Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Test Case (#171)

Daredevils cover Plot: Tony Prito and Joe are suspended from Bayport High after being found with a copy of an upcoming state test, and the entire gang pitches in to clear their names.

“Borrowing” from the past: At times, the book feels entirely retro; it starts with a skating party and a rousing game of crack the whip. They also play “monkey in the middle,” which seems a mildly offensive name for keep away. (I’m not sure to whom it would be offensive. Just feels that way. Wikipedia mentions the name is common in eastern Canada and New England.)

There’s also the old Bayport Times, which has been publishing since the ‘40s. (Bayport’s also seen the Banner (first mentioned in the 1930s), the Star (also the ‘30s), the News (1950s), and the Herald (1980s), but the Times seems the most durable.) Gertrude mentions people didn’t travel as much when she was growing up — and given that she grew up in the 19th century, that’s true. Fenton tells Frank and Joe to search his files for a criminal, which he often did in the old days — but now the files are password-protected databases rather than folders in a filing cabinet. Fenton gives out some of his patented advice, but this time it’s an old political saw rather than detective pointers, so it doesn’t really qualify. Frank uses a pay phone from inside the school; that’s positively antiquated.

One of Frank’s teachers cleverly tells him to solve crimes during summer vacation rather than the school year. That is the most used excuse for why the Hardys can gallivant around, solving crimes, but given how much summer vacation the boys used, they must have been crimefighting over several years.

On a more normal note, Frank uses his “martial arts training” at one point, and Joe thinks about a “martial arts class” — given the range that term covers, perhaps it’s the Hardys’ own art, kung kwankido jujudo, a devastating combination of ignorance and plot convenience. In actuality, Frank’s used jujitsu, judo, and karate. He also uses tai chi in this book; while tai chi is a real martial art, its popularity among seniors and those recovering from injury make it sound as ludicrous as when Batman used yoga to fight criminals in his early days.

Tony’s listed as a second baseman. He was listed as a second baseman in The Mummy Case (#63) but as a “hard-slugging” outfielder in Tic-Tac-Terror (#74). Second baseman seems right to me. He also played baseball with his friends on the beach in The Secret of Pirate’s Hill (#36).

Perhaps the most surprising is the return of Jerry Gilroy. Oh, he’s only “an outfielder named Jerry,” but I know who he is. Gilroy was one of the original Hardy Boys chums, a star outfielder who loved baseball so much he actually organized a summer league in Bayport (The Missing Chums #3). Try doing that today. But he gradually faded away because there was nothing unique about him — an athlete like Frank and Joe, a chowhound like Chet, etc. He was in eleven of the first twelve stories, then disappeared for more than a decade before popping up in The Melted Coins (#23), then wasn’t seen again. He was mostly edited out of the revised stories as well, although he pops up occasionally. But he’s back here. Yay, Jerry!

I will not have you acting as normal teenagers in my nostalgia!: Iola and Joe act somewhat … well … flirtatiously toward one another. I know, I know! It’s near impossible to believe, especially since they’ve been dating since the Hoover administration. But Iola steals Joe’s stocking cap at a skating party, giving Joe a “catch me if you can” sort of order, and when he does catch her, he … he … he lifts her up! Actual contact! Sure, it was through several layers of clothing, but if Iola hadn’t pulled the cap over Joe’s eyes, there might have been kissing next! Frank and Joe also hug their girlfriends after Bayport High wins a close hockey game; I think we can all agree that’s a rather thin rationalization for personal contact.

Sometimes, characterization is overrated: The chums get personalities in this book, which would normally be good. On the other hand, Biff is a moron, and Tony is suspicious the Hardys are trying to fit him for a frame, and Iola and Callie get to be girlfriends who fear for Frank and Joe in a fight. (Have you never seen them fight? They never get hurt — well, they don’t get hurt much.) On the other hand, Laura puts some crappy school administrators in their places, so it isn’t all bad.

Right: The kids worry a bad grade on State Achievement Battery will keep them out of the college of their choice. Sorry, no: as long as the topic of their admission essay is “How I Helped Fight Transnational Crime Before I Was Allowed to Vote,” I think most entrance boards will overlook a low score on some half-baked standardized test.

Do you know who you’re dealing with?: Laura complains the high school administration doesn’t even bother to inform her or Fenton of Joe’s suspension, and that’s probably the least objectionable part of the administration’s actions. They don’t check the test or boxes for fingerprints, and the school seems to launch no investigation at all, just sitting around waiting for everything to turn out all right. Futile, when you’re dealing with the Hardys. Laura gets the idea the principal wants everything to go away, and so he puts pressure on a couple of minors to sign false confessions. Laura threatens to hire a lawyer, which still prompts no response from the school, but the threat of Fenton donating his time to investigate the crime and everyone connected with the school would have made the principal wet himself. “You wouldn’t want that incident with the squirrel, the gasoline, and the comic books to get out, would you? Of course not.”

Just a normal day in the Hardy household: A hockey puck flies through the Hardys’ living room window, so Frank and Joe calmly clean up, get a piece of foam-core posterboard they have on hand, and tape it in place. Then they get milk and butterscotch raisin cookies from the kitchen. Nothing unusual here!

Opinions: There’s a lot to recommend this one. It has an old-school feel, it has a manageable scope, and it uses the supporting cast very well. That can’t be underestimated; part of the appeal of the older stories was how Frank and Joe had friends they could rely on. Here, Joe and Tony need friends very badly, and they come through for them. That’s part of what we remember high school as and what we want it to be.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of holes. The action scenes are often clunky at best and unbelievable at worst. (You try jumping onto a cart full of boxes rolling at you at high speed, and see if you can stay on.) The school administration is played as extremely stupid so the kids have a chance to investigate the crime. The lingo is occasionally laughable. (“Turkey”? “Straight stuff”? Really?) I think the capper is when Frank and Joe go to a sporting goods store to see if anyone remembers a guy who bought athletic socks on a Saturday. That seems … tenuous.

Grade: B+. The plotting and character use outweigh the dodgy stuff, because, hey, you expect the occasional plot hole and bad dialogue in a Hardy Boys book.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Running behind a little this week, so I'm switching to an already written recap of the first Undercover Brothers book, Extreme Danger. Enjoy!

Extreme Danger (Undercover Brothers #1)

Extreme Danger coverPlot: American Teens Against Crime sends Frank and Joe to investigate threats against the athletes at the X Games — no, sorry, Big Air Games — in Philadelphia, where they find a multitude of suspects.

“Borrowing” from the past: Not much, really, other than the boys getting sent to the X Games — sorry, Big Air Games, I don’t know why I keep getting confused — like they were sent to the Winter X Games — wait, Max Games — in Danger in the Extreme. (I suppose they also borrowed the title.)

Other than that, the Hardys have reached a new stage of history. Aunt Gertrude is called “Trudy” instead. Laura has a career as a librarian (fitting she was given a stereotypically boring profession), and Fenton is semi-retired. Frank and Joe’s amateur work is “a couple of years ago”; now, they are operatives of American Teens Against Crime, a really bad idea thought up by Fenton. Callie and Iola are nowhere to be seen — Joe sniffs around the Big Air Games and finds himself an athlete, while Frank is shy and tongue tied with local Belinda Conrad. Chet shows up to help the Hardys, but while he screws up, he manages to handle a motorcycle fairly well, and there’s a minimum of fat jokes. There’s even a guy who mocks the Hardys — which, of course, is insane, given how many law-enforcement personnel might owe them a favor.

21 Jump Street aside, of course: Evidently, Fenton finally decides to fly his crazy flag high, and he doesn’t care who sees it. Exposing two teenagers to dangerous criminals is reckless but understandable; having a whole organization that does nothing that is insane. He must have thought America had a dangerous surplus of teenagers, and it’s his way to eliminate that surplus in a constructive manner.

He’s so hip, he can’t see over his pelvis: This book’s Dixon goes overboard with the hip lingo, trying to make Frank and Joe cool, although I’m not sure if he’s got the right decade. There’s enough “dude,” “outrageous,” and “totally” to provide the soundtrack for an ‘80s teen movie. When the ripcord on his chute doesn’t open, Joe says, “Definitely not cool.” Frank dyes his hair blue and Joe gets a mohawk — here at the other end of the decade, the fauxhawk is more hip, I think — and both boys dress in vintage clothing as a disguise. They also eat cheese steak for breakfast one day — awesome!

Trudy isn’t hip, but she gets to say “poop” a lot.

Inappropriate responses: When the crook in the opening vignette finds Frank and Joe sniffing around his DVD piracy ring, he tries to kill them. Over DVD piracy. In retaliation, Frank and Joe steal his parrot after he’s arrested. ATAC sends them to the Big Air Games after “a few strange postings” on an extreme sports site, which is pretty flimsy. When a covert ATAC agent tries to hint he’s on Frank and Joe’s side by working “Extremely dangerous” (a variant of the mission name), Frank takes it as a threat. Given that he said, “It’s dangerous to ask to many questions” immediately before “Extremely dangerous,” that seems reasonable. And although I can’t say it’s inappropriate when the villain goes after a Big Air Games athlete with a pellet gun — I can’t say whether he was going for the kill or just a wounding — using a pellet gun is no way to get respect down at the county lockup.

No endorsements were harmed while making this book: Frank and Joe own a “game player,” with “game controls.” They only use it for playing their mission briefing, or we might have learned whether they’re into “Coach’s American Football Game” or “Futuristic Soldier Game.” Man, I love Futuristic Soldier Game. Such realistic generic action!

Dating in the 21st century: Normally steady Frank may have trouble talking to a “Belinda,” but Joe has no trouble making a connection with extreme athlete Jenna. When they leave Philly, Joe gets not only her phone number but her e-mail address, while promising to visit her in Atlantic City. Ah, modern love.

Opinions: The beginning of a new series is a jarring transition, especially given the chapters alternating between first-person narration from Frank and Joe. The new status quo will take a while to get used to as well — although why not put them in college? Makes a lot more sense — and the incessant hipsterism will not help at all. There’s even a murder. At the end of the mystery, the Hardys even leave Chet behind, not even bothering to wake him up before they ride from Philly back to Bayport.

But one thing doesn’t change: The brothers’ disregard for due process. Frank says there’s not enough evidence to arrest one of the suspects; Joe responds, “You and your evidence. So what do you suggest, Mr. Law and Order?”

Grade: C-. And I’m being generous here, since I don’t know which direction the series will go in from here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Daredevils (#159)

Daredevils coverPlot: The entire Hardy family (sans Gertrude) head to Los Angeles to protect the life of stuntman Terrence McCauley, a son of one of Fenton’s old friends.

Borrowing from the past: The Hardys head to California as a family, just as they did in the revised Clue of the Broken Blade (#21), where they all got jobs on a movie set. Frank and Joe also headed to Los Angeles in Mystery of the Desert Giant (#40), The Shattered Helmet (#52, Hollywood), The Firebird Rocket (#57), The Vanishing Thieves (#66), The Crimson Flame (#77), Cave-In! (#78), and The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo (#47).

The Hardys head for the hospital after being a few feet from an explosion. They almost never go to the hospital. Joe was sent to the hospital for “shock” after being in an exploding building in The Secret Warning (#17) and he found himself hospitalized for a stabbing wound in Training for Trouble (#161).

Before this book, Laura Hardy received a personality transplant: Laura actually says something … interesting. She sasses her sons about their attitudes toward police involvement in their cases, insists on helping investigate, and claims credit for cracking Fenton’s tough cases. She also gives Terrence advice on his love life. Where is the real Laura, and can we keep this one instead?

Well, we know Fenton’s not that kind of detective: While on the phone, Fenton’s notes on the attempts on Terrence McCauley are:

Rope — cut?
Window — glass
Empty extinguisher!

I don’t know what I like the best, there. “Window — glass” is pretty good — what the hell else is going to be in a window, sandstone? — but the exclamation point after “Empty extinguisher” is a contender too. “My God! The building hasn’t been properly carrying out regular safety inspections! Fenton to the rescue!”

Safety first: Fenton met Terrence’s father, Brian — also a stuntman — by chasing a crook onto a movie set and into a building rigged to explode. That’s how you get a reputation for safety in the stunt business — by not hiring enough security guards or buying barrier tape or orange plastic cones to warn people a building’s about to go boom.

Joe’s confusing love life: Joe shows more affection for Terrence’s car, staring at it and fondling it, than he ever does for anyone human. Of course, it might be a little creepy if he did treat a girl like a car, but until he tries it, he won’t know if Iola would object. Of course, Joe can’t tell the difference between a woman and a crossdresser at one point, so puberty should be one hell of an adventure for him.

Everyone loves Joe: When Joe is knocked down by a bomb blast and gets a little fuzzy headed, both his father and Frank make fun of him. (Frank uses variants of the “X-rayed his head and found nothing” joke, which is at least seven decades old.) Concussions are hilarious!

Insurance? Don’t make me laugh: Frank mentions he and Joe have high insurance premiums. I assume what they actually have is the state-mandated safety net that everyone has to be allowed to buy to meet state law. Otherwise, some insurer is crazy or owes Fenton a major favor.

Maybe he should avoid that legal career: As usual, Frank’s knowledge of the law is shaky. He resists going to the police after the boys were almost forced off a cliff even though he memorizes the truck’s license plates, saying the police would only be able to arrest the man for reckless driving. Well, no; the testimony of Fenton Hardy’s sons would probably be able to bump that up to attempted murder, and it would allow police to get a search warrant for the criminal’s home. But, hey, no, go on using Terrence as bait so the culprit can make several more attempts on the kid’s life. There’s no chance he’ll be successful, is there?

Of course, Frank’s sense of legality has been warped by being Fenton’s son, where the truth and personal glory trump the law every day of the week. Frank hacks into the California DMV computers and breaks into a suspects office with no consequences in this book, which as I’ve noted elsewhere, is unsurprising: Civil liberties are something that happen to other people.

Because integrity’s so important to him: Frank calls one of the suspects “a man of integrity” after talking to him. Of course, Frank, knows integrity: he’s sitting in the man’s chair, rifling through his files, after breaking into the man’s office — before he even tried to interview the guy.

But he’s better at law and integrity than Dixon is at football: Joe saves Fenton and Terrence by tackling them, taking them out of an M-80’s blast radius. Dixon claims he practiced his tackling as a football tackle. Um, no; tackles are offensive players who try to keep other players from being tackled. For the record, Joe has been a halfback in The Sinister Sign Post (#15) and safety, quarterback, and halfback in The Crisscross Shadow (#32). His football experience — if not his position — is mentioned in The Yellow Feather Mystery, (#33), The Clue in the Embers (#34), the revised Great Airport Mystery (#9), The Shattered Helmet (#52), The Mysterious Caravan (#54), The Vanishing Thieves (#66), Game Plan for Disaster (#76), and The Blackwing Puzzle (#82).

Bad promotion: Flame Broiled, Terrence’s movie, has a big party after the movie opens in multiplexes across the country. Wait — isn’t that backwards? The party should be before everyone knows how bad the movie is, right?

Opinions: A surprisingly good book. The characters act like real people instead of the Prozac Pod People who populate most Hardy Boys books. The boys act like real brothers, Fenton mocks Joe’s stupidity, and even Laura has a personality. One of the incidental characters, Caleb, even stands out as something other than a villain or source of information. The book has the sense to point out some of its flaws; for instance, Joe realizes the studio system is dead despite a studio head wanting to sign Terrence to a studio contract, but the exec claims he wants to revive it, and in Hollywood, that might be possible. A bombmaker makes use of the fact that wire colors are completely arbitrary, and those who disarm the bomb realize it as well. And when threatening a sleazy reporter, Frank taunts him with the lowest of all jobs: ghostwriting for kids books.

Of course, Joe manages to catch Terrence when Joe is dangling from a parachute and Terrence is nearing terminal velocity, so it’s not all hyperrealism.

Grade: A. I have to admit, I even laughed when a stuntman used “What the Evel Knievel!” as an exclamation. Although the “parental units” was a little dated, even when this came out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Caribbean Cruise Caper (#154)

Caribbean Cruise Caper coverPlot: Frank and Joe are called upon to consult during the Teenway teen detective contest in the Caribbean, and of course it’s being sabotaged from within.

Borrowing: Both Hardy brothers are allegedly taller than six feet. I can’t find a concrete measurement of their height before, but as recently as 1985 (The Skyfire Puzzle, #85), Joe is supposed to be 155 pounds. In the original Great Airport Mystery (#9), Joe was only 125. I doubt he’s supposed to be that light today, but he’d be quite a beanpole if he were. At 125, he’d almost be emaciated.

Frank has generic martial arts skills, although he never really bothers to use them. He’s used karate, judo, and jujitsu in the past.

The boys make a stopover in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which they visited in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37).

We can be heroes: There’s more music in this one than most. When Joe gets distracted by a boat, Frank paraphrases a David Bowie song to get his attention: “Ground control to Major Joe.” Joe tells a reporter about a previous case in which he and Frank went undercover as actors in a Broadway musical; even though the brothers have shown musical talent in the past (mostly guitar and drums, although Frank sings a “country and western duet” in Track of the Zombie, #71), they should have been stagehands. And while on a stakeout, Joe mentally recites the lyrics of his favorite golden oldies to stay awake. Of course it’s golden oldies; it’s the most controversy free music known to man.

Shut up!: Jason, the contestant who turns out to be very weakly sabotaging the contest, is tripped up when he says his hometown airport (Dallas-Fort Worth) is nothing special. If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys, it’s that criminals would be better off just shutting up because there’s always a decent explanation for their slip ups. Joe says DFW is the size of Manhattan, which Jason should have known. Really? At age 17, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to compare airport sizes, nor would I have cared.

Frank and Joe should have busted her for fashion crimes: Bettina Dunn is introduced as looking as if she had stepped out of a fashion magazine, but her fashion sense is atrocious. No sooner does she get onto a boat than does she change into bell bottoms; later, she’s in a light green dress “decorated with sea horses and anchors.” Another contestant wears “bright orange jams,” but it is in a tropical paradise in the ‘90s, so I’ll let it slide.

Worst criminals ever: The adults make a big deal out of the pranks that disrupt the contest, but they’re minor stuff. Plastic spiders placed on a cake, ordering fifteen pizzas (an escalation Frank describes as “ambitious” and Joe thinks will “wreck the contest”) … if that’s the worst they can do, just ignore them. There is the syrup of ipecac in the sorbet, but it’s a very low dose. A prank in bad taste, a very noticeable prank … but man, that is minor-league villainy.

Of course, Frank and Joe are the perfect teens to find the prankster. When Frank embarrasses Joe in front of a girl, Joe’s idea of revenge — quickly discarded — is to short sheet Frank’s bed. Haw!

Wait until he tells his parents: In the harbor in San Juan, Joe instantly falls in love with … a 50-feet boat. I feel bad for the Sleuth; when Joe breaks the news about his true feelings, she’ll be crushed. Not to mention how Iola will react …

Bilocation is a difficult skill to master: For some reason, Joe thinks he’ll be able to keep track of four or more people in a tropical island market. Joe is fooling himself, or else his omnipotence is on the blink.

Opinions: There’s not much here. The pranks are less than dangerous, and the Dixon seems to be building mountains out of molehills. Frank makes sure to point out the most likely suspect is the one who’s probably guilty, which is only a news flash in a spectacularly dull-witted book. Frank sees a skull and crossbones painted on a bulletin board and comes to the conclusion of pirates rather than poison, even though the contestants had just been administered ipecac. Frank and Joe are foiled by a punk using a pitcher of papaya juice. A contestant is knocked out by a volleyball. A volleyball!

Two incidents show how low the stakes are and how desperate the author is to build tension. First, when the main villain, a crewman on the boat, is introduced, Frank sees him ignoring the contestants and thinks “the guy lived in another world that just happened to run side by side with the one” the passengers are in. Or else he’s not supposed to fraternize with the passengers. One or the other — a dangerous mental disconnect or obeying ship regulations.

Second, Joe waits in a closet to ambush a thief. He watches the thief come into the room … and then lets her escape because he got something in his eye. When he finally pursues her, she beats him senseless with a wooden stool. An unathletic teenage girl! That’s awful. Weirdest part? Frank says the stakeout “worked fine.”

Grade: D-. We don’t even get to find out who won the contest!