Thursday, February 24, 2011

Power Play (Casefiles #50)

Power Play coverPlot: Frank and Joe are hired to check the security at Bright Futures, a company that makes solar cells. However, before their investigation can get underway, one of the company’s top researchers is murdered.

“Borrowing” from the past: In Power Play, Frank mentions he recently got his pilot’s license, certifying him for single-engine planes. Frank first flew a plane (under supervision) in The Mystery of the Flying Express (#19). In The Short-Wave Mystery (#24), both he and Joe get instruction from a pilot named Stewart, but Jack Wayne — Fenton’s personal pilot — doesn’t start teaching them until The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37). He even makes an emergency landing in that book. He and Joe get their license in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39). By The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42), he can perform loops, banks, and rolls in a seaplane, and he passes the FAA proficiency test for float planes. In The Arctic Patrol Mystery (#48), he lands a twin-engine plane … on a glacier. The Stone Idol (#65) mentions he has flown helicopters at the Bayport air field; in The Blackwing Puzzle (#82), he and Joe build an ultralight with their friends.

That last is important, because in Power Play, Frank rides in and briefly flies a solar-powered ultralight plane. Now, I kept track of how the Hardys get around, but I don’t think they’ve ever used a solar-powered ultralight plane. In The Blackwing Puzzle, they do fly an ultralight called the “Silver Falcon,” but it wasn’t solar powered. In fact, I don’t think they ever traveled in something solar powered in the first 85 books. (There was an electric car in The Skyfire Puzzle, #85, but that doesn’t count.) That’s surprising, since the Hardys have flown in hot-air balloons and a space shuttle, used parachutes, skimmed across the bay in ice boats, swum powered by porpoises, trekked with mules, even used a hand car. But never a solar-powered ultralight.

Frank and Joe get extra time to investigate because of Spring Break. I expected the boys to have experienced Spring Break about forty times before the Casefiles, but during the canon, they used it to get out of school only three times: The Arctic Patrol Mystery, The Firebird Rocket (#57), and The Voodoo Plot (#72). They also used Spring Break to track down Iola in Panic on Gull Island (#107).

The March of Technology: Oh, 1991. Computers were so exciting then — even interoffice electronic mail (“e-mail” not being a common enough usage) and 300 megabyte optical “disks” (the ones I have sitting by my desk, made for CDs, hold 700 MB) are breathlessly reported as exciting advances … even though you had to have a special drive for the 8-track like optical disks. Some technological plot points are relevant, however; the murdered researcher smuggled sensitive information out of Bright Futures by switching the label from a rock CD to the optical disk. This is similar to how Private Bradley Manning smuggled sensitive information off a secure Army intelligence server in Baghdad to give to Wikileaks; he brought in a CD-RW labeled “Lady Gaga,” erased the music, then copied the information onto the now empty disc. (I’m still not sure how the researcher switched the label, however; were the labels on early CDs stickers?)

Frank and Joe have a cellular phone (again, “cell phone” is not in common enough usage in 1991), but when they try to use it, there’s too much static. Their provider must be AT&T. Zing!

You’re slipping, old man: Fenton … I worry about the old man. In Power Play, all those concussions seem to be catching up with him. In the beginning, when a client calls him a “famous detective,” he says, “I don’t know about the ‘famous’ part.” That could be him being humble, but I don’t think you can be humble about your reputation when your sons use your name as a “Get out of jail free” card from coast to coast.

Later in the book, Fenton tells his sons that a researcher for Bright Futures has been arrested. Two pages later, he says, “[The researcher] could be home by now — if she has a good lawyer. She doesn’t have an arrest record, and there’s probably not enough evidence to charge her.” Not enough evidence to charge her? She’s already been arrested! That means she’s been charged! Do you even listen to yourself, Fenton?

Halfway through the book, Fenton goes jogging in a mesh shirt. Putting aside how smart I think jogging is, I keep getting an image of Fenton in an open-mesh shirt that is pretty much see-through (been watching too much anime, I guess). That’s not a pretty picture. In any event, in this picture of parental authority, he tells his sons that he wants to pull them off the murder investigation because they were only hired to investigate security, and murders are dangerous. Neither of these considerations have either bothered Fenton before; I don’t know if this is how Fenton is portrayed in the Casefiles, but it does fit in with the worrywart who founded ATAC in the Undercover Brothers series.

Speaking of slipping: Frank and Joe suffer the indignity of the “cut-the-brakes” trick. Frank later says it wasn’t a murder attempt; they shouldn’t have made it out of the parking lot. That seems an awful chance to take; I think, under New York law — as given unto us by DA Jack McCoy on Law & Order — that it shows a reckless indifference to the boys’ life and therefore would be classified as attempted murder, but what do I know?

In any event, Joe, who is driving, tries to use the parking brake to slow the van first. Only after that does he downshift. He should have tried it in the other order, which would have been more effective.

Speaking of ‘off the case’: At one point, Chief Collig — who has been antagonistic to Frank and Joe the entire book — tells them, “You’re off the case.” Firstly, he has no real authority over them, except when they break the law. (Which admittedly is all the time in this book, so perhaps I’m selling him short.) Secondly, a “case” suggests an official investigation of some sort, but Frank and Joe have no official standing — not even a private investigator’s license. For the Hardy Boys, there’s no case for them to be on. In fact, by telling them they are off the case, Collig implies they were either on the case before or had some sort claim to be on the case. I think Ezra just wanted to say those words to a couple of loose cannons, and whether the words made sense be damned.

Asking for trouble: Weirdly, Bright Futures hires Fenton’s sons just to check security. That is, the company had no idea there were no problems before Frank and Joe came along. Of course, afterwards, there’s a murder, the company is revealed to be rife with industrial sabotage, and the company’s remaining researcher is poached by a competitor. Nice job, boys.

The new math: After the head of Bright Futures tells Frank and Joe about a dispute between his top researchers — one of whom is now dead — Frank “filed this information with what they already knew. According to his math, none of this added up to murder yet.” I would really like to see what that equation looked like: Motive + death ≠ murder?

So there’s a … “Superb Bowl”?: God knows I am not a big fan of American football. I prefer baseball by far, and I agree with George Will’s contention that football combines the two worst aspects of modern American society: violence and committee meetings. But dammit, why can’t Dixons ever get the game quite right?

In The Crisscross Shadow, Chet is listed as a center, which is an offensive position, but he’s shown only as a defensive player. Even if there is a defensive center — and there isn’t really, although perhaps a defensive tackle in on a three-man line could be considered a “center” because he’s between two other players — he wouldn’t cover receivers on pass plays, as Chet tries and fails to do. (Maybe he’s a middle linebacker, which would fit the criteria.) Joe is said to be a left halfback — “halfback” is usually as specific as it gets — but he throws all the passes for Bayport, which is the quarterback’s job. Frank’s supposed to be the quarterback, but he functions as a receiver. At one point, the teams are locked in a defensive duel which forces each side to run two plays, then punt; each side gets three plays before they need to decide whether to punt. I’ve already gone over the ludicrousness of everything in Foul Play, which had no clue about football.

In Power Play, the offense is much lesser: Chet is said to have the “wide, massive frame of a football linebacker.” There are many other positions that could be better said to have a “wide, massive” frame; offensive or defensive linemen are prime candidates. Linebackers are large but have to be more athletic than linemen since they not only have to overpower people but also cover receivers. In fact, if you want a stereotypical description of linebackers, it would be quick and powerful rather than wide and massive.

It’s a small detail. But it’s a small detail about the most popular sport in America. Is it that hard to get right?

Opinions: Frank and Joe are at the nadir of their investigative abilities in Power Play, with Frank and Joe’s investigative techniques alternating between random accusations and breaking and entering, with a bit of bullying Chet thrown in to keep things from getting too predictable. They antagonize all the authority figures they can find, and Chief Collig and Fenton decide to finally draw a line and rein in the boys for reasons I can’t quite discern. Child endangerment laws catching up with Fenton and Bayport, maybe? Perhaps other municipalities giving Collig hell for using teenagers to solve his crimes? I don’t know, but neither Collig nor Fenton seems to want Frank and Joe on the case despite their results and their ability to avoid death.

I also find it odd that the Casefiles would hit their fiftieth book and not do some sort of anniversary stunt. Then again, the series was less than five years old at the time, so perhaps it was considered too early to do something like that.

And as I mentioned before, I really don’t like the cover. That it superficially resembles something that happened in the book is irrelevant.

Grade: D. Not very good. The optimistic “unlimited promise of solar power” angle and technology dates it more than perpetual teenagers Frank and Joe ever could.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Last Laugh (Casefiles #42)

The Last Laugh coverPlot: Frank, Joe, and Chet investigate kidnappings, bombings, and arson at a comic book convention in San Diego.

“Borrowing” from the past: Casefiles don’t care much about the past, but there are some links to the proud Hardy Boys traditions. Or maybe the Casefiles duplicate earlier books without knowing any better.

In this case, the background details are somewhat similar to The Apeman’s Secret (#62). In that book, Frank, Joe, and Chet are all interested in comics (although Chet more so than the Hardys), and they are called to investigate crimes committed by people dressed up as comic book characters, just as they are in Last Laugh. Chet even gets a story published by publisher Star Comix (Marvel Comics actually started a kids-oriented imprint called Star Comics in 1984). Chet even dresses up as a villain for a comic-book costume party. (The party wasn’t at a convention, though; it was at the Alfresco Disco. Ah, 1980.)

Joe remembers some of Fenton’s advice early in The Last Laugh: no clue is too small for a good detective. Other gems from Fenton include:

  • “Listen much and say little.” (Hunting for Hidden Gold, #5)
  • “One of the first requirements of a good detective is to keep his ears open and his mouth shut, and to be wary of confiding in strangers.” (What Happened at Midnight, #10)
  • “A good detective doesn't let his impulses get the better of him.” (The Disappearing Floor, #19)
  • It is an admission of defeat to call the police. (The Flickering Torch Mystery, #22)
  • There is “no more dangerous or cruel fighter than a cornered criminal.” (The Secret Panel, #25)
  • Note the time of any unusual occurrence. (The Secret Panel)
  • “A good detective must be observant of small details.” (The Phantom Freighter, #26)
  • “Never discard a single clue.” (The Secret of the Lost Tunnel, #29)
  • A little undercover sleuthing in advance is better than barging in head on. (The Crisscross Shadow, #32)
  • Do not talk to strangers about cases. (The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, #37)
  • Safeguard any valuables you come across during a case. (The Mystery at Devil’s Paw , #38)
  • Two of a “detective's best friends are the newspaper and the police.” (Mystery of the Desert Giant, #40)
  • “In detective work, sometimes it's the crazy clues that bring results.” (Mystery of the Desert Giant)
  • The modus operandi is often the best way to identify who committed a crime. (The Night of the Werewolf , #59)
  • Do not take foolish chances. (The Night of the Werewolf , #59)
  • A criminal has to have motive and opportunity. (The Swamp Monster, #83)

Frank and Joe silently communicate, with Frank making motions with his head that Joe can instantly translate. Most of the Hardys’ previous silent signals were more specific than various chin jabs and nods, though. The boys squeeze each other’s hands in The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21) as a “danger signal,” and they have a specific, secret hand signal in The Crisscross Shadow (#32). The revised version of What Happened at Midnight mentions a system of hand squeezes. A few other times, such as in The Pentagon Spy (#61), The Disappearing Floor (#19), and The Short-Wave Mystery (#24), switching lights on and off are signals. In most other cases, their “secret” signals aren’t silent: they’re bird calls or whistles or horn honks or wildcat screeches (yes, really) or knocks or obvious phrases (“Here we go again!” in The Hooded Hawk Mystery, #34).

What?: Despite the title, the book has absolutely nothing to do with jokes, laughter, or the phrase, “He who laughs last laughs best.” I think someone saw the “comic” in “comic book,” and immediately thought of old Walt Disney or Little Lulu comics.

Investment advice you can trust: In The Baseball Card Conspiracy, baseball cards are touted as a great investment. In the two decades since, that has been shown to be a horrible idea. Last Laugh takes a slightly different approach; I expected comic books themselves to be lauded as moneymakers, especially since the big investment boom in comics was beginning just as this book was published. But no — this Franklin W. Dixon makes the better argument that comic book art (the original art on Bristol boards and the like) would be a good investment. I don’t know how the market for original art has held up, but it has to be better than the books bought around the time Last Laugh was published (early ‘90s). The author generally restricts the art in question to Golden Age (late ‘30s-mid ‘40s) comic art, which seems like a good bet.

Getting the details right: The boys attend a comic convention in San Diego — it’s never called the San Diego Comic Con (or to give it its formal name, Comic-Con International), but that’s what it is. Since this book is set 20 years ago, the convention was actually focused on comics rather than generic science fiction / geek entertainment, as it is now. SDCC was founded in 1970 by fan Shel Dorf, and it bounced around several San Diego locations befreo ending up in its current location, the San Diego Convention Center, in 1991, the year after this book was published. (The convention has already moved in Last Laugh.) The events Chet tries to interest the Hardys in, like the large costume party, actually occur at SDCC.

At the end of the book, Chet wants to attend a concert at the convention by a band called “Seduction of the Innocent.” It’s a real band that played at conventions, one with a better name than musical pedigree. The members are actor Bill Mumy (Lost in Space, Babylon Five), writer Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition), actor Miguel Ferrer (Crossing Jordan), and artist Steve Leialoha (many DC and Marvel books). The name has strong comic book roots: the title belonged to a book by anti-comics crusader Frederic Wertham, who claimed comic books and their graphic imagery led to violence and juvenile delinquency.

Captain America Comics #1 coverAmong the Golden Age covers displayed at the convention, one Joe sees is described as having a “muscular, square-jawed hero in a star-spangled costume slugging Adolf Hitler.” As you can see, that’s a pretty good description of Captain America Comics #1.

The Real McCoy or an Impostinator?: The question that preyed on my mind throughout Last Laugh is whether Barry Johns, his staff, and the comic book companies involved were based on real people, composites, or made up out of whole cloth. Even by the end, I still hadn’t decided.

Barry Johns was a fan who worked his way into the business through persistence and hard work. That could describe any number of comic professionals; most likely, this Dixon had someone like Roy Thomas in mind. Thomas, like Johns, used his experience with fanzines and his enthusiasm to become one of the first fans to become a professional comics writer. Thomas was a bit earlier, but the idea is the same. Thomas was editor in chief at Marvel Comics from 1972 to 1974.

The description could, in a loose way, apply to Jim Shooter … although it’s other parts of Johns’s character that fit Shooter more aptly. Shooter wrote his first story for DC at the age of 14 in 1966, then, after graduating high school, worked his way through the ranks at Marvel in the ‘70s. (There was a lot of turnover at the top at Marvel in the ‘70s — seven different editors had the top job at some point during the decade.) There were many successful runs at Marvel during his tenure, a welcome departure from the creative doldrums the company suffered through in the ‘70s. During Shooter’s reign at Marvel, however, the company alienated some talent through strict deadlines and editorial control, as Johns does through late payments to freelancers and not giving proper credit (and strict editorial control). Many Marvel writers and artists left to go to work for DC. Shooter was forced out after nine years in 1987.

Johns left Terrific Comics (most likely a stand in for Marvel) and founded Zenith Publishing, where he had a bit hit in Metaman. Shooter launched Valiant Comics in 1989, and the company grew spectacularly for a few years — until the comic book industry’s next bust in the mid-‘90s, when the whole thing went pear shaped. Shooter had been forced out before then, however.

Zenith was headquartered in San Diego, most likely for plot convenience. (The largest comic publisher located in San Diego today, IDW, was founded in 1999.) However, when Frank and Joe visit the company’s offices, Joe notices the “bullpen” — an open area for many artists to work at the same time. Marvel was famous for its bullpen; however, there was no actual bullpen area in its offices. It was just a convenient and colorful way for early editor Stan Lee to refer to the writers and artists working for Marvel at the time, and the name has stuck.

Too much TV, not enough comics: At one point, Joe says he will be able to “play [the suspect] like a violin,” which Frank finds overdramatic. Obviously, Joe’s picked this up from some generic crime TV show or movie — probably too many of them. Despite his disdain, Frank’s watched too much TV as well; he thinks he’s lucky the car he’s in didn’t explode when it rolled. Cars rarely explode in real life; in TV and movies, the special effects people put bombs on the cars to make them go boom.

Chet, the comic book fan, seems to have not read enough comics, however. When people dressed up as comic book villains attack them, Chet seems unconvinced as to whether they have superpowers. Anyone who has read comics (or watched TV, or movies) knows that when fictional characters come to life, it’s always a scam.

Good cop, bad Hardys: As usual, the Hardys horn in on an active investigation, but this time, Det. Sgt. Drew Hanlon isn’t having it. He tells the boys that since it’s a kidnapping case, the FBI has jurisdiction, and they should butt the hell out. (I’m paraphrasing.) When they are caught at the scene of a firebombing, Hanlon hauls them in and questions them for a whole hour. Frank and Joe are aghast at this sort of treatment, little imagining what would have happened if a) they were normal people, instead of the most special teenagers in the history of forever, or b) the FBI took an interest in their own investigation instead of fobbing off most of the hard work to a detective for the San Diego PD.

I think the books need characters like this: authority figures who give the boys a hard time and seem at least mildly competent. Since adults rarely seem to believe children and adolescents, it seems more real and a better way to identify with the ostensible target audience to have adults working against the Hardys rather than Frank and Joe invoking St. Fenton to become the police’s masters. Any adolescent (or child) who has that sort of power is going to be the sort of person the intended audience would automatically hate — the undeclared lords of the playground set who get what they want because their parents are rich, powerful, or both. Screw those kids.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to sympathize with Frank and Joe’s meddling when they have a better understanding of San Diego, armed with a street map and a day’s experience, than the San Diego police or the local FBI.

Opinions: Since I have a familiarity with comics and the comics industry — see my new book Comic Book Collections for Libraries for an example — I was distracted throughout the book, trying to figure out who this or that character was supposed to be. Someone specific? An amalgam? Something new? Only Barry Johns seemed to have enough details to identify with any sort of depth or confidence. The others … they were generic figures. Which was a problem when I was trying to figure out if they had any wider significance and a problem in relation to the plot. And I’m still trying to figure out if Chet’s fan friend Tom Gatlin was a reference to Tom Galloway, a comics fan and Usenet dinosaur also known as “tyg.”

It seems to me a better story could have been made by making Last Laugh echo the real battle for Golden and Silver Age creators’ rights, such as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s battle for Superman money or Jack Kirby’s battle for recognition at Marvel. Given that Golden Age cover art was at the center of the mystery, a fictionalized version of the legal struggle would have fit quite well into the story. But no — it’s a generic money / rights issue at the heart of Last Laugh.

Grade: B-. Although this isn’t a bad mystery, I found I wasn’t engaged with it either.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Baseball Card Conspiracy (#117)

Baseball Card Conspiracy coverPlot: Counterfeit baseball cards start popping up at shows in the New York / Bayport area; when Biff gets burned, Frank and Joe are on the case.

“Borrowing” from the past: For dramatic purposes, Shore Road is considered to be “dangerous,” even to the point of washing out in very wet weather. Frank and Joe take the road to Southport. In The Tower Treasure, the road is rutted and rough, and in 1931’s What Happened at Midnight (#10), Shore Road “doesn’t lead anywhere in particular” (pg. 196). It became the main road to the new airport by The Great Airport Mystery (#9). In Danger on Vampire Trail (#50), it merges with a superhighway several miles from Bayport. By The Blackwing Puzzle (#82), much of its rush-hour traffic was diverted by expressways, completing its evolution from a back road to main artery and back to secondary road. Perhaps Conspiracy is implying it is about to fade back into back road status.

Biff Hooper’s home is said to be in one of Bayport’s “newer” housing developments. Given that the city hasn’t grown in population in 70 years, that may not be very new. The only time the Hoopers’ house was mentioned in the original canon was to place it within walking distance of the boys’ boathouses in The Shore Road Mystery (#6).

Frank and Joe — mostly Frank — identify a symbol used in geometry: parallel lines with a backslash is called a transversal. Frank and Joe were last seen in geometry class in 1930, in The Great Airport Mystery.

At one point, Joe claims to have collected stamps in the past; that’s never been stated before, although Hurd Applegate’s stamp collection was a plot point in While the Clock Ticked (#11).

Bayport’s baseball team — semipro? minor league? Heaven forbid, major league? — is nicknamed the Blues. Frank mentions the team was founded in the 1890s. In The Wailing Siren Mystery (#30), Bayport’s nine is named the Bears. This may not be a mistake since many teams have switched their names over the years, even switching back to previous names.

Biff trails one of the thugs down to the Bayport Mall. For those of you who are interested in how American consumerism is portrayed in popular culture, the mall just barely managed to show up during the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s ownership of the books — 1984’s The Blackwing Puzzle was the mall’s first appearance.

On the cover of the Hardy Boys: I don’t say this often — I can’t imagine why — but I really like the cover to Baseball Card Conspiracy. Frank and Joe look like plausible teenagers, albeit ones who are a little too buff. The criminal, who looks like a red-haired James Dean or Luke Perry, is literally escaping the illustration, with his foot and hand outside the border. Frank is running onto the illustration, with his foot cut off by the cover’s edge. There’s a lot of details, like the strewn cards and the bystander’s barely greeked Pirates’ cap (the Pirates’ “P” is replaced with a “K”), the pennants, the baseball equipment. The two bystanders look like the same person, unfortunately, but that’s a minor quibble.

For those who are curious, the jersey in the background — a #8 in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ colors — is probably meant to be that of Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who played his entire career for Pittsburg. Although this book was published in 1992, when the Pirates won their third straight National League East title, I think we have to consider the cover artist — “Daniel R. Ho????” (it’s cut off by the cover’s cropping, but it’s almost certainly Daniel R. Horne) — is a Pirates fan. According to his bio, he was born in Pittsburgh in 1960, which would have made him 19 when the Pirates last won a World Series. (CAUTION: The link to Horne’s site has an audio file, and many of the prints in his store are NSFW.)

Talkin’ baseball: The counterfeited cards are those of Don Mattingly, Daryl Strawberry, and Ken Griffey, Jr. The manufacturer and year of the cards are never mentioned, but unless the Strawberry and Mattingly cards were rookies, they probably wouldn’t be worth much today. Mattingly’s 1984 Topps rookie card goes for about $5 on eBay, half the $10 it was trading for in Conspiracy. His Fleer rookie card goes for about the same, although for some reason his Donruss rookie card is at about $20. You can get Strawberry’s 1984 Topps rookie for about $1; Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Topps rookie goes for $5-$10. Some more obscure variants can go for a lot more, but overall, the value of baseball cards have crashed since their early ‘90s peaks. Joe’s assertion that “there’s a ton of money to be made in baseball cards” shows that Joe is not only not a lawyer but is also not an economist.

Of course, Franklin W. Dixon isn’t an economist either. The counterfeiters in Conspiracy are selling the fake Mattinglys for $10 a pop. Biff buys his from a dealer for … $10. Obviously, in this case the dealer won’t be making any money. Dixon is making the classic collector mistake: the price-guide price is retail price. If you sell to a dealer, he will give you much less than that amount; the dealer has to make a profit, and the seller doesn’t have the customer base to sell the collectible (or didn’t, until eBay). The counterfeiters would have been selling the fakes for somewhere between a quarter and three-quarters of the price-guide price.

Police employment: Frank and Joe drop off a screwdriver used to commit sabotage at the police station, with Frank blithely commenting that he’ll see if the police can match the fingerprints for them. Do the police work for Frank and Joe? It usually seems so, but at one point, Con Riley and an officer confront Frank and Joe after a tip-off and find them with a bunch of (planted) counterfeit cards. Con explains how he has observed their civil liberties — it figures the first time anyone’s civil liberties are respected, it would be the Hardys — but despite being caught redhanded, Frank and Joe weasel their way out of an arrest and avoid being treated like regular folks. This is especially ironic since they later marvel at two crooks exercising their right to remain silent just before they break into an innocent man’s mansion to prove he’s guilty. They also leave the scene of an accident (admittedly, no Hardy was driving) without giving those at the scene a way to contact them to help with the accident report.

Fortune favors the prepared: On their trip to Southport, Frank and Joe’s vans get two flat tires, courtesy of a sniper. Frank and Joe have learned from their adventures, and the van actually comes stocked with two spare tires. Each also carries a spare packed overnight bag in their van.

Even the prepared mind can be baffled: Fenton is working on a case involving a stolen duplicating machine / printer of uncanny resolution. Frank and Joe are working on a case that involves many copies of excellent forgeries of baseball cards. The boys see a connection between the cases … and that connection is that maybe the person who Fenton is helping can inform them about printing technologies. So close!

Time catches up with all of us: Fenton seems to be in a bit of a decline. He literally is unable to escape from a cardboard box at one point. Near the end of Conspiracy, he goes to the police to get them to search for Frank and Joe after only a single night’s absence. Either that’s too much time or too little, and I can’t figure out which.

Ami d’hypocrite!: In Panic on Gull Island (#107), Joe absolves Iola for looking at guys while she’s on Spring Break with a friend. (He doesn’t do it to her face, of course, since she’d probably hit him and make him cry for saying it.) In Conspiracy, Joe flirts with and even asks for the phone number of a woman who was bilked by a counterfeiter. Sure, he says it’s to notify her if her money is recovered, but I think we all know what’s going on here.

March of technology: The Hardys recover a 3 ½-inch diskette that helps them figure out what’s going on. This is amusing from a modern perspective for two reasons: one, the diskette is an outmoded form of data storage, and two, Dixon had to distinguish it from the even more outmoded 5 ¼-inch diskette. Someday, people will be saying, “Remember CD-ROMs? Man, I haven’t seen one of those in forever!”

On a similar note, Frank and Joe have to go to a public library to search through old telephone directories. Although those directories are still useful to many people, a lot of libraries have thrown them out, and any real private investigator would have purchased a subscription to a database that would do the same thing.

Nothing half-hearted about this guy: Usually, you wonder why the villains don’t just kill the Hardys and be done with it. That’s not the case with the main thug in Conspiracy, who tries to throw Frank from a train, shoots out their tires while they are driving on Shore Road, attempts to firebomb their van, and hits both boys in the head with fastballs before clubbing Joe in the skull with a baseball bat. (That probably should have been debilitating, if not fatal.)

Double Entendre Theater, where we like what we see, if you know what we mean: One morning, Frank goes to the breakfast table and finds his parents “lingering over breakfast.” They had been up late the night before … “discussing the case.” So that’s what the kids call it these days.

Yes, I know it’s juvenile. I don’t care.

Opinions: I was surprised by this one. I had low expectations, but this book managed to function on two levels for me: a time capsule of the time when collecting baseball cards was a craze and as a solid digest. As I mentioned, economics is not this book’s long suit, but there are a few touches that show the author knows the Hardys, and the plot is simple enough, with just enough good suspects, to keep the reader guessing.

Grade: B+. A superior digest, although if you don't have fond memories of collecting baseball cards, it might not get much above average for you.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Panic on Gull Island (#107)

Panic on Gull Island coverPlot: Iola is missing on Spring Break, and Joe and Chet eventually head down to a Florida motel to find her.

“Borrowing” from the past: Iola Morton is Joe’s girlfriend — it even says the pair are “going together” on the very first page. That reasonable and natural description of their relationship may not seem remarkable, but it was never used in the first 50 Hardy Boys books. Never. Instead, there were euphemisms like Iola being Joe’s “special friend,” “best girl,” “regular date,” even “staunch supporter.” It’s also revealed in Gull Island that Joe gave Iola a watch engraved with the romantic (for him) inscription of, “To Iola, From Joe.” This is the first thing, as far as I’ve known, that he’s ever given her.

Iola is kidnapped in Gull Island. In the original canon, Iola was particularly resistant to such shenanigans; she was tied up, with the rest of the Mortons, in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37), and that’s it. As for injuries, her hair was singed in The Clue in the Embers (#35), and she was knocked out after hitting her head on a boat’s gunwale, which caused her to fall into Barmet Bay in The Secret of Pirate's Hill (#36). (The ‘50s weren’t great for Iola.) She was also pulled underwater in Tic-Tac-Terror (#74). Falling into the bay was the worst thing that happened to her … until she was blowed up in the first Hardy Boys Casefile, Dead on Target.

The Hardys are chased by some Doberman pinschers at one point. The Hardys have been chased by dogs for years, starting with a Russian wolfhound named Chan in Footprints Under the Window (#12) and continuing too many times to get into. They had previously been menaced by Dobermans in the first paperback adventure, The Night of the Werewolf (#59), and the revised A Figure in Hiding.

Do you care?: Joe seems slightly concerned but not exactly upset when Chet tells him Iola has disappeared. The first thing he does is drive to the airport to pick up Frank and Fenton — like they couldn’t have hailed a cab — and the narration notes that Iola’s disappearance would “affect him as much as it did Chet.” Such a effaced way of expressing the thought — it allows the sentiment to be interpreted as an expression of possible grief (or joy, when she is found) as much as it does legal troubles the disappearance could cause them (did you have anything to do with it?). Nobody else seems too worked up either. It takes the adult ostensibly looking after Iola and her friend Daphne two days to call the Mortons. Two days! The Mortons send Chet, rather than a responsible adult, to investigate. And Fenton tells the boys to drive all the way down there — a 24-hour trip that leaves them exhausted — rather than flying them down there.

On the other hand, Joe is so worked up over Iola’s disappearance he can’t muster the will to make a fat joke while he and Chet wait for Fenton and Frank to arrive. Frank, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat, going for a joke about Chet’s appetite minutes after surviving a crash landing on a passenger plane.

Separation of Frank and Joe: At the beginning of Gull Island, Fenton and Frank are returning from a detecting trip to Chicago. Why was Joe left behind? To make some calls and talk to a “friend” from the telephone company about some things. He could have done that from Chicago! Besides, Joe doesn’t have any friends that Frank doesn’t have, right?

What are you driving, a wheelbarrow?: At about 3 a.m., Chet estimates he and the Hardys are 300 miles from the Florida border and about 18 hours from Gull Island. The fictional Gull Island is somewhere between Naples and Sarasota. That’s … that’s incredibly slow.

Since they’d just eaten, they wouldn’t have to stop again until Florida, at least — about five hours away, since the speed limit back then was probably 55 mph. But to get from the Florida border to Fort Myers, Fla. — which is between Sarasota and Naples and closer to Naples, the more southerly city — is between 300 and 350 miles, depending on the route. Most of it would be on the interstate. Even with highway driving, eight hours would be a long time; Mapquest estimates it at about five and a half, although the speed limit is higher now. So will they be taking four to six hours of meals and bathroom breaks on such an important trip?

Long arm of the Syndicate: The Stratemeyer Syndicate, which created and controlled the Hardy Boys series for decades, revised the books in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. One of the things they wanted to do was have Frank and Joe more respectful of the police (and other authority figures) and to make those with authority more worthy of respect.

In Gull Island, the Hardys and Chet are stymied in their investigation by the worst lawman ever. The deputy sheriff obviously wouldn’t know a crime wave if it bit him in the hinder. He decides a kidnapping, a boat theft, destruction of a private dock, vandalism, and a boat explosion are not only unconnected incidents but not crimes at all. He responds to the kidnapping concerns by saying that since there was no ransom note, there obviously was no kidnapping — financial gain evidently being the only reason for kidnapping a pretty teenage girl that he can conceive of. (And that’s putting aside the possibility that the case was murder.) The only question is whether the deputy is incompetent or corrupt, but the end of the story suggests (in its omission of the deputy) that the readers were never supposed to regard the deputy as corrupt at all. Still, he’s pretty awful.

On the other hand, everyone else is stupid in how they handle him. The locals seem to think he has no superior, with no one mentioning appealing to the county sheriff’s office. One local suggests running against him in an election, but that’s asinine — deputies are generally appointed by the sheriff, who is the one who runs for office. It takes until two-thirds of the way through the book before anyone mentions the state police, let alone any other level of law enforcement. In a technical sense, even if the deputy believed Iola was kidnapped, that crime is the jurisdiction of the FBI rather than a county office. No one even mentions talking to insurance investigators about the crimes.

In the end, though, it shows how little everyone wants to get Iola back that no one alerts the media. There might not have been a 24-hour news cycle in 1991, but I guarantee that the disappearance of a female teenager on Spring Break would cause a firestorm of attention on the case. Things would start happening. But no one thinks about putting pressure on the police by even threatening that. No, no — that would interfere with Frank and Joe’s “investigating,” which mainly involves trespassing and crashing parties.

Seriously, Iola, you might want to think about finding better friends.

Com-put-tor: The Hardys are on the cutting edge of technology; they take a portable phone (which gets stolen), a fax machine (!), and a portable computer (which if I remember those days correctly, was only barely portable). But that’s not all; by connecting through Fenton’s computer, they’re able to find a client list for a local car rental agency (primitive hacking?), and when they go to the police in Miami, all the current real estate owners are listed on a computer by the parcel they own. Given that many counties haven’t made that leap twenty years later, the Hardys are very lucky.

Gator gonna getcha: In the book, Alligator Alley — the highway that runs between Naples and Miami across the Everglades — is described as a narrow road, with a soft, sandy shoulder. One mistake, according to Joe, would end with the van in the swamp.

As originally constructed, the road was indeed a two-lane highway, but now it’s a four-lane toll road, part of Interstate 75. It’s long and straight, and in the middle of the night, it could serve as prime territory for someone wanting to see how fast their vehicle can go. Interestingly, the change from two to four lanes came during the time Gull Island saw print; Gull Island was published in 1991, and the expansion took place between 1986 and 1992.

Hurricane … No?: I am shocked — shocked! — that there is no hurricane in this book. There’s plenty of wind and rain, but there’s no hurricane. I know that Spring Break does not fall during hurricane season, but logic has never been a concern as far as the Hardys are concerned.

Do you remember what happened in previous cases, Frank?: Frank leads Joe to trespass on a suspect’s property. He tells Joe, “The worst that can happen … is he’ll tell us to get off his property.” That sentiment is interrupted by a charge from the suspect’s guard dogs. Also, they suspect the man of being involved in a kidnapping; shouldn’t Frank have considered getting abducted a possibility? Not to mention worse fates, like being injured or killed?

Chet seems to have figured things out, though. When Frank and Joe ask him to pose as a cable installer and tell him, “Just check out the person’s reaction to the name. That’s all,” Chet says, “Every time you say ‘that’s all,’ I seem to get knocked out or tied up!”

Joe is not a lawyer: At one point, when Joe picks up a real estate contract and starts browsing it, the narration notes his lack of legal knowledge. For an “amateur” private investigator and someone his mother wanted to be a lawyer, his ignorance of the law is amazing. He enters a man’s house; because the door was unlocked, he claims that he isn’t guilty of breaking and entering, although that doesn’t matter. He hands over a pair of thugs who tried to run him off the road to police, claiming they’re guilty of aggravated battery; that’s not what trying to knock someone off the road with a vehicle is, and the reader never sees them commit aggravated battery. And finally, he obtains a confession from a suspect with the threat of letting the man drown; obviously, Joe has never heard of “duress.”

This is still better than Frank. To stop the criminals from escaping, he steals a speedboat and destroys it by ramming it into the criminals’ boat.

Oh, this time you’re interested: At the end of The Secret of the Island Treasure, Frank and Joe reject Hurd Applegate’s offer of another mystery, which involved finding a lost silver mine in Latin America. In fact, they run away like little children at the mention of the boogey man. But when their local contact in Gull Island talks about a sunken treasure galleon, they are all over that action.

Opinions: I think the Dixon for this book was trying to write a James Bond story for teenagers rather than a Hardy Boys book. There was little or no help from the police — in fact, when the Hardys do secure their cooperation, they act rashly and violently before the police arrive. They attend a party to try to gain intelligence. They ignore the law to go where they want to go. They talk with the chief suspect, with each side knowing the other’s true intentions but with each maintaining a patina of civility. There’s a nice semi-tropical location as well. The villain even has a pool full of sharks, like Largo has in Thunderball. As you can imagine, it doesn’t work very well, especially since the sharks don’t eat anyone.

The Hardys’ remarkable resistances and powers are taken to ridiculous extremes. They wander into Miami off Alligator Alley and hand over a couple of thugs to police, and instead of having to answer a lot of inconvenient questions, the police take their word for things — and the boys don’t even have to invoke the name of Fenton Hardy. The boys and Iola are also gassed with the pesticide methyl bromide (also known as bromomethane), with Joe and Iola falling unconscious; they are both revived without complications. However, methyl bromide at those concentrations should have caused some sort of complications, since the pesticide is highly irritating to the eyes, skin, and linings of the nose and throat. It’s not just a random knockout gas: it’s a chemical gas meant to kill things.

Grade: C-. One of those books whose plot falls apart if you look at it wrong, and not in a fun way.