, and the man the count placed on guard — Bruno, a former convict, now employed as a gardener by the count — has been chloroformed. The Hardys get off on the wrong foot with the police when an officer sees Frank too close to the crime scene; Frank tells Cosimo to explain to the officer how great Frank and Joe are, but Cosimo declines, saying, “I think we’d better just be quiet. I know the type.”
And the boys get to know the type as well: Inspector Amelia Barducci suspects the boys of involvement in the theft. (Amanda Knox and author Douglas Preston would both learn about this type in Florence.) The bugging device that customs officials found raises her suspicions, and she also finds the timing — the theft occurred two days after the Hardys arrived — suggestive. The inspector also thinks Frank finding and sniffing the chloroformed rag shows he was checking to see if the cloth still smelled of the chemical, and using his knowledge of the moon’s phases to reason when it would be dark also indicates his possible guilt.
Despite the polizia’s suspicions, the brothers are allowed to continue working at the dig; the next day they find a skeleton and a bronze dagger — outstanding finds! Honestly, Mosca’s benign indifference might have uncovered the greatest innovation in archaeology: Hiring detectives. After all, it’s their job to discover what has been hidden. (Detectives who are students are preferred; you can pay them little or nothing at all! Exploitation of young workers for “experience” and “college credit” is standard practice in academia and industry, after all.)
Bruno shows them a secret passage, which they conclude the thief used to get away. The police, who find them there, reach the same conclusion; the inspector says the government has ordered her to tolerate the Hardys, but the next time she finds them meddling, she will arrest them.
Frank and Joe can’t let things go, of course, so they take time off their unpaid jobs and dive into the Reprobate Roll Call! (Also, I am not recapping the boring investigation part of the book. Literally, the most memorable part was that Francesca has a horse: Her name was Lola; she was a show horse.)
- Francesca Ruffino. Francesca likes to flirt with Frank, even in front of her boyfriend. When she takes the Hardys riding, their horses are spooked by a gunshot and collide. (Both boys are thrown, but Francesca saves the unconscious Frank.) Joe calls her a “mixed-up chick” (72) because she baits her boyfriend by batting her eyes at Frank.
- Count Vincenzo Ruffino. The count is having trouble finding the money to keep up his old castle, and selling the jewelry would raise considerable cash. His father was a Fascist under Mussolini, and the count keeps his father’s military gear — including a rifle the same caliber as the one that spooks Frank and Joe’s horses — in a secret room. On the other hand, he’s a non-entity, and I don’t care about him.
- Vito, Francesca’s boyfriend. He’s obviously jealous of Frank, and he might not like Americans, but that has nothing to do with stealing antiquities. He was in the area when Frank and Joe’s horses were spooked. He also insults Frank’s face — to his face — with Frank being too gutless to respond with a toothless insult.
- Antonio Cafaggio, the count’s friend. Cafaggio runs a shop in Florence, and Francesca is sure he’s taking advantage of her father, who sold Cafaggio a family heirloom too cheaply for Francesca’s liking. But they find nothing incriminating in Cafaggio’s castle warehouse, and Cafaggio does nothing nefarious when he catches the Hardys, Cosimo, and Francesca trespassing in the warehouse, turning them over to the count instead.
- Bruno. He keeps finding secret passages around the count’s estate, he served time in jail (for embezzlement), and he makes a joke about killing the Hardys to keep them quiet. (Frank and Joe claim to understand that it’s a joke, but they note the “humor has an edge” .) Bruno also leads the boys to the count’s father’s rifle, which Bruno may have used and / or planted.
- Phillip Speck, a fence. According to Bruno, he buys stolen antiquities. When Frank and Joe go undercover as buyers, Cafaggio’s assistant, Pino, enters the store and reveals their identities. Speck tries to lead them at gunpoint to Pino’s van, but the Hardys make a break for it and elude both, shaking Pino during a foot chase through Florentine tourist sites. (Both Speck and Pino know where the Hardys sleep, so I’m not sure what good escaping momentarily does.) Pino is captured by police for trespassing, and Speck claims he wasn’t involved with the jewels — but Speck says the count is deep in hock with a loan shark, so maybe the Hardys should look at him?
After Frank and Joe elude Pina, a car tries to run the Hardys’ Vespas off a cliff. A little later, someone tosses a smoke bomb into their sleeping quarters to scare them off, which makes no sense — if guns and an attempt at vehicular homicide isn’t scary enough, then a smoke bomb would be pretty weak tea. The sprinklers do ruin the boys’ clothes, though, so that’s a victory for the criminals, one as important as any the criminals usually get.
Inspector Barducci is unimpressed by this sequence of events, explaining it all away. But she does extend her warning, giving the boys one more chance. If that’s the way you discipline criminals, inspector, no wonder Italy has a reputation for lax law enforcement. Later, when Frank and Joe try to tell her Vito’s car looks like the one that ran them off the road, Barducci tells them to buzz off, then arrests Bruno.
That night, the dig is robbed again. The Hardys and Cosimo catch Francesca wandering around; they force her to admit Speck and Vito are the masterminds behind the thefts. They also make her wear Joe’s bugging device, which is classic crime drama stuff. There’s a lot of scrambling, Frank says “there’s no time” to call the police (130), and the Hardys rush off, putting a young woman’s life at risk for their pride, I think, more than to find stolen antiquities.
The stakes increase when Speck and his men stuff Francesca and Vito in the trunk of their limo and drive off. When Frank and Joe run to get the cops — the same cops Cosimo stayed behind to call — they are caught by Speck’s men. It was a trap, you see. Francesca ratted them out with a note slipped to the villains, and Speck and Vito — actually a con man named Claudio — played it perfectly. Stupid Hardys! That’s what you get for not actually planning!
However, Speck and Claudio make the classic blunder: Getting involved in a land war in Asia. No, wait, that’s not it. They taunt Francesca, demeaning her intelligence, telling her she’ll never be able to go home again, and laughing at her falling for Claudio so easily, more easily than they had hoped: “You plant seeds, and some turn into beautiful flowers. I never thought this one would be so easy to pick,” Speck says (136).
Speck, Claudio, and their thugs take Frank, Joe, and Francesca into the woods to kill them, but Speck abandons his co-conspirators with the goods. Claudio turns on the thugs, leaving them as well as the Hardys tied up in the wilderness. But Claudio inexplicably spares their lives. Another classic blunder! Remember the classic hiking maxim: Take no chances; leave no witnesses. Or something like that.
Frank and Joe round up the thugs, and despite their near escape, the Hardys are not too harried to lecture a somewhat contrite Francesca. The police quickly sort out who’s who and who deserves prison; Speck is quickly arrested off-page by the police, and the artifacts are recovered, delivered to the Hardys by an officer who thinks the jewelry is too ugly to steal. (Claudio gets away. A loose end!) Bruno is presumably released, although maybe not — maybe he’s the Monster of Florence. And no one pays Frank and Joe anything!