“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe mention they’ve taken Callie and Iola to the Bayport Diner, and Joe enjoys its banana cream pie. Joe claims it’s in a residential neighborhood close to their home, but the previously mentioned Bayport Diner was on the edge of town, bordered by woods in The Night of the Werewolf (#59). The Bayport Diner also appeared in The Vanishing Thieves (#66), The Outlaw’s Silver (#67), and The Track of the Zombie (#71). In The Secret of the Lost Tunnel (#29), Shorty’s Diner, a downtown establishment, was mentioned, and Mike’s popped up in The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28). An unnamed Bayport diner owned by Nick Papadapolos appeared in The Mummy Case (#63). Tom and Mary’s Diner was located on Shore Road outside Bayport in The Mysterious Caravan (#54).
Laura Hardy’s car is described as a failing station wagon — “on the verge of falling apart” with a broken radio and odometer. Laura had never been specifically given ownership of a vehicle before; the family had owned a sedan (The Disappearing Floor, #19, and The Yellow Feather Mystery, #33) as well as other unspecified models in the past.
The Hardys have a home computer, and Frank admits to doing a “little tinkering” with it. It would be important in later mysteries, but prior to this, there was little mention of home computing. In Revenge of the Desert Phantom (#84), Chief Collig sells the boys “surplus computer parts” at the same time he gave them their supervan, and in The Skyfire Puzzle (#85), there’s a computer in the van.
The boys tune in rock station WBAY while in their CompuCar. Previously, the only radio station mentioned in the Bayport market is WMC in The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20). WBAY has been a CBS affiliate in Green Bay, Wisc., for half a century. WMC is used by a TV and AM and FM radio stations in Memphis, Tenn; the AM station has been WMC since 1923.
The March of Technology: This is a book reliant on the idea of pushing the frontiers of technology. CompuCar Co. makes cars that are, to a degree, voice operated — drivers can command the car to accelerate, slow, or change the radio station. Although voice-operated driving hasn’t arrived yet, cars have been able to change the radio and deal with other electronic devices, like cell phones, for a few years now, making Program for Destruction only about two decades ahead of the times. Taking its cue more from Knight Rider than Car and Driver, however, the car can talk back to its users. That automated systems can talk to users is a coincidence; the CompuCar can say “You’re welcome” to the user’s “Thank you” and has other responses that seems to indicate a higher level of intelligence than today’s electronics.
At one point, the Hardys loaner CompuCar starts having random failures. After the car almost kills the boys — the author cannot resist having the computer say one of the Hardys’ commands “does not compute” — they remove its “program disk” for analysis. Where do they analyze it? In their home PC. Frank says, “I just hope it’s compatible” before … before they “slid the CompuCar computer disk into the machine.” Which leaves the question of how they were interfacing their computer with the program disk. Is it a standard 3½" or 5¼" floppy? The “slid” seems to indicate it wasn’t hooked up through cables, which you could do with a pair of hard disks. Perhaps they remove their computer’s hard drive and put the program disk in its place. That would explain why Frank is not worried about the computer virus the program disk has infecting their home PC. (Frank acts as if “virus” is a new term, which surprisingly, it is — the term began being used for self-replicating computer programs only in the early to mid-80s. Of course, what Frank is describing today is probably better described by the general term “malware,” since he has no evidence of the program’s virus-like replication.)
The Hardys do have a “car phone” — not yet called a “cell phone” — in the far-flung year of 1987. When their car fails, however, they have to use a pay phone. A pay phone! Ha!
Who do you think Henry Ford was?: One of Stockard’s former employees gives this condemnation of ex-boss: “Stockard’s supposed to be a genius, the next Henry Ford, but he only cares about making money; he doesn’t care about the people who work for him.” In the ‘80s, was the public opinion of Ford as a mechanical genius who was also a humanitarian? Because that’s not what we think of him as today. He was a man who wanted to make lots of money, and he made it through using a manufacturing process that streamlined automobile assembly. It’s said he wanted to pay his employees enough that they could afford the cars they were assembling, but he sure fought the unions hard.
We remind you: Joe is not a lawyer: Joe notices one of the suspects has a brochure for Rio de Janiero, and Joe’s immediate thought is that the suspect is planning to leave the country. “If Krisp broke the law in America and fled to Rio,” Joe thinks, “he couldn't be arrested and brought back to the United States.” This is very wrong; America has had an extradition treaty with Brazil since the ‘60s, which would allow the U.S. to request Brazil to arrest and return citizens who have committed certain crimes to the U.S. To be fair, Krisp might be considering vanishing in Brazil, but that’s not what Joe’s suggesting.
You never know: Frank says he’s read about the CompuCar in “my” car magazines, which indicates to me that he’s a subscriber (or a regular newsstand buyer). I wouldn’t think of Frank as the kind of guy who would buy car mags, but I usually think of them as having scantily clad women leaning on hoods of cars. Probably the kind Frank subscribes to has in-depth reviews of cars — Car and Driver, that sort of thing. Frank has catholic tastes when it comes to knowledge anyway.
Are you sure you’re a detective?: When their top two suspects are assaulted, Frank and Joe reconsider who might be behind the sabotage. They also have to figure out why someone crept into a house to knock them over the head. Collig decides it’s a warning, something to shut them up. The boys reject that sort of simplistic analysis and decide it’s so they’ll be unseen at a time when sabotage is occurring at the plant. Good enough, as far as it goes … except they assume the sabotage won’t happen at midday, when the pair are clubbed, but that night, after the two have had several hours to recover and establish an alibi … with, say, the police or a doctor, which are the people you consult with after you’ve been assaulted.
The culprit reveals Collig was, of course, correct.
Opinions: For an ‘80s cybercrime mystery, Program for Destruction is pretty impressive. Interoperability issues aside, the idea of a virus not only sabotaging the computer in a car (although straight failures would be more likely than switching functions) but corroding worldwide banking is an good idea. On the other hand, the investigation is simplistic — actually, “simplistic” insults the simple among us — and the reader will likely figure out the culprit while Frank and Joe are still trying on fanciful theories of assault. There are only five possible suspects in the entire book, and once you figure out the red herrings and decide to drop the unlikely ones, there’s only one person left.
It was refreshing to return to the digests after so many Casefiles. Early in the book, Frank assumes Joe is too much of a screwup to walk a letter to a nearby post office for their father when the van isn’t working. In the Casefiles, Joe would really have been too lazy to walk a few blocks; in the digests, Joe has not only walked to the post office but picked up Laura’s dry cleaning. And Frank apologizes. I know which series is more realistic, when it comes to the behavior of teenage boys, and I know which series is more pleasant to read.
Grade: B-. Simple but sweet.