Thursday, October 30, 2008

Boardwalk Bust (Undercover Brothers #3)

Boardwalk Bust cover Plot: Frank and Joe investigate jewelry thefts in the suspiciously Atlantic City-like Ocean Grove, but they find the thief has an ulterior motive when the jewelry turns up buried on the beach.

Borrowing from the past: Frank and Joe have their pilots’ licenses, although Frank hints they got their certification via ATAC. Frank and Joe start learning to fly in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37) and get their licenses in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39).

Frank and Joe are part of the swim team at Bayport High; Joe swims short sprints and relays, while Frank holds the school record in the 4x400 medley. The boys have been swimmers since the beginning but have never been described as part of the swim team; the closest, really, was in the revised Figure in Hiding (#16), where Frank and Joe were described as “expert surf riders.” (EDIT: In Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84), Joe is the captain of the swim team and holds the “best time in the hundred-meter freestyle.” Not sure how I missed that.) Frank claims Joe is a black belt in aikido and “a pretty fair hand” at tae kwon do. These are newer disciplines for Joe, who has used judo, jujitsu, and karate numerous times (as well as boxing and wresting) to subdue crooks.

Just as in the old, old days, Aunt Trudy seems like a meddling biddy, acting as a drill sergeant for household chores and complaining about Girl Scouts.

Hip or not: I’m going to stop mentioning “bro” soon, but it still bothers me too much to let it go here, as Joe calls Frank “bro” as they’re about to be drowned in corn. This comes a half page after Frank travels to the ‘80s and uses “No duh” non-ironically. A suspect profile notes there’s “no cheese like bling-bling,” which makes me want to hurt someone very intensely and very personally.

Mission difficulty: Low. No undercover operations, no death threats (attempts, yes). Frank and Joe don’t even bother to hide their investigation this time. Actually, why this is an ATAC mission is beyond me; jewel robberies in Atlantic City — sorry, Ocean Grove, N.J. — is not exactly a youth-oriented crime. “Q.T.” — the director of ATAC — says Ocean Grove has increasingly attracted young people, but I’m not buying it.

Threat assessment isn’t exactly Frank and Joe’s strong suits. In the action scene that starts the book, Frank mentions he called the sheriff to set up a roadblock so the drug-smuggling farmer wouldn’t escape — “just in case we were walking into a deathtrap.” If I’m worried about walking into a deathtrap, I want the sheriff to rescue me. Avoiding being buried beneath several tons of corn is more important, I think, than catching some dimwit who allows random teenagers near his smuggling operation. He’ll turn up, probably telling some fast-food worker who catches his eye that he can score some dope, easy.

Frank and Joe also believe using a banner from an advertising plane as a parachute is a good idea. It is, to use a technical term, not. Frank and Joe should have been turned into sticky red Hardy jam after trying this one.

Once a cop: Fenton drives a Ford Crown Victoria, the most popular cop car in America.

Is making no sense a criminal trait? When Frank and Joe ask “Bump” Rankowski how he got his nickname, he points to his tricked-out private airplane and says, “She’s good for a bump or two!” Maybe it’s an embarrassing story, but I have a feeling Mr. Rankowski just doesn’t want to have to be the one who explains certain realities to Frank and Joe.

Language!: A Russian selling taffy in Ocean Grove says “boychick” is Russian for “boy.” It is not; it’s Yiddish. It’s an affectionate term for a boy or (less often) man. Another immigrant telling the boys, “You shut face, okay?” is much better.

That’s more like it!: Joe gets kicked in the eye by a cow, which somehow emasculates him, but when the chips are down, he shows he’s still got it: when a drowning girl is being menaced by a shark, he tells Frank to save the girl while he fends off the shark. It doesn’t matter that the shark turns out to be an overturned surfboard; that’s some Hardy courage and a damn sight better than being scared by coyotes.

Joe’s pick-up line of the book: After a woman saves them from drowning in the tide, she wants to know what the story is. Joe says, “How about we tell you all about it over lunch tomorrow?” She shoots him down because he has two black eyes, but it’s fairly smooth.

Opinions: Other than persistent references to ATAC and Frank and Joe lying to the Hardy womenfolk about what they’re doing, this is much like the digests that come before it in tone and plot. Unfortunately, it’s kinda boring. The villains’ plot is stupid, and Frank and Joe’s investigative technique consists of barging up to people and asking if they did it or who they think did it. Making Joe the plot’s butt-monkey doesn’t win any points either.

Putting Frank and Joe on the swim team does have a side affect — it amuses me to no end thinking Frank and Joe have to shave like swimmers do. Joe would probably be inordinately proud of this, while Frank would be mortified.

Grade: C. Just kinda dull, although at least Frank and Joe are allowed to work this case by themselves.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Running on Fumes (Undercover Brothers #2)

Running on Fumes coverPlot: ATAC sends Frank and Joe out into the desert to infiltrate the camp of Arthur Stench, a radical environmentalist who has gathered a cultlike following miles from civilization.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank takes an internship at a law office as a cover, which must make his mother very happy; she wanted him and Joe to go into law and medicine, although it was never clear which she wanted to be which. Her plans started back in the first book, The Tower Treasure, and her feelings were shared by Fenton, but he relented, and she did as well in What Happened at Midnight (#10). She raised the issue again — at least mentally — in The Flickering Torch (#22).

Frank also fences in gym class, which he, Joe, and their chums learned to do in the revised Clue of the Broken Blade (#21). Those lessons evidently didn’t take, as not only does Frank lose, but he doesn’t realize there isn’t enough room or much place in competitive fencing to “circle” with your opponent. Also, although both boys feign inexperience with the bow (or forget their experience), The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28) says they’re quite knowledgeable about archery. Frank even makes a bow, while Joe and Chet make arrows.

Frank and Joe get a reward from this one — new tricked out motorcycles. This is the latest in a series of fabulous prizes the boys get from crimefighting; the most recent (and comparable) is a police van, which the boys received in exchange for a $20,000 “donation” (hint, hint) of their reward money, in The Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84).

ATAC Mission Difficulty: Suicidal. Whereas the previous mission might have been within reason — keep an eye on things in a youth-dominated but clean urban setting — this one sends Frank and Joe undercover into a environmental cult miles away from help … or roads, for that matter.

Hip or not: On the plus side, a bully calls Joe a “dillweed,” which strikes me as spot on. I also admit Joe’s exclamation of “Unholy awesome!” makes me laugh — in a good way. On the other hand, Joe says, “Rat poop.” You can’t recover from that. Calling himself a “potatohead” isn’t much better. Neutral is saying, “Kick it”; you can recover from that, but only if you’re a Beastie Boy. Joe also calls one of his pursuers at one point “butt breath,” which is fine, if he were 11.

Perhaps they should investigate geography: On the boys’ way from Bayport (wherever that may be) to southern California, the boys stop by Mt. Rushmore. Which is, for those who don’t know, in South Dakota, and several hundred miles out of their way, while they’re riding cross country on their motorcycles on a mission from ATAC.

I don’t know much about survivalist environmental cults, but … : I’m pretty sure they don’t let you sleep in until 10, like they do with Frank and Joe. And if you spend all afternoon weeding in the desert sun, you’ll be more than tired — you’ll be baked. And when your main schtick is that you hate technology, solar panels and protein bars kinda are a weird interest. And you don’t get to write “papers” on how people who don’t “agree to use solar power should be locked in a dark cellar until they see the light.” Those are called “threats” or “insane ramblings.” In any event, only the police and the doctors with the nice pills get to see them.

Joe’s pick-up line of the book: After seeing a girl sweeping her front porch because she doesn’t want the creepy crawlies “sharing her tent,” Joe says, “I’m not a creepy crawly. Does that mean I’m welcome to —” He gets interrupted, the girl wasn’t buying anyway, but it was a good try. He’s also indignant a girl rejects him for Frank after she rescues them in the desert, even though he had a few seconds to prepare for her arrival: “I washed my face with spit for her!”

Too much information: Joe says Pebbles Flintstone is hot. This is creepy on many, many different levels, the top three being her infant nature, her fictional nature, and the nature of being created for Joe’s grandparents. Of course, Joe claims girl geeks aren’t hot, which shows he knows nothing. Petal says she had a crush on Bill Nye, Science Guy, which is also kinda creepy but in a different way.

Opinions: This one’s pretty sparse on plot; it takes the boys quite a while to get to the camp, and then things don’t quite feel right. It’s not the weird vibe the reader’s supposed to get; it’s more like the writer isn’t sure about what should go on there and just fills the space with weirdos.

Oh, and they go back to their tent to get their lockpicks after the tent was burned to the ground. Nice.

I’m still not sure about a lot of the details of the new set up. Laura has gone from colorless to a little annoying, with her frequent blurting of semi-related factoids. Chet is bullied in this book, which is one hell of a comedown for him; just think what Chet would have done to a bully if Leslie McFarlane were writing him again. And I was really hoping that parrot would be a one-time appearance, but no such luck. Frank is a bit of a weenie, getting tongue-tied around girls and not being able to separate what would happen in fake fights (losing at fencing) with the real world (blowing people up). He, like Joe, is scared of a coyote as well. A coyote! Frank killed a snake with a club in The Clue of the Broken Blade! They were on motorcycles! They had nothing to fear!

Grade: C. But if they have another undercover ATAC agent come out of the woodwork and save them again, so help me, my wrath will be mighty.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Future of the Blog

I’ve come to the end of the digests I’ve bought at the Green Valley Book Fair a few years ago. How it took me so long to read a couple of dozen books, I don’t know, but it did. I’ve had fun reading them, though.

For the next few weeks, regular updates will continue; I have a few of the Undercover Brother series, and they’ll be posted on Thursday until they too run out. Then I’ll be taking a month off. I’m planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, and the free time this will give me will be a boon.

I can’t say for sure whether I’ll be back in December. It’s possible; I have a couple of Casefiles I haven’t read yet, and there are a few digests I own and have read that I could re-read and add. Even if I don’t post regularly, I’m sure there will be at least irregular updates.

So thanks for visiting, and be sure to come back for at least the next few weeks!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Double Jeopardy (#181)

Double Jeopardy coverPlot: Student reporters Frank and Joe investigate sabotage at a Formula One race in Indianapolis.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe are sent to the race as representatives of the Bayport Herald: Frank as a reporter, Joe as a photographer. The Herald has appeared, among several other Bayport papers, in The Mystery of the Samurai Sword (#60). This is the first time Frank and Joe have worked in journalism. Which is surprising, given that sailor, elephant tender, and cowboy are among their one-week careers.

Although Frank claims to be very big into bicycle racing, he’s never really cared about it before. (Although a bicycle race made up part of the Speed x5 race (#173).) The Hardys have used bicycles to get around during The Flickering Torch Mystery (#22), which was during the gas rationing of World War II, and The Mystery of the Samurai Sword (#60).

Joe mentions working in the pits in the Indy 500. Although neither should be on pit row in an actual competitive situation, both boys are accomplished mechanics, with many instances of repairing automobiles. The most famous feat was restoring a lemon of a roadster bought in The Shore Road Mystery (#6) into something to be proud of. Joe has been described as “mechanically minded” (revised Hidden Harbor Mystery, #14) and as liking “nothing more than a mechanical problem” (A Figure in Hiding, #16). He also fixes a sabotaged car in The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20). Frank hotwires a truck in the revised Secret of the Old Mill (#3) and repairs a carburetor in The Arctic Patrol Mystery (#48).

The Brickyard: Although the author goes out of his way to not say it, the track the story takes place at is the fabled International Motor Speedway. It’s the site the Indianapolis 500, although the track is reconfigured for Formula One and only uses part of the best-known Brickyard track. The race itself is almost certainly the United States Grand Prix, which has been held in a half dozen other sites in the past century and has been had many spans when it was discontinued; we’re in one now, as the last USGP was last year, and there is no next date scheduled, although Formula One and the IMS leave the open the possibility the race will resume in the future. It is, as a fellow reporter notes, the only Grand Prix in America.

Formula 409: Americans are familiar with NASCAR and to an extent Indy cars. Joe himself mentions he and Frank have attended an Indy 500 and a few NASCAR races. Formula One doesn’t make as big an impact on the American sporting consciousness. But the some of the claims made in Jeopardy that might seem surprising are accurate. The F1 circuit is made up of 18 races or Grands Prix. Frank refers to Kellam Martin as “the American driver”; it seems strange, but there are actually no American drivers in F1 in 2008. Noah notes each team has a budget of a quarter billion dollars; although he makes it sound as if it were for just that race, that is in the estimated range of a team’s annual budget.

And now, coming out of nowhere … : In the middle of the race coverage, in the middle of the mystery, Frank enters a bike race in a velodrome in Indianapolis. For heaven’s sake, why? What drama can a throwaway storyline like this possibly generate? For additional ludicrousness, Frank brings his “prized bike” that had won “a couple” races to Indianapolis with him.

You said “screw”: Becky, a PR woman, uses the word “scrutineering,” meaning the verification that the team is following the rules. The term is used correctly, but any teenage boy with a working sense of humor would giggle like a ninny at the word. Needless to say, Frank and Joe are stoically silent.

Competence!: When Becky reveals she knows the Hardys are usually investigators, not reporters, Joe wants to know how she found that out. Becky basically says she looked it up. Frank and Joe didn’t have a cover identity, but they seem a little off balance that someone can find out about them by, you know, being good at what they do.

That’s how it works, Joe: While Joe sneaks up on a suspect’s isolated house, the narrator says, “Every step brought him closer to the house — and farther from safety.” I get the second part of the sentence, but the first: of course every step brings him closer to the house. Unless he’s wandering in a random direction, that’s where he’s trying to go.

Stylin’: Frank and Joe work as servers at a charity function dressed in cargo pants and sweaters. Stay classy, F1 and Indianapolis!

Opinions: The setting isn’t quite right for the Hardy boys, and I question the wisdom of dropping Frank and Joe into a world-class racing event allegedly crawling with reporters and then making them the best investigative journalists ever. The Hardys should be part of smaller events you’ve never heard of, the ones just starting up or about to die out, visiting battlefields whose claims to fame are minor. They aren’t international men of mystery, after all.

The central mystery comes across as interesting, one of those rivalries escalating into violence scenarios that predominate a certain kind of Hardy Boys story. And there are some fun moments. The isolated house in the woods is nice, and the villain attacking Frank with a dinosaur skeleton is a unique touch. If only there hadn’t been so many distractions — a velodrome? Who cares about a velodrome?

Frank and Joe come across as spoiled — as if having Fenton for a father hasn’t already allowed them free rein (Joe picks a lock and does some major-league hacking in Jeopardy). Joe mentions he has driven an Indy car at IMS, and he gets to take a spin in an F1 car during Jeopardy. (Remember just how much the budget for an F1 team is, and you’ll realize how much a privilege that is.) Joe also says he and Frank worked the pits in an Indy 500 “a few years” before. And they get to go to the only American F1 race instead of, you know, experienced reporters. I’m sure the Herald has a sports editor or reporter who’s just waiting in a dark alley for Frank and Joe to return, slapping his palm with a 2x4, muttering, “I’ll show them my byline …”

Grade: D+. Vroooom!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Typhoon Island (#180)

Typhoon Island coverPlot: Frank, Joe, Callie, and Iola go on vacation to San Esteban, which is facing rampant crime and a hurricane.

“Borrowing” from the past: There’s not much here to tie in with older stories. Frank and Joe are menaced by a bull, as they were in Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28), The Mystery of the Aztec Warrior (#43), and The Pentagon Spy (#61). They also have a tarantula planted in their bed; they were confronted with a spider in The Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84) as well.

Frank and Joe fly a plane from the Florida Keys to San Esteban. I've detailed their flying experience in In Plane Sight (#176). In Typhoon, Frank and Joe fly a pontoon plane, just as they did in The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42).

Hit ‘em right in the euphemism: Frank knees a boat thief in the “thigh”; the man gasps and drops to the deck. It can be painful to be hit in the thigh — the real thigh — but I think we now know the answer of whether Frank or Joe would be pragmatic enough to go for the family jewels in a fight.

Those are some trusting parents: Callie’s and Iola’s parents let their daughters go on an unchaperoned Caribbean vacation with Frank and Joe. We know their virtue is safe, because the Hardy boys haven’t gotten used to being kissed on the lips, and the most compromising position anyone gets into is when Frank and Joe respond to screams of terror from the girls’ bungalow and finds Callie in a nightgown and Iola clad only in a towel.

Still, the Mortons and Shaws are awful trusting. Iola and Joe comment that after Chet, the Mortons don’t worry so much about Iola — but since Chet gets in all his trouble with the Hardys, shouldn’t they be more worried about the trouble Joe can get their daughter in? And why would the Hardys, Mortons, or Shaws let teenagers go to an island about to be smacked by a hurricane?

Turn up your nose, will you?: Joe is leery of the weathered building and faded sign that announces the business they rent their plane from. Frank says, “This isn’t Bayport, Joe.” Which is good, really; Bayport may be higher rent, but it is one of the most crime-ridden burghs on the Atlantic coast.

Welcome to Non-Sequitur Theater, where we like pizza: Noting that their bungalows are on a cliff, Iola says the only way to the beach is by cliff diving. “It worked for Elvis Presley,” Frank said. Yes, Elvis did a little cliff diving in his 1963 film, Fun in Acapulco, but why would Frank know that? Why?

The girls do have limits: You get the feeling Iola and Callie have had about enough of the boys’ heroism. At one point, Iola calls the brothers “heroic, but foolish”; I can’t think of a better three words to describe Frank and Joe. Joe suggests a man he and Frank chased through rain-drenched streets isn’t a gangster, saying, “Even gangsters are smart enough to get out of the rain.” Iola responds, “But not my boyfriend, apparently.”

Callie begs Frank and Joe not to turn their vacation into a detective case. Silly girl. You must not know them very well if you think there’s even a remote possibility of that happening.

“Playful” has many meanings: While the four teens are wandering through caves, utterly lost, Frank tries to kill all their hope by suggesting fresh water on the walls of the cave could be filtering through the rock rather than leaking from an immediate surface source. Callie gives him a “playful” punch in the shoulder, despite being “clearly frustrated.” I’m sure the narrator left out Frank’s shout of pain.

That word, I do not think it means what you think it means: The title of the book is Typhoon Island, despite tropical cyclones in the Atlantic / Caribbean being called hurricanes. A local says “typhoon” is a local name for hurricanes, but it’s usually used for tropical cyclones in the Pacific. This smacks of someone coming up with the name first and thinking up the plot details later.

Opinions: This is more of a disaster adventure than a mystery: think Key Largo instead of The Big Sleep, with more running through the hurricane and none of that Bogart / Bacall chemistry. Frank, Joe, and the girls spend almost half the book running around in a hurricane. There are some interesting bits, a little suspense, but it’s not good as a Hardy Boys book.

And the quipping! My God, they can’t stop making little puns and quips and … they’re not funny. They stop being entertaining. I get it, they’re trying to keep their spirits up despite horrible batterings from attackers and a hurricane. But … just stop it. Stop it!

At least here, unlike in the Undercover Brothers book Hurricane Joe (#11), the author realizes hurricanes don’t appear one afternoon with no warning and evaporate by the next morning.

Grade: C-. No more plucky quipping!