Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ghost of a Chance (#169)

Ghost of a Chance cover

Plot: Frank and Joe get jobs as assistant animal handlers on the set of a movie about “Jumper” Herman, but when the star is harassed and dangerous sabotage is occurs, the Hardys investigate.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe serve as assistants to animal trainers who work with a bear and a puma. In original Clue of the Broken Blade, they worked with the carnival, with Frank feeding elephants and Joe working the snake tent. In The Clue of the Screeching Owl, they were fascinated by Col. Bill Thunder, who was a puma trainer. Joe acts as a stuntman in the movie in the revised Broken Blade. Chet had a job as an extra in Mystery of the Desert Giant.

Joe has a confrontation with a puma, during which he manages to slowly retreat to safety while someone else hits it with a drugged dart. There was a time when Joe would have taken the puma out himself; in Hunting for Hidden Gold, the brothers shot wolves, and Joe himself kills a tiger with a rock in The Disappearing Floor. Hardcore.

Nice work if you can get it: Weirdly, Frank and Joe don’t have an explanation for why they get the prime job of working as assistant animal handlers for a motion picture. No one mentions how Fenton saved their employers’ lives or got back their Aztec treasure; there’s no mystery to be solved (at least at the beginning). They’re just “friends of the Hardys.” (Maybe they’re “friends” from back when Gertrude was popular.) Some guys have all the luck, although given the huge amount of coincidences with the Hardys, it shouldn’t be surprising that they are the lucky ones.

Based on a true story: The movie the Hardys are working on, Dropped into Danger, is based on the fictional “Jumper” Herman. From the details in the story — Herman steals an archaelogical treasure in Canada, then flies across the border into America where his plane crashes and he and his treasure are lost for years — Herman calls to mind the infamous D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a plane out of the Pacific Northwest, threatening to blow it up unless he got a ransom and enough parachutes for him and the flight crew (the other passengers were allowed to leave). He parachuted from the passenger jet somewhere near the Columbia River and was never seen again, assumed dead.

With a name like that, she has to be a villain: Ghost of a Chance features a professor of folklore named “Sassy Leigh,” who is behind most of the chaos in the book. I’m sure the name was meant to evoke “Southern” in the readers’ minds, but … Sassy? Really? I mean, it’s an awful name — a sure sign of villainy — but it’s no Pierre Pierre or Slicer Bork. It’s not even Cadmus Quill, another academic type villain.

She has to be a villain, though, because she’s an awful folklorist. She claims an open mind is the hallmark of a “great” folklorist, because God knows, literal truth is what you’re supposed to be getting from these stories, rather than what the folk tales say about the society that tells them.

Other name-related follies: Of course, Jumper Herman is alive, and because he’s in a Hardy Boys book, it’s revealed he’s been living under an alias that is an anagram of his real name. Somehow — despite their experiences with the great Pedro “Zemog” (Gomez spelled backward) in The Jungle Pyramid — the Hardys don’t routinely run anagram checks on new acquaintances. Sure, that would be paranoid, but it would save so much time.

Why couldn’t Chet’s new hobby be cryptozoology?: There’s a Bigfoot in this story. I know: they hedge their bets, dance around it, but it’s there … and it, like everyone else, takes its turn beating up our favorite teen detectives, slapping Frank to the ground with a casual backhand. I believe the next step after being casually swatted by a creature that probably doesn’t exist is getting beat up something from folklore, so I fully expect Joe to be pummeled by an Elf lord later in the series.

There’s a time for G Ratings, and this isn’t it: When a stunt goes wrong and an actress injures her foot, she says, “Yikes, I think it’s broken.” Even if its only sprained — as it turns out to be — that is admirable (or foolhardy) linguistic restraint. I’m not talking about breaking out the four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, but ... well, screaming always helps, I find.

Opinions: There’s a big of everything in this one, and of course, that’s never a good thing. A movie, a sasquatch, a legendary criminal who has really nothing to do with either of those ... the Dixon du jour wasn’t at the top of his game here. I think the most disappointing is that no one knows or cares why the Hardys get such great jobs. Maybe they’re actually interested in a movie career, and Fenton, to make them realize it isn’t as glamorous as they think, gets them a job cleaning puma droppings for a summer? Maybe. Can you think of a better explanation?

He does manage to make Dropped into Danger sound like a troubled production. There are at least two rewrites: one to incorporate the lead actress’s sprained foot, and another to drop in the Hardys wrapping up the mystery. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like that good of a movie (there might be a reason no one’s done a big-budget D.B. Cooper story, no matter how cool it sounds), and the rewrites, sabotage, injuries, firings, and disruptions on the set would make any real movie studio very nervous. And think of what the bloggers would make of it? “Pictures from the set seem to indicate a pair of teenage boys ruling the set. This is going to be a disaster.”

Grade: C-. And the movie gets a thumbs down.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Castle Conundrum (#168)

The Castle Conundrum cover

Plot: Frank and Joe work at Teen Village International, a French project rebuilding a medieval village for refugees. But someone is trying to sabotage the project by creating mysterious accidents and impersonating a local ghost.

They’ve Got Troubles: Teen Village International is described as a “teen program.” Frank and Joe seem excited about it, but the “program” seems to mainly consist of a couple of weeks of hard labor in the harsh sun. Perhaps Frank and Joe have “problems” they need to work out with tough love, backbreaking work, and long hours in the unrelenting heat.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe use tae kwon do, which adds to their vast repertoire of martial arts experiences. The Hardys most frequently use karate, but they also have experience with jiu-jitsu, judo, and kendo, along with boxing and wrestling. Joe is mentioned as a broken field runner, which could be a reference to his experience as a football player (eight of the first 85 mysteries, starting with #15, The Sinister Signpost, in 1936) or track (three of 85, starting with #31, The Mystery of Wildcat Swamp, in 1952). “Broken-field” running isn’t really a track activity, although Joe is supposed to be a top sprinter (#81, The Demon’s Den, 1984); in any event, Joe is a “star athlete” (#36, The Secret of Pirate’s Hill, 1956)

Fenton Hardy, Freelance Police: Fenton is in Paris to attend a conference on diamond smuggling. For heaven’s sake, why? What possible reason does a private detective have for learning to stop diamond smuggling? That’s a police job — and the Feds, at that. But this is consistent with Fenton being a tool of the Man, as when he confidently tells his sons diamond smuggling is about to become a thing of the past. (How’s that going, Fenton?)

Better at Hard Labor than Bright Ideas: The point of Teen Village International, located in Provence, France, is that the teenagers will rebuild a medieval village as home for refugees. There are, of course, two problems with that:

  1. Even refugees — who are somewhat in the “beggars can’t be choosers” camp, and in any case probably want food and freedom more than anything else — deserve better than to live in a village almost a millinneum out of date that is located in a harsh climate subject to mistrals, which are intense, long-lasting windstorms; and
  2. The French are not exactly known for their love of foreigners.

Where Is Bayport?: Frank admits the Hardys live in New York state. Well, thank God we’ve got that out of the way.

Uglo-Americans: Frank and Joe, who have traveled the world solving crimes, don’t know much about the French. Besides the unfamiliar culinary and meteorological phenomena, they’ve never heard of lawn bowls (although it would have helped if someone had compared it to bocce), they’ve never heard of tisane (an herbal tea, which I’ve never heard of either), and Joe doesn’t realize the French currency is the franc. (Was the franc, now.) The worst is that Joe doesn’t realize the “market” everyone is excited about is not a supermarket. Evidently they don’t have farmers’ markets in Bayport.

A Family of Idiots: The de Frehel family owned the land TVI is rebuilding the village on, and they also own the nearby chateau. In the chateau is a treasure in jewels lost for almost two centuries, hidden by the dying Sieur de Frehel. The Sieur, before he died, liked to remind his family of the motto on the Frehel crest: True wealth is found around the family hearth. Yet in 180 years, none of the Frehel family bothers to search the hearth of the chateau. Of course, when he figures it out, Frank, not believing the family’s stupidity, mocks several generations of Frehels.

It’s Harry Tanwick’s Skeleton: When the Hardys and the dimwit Frehels find the treasure, there’s a skeleton with the gems and jewelry. Presumably it’s the bones of the Sieur, but his body was supposed to be elsewhere. Frank declines to speculate or investigate — or really care, when it gets down to it — the mysterious skeleton, which is one of the bigger investigative copouts since The Disappearing Floor before World War II.

Opinions: There are stereotypes aplenty here, and with the International Brigade of Teens, there’s a lot of stereotypes to go around. You have several rude Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, the surly German, etc. Even the crime is stereotyped: the German pulls his off with a precision cleverness, with the ingenuity being far more important than bodily safety, but it takes an American to go for real greed and murder. I can’t figure out whether the international teens’ misapprehensions about American culture is a clever backwards look — showing while Americans look at foreigners as one-note stereotypes, they don’t have a much more nuanced opinion of Americans — or whether it’s another cultural stereotype (i.e., foreigners are ignorant of American reality). I do like Gert, the unapologetic German; he seems straight out of central casting, with his uncaring attitude toward health and life but a keen interest in getting the job done right.

There are a large number of culprits here. What seems a simple Scooby-Doo, impersonate-the-ghost-and-get-the-land-cheap caper turns out to have several culprits, with the worst crimes being perpetrated by someone who wasn’t even part of the ghostly hijinx. This does introduce a degree of complexity to the solution, but learning part of what seems like a malicious trick is actually a harmless prank does feel like a letdown. The two plots, the ghost story and diamond smuggling, aren’t very well integrated, but that’s supposed to be to divert readers from thinking that diamond smuggling is part of the plot at all. It doesn’t work, but I think this Dixon was just trying misdirection rather than mediocrity.

There isn’t much new here; I believe it has literally all been done before in Hardy Boys’ books, and I don’t believe in the TVI mission for a second. That being said, it’s relatively inoffensive, and Frank essentially telling the Frehels they have a genetic propensity toward colossal stupidity is a great moment.

Grade: B-

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Past and Present Danger (#166)

Past and Present Danger cover

Plot: Frank and Joe decide to help Gertrude, who seems to be in trouble when an old friend, a discredited investigative reporter, comes to Bayport.

“Borrowing” from the past: Fenton mentioned in The Phantom Freighter (#26) that Gertrude was once engaged, and the story is told here by Clayton Silvers, Gertrude’s old friend. She was engaged to a small business owner, who died in a plane crash two months before the wedding. In the same book, Fenton also said Gertrude was at one time popular, but from what Clayton and Gertrude say in this book, she was really just a loud, opinionated activist. Perhaps that qualifies as popular in Bayport. Just like in A Figure in Hiding (#16), Joe falls out of a Bayport hotel window, although this time he catches himself before he falls four stories to the street; in Figure, Joe falls through a glass roof from the second story.

When the brakes go out on Gertrude’s car, Frank thinks he and Joe had been in that situation “more times than he cared to remember.” Probably true, but I can find only one specific occurrence: the Hardy Boys had faulty brakes on a winding, wet road in The Shore Road Mystery (#6). Personally, I believe when you find yourself careening down a cliffside road with bad brakes more than once, it’s time to re-examine the life you have chosen to lead.

And of course, Frank “Kung Fu” Hardy uses karate, which he’s done several times in the past. The first time was in The Clue of the Hissing Serpent (#53).

Once you’ve gone Silvers: Not much is made of it, but Gertrude’s friend Clayton Silvers is black. There’s nothing shocking about it, but it is weird to think of Gertrude having black friends at any time in her life. She strikes me as the kind of person who would say, “Well, I never!” at the merest hint of mixing with someone who had more melanin-enhanced skin.

Only in Bayport’s business district: Dip ‘n’ Sip Donuts. There are worse names, but there are many, many names that are a lot better.

Don’t hate the playa, hate the high-tech spies: Joe shamelessly flirts with a cashier at the aforementioned Dip ‘n’ Sip in order to get information on the crooks. At the end of flirtation, Joe seems to compare the girl and Iola: “[Iola’s] smile was better.” Frank kids / chides him on the performance.

This may seem shallow of Joe, but Iola does punch him a couple of times in the book; “playfully,” sure, but her explosive temper is remarked upon as well. Frank thinks Iola would put Joe in the hospital if she knew about the flirting. You can’t blame Joe if he briefly entertained the thought of leaving an abusive relationship. Of course, it may be the thought of having Chet as a brother-in-law that prevents him from as ideal a boyfriend as Frank; there’s always the possibility Chet could end up as a deadbeat on his couch, and Joe would go into debt trying to feed him. (No amount of rewards from grateful governments or wealthy old men could cover that sort of expense.)

On the other hand, maybe Joe drove her to it. I hate to blame the victim, but the book does end with Gertrude chasing Joe into the garden, mayhem in her heart.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen: Frank and Joe, five-sport athletes in their early days, have been reduced to playing soccer in the park against their girlfriends. Joe also mentions playing softball, which is barely a sport for adolescent males. Some people would suggest men playing softball when they aren’t old enough to drink beer is pointless.

Which one was that?: Speaking with Clayton, Joe describes the wrap up of a case thusly: “And that was how we broke that smuggling case. Dad got the big boss, and we caught the underlings.” That describes close to 99 percent of the preceding books; appropriately, Clayton says, “I think I remember reading about that.”

Opinions: I like this one quite a bit. Gertrude feels like part of the family, although as often happens when the story focuses on Gertrude, Laura is sent packing to some relatives. But Gertrude obviously has a past in the early books, even if we never get to hear it, and it’s good to finally hear it. Appropriately, Gertrude was just as big a meddler and pain in the fundament in her younger days as she was when she moved in with her brother. Frank and Joe are allowed to engage in displays of affection with their girlfriends, even if the relationship is a bit too wholesome. (Although during their double date on bicycles, it is mentioned “the morning was filled with laughter and discovery.” That’s a euphemism for something, surely.)

Grade: A

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Skin & Bones (#164)

Skin and Bones cover

Plot: Frank and Joe visit Cody Chang, a friend in San Francisco, only to find his business is being robbed and vandalized. Frank and Joe volunteer to help Cody get to the bottom of things.

Straight out of central casting: Since the Hardys are in San Francisco, their friend for the book must be of Chinese descent — otherwise, what’s the point of meeting someone in San Fran, really? Unfortunately, young Mr. Chang is not as charmingly ethnic as you might hope: his parents gave him the reassuringly WASPy name of Cody.

Honestly: what kind of name is Cody?

He knows whereof he speaks: Frank and Joe discover Cody after he’s been knocked out by a blow to the the head. Frank is very businesslike about the matter: “You’ve got a lump ... and the skin’s all scraped away. You might have a concussion. Are you sure you don’t want to go to a doctor?” Cody declines, which is probably what he needed to do to get the Hardys’ approval — Joe’s, at the very least.

They have a stack of photocopied parental permission slips in their lockers: It’s Halloween, and Frank and Joe take a trip cross-country to see a friend. Although let’s be fair: Nothing these two learn from fifth-hour bio is going to help them in ten years when they’re taking surveillance shots for divorce cases and thinking that ITT Tech suddenly sounds pretty good.

Yippee-ki-yi-yay: When a thief makes off with his wheels, Joe rents a horse and rides in pursuit. This doesn’t happen anywhere but in almost funny comedies and chick flicks. Thankfully, this is neither, so Joe doesn’t have to ride the horse on the streets of San Francisco, weaving in and out of traffic, to catch up with the crooks.

Gnarly: When Joe asks for an opinion on his semi-glutteal werewolf costume, Frank says, “Awesome.” It’s difficult to tell whether he’s being sarcastic or not.

No sense of mail security in a pre-9/11 world: Frank and Joe receive a parcel with “Hardys” written on it — no return address or delivery address — wrapped in plain brown paper. It screams “Unabomber” or “anthrax,” but Frank dutifully opens it, even when the box inside contains a “lumpy package.” Perhaps Frank is just eager to get at lumpy packages.

Opinions: This one’s a bit too pat for me. The villain is obvious in the Scooby-Doo “not obvious” way — action centers around him, he has the access to pull the job off, but no one suspects him. It hits the cliches of San Francisco. There’s the requisite non-disfiguring violence and toothless threats. There’s a paternal stand-in for their father (Cody’s father, Philip). In the end, it seemed more that this Dixon had two ideas — the beetle colonies that strip bones and a trip to San Francisco, then decided to set it during Halloween.

Grade: C

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Spy That Never Lies (#163)

The Spy That Never Lies cover

Plot: Frank and Joe meet a new acquaintance, Jake Martins, through their mutual friend, Jamal. Jake is one of the chief programmers behind Bayport’s new security camera system, so when glitches in the system allows crooks to commit crimes unobserved, Jake becomes a suspect.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe mention working on A Game Called Chaos and its featured computer games. Both books were written by Stephen D. Sullivan. Jay Stone, Missy Gates, and Harley Betts will reappear in another book by Sullivan, Trick-or-Trouble (#175).

Jamal Hawkins is ...: Frank and Joe’s “chestnut brown” friend on the make. His father owns a company and planes that Jamal can fly.

Frank and Joe Hardy, future members of the ACLU: Frank and Joe are concerned about the security cameras blanketing certain sections of Bayport, and rightly so. They also wonder about the implications of the cameras only being located in the richer parts of town. But for the Hardys, getting accused of violating someone’s civil rights is something that only happens to other people. When Jake leaves Frank and Joe alone in his room, Joe wants to search it, and Frank says no — not yet. Frank and Joe are also more than happy to encourage a criminal gang to hack into a local college’s computers to find the grades of one of their suspects.

For the record, Fenton also doesn’t like the cameras, but it’s probably because he fears the cops actually catching some crooks without having to hire him.

Because the Man only gives us 150 pages: Frank, Joe, and Jamal are hassled by a cop at the beginning of the mystery because they are loitering teens. Joe and Jamal take it badly. Jamal, who, you know, might have experienced real prejudice before, is somewhat philosophical after he calms down. Joe remains incensed, however, probably because Officer Unfriendly didn’t recognize him as Joe Hardy, Crimebuster!

Live here much?: After we are told Jake studies at Bayport Institute of Technology, lifelong Bayport resident Joe asks, “That’s just down the street, isn’t it?” That’s the observational skills that make Joe the top-notch amateur detective he is.

For your dining pleasure: Bayport has restaurants called Java John’s and the Spud Spa. The latter, a mall-court eatery, belongs on The Simpsons, somewhere between the Texas Cheesecake Depository and Krusty Burger.

When you’re a Bayporter, you’re a Bayporter all the way: Bayport has the worst gang of the 21st century (although technically, this book was published in 2000, the last year of the 20th century). The Kings, whose ranks include Jay, Missy, and Harley, were stolen from a 1950s greaser movie, sanitized, and plopped into The Spy That Never Lies. They were leather jackets with “Kings” on them, making them easily identifiable. They hang out at a garage. And — most importantly — they have only five members. Working on the Bayport PD’s Gangs Task Force must be the cushiest job ever.

Opinions: This is an excellent Hardy Boys book, with a chance for exploring important issues. It doesn’t, of course, but at least it mentions that these issues exist.

Sullivan gives some of the villains credit for a little intelligence, allowing them to reference 1984 and red herrings. It’s not much intelligence, and it doesn’t stop them from buying obviously stolen goods, but it does add a little something to the usually faceless antagonists.

The Hardys already function as a semiautonomous police force, and in The Spy That Never Lies, Frank and Joe act like one: they make a deal with the Kings when they know the gang has committed a felony — and an easily provable one, at that. But hey — the Hardys are interested in justice, dammit, and if a few petty criminals go free, then that’s the price the system will have to pay.

Grade: A