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.