Friday, March 28, 2014

The Emperor's Shield (Casefiles #119)

The Emperor’s Shield coverPlot: Frank, Joe, and Callie go to Germany to help Fenton’s college roommate locate a Roman fort and its fabulous treasure.

“Borrowing” from the past: In Shield, Frank can understand and speak German, with some difficulty, after taking two years of high-school German. In The Jungle Pyramid (#56), the boys had both taken German classes, enough to speak the language roughly. (Before that, in Danger on Vampire Trail [#50], Joe knew what he’d picked up from TV.) The boys “perfected” their German when visiting the country in The Submarine Caper (#68). That book marked the boys’ only previous journey to Deutschland; they visited Dusseldorf, Frankfort, Munich, Glochen, and Lumburg.

Frank and Joe (mostly Frank) is in Germany to help Dr. John Maxwell, who was Fenton’s college roommate. We don’t know much about Fenton’s college life — except that he was a pole vaulter who cleared more than 16 feet, as revealed in The Sting of the Scorpion (#58) — but his acquaintances pop up with surprising frequency. Whenever the boys need an expert — a helicopter pilot, a FBI agent, a director of the State Experimental Farm, psychiatrist, prison warden, judge, head of NASA security, doctor in Morocco, Army general or Navy officer — Fenton will know one. Either they are an old / good friend or they served together in the army or police or Fenton will have run across them in his investigations. Perhaps that’s why Frank and Joe can use Fenton’s name so freely to get out of trouble: he knows everyone important.

The teens run into angry German shepherds at one point. They’ve run into German shepherds before: The Mystery fo the Aztec Warrior (#43), The Haunted Fort (#44), and The Demon’s Den (#81). Shepherds are the most common canine menaces for the boys in the original canon, narrowly nosing out Doberman pinschers and wolfhounds.

Joe takes over in an aerial disaster, guiding a stalled plane into a controlled glide, managing to save himself and the pilot. In the digests and Casefiles I’ve read, Frank is usually the pilot, but Joe is as experienced behind the stick as his brother. As I’ve mentioned before, both he and Frank get instruction from a pilot named Stewart in The Short-Wave Mystery (#24). Jack Wayne — Fenton’s personal pilot — starts teaching them in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37); both brothers make an emergency landing in that book. They get their pilot’s licenses in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39) and learn to fly seaplanes and float planes in The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42). By The Stone Idol, they’ve moved on to helicopters, and in The Sting of the Scorpion, they fly baby blimps.

At the end of The Emperor’s Shield, Frank, Joe, and Callie go skiing in the Alps. Frank and Joe are experienced skiers, starting all the way back in The Cabin Island Mystery (#8). That was cross-country skiing, though; their first downhill skiing was in The Jungle Pyramid, in which they skied the Alps — the Swiss Alps, though. (They also go cross-country skiing in Cave-In, #78, and Open Season, Casefiles #59.)

Lazy and awful: I’ve complained about covers before, but man, that cover is awful. First of all, it’s a picture cover, which are almost always boring, and secondly, it’s lazy even for a picture cover. Trenchcoats and fedoras? Which cover designer did Pocket Books get for this one — Clichés R Us? (It’s a cliché name, see.) I know the cover was designed to tie into the Hardy Boys TV series, just as all the covers from #105 to 121 were, but that TV series ran for thirteen episodes in 1995. This book was published in 1997; by that point I could hardly have looked for “the exciting TV series!”

The March of Technology: Oh, man, the ‘90s. If you need a refresher about how good we have it today, read The Emperor’s Shield. All the bad memories will come rushing back. The archaeology crew is forced to use a “microwave-size” scanner. Frank dials into a server, then uses Telnet to connect from the server to Web — specifically to what looks like a newsgroup. Later, to send a file to a server, Frank has to program the server’s number into a modem. Nowadays we don’t have to even think about servers or modems to move information around, and Telnet, for most of us, is a dim memory — if we remember it all.

Let the Hardys teach you geography: Shield has a lot of German geography, although I’m not sure it does a good job of pinning the towns and waterways to any context.

The book takes place in southwestern Germany, mainly within the (unmentioned) state of Baden-Württemberg. (For those who have a picture of Germany in their head, that’s down in the lower left of the country, bordering France and Switzerland.) The chums fly into Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg and a city of 5.3 million. From there, they take the autobahn south — presumably taking the A81, which runs north and south from the city — passing by the Neckar River; the Neckar is a tributary of the Rhine, running north through Stuttgart until it merges with the Rhine at Mannheim from the East. The narrator contends the Neckar was the border of the Roman Empire at its largest; Wikipedia puts the border a little east of the Neckar, but even if Wikipedia is completely accurate, the assertion is close enough to accept as true.

On the drive, the heroes spot the Black Forest and the Zugspitze. I assume it’s the Zugspitze; the narrator calls it the Zugspitze Mountains, but I believe the author is referring to the peak in the Wetterstein Mountains, which is the highest in Germany (9,718 feet). Perhaps the narrator isn’t thinking of the Zugspitze, though, as it’s in Bavaria’s border from Austria, quite a distance to the east of the Hardys’ path. On the other hand, it’s the highest point in Germany; who knows how far away you can see it?

The Hardys’ destination is Kolbingen. Again, I think it’s Kolbingen; the town’s name is “Köbingen” in the book, but Kolbingen’s location is the right spot, about an hour and a half from Stuttgart. The town’s population is about 1,300. They later attend a winter festival in Esslingen am Neckar, a city of about 92,000 that is less than ten miles from the center of Stuttgart.

Hidden for years, unearthed by the Hardys: Dr. Maxwell is well ahead of the curve in this book, using satellite and aerial images to find the road and fort he’s looking for. Satellite archaeology has become a viable way to search for the past, especially given cheap and free views from space. (Think of Google Earth images, for instance.)

I was surprised to find the Roman emperor Decius, the eponymous emperor, was not made up by this particular Dixon. Decius (or Trajan Decius) ruled from A.D. 249 to 251. Decius was the first emperor to die in battle vs. a foreign enemy, killed in battle (along with his son and co-emperor, Herennius Etruscus) against the Goths in northeastern Bulgaria at the Battle of Abrittus. Evidently that legendary shield Maxwell was searching for was less than effective against, you know, people trying to kill him.

Less convincing is the condition of the artifacts in the fort — “the air is so cool and dry … that everything’s been almost perfectly preserved.” So perfectly preserved, in fact, that Frank and Joe think nothing of picking up swords and daggers from Decius’s treasure trove to defend themselves.

Mid-life crisis at 17: Joe rents a car to get him, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend around Germany. What does he choose? A red Porsche 911 Turbo, utterly impractical except to stroke Joe’s ego; it barely has enough room for Callie in the back seat, and when they go to a festival with a fourth person, they have to take the train instead. (Frank doesn’t get to drive it often, despite being the person who can read the road signs.) Unfortunately, Joe doesn’t even get a decent car chase. What’s up with that? Don’t Americans always like the car chase?

Duplication of effort: When Dr. Maxwell disappears, certain aerial photos go with him. Joe volunteers to re-acquire the photos from the original photographer. The photographer volunteers to take Joe along with him as he takes the photos again. But why didn’t the photographer keep the negatives? I mean, that’s standard practice, right? For exactly this reason?

Dream big, baby: Stymied for a moment in their investigations, Callie suggests going to the snow festival in Esslingen. Frank tries to avoid having fun with his girlfriend, but eventually gives in: “‘It looks as if Callie gets her wish,’ Frank mumbled.”

Ha! If Callie got her wish, she’d probably have a better boyfriend. The narration does call her Frank’s “girlfriend,” so she’s got that going for her, but the pair only vaguely resembles a dating couple. Sure, Frank gives Callie a kiss on the cheek at one point, but then again, Callie gives Dr. Maxwell’s assistant, Stephi, a farewell kiss on the cheek, so that doesn’t mean much. When Frank and Joe rescue Callie from kidnappers, Frank “clasped her hand briefly.” Such untamed emotion! Callie tries to get a rise out of him while impersonating a wealthy collector, calling him “Honey,” but he doesn’t respond. At least Frank knows not to contradict Callie when reading new year’s fortunes; Callie says her fortune means she will become class president, and Frank keeps his mouth shut, despite his doubts.

Contender for the three most ‘90s’ words ever: “Everyone started moshing.” That’s a complete sentence, written by an adult (presumably), for money. It’s perfect in its ‘90s-ness without being self-consciously ‘90s. Bravo!

The author follows this sentence by saying, a little later, “The band cranked for well over a half hour.” Is “cranked” a synonym for “played” or “thrashed” or whatever that I just wasn’t hip enough to have heard in (*checks copyright date*) goodness, 1997?

We can be heroes: Frank and Joe not only save Dr. Maxwell from being entombed in an archaeological dig but they also save the villain’s unconscious henchmen from the same fate. Impressive, but to add to the degree of difficulty, the two brothers lug the goons out in fireman’s carries up a 15-20 feet tall ladder. I can’t imagine carrying 150 to 200 pounds of dead weight up a makeshift ladder. Well, I can, but my imagination demands I spend 20 minutes before climbing securing the dead weight so I don’t drop it. But Frank and Joe — man, I can criticize them for poor first aid techniques, but they can save lives when they need to.

Opinions: A story set in Germany in winter should be full of local color, but except for the schneefest — snow festival — and new year’s fortunetelling, we don’t see much of Germany beyond the clichés. The schneefest itself is mainly candied almonds and moshing, which isn’t representative of Germany. I don’t think it is, at least.

A foreign culture, the winter cold, youth, exciting new technology: Emperor’s Shield could have been a lot more interesting. Unfortunately, Frank spends most of his time looking over photos and fiddling with his computer, and the detecting is mainly accusations, a harebrained impersonation scheme, and chases. Fortunately, Frank and Joe don’t get to use the local police as their lackeys.

Grade: C-

Friday, March 14, 2014

Racing to Disaster (#126)

Racing to Disaster coverPlot: Joe is in California to compete in a mountain biking competition, but sabotage plagues the participants.

“Borrowing” from the past: Mountain biking is a sport the Hardys did not engage in during the original canon. They used normal bicycles as transportation in The Flickering Torch Mystery (#22), although that was during World War II, and they were needed to save gasoline. When they competed in the
eponymous Speed Times Five race
(#173), one of the components of the competition was mountain biking (along with kayaking, cross-country hiking and climbing, city biking, and a personal watercraft race). Although the race in Racing to Disaster isn’t an X Games competition, it is similar to the type of events Frank and Joe have competed in during Danger in the Extreme (the Max Games in #152) and Extreme Danger (the Big Air Games in Undercover Brothers #1).

In addition to mountain biking, the narration says Joe is a “natural athlete” — no joke — and that he’s “an accomplished wrestler.” (He even uses an unspecified “wrestling” move that involves grabbing an opponent’s upper arm and yanking downward.) That’s a sport the boys aren’t often associated with; Joe’s participation with the BHS wrestling team was mentioned in The Four-Headed Dragon (#68). However, they’re the Hardy Boys; it’s not a martial art unless they can throw some half thought-out version of it at some villain. So Frank and Joe outwrestle thugs in The Hooded Hawk Mystery (#34) and The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge (#45), with Frank using a half-nelson in the latter. Frank also uses some generic wrestling hold in The Clue of the Screeching Owl (#41), and Joe throws a hammerlock on an adversary in The Roaring River Mystery (#80).

The narration claims Frank and Joe are “avid water-skiers.” This is the first I’ve heard of it.

When confronted by a mountain lion, Frank asks, “Has anyone here done any lion taming? … I sure haven’t.” I would have sworn one of the boys had worked with lions during their circus employment, but they hadn't — both brothers performed on the trapeze for “Big Top” Hinchman’s circus in The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21), Joe was a clown for the Big Top Circus in Track of the Zombie (#71), and Frank fed the elephants while Joe worked the snake tent in Blade. They did run into a lion in Zombie, however.

Mountain lions — also known as pumas, cougars, and catamounts — are a bit more common in Hardy Boys stories, though. Their experiences with Puma concolor is covered in Open Season (Casefiles #59), and they also confronted a cougar in while tracking down an ersatz D.B. Cooper in Ghost of a Chance (#169).

You don’t need a degree in biology to open a resort, I guess: The boys were warned about the local wildlife, although in a confusing manner. More than once, Dixon points out signs around the resort that warn competitors about “mountain lions, cougars, and wolves.” Unfortunately, mountain lions and cougars are, as pointed out above, two names for the same animal. Perhaps the double naming was an intensifier, rather than a mistake?

No, wait, it’s definitely a mistake.

Get to know your sport: Joe (and the Wolf Mountain Annihilator competition) breaks mountain biking into three divisions: downhill, hot-rodding, and cross country. Cross country and downhill do exist in modern mountain biking competitions; the former is a distance race that generally encompasses different kinds of terrain, and the latter is, as you might imagine, riding bikes downhill. There is no such thing as “hot-rodding,” a race that incorporates bike tricks, and the name is so distracting it seems obviously false. However, the idea is similar to freeriding, which can include jumps, obstacles, quarter pipes, and different lines through a course that allows for riders to demonstrate their style.

I’m still puzzled by some decisions made by the event organizers. In a mini-cross country heat, Frank and all the racers behind them are diverted by an incorrect sign — the old Merry Melodies trick. Bad luck for them, but the race organizers give them a second chance. However, they make everyone — even those who correctly completed the course — race in a rematch. Why not just allow those who were disadvantaged to re-run the event? Their times could be compared to the times of others, and the winner of the heat would be determined from that.

The organizers also disqualified a racer who had sabotaged his own bike, also banning him from events for a year. Why? He’s only harming himself! No other racers were affected!

In Racing, Wolf Mountain is a ski resort three hours northeast of Los Angeles, with its slopes given over to the Wolf Mountain Annihilator in the fallow summer. Wolf Mountain does not seem to exist; the sites with the closest resemblance to it are White Wolf Mountain, a ski resort near Lake Tahoe, and Wolf Mountain Resort in Utah. Neither offers mountain biking during the summer, and White Wolf seems more notable for its location between two large resorts and its litigation with one of them.

Color blinding the enemy: Joe wears a neon green and yellow helmet. I’m sure those colors aren’t uncommon in competitive racing, but you’ll notice the cover artist chose not to use them.

Middle-aged boy: Frank calls Joe “kiddo,” picks up a salad in the chow line, and keeps his press pass in his wallet. These are things an uncle does, not an 18-year-old boy; actually keeping the press pass in the wallet isn’t really an age thing, but I’ve never seen a press pass small enough to keep in a wallet, in my admittedly limited experience. Usually they get clipped to a pocket or hung on a lanyard, right?

Is this your first case?: Frank and Joe don’t make a great impression with their detection. Frank asks the worst questions in his role as a reporter, a cover story event organizers give him to allow him to investigate. Joe blows that cover ID anyway. The excuse Frank uses to get a look at a piece of evidence — “I just want to see for myself” — is unsubtle at best. Frank does manage to talk his way into a locked area with secret bike technology, but so did a suspect, and the saleswoman clearly didn’t understand the idea of secrecy; her boss told her not to show the bike “to just anyone,” so she shows it to three random kids and a nosy star. The boys also fail to alert anyone in authority after they receive a written threat, and Joe neglects to bring his fingerprinting kit along. (Technically, he thought he didn’t need it at a bike race, but he’s a Hardy — he always needs his detecting gear, and he brought along his lock picks.)

This lack of fingerprinting equipment forces Frank and Joe to send a shell casing (erroneously called a bullet by the narrator) all the way across the country to their police lackey, Con Riley. Evidently they don’t have cops in California — or at least cops who will do the Hardys’ bidding.

Next, on Rescue 911: After a competitor takes a spill, getting thrown from his bike and being knocked unconscious by the impact, the Hardys immediately yank him to his feet. Because they’re always following that first-aid advice, which is … um … never move a … no, wait, almost got it — always move a crash victim as soon as possible. Yes, that’s it.

Part quick thinking, part innovation, but mostly stupid: In the climactic scene, Frank and Joe are in the cross-country race. Frank loses his bike while pursuing the leader, who is also the perp. Rather than leaving Frank and his 155 pounds (for the 6 feet, 1 inch Frank? who has the musculature of a natural athlete?) behind, Frank tells he’ll ride on Joe’s handlebars.

In the middle of a cross country bike race, through the mountains. Sure, why not?

And before you ask, of course they catch up with the leader. Why wouldn’t they?

A bicycle race built for two: I’m even more baffled about why Frank was there. I don’t know why he’s in the race in the first place — they were only going to keep an eye on Moreno, their suspect, and surely only the better cyclist would be needed. Frank is not prepared for a cross country race; Joe has to remind him about how to shift for the downhill race, and Frank himself asks why he wasn’t out training with Joe. (Because he had no idea he’d be entered into a competitive mountain bike race, I’d imagine.) Matching Frank’s pace in the cross-country race would surely slow Joe down.

I’m even more baffled, though, at how such an ill-prepared Frank, on a bike even less suited for the competition than Joe’s, manages to keep up not only with Joe but stay ahead of all the other competitors. Is Dixon saying mountain biking is not that hard? Because it seems plenty hard to me. Of course, the author’s grasp of the sport and equipment may be a bit lacking; one passage refers to Joe’s bike’s back wheels.

That’s a weird relationship: After the culprit has been caught and confessed to his crimes, his sponsor reacts in a way no human would react to working with an attempted murderer: “exasperated” and “amazed.” OK, “amazed” makes some sense, but “exasperated”? Is it because it’s only attempted murder? Or is it because it’s multiple attempted murders, and he’s exasperated by the compulsive behavior?

Quit while you’re ahead: So Joe, who comes to the Annihilator as an amateur, qualifies with a good enough time to compete against the professionals. He does well in the downhill, has some bad luck in the “hot-rodding,” and is extremely impressive in the cross country section of the race, as mentioned above. He does this with a single bike and off-the-shelf equipment, which is not even close to the quality the other competitors have. But at the end, Joe declines to pursue mountain biking competitions any further. Good heavens, he’s outstanding at it, and he gives it up because it’s “too much work”! Which, since he gives up on the sport in favor of detective work, makes me believe he’s putting a minimal amount of work into detecting, as I always suspected he did.

Opinions: I’m not sure Dixon knows much about the topic of mountain bike racing. Or about the human body, as Frank and Joe, gifted athletes that they are, show no fatigue between races, despite the high level of competition and the grueling nature of some of the races. He also doesn’t know cougars and mountain lions are the same thing or that teenage boys don’t often eat salads without prodding or how to describe a realistic wrestling move or … everything’s a big mess, and that’s after you get past the idea that Joe has somehow become almost professional-level good at mountain bike racing. It’s all preposterous.

The mystery’s not so great either, but the horrible racing action covers up that shortcoming.

Grade: D+