Thursday, June 26, 2008

The End of the Trail (#162)

The End of the Trail cover

Plot: Frank, Joe, Biff, Phil, and Chet are hiking the Appalachian Trail when Biff breaks his leg. The group diverts to the nearest town, the isolated and nearly deserted village of Morgan Quarry. But once in the strange little town, the Hardys and friends find it much harder to leave because of the criminal secrets the townspeople don’t want revealed.

“Borrowing” from past mysteries: Frank and Joe has their posse of chums with them, which is rare in the digests. Chet’s an obese compulsive eater still, and Biff’s a strong, tough guy (although his boxing background isn’t mentioned). Phil’s a damn know-it-all, but the best application of his knowledge is to use an old telephone exchange to nearly burn everyone to death.

Injury report: Biff falls 20 feet out of a tree and breaks his leg. He wasn’t being chased, he wasn’t in a fight; the limb he was on just broke. Good one, Biff.

Live here much?: Rhonda, acting as a local guide, misdirects the Hardys at a fork in the road, leading them in a circle rather than to safety. This does not make the Hardys suspicious. It doesn’t make the reader suspicious either, but for a different reason: The reader expects the characters to be stupid.

Abbrev. bk.: End of the Trail is only 131 pages, which is strange, given the opportunities for fleshing the book out.

Worst. Gunmen. Ever.: After being captured, the Hardys disarm armed crooks three times. Usually they don’t even need a clever plan like yelling, “Hey, look over there!” One time the extent of the plan is Biff collapsing on his crutches. Another time the villains forget to use their guns. When the Hardys do use the “hey, look over there” gambit, it works against a sheriff — a trained lawman. He may be corrupt, but still.

The only competent crooks in the book are a pair of psychotic brothers. Frank wisely runs them off the road using an armored truck.

Hire only UoHT&L-certified underlings: You cannot understate the people of Morgan Quarry’s incompetence as villains. This goes beyond “a bullet to the head would solve all their problems” or even outsmarting themselves with labyrinthine plots. The instant — the very instant — the chums emerge from the trail, two goons drop sacks of money in front of them. Instead of getting the Hardys away ASAP, they keep the chums in town with various suspicious excuses, making sure the Hardys suspected something. Then, instead of capturing them all while they sleep, the villains let the chums roam around town figuring out the plot. They even practically hand Chet a horse.

The Horse Whisperer: Chet reveals an affinity for horses, controlling a bucking stallion by whispering in its ear. He says he’s a good rider and has been told he has a talent with wild horses. He also spends most of the mystery riding on the horse while everyone else is at gunpoint, almost dying of smoke inhalation, crashing through barn doors and fences in an armored truck, and foiling the world’s dumbest crooks.

Rhonda, Warrior Princess: When Nurse Rhonda (“Doc Harrison”) is introduced, much is made of her Vietnam service, and it’s hinted she and Biff talk about this while alone together. What exactly passes between them is never mentioned, although it makes Rhonda risk a prison sentence to catch Biff when he stumbles; I like to think it had to do with a night of tender, temporarily handicapped lovin’.

Opinions: There’s a lot of detail thrown in here that never really gets explored: Morgan Quarry’s history as an illegal gambling spot, Rita’s military service, how Morgan Quarry survives at all. All of these plots are cast aside once the Hardys escape the villains.

It’s a shame, really. The author gives the town a creepy, deserted vibe early on, and going straight to a reveal of the true villains is a waste of that. The author compounds the error by making the crooks incompetent rather than by making the Hardys clever; you would think that a wilderness chase would be entertaining and exciting, the natives’ knowledge of the area balanced by the Hardys and Phil the human computer.

Still, Frank driving an armored car through fences and bar doors is pretty cool.

Grade: C+

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Training for Trouble (#161)

Training for Trouble cover

Plot: A new training center for combat Olympic sports opens in Bayport, and if you’ve read a Hardy Boys story, you know that means accidents are going to happen, and Frank and Joe will investigate.

“Borrowing” from the past: Combat sports, baby! Joe takes part in a judo exhibition, and Frank experiences both archery and the biathalon (skiing and target shooting). In the past, Joe has displayed judo experience in four different books, most recently in The Jungle Pyramid (#56, 1977). Frank has been trained in the proper use of firearms by his father — as has Joe — and killed five wolves with a pistol in Hunting for Hidden Gold (#5). (Joe’s the better target shooter, having won a contest in #29, The Secret of the Lost Tunnel.) His skiing ability was on display in The Cabin Island Mystery (#8), The Yellow Feather Mystery (#33), and Cave-In! (#78). Oddly, neither Hardy has shown any inclination toward archery, with Chet being the best archer of the group (selected to represent Bayport in a state archery competition in #61, The Pentagon Spy.) The training center also offers fencing, which both boys studied intensely in The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21).

Just what Bayport needs: Bayport gets the new Olympic Combat-Sports Training Facility, which trains young people how to excel in inflicting possibly lethal damage on one another. Given Bayport’s high crime rate, that seems unwise. Just think: it’s like a thug training center, in which all the washouts can be hired by local gangs for muscle!

Hospitals? Who needs hospitals?: Both Joe and Iola are hospitalized — Joe after being stabbed by a sharpened fencing rapier and Iola after experiencing a severe electric shock. Hospital stays are rare for the Hardys, despite the scores of concussions they’ve experienced over the years. As far as I can tell, Frank has never been hospitalized during a mystery, with Joe being sent to the hospital for “shock” after finding himself in a tailor’s shop at the same time it was exploding in The Secret Warning (#17). Iola’s injury is extremely unusual (except in the Hardy Boys Casefiles, in which she blew up real good in the first book). She’s only been knocked out once, which, around the Hardys, should qualify her for some kind of award. Well, it would, except Callie’s never been hurt. That is nothing short of astonishing, and perhaps is a sign she is Unbreakable.

Fine upstanding citizens, those Hardys: Trying to find out who is causing all the accidents at the training center, the Hardys wander into one private office and break into two more. I know Frank and Joe aren’t agents of the government and so aren’t bound by the Bill of Rights, but geez, haven’t they ever heard of breaking and entering, or is being accused of that something that happens to other people?

Opinions: Training for Trouble is an atypically violent Hardy Boys book, with Joe and Iola ending up in the hospital, Joe even requiring stitches. One might expect that sort of result when the criminals are trained in judo, fencing, and archery, but if you do expect that, you haven’t been reading the Hardy Boys for very long. I expect nothing worse than Frank and Joe getting knocked out, even if they were investigating the Homicidal Gun Collector Convention and Target Shooting Championship.

Evidently, Laura expects the same thing, because she genuinely gets worked up when Joe is hospitalized. For some reason, Laura wasn’t allowed to show much emotion during the, oh, I don’t know, Cold War. Perhaps to keep herself numb from the constant threat of nuclear war, she seemed as if she were heavily dosed with Valium from 1946-1990, and therefore didn’t have much emotion to spare when her husband and sons went out to catch violent felons. I can imagine her home, alone, humming to herself quietly as she picked out a dress just in case she had to go to the funeral of a loved one.

We’re invited to feel OK that the woman who stabs Joe (albeit accidentally) skates on assault and that the police are going easy the kid who caused several severe accidents because he turned himself in. (That he’s a juvie pressured by his father and coach should get him the easy treatment.) Perhaps the Hardys are struggling with the purpose of the criminal justice system, whether it should be to rehabilitate or to punish. Or perhaps they think that incarceration of any kind is only for mature adults, not people their age. Go to jail, old man!

Grade: B-. Really would have fit better as a Casefile.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Game Called Chaos (#160)

A Game Called Chaos cover

Plot: Phil asks Frank and Joe to help his cousin Chelsea, who works for a software company that suddenly finds itself missing their major game designer.

“Borrowing” from the past: A character is assumed dead after a plane crash, just like a pilot in the revised version of The Great Airport Mystery (#10).

Oy, gevalt: Phil Cohen, apparently the only Jew in Bayport High School, asks for a favor for his cousin. Her name? Chelsea. You couldn’t find a more WASP-y name if you tried.

Fine upstanding citizens, those Hardys: With Phil’s help, Frank and Joe hack into the records of Northern Connecticut University, then Joe uses his lockpicks to enter the university’s steam tunnels. Never mind that they’re hacking into the records on a library computer, after having given their high school IDs to a librarian; but given that students try to break into the steam tunnels at every university that has them, this seems extremely improbable and impossibly easy.

Later, when they confront a crazed fan who has ransacked the apartments of the missing game designer and one of the chief suspects, she protests Frank and Joe would have done the same thing. Joe denies it, of course.

Ah, kids and their computer games: The Chaos series of computer games seems to be a cross between a puzzle solving game like Myst and Tomb Raider, even down to having a sexy female archaeologist as a protagonist. Later, a female character shows up dressed like Carmen Sandiego: a fedora and a trenchcoat.

Do NOT hire Frank as your lawyer: When it’s revealed the game designer changed his contract so he would get all the money for producing the game, presumably taking on the burden of paying any other designers or subcontractors involved from his employer, Frank weighs in his legal opinion: “[He] had complete control over how Cross Enterprises was paid. ... Suppose he decided to pay her less than they had agreed. He could do that legally now.” No, it wouldn’t be legal; it would still be breach of contract or promissory estoppel or what have you. He just might be able to get away with it more easily.

That’s tough talk from a man with “Jewel Ridge” on his badge: Frank and Joe are told to stay out of the investigation by the Jewel Ridge (Conn.) police, who say, “Maybe the police in Bayport need help from amateurs, but in Jewel Ridge, we do things by the book.” Frank and Joe solve the case anyway, far away from the jurisdiction of the Jewel Ridge police.

For those who are curious: Frank uses his skills as a baseball pitcher to throw a flashlight at a mechanical spider, his track skills to outdistance a wolf for a brief period, and his basketball skills to jump a fence. Joe uses his wrestling skills to hold onto a female prisoner. (I wonder if Iola lets him practice on her?) Extracurricular activities really do prepare kids for the real world, evidently.

After their van gets bombed by exploding bats (mammals, not baseball), Joe says, “So much for our safe driving discount.” Any insurance company that would give Frank and Joe a discount has clearly traded its actuarial tables for a large quantity of hallucinogens.

Opinions: Since this one deals with computers and the Internet, we learn computers can tell us everything if you’re clever enough. Plans for the university steam tunnels, wills, kennel records — anything. (Why would anyone put kennel records on a server to begin with? Wait; I don’t want to know.) Also, with robotics, you can make snakes and a giant spider that move in a lifelike way with just standard Radio Shack parts. Did you know that?

The book does a good job of making the villain’s lair seem like a set copied from a computer game. Trap doors, electrified booby traps, and spiked pits abound in a seemingly abandoned mansion in a ghost town. These descriptions are far more convincing than the robotics. And how do you make exploding bats that can home in on a target? The villain pleaded poverty as an excuse for her actions, but these things have to add up in expenses.

The Franklin W. Dixon who wrote this one gets extra points for one of Joe’s quips; when the female villain is knocked out by a giant mechanical ape, another character shouts, “You got her!” Joe replies, “Oh, no ... ’Twas the beast that felled the beauty.”

Grade: A-. Frank and Joe are getting as shady as the crooks they stalk.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Will to Survive (#156)

A Will to Survive coverPlot: Strange pranks are happening at the Shorewood Nature Center, a local preserve founded on a dead recluse’s former estate. Since Callie is interning at the Center, Frank and Joe are called in to find the culprits and their motives.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe pose as interns at the nature center, just one of the many fake jobs the Hardys have had over the years: sailor, cowboy, messenger at an industrial plant, car washer, salvage operator, stuntmen, construction, amusement park stooge, and lumberjack, among other jobs. The closest to this job they had was in 1943, when Frank and Joe worked at the State Experimental Farm for a month. While Frank and Joe don’t get paid by the nature center, they are promised a “token of appreciation.”

When Callie mentions a display case of rare lizards has been knocked over, Joe says, “Leaping lizards!” Joe used to say this sort of thing all the time in the 1960s — that, and things like, “Great crow!”, “Galloping grasshoppers!”, “Suffering swordfish!”, and my personal favorite, “Junipers!” “Leaping lizards!” was easily the most popular, though.

Wh-psssssssh!: Iola gives Joe a tape of Japanese flute music, which he leaves in the van. No word on whether he had ever listened to it, but it calms Frank (and blocks out traffic noise!) when he drives to New York.

Kung-fu action Joe: “Years of practicing jump shots and karate kicks” gives Joe the flexibility to do a back somersault and cling to a rock while careening down a hillside on his backside. Good for him.

Jamal Hawkins is ... : Not in this book.

Where is Bayport? At what used to be the southern range of moose, which the Shorewood Nature Center is trying to reintroduce into the area. Good luck with that. I have a feeling The Man will have a problem with that the first time someone's Mercedes gets an antler-shaped dent in it.

Opinions: Can you have a mystery when the detectives have no idea what the heck is going on? It’s possible, I suppose, but it isn’t much fun. Frank and Joe don’t realize Old Man Parent has left a fortune on his old estate for the Nature Center to find until two-thirds of the way through the book.

The Shorewood Nature Center is “more than half the size” of Central Park. Central Park is 843 acres (a little less than 700 acres if you don’t count the water). So SNC is roughly 450 acres, or about 3/4 of a square mile. Callie says it is “big enough to get lost in,” but that would only be if you were an idiot or were trying to find the Blair Witch. A good size for a nature center, but not enough to be called “enormous” or “seemed to stretch on forever.”

Other than the stupid clue Old Man Parent left behind to point the way to his hidden loot, this is a standard Hardy Boys in jeopardy story, with plenty of generally unsavory people to dislike. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Grade: B. Another day, and even more unpaid labor for Frank and Joe.