Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Killing in the Market (Casefiles #18)

A Killing in the Market coverPlot: Aunt Gertrude’s new boyfriend is murdered, leaving Gertrude the prime suspect.

“Borrowing” from the past: This is not the first time this blog has seen Gertrude’s love life, as unpleasant as it might seem. In Past and Present Danger (#166), an old friend — reporter Clayton Silvers — mentions Gertrude was once engaged to a local business owner, who died before the wedding. (The engagement was first mentioned by Fenton in The Phantom Freighter #26.) In A Killing in the Market, Gertrude is romanced by investment banker Cyril Bayard (real name: Henry Simone). I don’t want to say anything about Gertrude, but a couple of men have already died to get out of relationships with her. If it happens again, it’s a pattern.

Killing mentions a few locations in Bayport, such as the Cliffside Heights neighborhood, Archer Street, Bay Road, and the Shore Inn, but none of them have appeared in the original canon. Nearby towns such as Bridgefield and Kirkland (destinations for trains from New York through Bayport) are also new, although Bridgeport and Bridgewater have popped up in the past.

Lives of the American privileged: As I mentioned in the review of Past and Present Danger, books that focus on Gertrude tend to shuffle Laura off the stage at an early spot. In Killing, Fenton takes Laura on a month-long vacation, and when Fenton returns to investigate Simone’s murder, she’s shuffled off to the neighbors’ house.

Good in a crisis: After Gertrude is arrested, Frank and Joe fall back on their all-purpose solution: investigation! A more practical course of action might be to a) call Fenton, who is on vacation with Laura, and b) to get a lawyer for Gertrude. The latter might be a result of the Hardys’ family prejudice toward lawyers, as Fenton doesn’t advise Gertrude to talk to a lawyer, even when she seems about to confess to murder.

But given how quickly Fenton gets results, you can only guess that Frank and Joe just wanted a rest from Gertrude — just a few moments of peace and quiet, and if she has to be incarcerated for them to get it, then by God, Gertrude’s getting prison time. One can see the direct link from this lack of human compassion to a relative in need to the boys’ insistence on investigating “their case,” in the face of nuclear annihilation, in The Pacific Conspiracy (Casefiles #78).

On the other hand, perhaps Joe just doesn’t give a damn. He says Gertrude’s too old for love — not to her face, of course, but to Frank. (Frank rightly calls him a “rotten nephew” a few pages later.) He runs down Cyril / Henry just because he’s an investment banker, since “the papers are full of stories about swindlers — guys who work for these big-and-mighty companies and steal clients’ money left and right!” Joe is right, but that’s hardly helpful, since Gertrude’s money is already gone. When Cyril / Henry’s house is ransacked and Cyril is gone, Joe says “maybe” he’s still alive.

Lying to the police, in this case, is considered a blessing: When asked about her last evening with Cyril / Henry by Officer Con Riley, Gertrude says, “We went for a long walk the night before last. Please, you’re not going to ask what we talked about, are you?” Because she’s not going to think up a lie quickly enough, since there was little talking during the activity “walk” is a euphemism for (Lothar of the Hill People knows the euphemism well, although Lothar was a couple of years after Killing was released).

Sentences that have never been seen in a Hardy Boys book before: “‘You’re awfully quiet, Aunt Gertrude,’ Frank finally said as they stopped for a traffic light.”

Is it weird that I find normal male / female interaction in a Hardy Boys book odd?: In Killing, there is a moment of genuine, indisputable romantic contact between a boy and a girl. It isn’t a playful peck, or some cheeky “reward” for lifesaving. Frank “wrapped his arms around [Callie] and touched his lips to hers.” The description lacks passion or artfulness, and the scene is interrupted by Joe, doing his little brother duty, honking the van’s horn and mocking his brother’s moment of intimacy.

You don’t measure up, Callie: Despite a male member of the Hardy family showing his approval for Callie by touching her, Gertrude pointedly asks Callie to stay in the van while the police question Gertrude about Henry’s murder because “it’s family business.” Well, it’s an investigation; of course that’s family business. I suppose dating Frank for 60 years isn’t enough to qualify Callie for membership in the Hardy clan, though. You’ll just have to wait for that ring, Callie! Of course, Callie’s waited so long even Miss Havisham would say, “Really, I think you’d better move on, dear.”

But still, she’s subject to the will and whims of the Hardy family. When Frank and Joe head to Henry’s funeral, Joe is afraid Callie will follow them; Frank says that won’t happen because he “had a long talk with her.” Of course; she wouldn’t dare disobey you, Frank.

Girls! If they’re not getting blown up, they’re bossing you around: After a day of investigation, Frank finds a message on his answering machine from Callie, who wants to know how their day went. Joe jokes, “So she can tell us how we could have done it better!” It seems an incredibly defensive thing for Joe to say; perhaps he misses having someone to share his adventures with.

Do you pay attention to where you live?: Greenwich Village reminds Frank of a “citified Bayport.” Really — a citified Bayport? The middle and upper-class nature of both make sense, but the Village has a bohemian, liberal, arty reputation, which Bayport does not. Bayport is the crime capital of the East Coast, and even its better-off part of the city is infested with criminals.

Opposite reactions: When Frank and Joe poke their nose into the murder investigation, two suspects have completely different reactions. Dodgy accountant Justin Spears hands over his clients’ confidential information with barely a demur, while swindling stockbroker Norman Fleckman offers them tobacco products, then tries to kill them. Fleckman also tries to go the bribery route before the murder attempt, dangling such well-known enticements as “jazzy clothes” and a “hot new car” in front of the boys. Joe claims he just “panicked,” but those are the sort of reactions one has to extreme intimidation, but it’s not like Frank and Joe are burly thugs waving guns and / or indictments around.

Premature exultation: While the boys are in New York, the boys use a ticker-tape parade for the World Series champs as cover for their getaway. However, no New York team won the 1988 World Series — in fact, neither New York team won the Series between 1986, when the Mets beat the Red Sox in seven, and 1996, when the Yankees took their first championship since 1978 (their longest drought since the team won its first World Series in 1923). In 1988, the Yankees finished fifth in a mediocre American League East, 3 ½ games behind the Red Sox; the Mets won the National League East, but lost in the playoffs to the eventual champions, Los Angeles, in seven games.

Always be prepared: When Gertrude is accused of using one of her knitting needles to kill her boyfriend, she protests, “Why would I bring a knitting needle on a walk?” Con Riley doesn’t answer, logically enough, that she always seems to have her knitting needles, even when she and the boys investigate Cyril’s ransacked house.

No wonder the boys have so little respect for civil rights: Fenton has no ideas what Constitutional protections offer people. When the Bayport police are exploring theories of the murder, Fenton protests that they must enter into the investigation assuming Gertrude was innocent until proven guilty. Well, no, Fenton; the police can formulate theories that lead them to believe a suspect is as guilty as sin. It’s the press, judges, and juries who must make that assumption. Riley is too polite to tell Fenton he’s an idiot.

That makes no sense: When Joe is firing up the van to pursue a suspect, Frank cautions Joe to drive more carefully: “A little less speed will get us there as fast.” I’m not sure what science classes Frank has taken, but evidently physics wasn’t one of them.

I do envy your skills, Joe: To foil the criminal, Joe makes a not-very-convincing attempt to switch briefcases that involves the cooperation of a random woman stopped on in a traffic jam. The trick works, and after the criminal is arrested, the woman slips Joe her business card, then gives him a wink and a smile. This is remarkable, as the woman is probably — given her business paraphernalia — at least five years older than Joe, who had involved her in a situation with a gun-wielding murderer who set fire to his own motorcycle to show how serious he was.

Opinions: A story about crooked investment bankers is even more relevant today than it was in 1988, and if anything, the story makes the cheats seem a little too innocent (except for the murder attempts). Yes, these guys are bilking people out of their money, but no one in this book is Bernie Madoff; additionally, nothing these people are doing is likely to bring around a worldwide financial crisis. It’s just mainstream financial malfeasance, and as a warning to the young that Wall Street is not to be trusted, Killing works well. One has to think the book was partly inspired by the Black Monday crash the year before (October 19, 1987).

This one would be a good mystery except for the people in it. There’s a murder, the cops reach the logical conclusion, and there is a point in the book, about two-thirds of the way through, when it’s obvious who the murderer is. But the characters … Joe is a massive jerk, the suspects are nervous and insane, going from 0 to murder in about ten seconds. The chief suspect burns his own motorcycle to destroy evidence, blames Frank and Joe, then when the police show up, he claims it was childish high spirits and declines to press charges. Insane.

But Gertrude is the biggest disappointment. Faced with the largest challenge she’s ever seen in a Hardy Boys book, she crumbles. That seems alien to those who have read the series from the beginning. Gertrude falling to pieces seems so out of character; she should be sniping at the police, sarcastic, giving them a hard time, and telling the boys to do something useful. Maybe she gets a little weepy once or twice; maybe not. I’m not inflexible. But Gertrude falls apart early and stays useless through the rest of the story; the only non-weepy acts she undertakes are lying to the police and acting guilty. The last time we see any spirit from Gertrude is when she’s angry with Henry for standing her up, and she tells Con Riley that if he’s alive, she’ll kill him. Con says she’s “upset and confused,” which is polite; we all know she’s just Gertrude, but unfortunately, she’s not the real Gertrude for long.

Grade: C-. Dixon probably just panicked.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Pacific Conspiracy (Casefiles #78)

The Pacific Conspiracy coverPlot: Skipping ahead to the third book in the Ring of Evil trilogy, Frank and Joe have infiltrated the Assassins, working within a terror cell to discover their evil plan.

“Borrowing” from the past: Not much here. The Hardys have fought a lot of different scary animals, but I have to admit, I’ve never seen a komodo dragon in one of the books before. Kudos, Franklin W. Dixon! Frank is also rescued by the most convenient snake bite ever, as the snake attacks the Assassin who is about to inform his superiors about Frank’s true identity. The snake isn’t identified — it has black and gray stripes — but it kills quickly. (Sort of like the Vietnamese Two-Step Viper, except quicker.)

Real places: The Assassins try to detonate their world-altering nuclear bomb — a real Bond-villain plot — on Mount Agung. Mt. Agung is a real volcano on the Indonesian island of Bali; it last erupted in the early ‘60s. The Mother Temple of Besakih, a Hindu temple, is located on the slopes of the mountain.

That’s one way to put it: The narration says, on page 2, that the Hardys have infiltrated the Assassin cell through a “remarkable series of events.” Although the narration eventually fills in readers, such as me, who skipped the second book, I think I would have left it at that — actually explaining things doesn’t help at all. I prefer to take it on faith that I would find the explanation preposterous rather than to find out that I’m right.

One of the more idiotic aspects of this infiltration is that Frank and Joe don’t even bother to come up with aliases. Now, Frank and Joe have clashed with the Assassins before; in the first book, Dead on Target, the Assassins were even hired to kill Frank and Joe. Not all Assassin operatives will likely have heard of that utter failure, but you have to imagine that Frank and Joe are fairly well known in certain circles. It’s eventually revealed that the Assassins are playing with Frank and Joe — that they’ve known the entire time that Hardy boys are, in fact, the Hardy Boys — but it doesn’t make Frank and Joe (or the Network) seem any smarter.

Using their superpower of stupidity: Even beyond the idiocy of using their real names, I have, in my notes, many notations of Frank and Joe’s (mostly Joe’s) stupidity. When Joe is pursuing one of the Assassins on Mt. Agung, the Assassin invites him to come, unarmed, to fight him at the top of a ladder. Of course, the assassin waits and stomps on Joe’s hands when he gets to the top. When Joe’s not-girlfriend Gina reappears, miraculously alive, in the middle of an armed standoff in an Assassin camp despite being “killed” in the previous book by Assassins, Joe allows her to disarm him easily before he can get suspicious. Frank knocks a gun away from an Assassin and suddenly thinks he’s evenly matched with the man; the Assassin immediately begins kicking his butt until Frank’s final punch wins the fight.

Perhaps with Joe this is a priority of brainpower. When he’s pulled out of a canal with concrete boots, his first comment (on the escape of the Assassin who put his feet in concrete and tossed him in the canal) is, “Good riddance. The guy was nothing but dead weight anyway.” Not a great pun, but it is impressive when you consider how close to death Joe had just been.

Hail Mary bomb: Young supergenius (and nuclear bomb builder) Dr. Krinski is photographed in a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt with the #12 on it. That’s probably a reference to quarterback Roger Staubach, who retired in 1979. However, since the Cowboys don’t retire numbers, it could refer to other, lesser players who have taken that number since.

The March of Technology: When Krinski says he needs to check some calculations for his project, Frank volunteers to help. When Krinski asks for his qualifications, Frank mentions some computer programs he’s worked with. Just out of curiosity, what programs, commercially available in 1993, would Frank have used and be useful for modeling dropping a nuclear bomb through lava or constructing a nuclear bomb? Perhaps more pressingly, why the hell would Frank have used them? Modeling the trajectories of bullets, perhaps? Or pieces of shrapnel? Other than extreme crime scene recreation, I have no idea.

Your case. Really: When the Network and the Gray Man sensibly try to send the Hardys home, Joe complains it’s their case. Never mind that competent agents don’t need a couple of teenagers mucking up their search for a nuclear bomb; it’s Frank and Joe’s case! And because it’s their book as well, they manage to slip their minders and return to the investigation. When they manage to pick up the trail of an Assassin agent, Frank declines to call the Network so they can investigate on their own. Hey, what’s a little nuclear annihilation compared to the glory of the Hardy Boys?

Do you really want an answer to that question?: When Frank and Joe find a dead body, a Network agent asks them, “You didn’t move the body, did you?” Joe indignantly responds, “What do you think we are? Amateurs?” Depends on the mystery, Joe — you usually do protest that you’re amateur detectives.

One MILLION dollars: When the Assassins threaten the world with their world-altering nuclear bombs, they make their ransom demands to the United Nations General Assembly. Because, yes, when you want quick action and results, the organization you go to is the UN General Assembly. They may have had better results by submitting their demands to the Girl Scout National Board of Directors — that cookie money does add up, I imagine.

There’s no racism like subtle racism: The Balinese lad who helps the Hardys (and saves the world by informing on them to the police) is named Haji. That sounds worse today than it did in 1993, given that “Hadji” is a derogatory term used for Iraqis by American soldiers during the Iraq War.

False dichotomy: When Frank is following Joe and Network agent Endang up Agung, he finds the motorbike they were riding. His immediate thought is either the pair were captured or killed. He fails to consider they may have abandoned the bike for noise or mechanical reasons or a dozen other reasons. And remember, Frank’s the smart one.

My girlfriend’s back: At the end of Pacific Conspiracy, Vanessa Bender wanders up to the Hardy home. I had no idea Joe was dating Vanessa at this point; I thought she was introduced later in the series. Joe’s behavior toward Gina and Endang gave me no indication he was going out with anyone.

Vanessa’s entrance line is, “Glad to see me?” Joe answers, “You bet.” I was almost waiting for him to ask, “You won’t blow up on me or get shot or get shot again, will you?” I like to imagine two different responses from Vanessa:

a) “No, I’ll be fine, but if I hear about you flirting with or kissing another girl again, even to save your life, I swear to God you’ll be dead.”

b) “I promise I won’t die. But some day the Casefiles are going to end, Joe, and then what will happen to me? It won’t be death, but I won’t even have generated the nostalgia that will bring Iola back to life, even in a limited capacity. In a way, that’s even worse — a kind of a half existence, not quite here but not quite gone either. Is that what you want for me, Joe?”

I find the former more realistic, but I’m affected more by the latter. I never completely adjusted to Vanessa, but I always found her role interesting in a sad sort of way — she’ll never be Iola, to Joe or the readers, and she’ll never get a chance to be anyone else. In this sense, Assassin cell leader Nwali has Joe pegged: “I do envy your skills with the ladies, Joseph. One girlfriend dies, and you find another.”

Opinions: The Pacific Conspiracy, I suppose, is like a Casefile forcibly mated with one of those late Grosset & Dunlap books, a world-trotting adventure where the world just could coincidentally end up getting exploded by a nuclear bomb. The too easily beaten Assassins and their Bond-villain antics are tiresome and predictable, and although I appreciate that the Assassins were more sadistically overconfident than incompetent, they should have known Frank and Joe’s success level and just poisoned them. I also believe Nwali should have had a better quirk than a fondness for Indonesian puppet theater, though I give a tip of the hat to Dr. Krinski having a komodo dragon for a pet. Again, kudos, Franklin W. Dixon!

It did amuse me, however, when Frank creates a panic using rubber monkey-fighting snakes to escape from a Monday-to-Friday plane. Samuel L. Jackson would be proud!

Grade: C-. I do envy your skills, Joe.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tagged for Terror (Casefiles #76)

Tagged for Terror coverPlot: Frank and Joe head to Atlanta to find out why luggage is being stolen from Eddings Air flights.

“Borrowing” from the past: Fake jobs! The Hardys have a long and distinguished history of getting jobs for a week or less so they can investigate some sort of skullduggery. This must leave them with the most checkered resumes in the history of Western employment, but it does get results. In Tagged for Terror, the first book in the “Ring of Evil” trilogy, Frank and Joe work as baggage handlers for Eddings Air. To solve cases, Frank and Joe have also worked:

  • As sailors on the Black Parrot (The Twisted Claw, #18)
  • As a snake tender (Joe) and elephant feeder (Frank) in “Big Top” Hinchman’s circus (The Clue of the Broken Blade, #21)
  • In a Hay River restaurant (The Viking Symbol Mystery< #42)
  • In construction jobs on a Kentucky road project for Prito Construction (The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge , #45)
  • For a builder, learning the signs that a building is unsafe (The Crimson Flame, #77)
  • Moving scenery on a movie set (Cave In!, #78)
  • As Dandy Duck (Joe) and Piggy Bank (Frank) at Fantasieland (Sky Sabotage, #79)
  • As lumberjacks for the Peapack Lumber Company (The Demon’s Den, #82)
In addition, the boys washed dishes in return for a restaurant breakfast (What Happened at Midnight, #10), helped explore an underwater wreck and raised a sunken ship for Crux Salvage (The Secret Warning, #17), washed cars at the Highway Garage in Brockton (A Figure in Hiding, #16), worked as cowboys at the McVay Ranch (The Crimson Flame), were stationed in the Underwater and Grasses and Lillies sections of the State Experimental Farm (The Flickering Torch Mystery, #22), did chores for the Millwood Art School (The Haunted Fort, #44), and unloaded bricks for Prito Construction (The Outlaw’s Silver, #67).

Although he doesn’t step in behind the yoke, Frank mentions that he’s done some flying. His flying experience is chronicled in my post on Power Play (Casefiles #50).

Whee!: That is one boring cover — possibly the most boring of any book I’ve covered on this blog. There’s no danger, nothing interesting going on at all. It’s just Frank and Joe doing their fake job at Eddings Air. Not even Joe can convince himself it’s fun, even though he’s hanging off the side of the cart, getting ready to sidehack.

With Hank Forrester as “Ezra Collig”: The head of security for Eddings Air, Hank Forrester, is described as “a beefy, red-faced man in his fifties, with thinning salt and pepper hair.” He’s constantly denigrating Frank and Joe’s abilities and stealing their thunder. He reminds me of someone in these books, but I can’t remember who …

File under “good question”: Forrester may be a jerk, but he does have an interesting question: when Frank and Joe stand in as Fenton’s surrogates in investigating the missing baggage from the flights, he asks, “Private investigators? Where’s your license?” Usually, when they’re poking around on their own, it’s just a couple of kids being nosy — Encyclopedia Brown with higher stakes and a more literate audience. But on this case, they’re acting as Fenton’s surrogates, and presumably, neither Fenton’s time nor the boys’ is free.

There are all sorts of legal and liability issues to consider here; I mean, this isn’t the ‘60s, when you can send boys all over the country with minimal or no supervision. Life is more litigious and allegedly more dangerous (although I suspect the same number of childhood tragedies happened in each era, and today’s get more publicity). Back in the ‘60s and even the ‘70s, we could pretend that those sort of concerns didn’t matter. And we still can. But when a character points this out, it becomes a problem, and it would have been even when Tagged for Terror came out in 1993.

Ladies’ man: When the first pretty girl comes along, Joe starts flirting with her. That’s presumably why Iola was killed off at the beginning of the Casefiles series: to give Joe a chance to hit on whatever attractive girls the mystery brings along without guilt. He frequently did that anyway, late in the Grosset & Dunlap days, but no one ever thought it was strange he had a girlfriend and would flirt anyway — sometimes even in front of Chet, Iola’s brother. In this case, it’s Gina Abend, a ticket agent for Eddings. What’s strange is, she responds, despite a) having a boyfriend, and b) not being in high school. Looks like someone wants to rock the cradle of love. Frank tries to shut Gina out, but not even memories of Iola can keep Joe from following his heart (or other part of his anatomy).

To you kids all across the land, there’s no need to argue: adults just don’t understand: Forrester is always ragging on Frank and Joe’s investigation, and Eddings and his pilot, Solomon Mapes, treat them like kids. This the way the books should be: adults are, generally speaking, not all that bright or observant. It’s the way life feels when you’re in high school (and when you’re in grade school or junior high, for that matter); it should be reflected in the books, especially when the Hardys are on the road.

God help him, he’s not very bright: While talking to Gina and Solomon (her boyfriend), Joe muses about the case, thinking an earlier airplane accident might have been intended to kill him and Frank rather than Eddings. Frank covers for him, but Joe really needs to learn to have an inner monologue.

Play to your strengths: It’s a running joke in the Casefiles: when Frank has a plan, Joe complains that Frank’s plans involve him doing something stupid. I’m not sure that’s actually the case, but I have to say, Joe is portrayed as being a little dull-witted, so at least those who have been watching the boys will feel the stupidity is in character.

Later in the book, Joe sarcastically suggests Frank’s plan will involve him dressing “up like a girl and [having] me bat my eyelashes at him until he tells me his deepest secrets.” This is the kind of plan Bugs Bunny devises, so I think we have an idea what Joe’s doing when Frank’s studying.

Mr. Architectural Snob: When Frank and Joe head to an area of Atlanta that’s a little run down, Joe notes the size of the houses; Frank immediately wonders how long it will be before the houses are knocked down (or fall down), just because the porch sags a little and the paint is faded and chipping. Not every place can be High and Elm, Frank. Geez.

Atlanta, still reeling from being burned to the ground during the Civil War: After Frank and Joe are ran off the road and one of their tires shot by a drive-by gunman, the boys tell their new acquaintances — “friends” would be too strong a word — about the incident. The big-city residents are blasé about attempted vehicular homicide and random gunplay on city streets during broad daylight, calling it “big city problems.” I don’t think I want to hang around with people who don’t at least say, “Sorry to hear that,” when they hear you’ve been shot at.

The March of Technology: Danny, an impoverished student who works at Eddings Air to put himself through college, uses an old manual typewriter, which shows how poor he is. Today, what would the equivalent be — a broken-down laptop? Going to the computer lab to do homework? An old IBM? I don’t know.

Also, for some reason, Frank and Joe don’t have their cell phone with them in Atlanta. Avoiding roaming charges, perhaps? In any event, when they have to call the police at the end of the book, one of them actually has to knock on a neighbor’s door and ask to use his phone.

Sorry, Mr. Hick, sir: Frank wakes Joe up at 4 a.m. before traveling two hours to Danny’s small hometown, his explanation being that people get up early in the country. Well, yes, some do, especially farmers, but those that work in offices (and some factories) won’t be up until later. And even the farmers won’t appreciate being interrupted at 6 a.m. by a pair of smart-assed kids.

And of course, rather than waiting until they’re off work and can visit these poor rural dwellers at a reasonable time, Frank and Joe skip work. That is, they don’t report to the work they need to keep to investigate the luggage thefts. They run the very real risk of getting fired, and no one who knows their mission could interfere without revealing their undercover mission.

Matters of the heart: At one point, Frank remembers his girlfriend, Callie, often helps them investigate crime. He also thinks he “often told Callie things that he would never tell anybody else.” What on earth would that be? What would he tell Callie that he would not tell his father or Joe? Frank and Joe are close, as close as any two human beings can be. Does Frank confess his secret insecurities to Callie? Does he tell her that he can’t maintain the constant investigations, that he will crack sooner or later?

Or does he tell her that he’s creeped out by Chet’s constant eating (suggesting a betting pool for his first heart attack?), or that Aunt Gertrude’s food really tastes like old person and disapproval?

We don’t need no stinkin’ proof: Near the end of the book, Joe doesn’t want to confront a suspect because they have no proof that he’s done something wrong. Constrast this to Joe’s behavior in Open Season (Casefiles #59), when he will accuse anyone of anything at any time.

Opinions: The Network and the Assassins are the Casefiles overlying storyline, and their appearance in Tagged for Terror is what gives the book the impetus to be the start of a trilogy. I admit, I’ve never warmed to Network vs. Assassins or the Hardys’ Network contact, the Grey Man; it seemed like it was stretching the suspension of disbelief much too far. Much of the Hardys’ adventures can’t stand too close examination, and really, the Hardys investigating superspies vs. contract killers can’t even be mentioned before snapping my belief. The later Casefiles moved away from this, and I appreciate it; I preferred the Casefiles to be the mysteries where the Hardys can investigate murders.

I was surprised by the sudden switch to the Casefiles mythology. Tagged for Terror starts as a normal investigation into a theft ring. And because it’s a Casefile, the bodies start to pile up. (I have to admit, it’s strange that getting shot at and forced off the road does not distinguish the grittier Casefiles from the more reserved canon and digests.) And in that light, it’s a pretty standard mystery, perhaps a little above average. But then the Grey Man shows up, and the Assassins are mentioned, and the Network has an interest … but Frank and Joe still do all the work. Is the Network what Reagan was thinking about when he complained about the inefficiency of government?

Grade: B-. I am amused by Joe’s plucky pick-up attempts.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Open Season (Casefiles #59)

Open Season coverPlot: While on a Colorado skiing trip, Frank and Joe stumble into the attempted murder of K.D. Becker, a wildlife researcher.

“Borrowing” from the past: When Joe and Frank are menaced by a mountain lion, Becker saves their lives by shooting the big cat with a tranquilizer dart. Back in the old days, Frank and Joe could have taken care of it themselves — mowing down wolves in Hunting for Hidden Gold (#5), successfully hunting a fox in The Mystery of Cabin Island (#8), or just bonking a tiger in the head with a rock in The Disappearing Floor (#19). Frank was hardcore in The Short-Wave Mystery (#24), killing a lynx with a radio antenna.

In any event, Frank and Joe faced off against pumas / cougars / mountain lions in The Clue of the Screeching Owl (#41) and the only time Frank and Joe dealt with a cougar is in The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20), although the creature is shot before Frank and Joe see it in Express. However, what the various Dixons mean by “wildcat” is sometimes in doubt; occasionally it seems to be larger than the small, wild feline the term usually refers to. The Hardys were confronted by wildcats in The Secret of Wildcat Swamp (#31), of course, and in Mystery of the Desert Giant (#40) and The Voodoo Plot (#72).

This is not the first time the boys have gone cross-country skiing. The previous times include the most famous winter mysteries, The Mystery of Cabin Island and The Yellow Feather Mystery (#33), although they were skiing across the Bayport countryside rather than the Rocky Mountains. Frank and Joe are also described as “able” skiers in Cave-In! (#78). Open Season is set during the Hardys’ two-week Christmas vacation. Previous mysteries that have taken place during the Christmas holidays include The Cabin Island Mystery, The Mysterious Caravan (#54), and Cave-In!.

One of the suspects in the case has a shortwave radio in his cabin. It’s been quite a while since Frank and Joe have come across one of those. Their most famous encounter with the short waves was in both versions of The Short-Wave Mystery, but they also had shortwaves in the original What Happened at Midnight (#10), The Secret of Skull Mountain (#27), Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39), The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42), The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge (#45), The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46), The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo (#47), Tic-Tac-Terror (#74), and The Blackwing Puzzle (#82) and revised versions of The Shore Road Mystery (#6), A Figure in Hiding (#16), The Secret Warning (#17), The Twisted Claw (#18), The Disappearing Floor, The Secret of Wildcat Swamp, and The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37). Really, it seems like it was a craze in the 1960s.

Feels like he’s wearing nothing at all: At the beginning of Open Season, Joe describes his “tight-fitting, one-piece, insulated ski suit” as “the cutting edge of ski technology and fashion. It’s lightweight, gives me room to move — and it matches my baby blues.” Which reminded me of this scene from the Simpson, where Homer is distracted by a memory of Flanders in his skin-tight ski suit: “Stupid sexy Flanders.”

Rocky Mountain high: Gunnison National Forest, where the story is set, actually exists in west central Colorado; it’s not incredibly far from Aspen, to throw out a name of a ski town that you’ve heard of, but there are other wilderness areas that are closer. (Such as White River National Forest, which is just to the north.) Gunnison forms a larger unit with Grand Mesa and Uncompahgre forests, which combine for more than 3 million acres in the Rockies in west central and southwestern Colorado. (Uncompahgre is near Telluride, another ski town.) The forests have the unattractive acronym of GMUG.

The Hardys drift into and out of the small town of Elk Springs. There is an Elk Springs in Colorado, but it’s not in or adjacent to Gunnison National Forest. Elk Springs is in northwestern Colorado, closer to White River National Forest and Routt National Forest.

He who breaks the law shall be punished back to the House of Pain: The sheriff points out their “investigation” is actual grand theft, since they swiped a snowmobile to get away from a bunch of cattle hands while the boys were trespassing. Although the owner of the snowmobile owner declines to press charges, the sheriff has another chance to use the law against the boys, when they’re helping a fugitive evade the law. The sheriff threatens to charge them as accessories, while Frank counter-threatens to sue for wrongful injury since he was knocked out by shrapnel while being shot at by a deputy.

Poor, poor pitiful us: While Frank and Joe are challenging one another to push themselves while cross-country skiing, Frank silently complains that others don’t see the boys’ best qualities: “Other people saw only a couple of teenagers. They didn’t see the serious, dedicated detective team.” There’s a reason for that, exemplified by this book: Frank and Joe frequently don’t do much detecting, unless you count random accusations, trespassing, and breaking and entering as “detecting.”

While confronting a cougar poacher, Frank and Joe are momentarily stopped by the hunter’s assertion that he has permission to hunt on the land. A bystander, however, points out the owner is Becker, who is a wildlife researcher unlikely to give permission to someone killing cougars. Joe complements him, saying, “Nice piece of detective work.” Given that Joe’s idea of detective work was to barrel into an armed man on skis, that’s damning with faint praise, although it’s not meant to be.

Frank also criticizes the sheriff, asking him, “Do you solve a lot of cases by eavesdropping?” Given how many cases Frank and Joe have cracked through that technique, I don’t think Frank has anything to complain about.

Ha!: After Joe’s only plan to gather more information on a poacher is to burst into his hospital room and grill “him relentlessly for hours,” Frank accuses him of reading too many cheap detective novels. “They don’t come much cheaper than us,” Joe says, which is true — you can’t find mysteries much cheaper than the Hardy Boys. Later, when Frank needs a distraction to use the library’s computer (it has a modem!), Joe ends up checking out a stack of paperback whodunits.

Who are you, and what have you done with Frank?: While staying at the cabin of one of the suspects — a very accommodating suspect — Frank makes “ a conscious effort not to snoop around the cabin.” This behavior is inimical to the Hardy Boys and everything they stand for. When a suspect is out of his home, and you’re in it, you snoop! Dammit, what is wrong with kids these days?

Rural decay: Frank says the small mountain town of Elk Springs is his kind of place: “Most of these stores look like they’ve always been here and always will be. There are no instant neon fast-food minimalls. No highrise office complexes.” Joe also chimes in, saying the lack of development is charming. The local they’re chatting with has a more realistic point of view: what they’re praising is a general lack of economic development caused by the lack of tourism. For Frank and Joe the economic isolation and general lack of development is quaint. For the locals, it’s a slow economic death sentence.

Plan and plan! What is plan?: Frank uses a “clever” subterfuge to get close enough to a suspect to question him. Joe turns the questioning into a series of accusations, because in Open Season Joe is an idiot. After the failure of the interview, Frank criticizes Joe, saying, “The plan was to draw him into a conversation and see if anything slipped out, not hurl accusations in his face.” Good general rule, perhaps, but Frank didn’t see fit to actually fill Joe in on the plan before the interview — the extent of his instructions to his brother were, “Leave this to me.” More polite than “Keep your mouth shut,” perhaps, but what intelligent person is going to think that’s going to work with Joe?

Are they blind?: After a perilous climb that ended with them falling several feet in a pickup truck that flipped over as an avalanche started, Frank and Joe drive to the hospital to see Becker. The ER nurses think the boys are there for treatment; Frank is amazed that he and his brother look like they need treatment. Didn’t they see each other after the dust from the avalanche settled? Or while they were driving back to Elk Springs? I swear, they have to be the least observant detectives in the history of ever.

Opinions: I don't know why it bothers me so much that Frank and Joe don’t do any detecting in Open Season. They often trespass, break and enter, and randomly accuse people in other books; why is it so bad here? Perhaps because they encounter a sheriff who is actually willing to enforce those laws against the Hardys; perhaps because I’m just getting fed up with it. Their techniques have the subtlety of a brick wrapped in burlap, although their shadowing skills are generally pretty good given the lack of cover.

Open Season does get points for its underused setting. Winter in the mountains — the isolation, the closed pool of suspects, the potential for “accidents” … it’s a good setup. Open Season fails to make full use of it, but it’s a good idea.

Grade: C. A dull “adventure” in which Frank and Joe’s atrophied detecting skills are helped by the target-rich environment.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Beyond the Law (Casefiles #55)

Beyond the Law coverPlot: Ezra Collig is accused of corruption from his time in Millerton, a quarter of a century before. When the Hardys and others investigate, the police commissioner and a TV reporter are nearly blown up.

“Borrowing” from the past: Beyond the Law really takes the time to fill in Ezra Collig’s past in a way that hadn't been done before. In the original canon, Collig’s life was a blank slate; he’s an old acquaintance and occasionally friend of the Hardys who professionally serves as anything from a hindrance to a lackey. Other than being afraid of bad publicity, being in his late 40s, and gaining the office of chief of police fewer than five years before, Collig has done little but sell Frank and Joe the supervan they use in the Casefiles and Digests. But Beyond the Law fills in the gaps. He dropped out of school to earn some money, joined a road construction crew, then made it onto the Millerton Police Department. After a brief term of service — he quit after exposing his partner’s graft — he returned to high school in Atlantic Heights, married his teacher Bea Cowan after graduation, and then joined the force in Bayport, rising all the way to the top. Bea passed away shortly before the beginning of Beyond the Law.

Collig also reminisces about how the increasing awareness of the legal rights of criminals has put a crimp in crimefighting. It’s amusing to hear Collig talk about how gunning a man down used to get you medals and a promotion but now gets you fired or that whacking suspected thieves on the calves was just prudent; it’s somewhat worrying to hear Collig complain about having to have sufficient cause to search a suspect, what with the Constitution and whatnot. Although on one hand this is a reminder that the past is a foreign country — they do things differently there — it’s also a reminder that the Hardy Boys canon, while ostensibly less violent than the Casefiles, had a lot of dodgy rights stuff going on within them that had nothing to do with racism. It’s also clear that the Hardy Boys can ignore the constitutional rights thing, as long as they don’t kill people or whack them in the calves.

Joe repairs the van, adjusting its timing. Joe has done a lot of mechanical work over the years, repairing the roadster and his motorcycle with his brother in While the Clock Ticked (#11), souping up a dirt bike in The Mystery of the Samurai Sword (#60), and tuning up the car in The Billion Dollar Ransom (#73). In A Figure in Hiding (#16), it’s said he liked “nothing more than a mechanical problem”; in The Crimson Flame (#77), the narration mentions he and his brother often work on their car.

Fenton’s sartorial advice for the mystery: “Wear a good suit, and you’re bound to get mud, crud, or blood on it. Only cops who stay in offices can dress up for the job.” For more of his pearls of wisdom, see Last Laugh (Casefiles #42).

Frank and Joe give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The boys have always been good at first aid, and both have given mouth to mouth before: Joe in The Secret of Pirate’s Hill (#36) and The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42), Frank in The Clue in the Embers (#35), The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge (#45), and The Arctic Patrol Mystery (#48). Probably the most challenging first-aid work that either has ever done was in The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20), during which Frank attended the victims of a train derailment.

Where is Bayport?: After Frank and Joe have a few sticks of dynamite lobbed at them while on the interstate on their way back to Bayport, Joe asks, “Hey, you’re not going to try to catch the Mad Bomber of Route I-forty-nine, are you?” Although I don’t know what Route I-49 could mean other than Interstate 49, Bayport is nowhere near that road. I-49 runs between I-10 in Lafayette and I-20 in Shreveport, entirely within the state of Louisiana.

When Joe looks for Millerton on the map, he notes that it’s as far away from Bayport as one can get and still stay in the same state. Later, when the boys head to Millerton, the narration says it took a couple of hours. That leaves New York and Connecticut out of the running for Bayport (at least for this book); from New York City to Buffalo is more than six hours, and nothing in Connecticut is even close to being two hours from anything else in Connecticut (traffic permitting). But two hours works out about right for New Jersey; both the southeast and southwest corners of the state are about two and a half hours from the New Jersey part of the New York metropolitan area. If you move away from New York, say to Long Branch, Keansburg, or Asbury Park, the time works out about right.

Idiot’s Affairs: Obviously, when the scandal about what Collig might have done in Millerton comes out, the publicity conscious Bayport PD kicks him to the curb and starts their own Internal Affairs investigation. Why they do this is beyond me; the allegations were more than a quarter century earlier, and it has nothing to do with Bayport. (The Millerton PD seems uninterested in the allegations.) The IA detectives turn up nothing, of course; it takes two motivated teenagers to get something done. Like notice that a bunch of cops quit at about the same time as Collig. Frank and Joe don’t actually talk to any of these cops, but hey, they took the first step.

The new top of the police bureaucracy is portrayed as the villains in this book, but it’s hard to dispute two of their points: Kid vigilantes have no business in modern crime control, and if the entire city government was corrupt, it’s a reasonable assumption that Collig or someone on his force was also corrupt. Of course the investigation is shoddy and wrongheaded, but they at least started from the right point.

The March of Technology: While using the Millerton Police Department’s equipment, Frank finds their link to state databases is a “nearly obsolete computer.” I (barely) remember computers in 1991, and I’m having trouble figuring out what could be both nearly obsolete in 1991 and could still uplink with the state servers. A TRS-80? An Apple II?

When Frank and Joe announce on live radio they are going to Millerton to investigate the allegations against Collig, nearly everyone seems to hear the news. In a town with its own TV station, would everyone really be listening to the radio for an update on the Collig “corruption” case?

When Frank and Joe go with Callie to visit her friend Liz at the Bayport Times, they find her working on a typewriter. When I worked at newspapers, a half decade later at newspapers not much bigger than the Times, no one used typewriters — everything was computerized, although sometimes clunkily. But in 1991 … is Liz’s typewriter an anachronism, or is it a possibility? I don’t know.

I’ll take Forced Metaphors for $400, Alex: In a bit of deathless prose, Frank muses, “They’ll figure Collig left Millerton under a cloud … I just hope that cloud doesn’t rain on the chief’s parade.”

The Eagle: According to Beyond the Law, Bayport’s TV station is WBPT. There is, of course, no television station with that call sign; however, since 2001 it has been the call sign of a radio station in central Alabama: 106.9, the Eagle — “Birmingham’s home for classic hits.” When Beyond the Law came out, the station was WBMH, a country station. That iteration lasted about a year.

Modesty will get you nowhere: Frank mentally complains about the media always using the phrase “famous private detective” to describe Fenton. I know it must get monotonous — Fenton might as well change his name to Famous Private Detective Fenton Hardy, FPDF Hardy for short — but he is a famous private detective. Again, Frank and Joe have been using his name across the country as a get-out-of-logic-free card for years.

Separation of Frank and Joe, Part II: Like in Panic on Gull Island, Joe has a friend independent of Frank. Unlike in Gull Island, this cryptozoological specimen has a name: Johnny Berridge, a cameraman at WBPT. Berridge is obviously not a chum, which means he’s a … a … (I can hardly bear to say it) … a source.

In the old days, of course, the Hardys didn’t have sources — at least not consistent ones. They would come to town, pump you dry of information, and go about their business, never to see you again. If you were lucky, you might get to be a chum for a book, serving as extra manpower or as a sort of guide. But a consistent source? That suggests the Hardys have some sort of plan about their sleuthing, and that’s just un-Hardylike. On the other hand, it probably fits the Casefiles better.

Taking the wrong notes from Collig: After replacing Collig, acting chief Parker Lawrence tells Frank and Joe they are “finished on this case”; like Collig in Power Play (Casefiles #50), he forgets Frank and Joe have no real standing to be on the case, so there isn’t really a “case” where they are concerned, and they don’t work for him, so it’s not like he has the power to order them off the case. Threaten them with arrest, yes; order them like a boss, no.

Yee-haw!: This Dixon notes Joe uses the high beams on the way to the Morton farm. This is not noteworthy. If you live on or travel to a farm at night, chances are you will frequently get to use the high beams.

Don’t give Joe any ideas: After Collig tells Frank and Joe that (in a non-creepy way) he married his high school teacher, Joe muses that it’s “one way to get good grades.” Joe, I know you’re single, what with Iola being reduced to particles, and the book learnin’ is sometimes a challenge, but there are laws against that sort of thing. I know you don’t care about laws when they apply to you, but they’re there for your protection. Trust me. The short-term gain isn’t worth it.

Now, your brother — he’s 18. He can do what he wants.

Opinions: This is the book that should have been #50 for the Casefiles. It uses the series’ continuity, referring to Frank and Joe’s work in See No Evil (Casefiles #8) as the impetus for the anti-corruption drive that ends up with the reform candidates seeking to drive out Collig. It also features Collig, a long-time supporting character. It’s also nice to see Ezra Collig’s backstory get fleshed out, although a random Casefile is an odd place for that to happen.

As for the mystery itself … Well, it’s better than Power Play, but that’s not saying very much. The reform party’s attempts to dig up dirt on Collig are feeble — actually, calling it feeble is an insult to all the feeble people out there, especially the feeble minded. Forget the technology of the computer, which Frank understands but the Internal Affairs cops do not; they don’t quite get the combination of telephones and personnel records. Or, when it comes down to it, talking, something Frank and Joe mastered quickly. Frank and Joe even found the right guy to talk to immediately.

Also: Tossing dynamite at the Hardys while both are driving down the interstate. I can’t tell if that’s completely mental or completely awesome, but either way, it has no part in a Hardy Boys book, and it’s quite telling that Frank and Joe drive away from the bombing as quickly as possible so that they don’t get caught up in the mentalness / awesomeness or the justice.

Grade: C. When you balance the highs and the lows, it’s completely average.