Friday, October 31, 2014

The Hardy Boys Ghost Stories

It was a long-drawn-out, moaning sound that rose in volume to a veritable shriek, indescribably terrifying.
“Ghosts!” clamored Chet.
“There aren’t any such things!” snorted Joe.
— The Mystery of Cabin Island (original text), p. 69

The Hardy Boys Ghost Stories coverThe Hardy Boys Ghost Stories is a book that should not exist.

The Hardy Boys series is built upon rationality and coincidence. Frank and Joe follow the form of detective stories, gathering evidence to prove someone has committed a crime and logically building a case against that suspect. (The coincidences are unconnected to the rationality, except inasmuch as it is the primary method by which the boys gain their clues and proofs.)

Although ghost stories are nothing if not a series of improbable events piled atop each other, they have little of the rational about them. Or I suppose they have their own rationality — Event A happens, which causes, as a repercussion, Event B. It doesn’t matter that Event B is impossible and that no one in the history of humankind has ever perpetrated Event A. The story insists that they happened that way, and we suspend our rationality for a moment to enjoy the atmosphere and danger presented by the ghost story.

The Hardy Boys Ghost Stories has six ghost stories in its 137 pages. None of them are that enjoyable.

Here are the six stories, from least spooky to the most:

6) “Phantom Ship.” Frank and Joe are on the Atlantic, and a storm is rolling in. Of course it is; Frank and Joe long ago angered the storm god who watches over Bayport, and seeing the boys on the ocean, he must punish them. He has also smited the Sleuth, which mysteriously stops working, and their radio. Or maybe he has clouded their heads so that they can’t see what’s wrong; that would explain the rest of the story.

Frank and Joe are given sanctuary aboard the Samoa Queen, but only after boarding do the boys realize they are on a ghost ship: a mid-19th century whaler headed for the Pacific. The frightening thing about a ghost ship is the potential for sailing on it forever and being damned for all eternity. That possibility isn’t brought up by either the narrator or the characters, though. So what is the terror of the Samoa Queen?

All the whalers (but one) are mean to Frank and Joe. They don’t like the Hardys, and the captain doesn’t listen to them. (Still, Frank and Joe manage to show their seamanship is better than some of the ghosts. I suppose you get sloppy after a century at sea, no matter how dedicated you are.) Truly, it’s a masterpiece of terror.

Frank and Joe are thrown overboard and land in the Sleuth instead of the open sea. Somehow, Frank and Joe credit their survival to another ghost — one the ghost sailors couldn't see — who kept pointing for them to jump overboard, even though they ignored it. I suppose believing in Ghost Squared (or Super Ghost) makes as much sense as anything else in this story.

On the plus side, Frank and Joe are prepared to use karate against ghost sailors.

5) “The Haunted Castle.” Frank and Joe visit a castle in Scotland, just like they did in The Secret Agent on Flight 101. In this case, Fenton has sent them to help Lord MacElphin deal with a ghost infestation.

The castle is haunted by the first Lord MacElphin, a 17-century pirate named Rollo who bought his lordship with his pirate booty and was generally cruel to everyone. That’s a good starting place, but the author forgot to make his ghost frightening. Sure, he pops up in the dungeon nightly (with an extra matinee on Sundays) and shakes his chains throughout the castle, but he doesn’t do anything threatening. He just shows up and sings sea chanties. I can see wanting to exorcise anyone, living or dead, who sings songs of the sea at any time of day, but it’s not frightening. It’s annoying.

The story also mentions Rollo MacElphin stole the local witches’ meeting grounds; after reading that, it will surprise no one that Mrs. Crone, the housekeeper, is also the leader of the local witches. How does she lead them? Well, she leads them in this frightening chant: “We are witches … We know the magic spells and will bring the powers of darkness down on anyone who tries to cross us!” She’s also trying to keep the current Lord MacElphin from selling the castle so the witches can get their pagan-holy ground back, so she made Rollo visible. (He’s always been in the castle, due to a witches’ curse, but he was invisible.)

Frank and Joe release Rollo from the curse by talking to him twice, being American, and most importantly being named “Hardy.” (The curse can be lifted when “a hardy pair guards the dungeon door.” Convenient!) Poor Mrs. Crone is fired from her job, which breaks the poor woman: “I will go to Glasgow and cease to be a witch,” she declares.

I almost feel for her.

4) “The Mystery of Room 12.” This would be switched with “The Haunted Castle” in the rankings if I could only figure out why it’s supposed to be frightening.

The Hardys — even Laura! But not Gertrude — go to a hotel on the New England coast. The innkeeper tells the guests of a captain who went to sea in the 19th century but had an unprofitable trip, and his ship sank within sight of shore. He went down with the ship, playing his flute, and his widow (and everyone within a mile or two) heard his sad, sad song.

While staying in Room 12, Joe is awakened by a child crying. Frank doesn’t hear the crying, though, and he’s annoyed when Joe wakes him up. The bathroom door opens in the middle of the night, but it doesn’t make its usual squeaking noise. When Joe wakes Frank up to talk about that, Frank threatens to kill him. Reasonable enough. Frank is also prepared to use karate against whatever comes along; since he doesn’t believe in the supernatural in this one, he’s not really planning to karate chop a ghost child.

The non-scary stuff keeps going on — it also includes a woman who kinda looks like a witch, I guess, and a chest that smells like camphor after more than a century — until Frank finally gets his non-believing ass stranded on a local lake with Fenton and Joe has to sleep in Room 12 alone. He is confronted by a little ghost boy, who non-verbally demands he open the camphor-wood chest and get out his flute.

And that’s it. The innkeeper mentions the dead captain had a son — also now dead — and that Room 12 had been the boy’s room. Sorry he didn’t mention the haunting! Well, the joke’s on him: now the chest doesn’t smell like camphor any more.

3) “Mystery of the Voodoo Gold.” This isn’t scary, but at least it doesn’t have a ghost, so it’s not like it was trying to be scary.

In an Atlanta mall, Frank and Joe kill some time by going to a fortune teller. Fortunes cost $10, and the boys have only $11, so they flip a coin to see who will get his fortune told. Frank wins, and the fortune teller informs him his future holds a man with one blue eye who drives a white car, the Green Dragon, and gold. Obviously, Frank will find himself in the middle of an updated Norse myth, with Odin as the one-eyed man, his horse Sleipnir transformed into a white sports car, and Fafnir, a dwarf transformed into a dragon by his greed for gold.

No, not really. Fenton takes the boys to the Green Dragon, a restaurant, where they are accosted by the one-eyed Pierre Buffon, whom Fenton identifies as “one of the most cold-blooded cutthroats in this hemisphere.” Pierre asks the Hardys if they’ve seen an envelope lying around — it’s totally not valuable, but man, he’d like it back — and Fenton treats Pierre as if he’s got excruciating body odor. Perhaps he does.

Later, Frank and Joe find the envelope attached to the bottom of their briefcase — what are the odds? — and the letter inside directs them to a Civil War gold hoard. Just like in The Secret of the Lost Tunnel! Except this time it takes no effort to actually find the gold, even though they’re digging in a thunderstorm. Frank and Joe leave the gold in situ, fleeing the rainwater filling their excavations. Before they can claim it, they get a call telling them Laura is having emergency surgery, and they need to return to Bayport at once. They do, of course, although no one ever tells anyone what the surgery is for.

Frank and Joe don’t inform anyone about the gold, of course, and by the time they check back on it, a month later, it’s been paved over in a massive road construction project. C’est la vie!

There’s also some nonsense of about a voodoo statue watching over the gold; the fortune teller warned them about it. The boys spot it atop the hoard, and they seem leery of its powers. Since I can’t believe Frank and Joe would actually pay attention to the curse the statue is supposed to visit upon those who steal what it guards, I’m choosing to ignore that.

2) “The Walking Scarecrow.” Frank and Joe’s car breaks down while they’re on their way home from a day of backpacking in the Bayport Hills. Joe says they’re a “zillion miles” from anywhere, but it’s the Bayport Hills; how far can it be from anywhere? How far can it be from Bayport?

In any event, the boys decide to walk to the nearest farm to phone for help. Reasonable enough, given that they have no cell phones and for some reason are not able to fix their vehicle. (For Frank and Joe, that’s a horror story right there.) While walking up the road, they are unnerved by a scarecrow. Of course they assume it’s a real person at first; when you meet someone wearing a stovepipe hat, tattered clothes, and weird shoes in a cornfield, you just assume that it’s a farmer, right? Isn’t that what farmers wear? I mean, my dad doesn’t farm any more, but his stovepipe hat with the Case-IH logo stitched on it is still sitting on the back porch.

After passing up the scarecrow, the boys hear footsteps and a voice they attribute to the scarecrow. Frank and Joe totally want to karate chop that scarecrow, but it never gets close enough — it just warns them to go away. The boys ignore the advice and break into an abandoned house … well, they break into a house, but they discover it’s abandoned later. The house has no electricity or phone service, so Joe proposes a false dichotomy: sleep in the car or in the spooky, critter-infested house. (He forgets that they can keep walking down the road to find another house. It should have made him feel stupid the next day when a nearby farmer shows up, but I don’t think he makes the connection.)

The boys fall asleep, but the scarecrow wakes them, telling them to leave again. Frank and Joe give chase, because … it’s a crime to disturb someone’s sleep? I dunno. But while they’re chasing the scarecrow, the house is struck by lightning, and the house burns to the ground. The farmer who lives “next door” shows up and takes them to his house for pancakes and tows their car and is the greatest guy ever!

Why did the scarecrow save their lives? I dunno. Why did it come to life? *shrug* But the story had a spooky house (I was hoping it had been used by a serial killer, and in my head, it was) and it was somewhat atmospheric.

1) “The Disappearance of Flaming Rock.” “Flaming Rock” is the name of a mining town, so get your mind out of the gutter.

In the 19th century, a prospector stumbled into Tucson and told a tale of the inhabitants of an entire town vanishing: their food was still warm on the table, clothing and furniture was untouched. An expedition was launched later, but snows kept it from Flaming Rock; when they reached the town the next spring, they couldn't find the town. In the 20th century, the town had been spotted twice, with both observers confirming the prospector’s details. But each time, they couldn't find Flaming Rock again, either, and the two observers both disappeared mysteriously within a month of their sighting.

Spooky, right?

So Frank and Joe decide to check it out, battling through a rainstorm to do so. And of course, they find the town exactly as the prospector described it! Just as in The House on the Cliff, Frank is seriously intrigued by all this, while Joe is a little afraid. So Frank, ever sensitive to his little brother’s feelings, tells Joe that they’re going to split up. Thanks, Fred.

Their investigations are more stupid than scary. Joe knocks himself out by hitting his head on a coal scuttle and hallucinates an Indian blaming the white man’s crimes against Indians for Flaming Rock’s destruction — or is it a hallucination? The Indian leaves behind a headband that Joe picks up. Frank gets himself locked in a jail cell. Doofus. In the morning, Frank takes pictures of the town, and then they leave.

Back in Bayport, they tell the tale. Joe says he had an “Indian friend” translate the markings on the inside of the headband: it was the name of a chief killed just before Flaming Rock’s end. The ink itself dated back to the 1800s. And Frank’s pictures came out fogged. Spooky! Except for the part where there was no actual jeopardy for the Hardys, who are in no danger of disappearing like the previous re-discoverers of Flaming Rock!

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Mark of the Blue Tattoo (#146)

The Mark of the Blue Tattoo coverPlot: Chet is kidnapped during his first day as an ice-cream man, and the incident may have something to do with increased gang activity — but not necessarily gang violence — in Bayport.

“Borrowing” from the past: Frank and Joe visit Fenton’s study, looking for advice. In Blue Tattoo, the study has an “old leather couch” and bookshelves with Fenton’s “impressive collection of crime literature” (119). The office first had a couch in The Billion Dollar Ransom (#73). Fenton has often had a library of crime-related books, but it was located in its own room, not in his study.

In other mysteries, the study has contained Fenton’s collection of trophy firearms (The Missing Chums, #4), disguises and souvenirs of past cases (While the Clock Ticked, #11), comfy chairs (The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, #28; The Shattered Helmet, #51; The Mysterious Caravan, #54; and The Pentagon Spy, #61; and the revised Mark on the Door, #12, and Melted Coins, #23), a short-wave radio (The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo, #47, and the revised Secret Warning, #17), criminal records (Crooked Arrow; The Secret of the Lost Tunnel, #29; The Secret Agent on Flight 101, #46; The Apeman’s Secret, #60; and the revised Hooded Hawk Mystery, #34), a safe (Hooded Hawk and The Mystery of the Chinese Junk, #39), and a TV (The Four-Headed Dragon, #69).

Gertrude makes a strawberry-rhubarb pie for the boys. Gertrude made a strawberry-rhubarb pie for the boys in the revised Mystery of the Flying Express (#20) and a rhubarb pie in the revised Clue of the Broken Blade (#21) and The Arctic Patrol Mystery (#48). Gertrude submits “strawberry rhubarb pie” as an entry in the Freddy Frost Ice Cream Company’s new flavor contest, and of course she wins.

After Joe swings from the top of a moving ice cream truck through its small side window and into the truck’s storage area, a man asks Joe, “Did you ever think about joining the circus?” (145). Frank makes the standard “as a clown” joke, but seriously, Joe was a clown for the Big Top Circus in Track of the Zombie (#71). Both brothers also worked as trapeze artists (among other things) for “Big Top” Hinchman’s circus in The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21).

Two-thirds of the way through the book, Chet balks at taking on gangsters and murderers, but he’s done so before without blinking. The boys took on organized crime in The Night of the Werewolf (#59) and The Shattered Helmet (#52) and attempted murderers in The Pentagon Spy (#61), Sky Sabotage (#79), and The Swamp Monster (#83) without backing down. Heck, he’s even helped the Hardys fight terrorists, who are much more frightening than anything in The Mark of the Blue Tattoo. So why’s Chet being such a chicken now?

It was the ‘90s: When Frank wanted to run a license plate, the first thing he did was “logged on to the Net” (26). The dial-up modem sound wasn’t described, but from that description, I can hear it — followed a few seconds later by “You’ve got mail.”

Also, the Freddy Frost ice-cream truck trucks stop at several playgrounds, both municipal and school. That just makes sense in a commercial sense — you go where the customers are, right? — but in the 21st century, concerns about childhood obesity might get ice-cream trucks banned from such child-heavy areas.

When Chet is kidnapped by two men in ski masks, Frank hypothesizes that it might be part of a hazing ritual, which Iola equates with “a practical joke” (12). Given the attention hazing has received, especially hazing incidents that have resulted in injury or death, hazing today is considered much more serious than a practical joke.

Bayport Chamber of Commerce: Since it’s a book based in Bayport, Frank and Joe patronize several local businesses. Frank and Joe grab a slice at Mr. Pizza and a grilled cheese and soda at the Starlight Diner. The brothers also accidentally on purpose run into Officer Con Riley at the Coffee Spot, where they pick up coffee and doughnuts. Chet works for Freddy Frost Ice Cream Truck.

Congratulations, ghost writer and editor! This may be the first book that featured Bayport business names that I didn’t laugh at.

When you’re a Hardy, you’re a Hardy all the way: Frank and Joe are astonished to be mistaken for gang members by Hedda Moon, the city’s peace broker to the teens. However, if she’d phrased it differently, it would have made more sense; Iola talks about the “clout” (58) the boys wield, and Joe’s favorite teacher, Mr. Bennett, claims Frank and Joe have a great deal of influence on other students. Later on, when investigative reporter Aaron McKay is about to tell Frank and Joe he’s decided they aren’t gangsters, Frank and Joe grab him by the arms, and Frank says, “Time for a casual stroll and a friendly talk” (105), which is what gangsters say to the guy they’re about to put in a car and bury in a shallow grave in the desert.

Metafiction: McKay suggests he wants to write a fictionalized version of the Hardys’ adventures, which he expects to be popular: “It wouldn’t surprise me if the publishers decided to do a whole series of books about you” (63). Frank stalls McKay, but one can almost imagine Joe winking at the camera and saying, “That’s ridiculous, don’t you think?”

Later, when Iola goes missing after investigating on her own, Joe thinks, “If anyone had harmed Iola, he would pay them back with whatever it took” (135). Iola was killed in the first book in the Hardy Boys Casefiles series, Dead on Target, which led to a longstanding vendetta between the Hardy boys and the Assassins, who planted the bomb that killed her.

Dumbest teen gangs ever: First, everyone knows Marlon Masters is the “most powerful gang leader at Bayport High” (4), but the Hardys haven’t actually done anything about Masters or any of the many gangs at BHS. Second, one of these teen gangs is named the Gimps. The Gimps! They change their name to the superior “Mad Martians,” and their biggest rivals switch from “Gutfighters” to Comets. (Joe dislikes Comets, which lacks an intimidation factor, but Gutfighters is awful as well.)

Thirdly, the gang the Hardys are fighting is the Starz, which most people think of as an off-brand HBO or Showtime rather than a name for an intimidating gang. Fourthly, the Starz’s biggest tough backs down when Joe looks at him funny. Fifthly, the Starz’s revenge consists of pushing and tripping the Hardys and their friends. Sixthly, when they want to get back at Callie for snooping, they dump her looseleaf binder on the floor, and it takes her ten whole minutes to return the pages to the proper order. That’s intimidation!

Ahead of the curve: The Freddy Frost Ice Cream Company is running a contest to suggest a new flavor. Chet, eager to make a good impression on his employer, comes up with quite a few suggestions, like lasagna and champagne, that disgust his friends. Two stand out: “hash” (94), which could refer to three different meanings (beef, hash browns, or hashish), and “guacamole sherbet.” The latter is an intriguing idea that I think would appeal to modern foodies, and the sherbet’s low milkfat content would be nicely offset by the fattiness of the guacamole. Also, Joe’s suggestion of a corn chip cone, offered in jest, is really a nice touch. Chet was enthusiastic about the idea, although like all his ideas, he abandoned it quickly. I can see a semi-upscale restaurant making it a specialty, although it Might be hard to sell from an ice cream truck.

The po-po ain’t on your side, man: Once again, Frank and Joe decide to cut the police out of their investigation. Frank warns Chet not to pass along a bit of important evidence (the star tattoo on one of his kidnapper’s wrist) to the police, although to be fair, he might just have been peeved that he and his brother were not immediately recognized by officers and that Callie was frisked. Later, it doesn’t occur to Joe to contact the police when someone tries to kill him with an ice-cream truck. Near the end of the book, Frank and Joe pump Con for info without letting him know what they knew.

Maybe Joe considers reporting crimes to the police to be in the same category as snitching to teachers, which he considers “against his principles” (46). Or maybe both brothers realize the police are hopelessly out of date; Con laments that the “rumble has gone out of style” (126). The next thing you know, they’ll tell Con that gang violence no longer involves musical numbers!

I find your lack of faith disturbing: When Frank and Joe lead the hunt for Chet, Joe says they’ll do everything they can to find their friend. Iola asks, “What if that’s not enough?” and wants to call in the police. Iola: Frank and Joe’s best has always been enough to find Chet, as it was in this case. I mean, their fourth case, The Case of the Missing Chums, was entirely about finding a kidnapped Chet (and Biff).

Iola also complains about being left out of the case, which is a fair complaint. (Callie gets to do all sorts of things to help the investigation, although to be doubly fair, she also works hard to find things to do.) Rather than complaining directly to Joe about being forgotten, Iola has Chet deliver the message. It immediately slips Joe’s mind that he’s supposed to include Iola, but rather than seizing the moral high ground with a blistering lecture, Iola slips out of the Morton house and gets thrown into an ice-cream locker to freeze to death. That’ll certainly show Joe!

Frank and Joe — awesome teens, great job!: Joe is described as having the “casual grace of a star running back” (1). When the Starz prepare to attack Frank and Joe, the brothers slip into the “unfocussed attention of a trained martial artist” (31).

Have you been paying attention?: When someone pours glue over a library book and Frank’s notes, Frank gets blamed and sent to the principal’s office. The principal believes him, but she wonders what the perpetrator’s motive is. C’mon — Frank and Joe pick up enemies everywhere, and the school had already asked the brothers to investigate an extortion ring.

Blessed are the peacemakers: After Frank says he was talked into a peace conference with the Starz, Tony Prito is appalled: “The nerve … I’d like to negotiate some knuckles on that guy’s … nose” (54). Hot-headed Italian stereotype or hot-headed teenager stereotype?

Opinions: Blue Tattoo has a lot to recommend it. It does a good job looking at the role Frank and Joe occupy in the Bayport High School. They aren’t universally adored by the student body; in fact, it seems as if the Hardys are isolated, able to rely only on their immediate circle of friends. This isn’t the way other digests portray the Hardys — a new friend always pops up — but it’s more realistic that the only real friends they have are Biff, Chet, Tony, Callie, and Iola. Frank and Joe are too busy to dedicate much time to friendship, and they need to guard against people who want to associate with them only because of their fame.

It also shows that Frank and Joe’s aggressive crimefighting lifestyle has left them blind to problems in their own backyard. Bayport and BHS seem riddled with teen gangs, and the boys have done nothing about it. They pay the price, too; their classmates are intimidated by the gangs, unwilling to discuss them with the Hardys. Frank and Joe’s teachers range from sympathetic toward them to oblivious to the brothers’ reputation; the school librarian doesn’t buy Frank’s claim that someone else vandalized his library books, and Ms. Amity makes Frank (and the rest of his English class) study Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, which seems like a punishment to me.

On the other hand, the book has its flaws. Frank and Joe are not top-notch investigators, oblivious that the Frosty Freddie ice cream trucks are being used as part of a criminal network even as they watch it happen. It’s not obvious that the trucks are being used to run numbers, although the OTB the truck stopped at should have been a clue. It is obvious that they’re being used for something illegal, though; several times the truck the brothers followed drew a large crowd of adults, but children were frequently ignored. Frank and Joe just think it’s weird, part of the business world they don’t understand.

Also: the blue tattoo on one of Chet’s kidnapper is never used to identify the kidnapper, although everyone assumes the tattooed star means the kidnapper was a member of the Stars. And Hedda Moon never should have used a nom du crime (“Lunatic”) that referred back to her; the astronomy-related gang names she chose after taking over the gangs also were a poor choice.

Grade: A-. A strong Bayport and high school setting will cause me to forgive the book’s weaknesses.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sidetracked to Danger (#130)

Sidetracked to Danger coverPlot: Frank and Joe journey to exotic Indianapolis with friend Jackson Wyatt to view the world’s greatest model train collection, but it’s stolen before they can see it in its full glory.

Yes, model trains. Contain your excitement.

“Borrowing” from the past: Not much, really. They do travel by train, which used to be Frank and Joe’s primary way of getting around the country. Frank, Joe, and Jackson take a train from Bayport to Indianapolis, and they also board a party train (see below) for a short excursion. During the first 85 books, Frank and Joe took trains fourteen times, including the titular Flying Express in the 20th book in the series.

Frank and Joe didn’t visit Indianapolis in the original canon, although they were briefly stranded (and almost kidnapped) in Indiana in the original Hunting for Hidden Gold. They also will visit Indianapolis later in the digest series, in Double Jeopardy (#181). That mystery plays to Indianapolis’s claim to fame: motor racing.

To distract a guard, Joe blathers on about “everything he knew about Mustangs and restorations” (49). Although Joe has never been shown to have a predilection for any make or model of car, both he and his brother are good with automobiles. A summary of their mechanical skills can be found in the entry on Double Jeopardy.

The reason Frank and Joe are able to take this fabulous trip to Indianapolis is that they are on winter break. Somehow. The book is set in February, so I’m not sure how that works; even though some colleges don’t start in the new year until February, I can’t imagine Bayport High is still on break from Christmas, and I’ve rarely heard of a separate break between Christmas / New Year’s and Spring Break. In any event, Frank, Joe, and the chums took a vacation to Jamaica over a winter vacation in The Mysterious Caravan, and their investigation in Cave-In! occured during winter vacation.

Before heading into the subterranean levels of Indianapolis, Frank packed his supplies: a flashlight, a compass, his cell phone, and a city map. The boys didn’t use cell phones in the original canon — they hadn’t been popularized yet — but they did use a compass (six books) and a variety of sizes and flavors of flashlights (56 books). They even used a map (of Bayport) in The Melted Coins (#25). The real questions are why Frank thought to bring a compass on a trip to see model trains in Indianapolis, and whether he brought the map of Indy from home or bought it in Indiana.

Inaction Jackson: As far as I can tell, this is the only appearance of Jackson Wyatt, the boys’ putative friend, in a Hardy Boys book. Who is Jackson? He’s a train nut, a man who likes model and real trains. At 22, he has already qualified to be a fireman on the train, and he’s learning how to be an engineer …

Yes, Jackson’s 22 years old. At that age, four years is a huge age difference. How did this train enthusiast become friends with the a pair of teenagers he most likely never went to school with? It’s never explained. The only point of shared interest between the Hardy boys and Jackson is an interest in trains, and Frank and Joe don’t seem too enthused by them. Frank says he and Joe are “fans,” although “a real drag” (38) is as far as Joe ventures when asked to comment about a million-dollar theft of model trains.

Most likely Jackson knows how famous the brothers are, and he’s decided that if he spends time with Frank and Joe, some of that attention will reflect onto him. He doesn’t have much to recommend him to the brothers, though, and he hopes the entre to the world’s best model-train collection will interest them. (It’s an impressive collection, but it’s model trains; you have to be really interested in the hobby to travel halfway across the country to see any collection.) Frank and Joe most likely agreed to come with him out of pity and, well, a chance to see Indianapolis. Haven’t done that before!

Joe, you sly dog: Japanese model train collector Yoshio Agawa — “Asia’s top model train collector” (3)! — brought his daughter, Genji, along with him to see the collection. Genji (which is a boy’s name in Japan, as far as I can tell) shows little interest in the trains, but she does like hanging out with Frank, Joe, and Jackson. Especially Joe, it seems; when the four split into two pairs, Genji hangs out with Joe, although she crashes through a rotten subterranean floor despite Joe’s warning of “Don’t go in there!” (53). (Don’t worry; he totally rescues her.)

It’s more likely, I suppose, that Joe engineered the pairing. (Iola is not mentioned in the text.) After meeting Genji, he smoothly suggests, “Maybe you could spend some time with us tomorrow” (17). When her father is a suspect in the theft of the model trains, Joe’s reaction is to groan “Not Genji’s dad” (27). Unfortunately, he misses his chance to impress her when she finds out he and his brother are detectives; the text blandly says the boys “told Genji about some of Frank and Joe’s experiences” (43). C’mon, man! Brag about yourself! You deserve it!

Detective accoutrements: While wandering around a deserted train car, Joe’s “detective radar” (87) perks up, alerting him that he’s not really alone. When Frank suggests looking over surveillance tape again, Joe says, “Frank’s detective button has been pushed” (100). What I want to know is where those pieces of technology were installed on their bodies. Or, if they are external tech, do they get strange looks from the people who see their detective radars and detective buttons?

Always order the special of the house: When eating at the RibRack, what do the boys order? Burgers and fries. Of course. They’ve had ribs before, while in Texas for The Swamp Monster, but they burgers are among their favorites: they ordered burgers in 22 books in the original canon.

If you weren’t there, I can’t explain to you how awesome the ‘90s were: Genji’s seventeenth birthday party is held on an excursion train, which travels from Indianapolis, through the Hoosier National Forest to the south, and back again. That’s not particularly ‘90s, and really, it doesn’t sound like a fun party for teenagers, no matter how much food they cram onto the train. (It sounds fun to me, but I’m a middle-aged white guy with a fondness for Midwestern forests and hills.) But! The ‘90s part is the entertainment on the train: “a boom box and an assortment of CDs” (77). Cool!

Also, Frank repeatedly calls Joe “bro.” This is not exclusively a ‘90s phenomenon, as much as I wish it was. But I think the trend can be traced back to the ‘90s. Also, there’s no excuse for Frank to say “bro.” Ever.

Villains are a weaselly and incompetently murderous lot: The villains swing between formidable and awful. On one hand, they pull off a plot that involves kidnapping the crew of a train at a critical juncture; one of the crooks fells Joe with one punch to the stomach, and he later hops off a near-runaway train with little damage. On the other hand, when one of them shoves Frank in front of a train, Frank has plenty of time to cross the tracks and get out of the way. Also, the point of kidnapping the train crew (and the subsequent mayhem) was to get Frank and Joe to drop the case, but the criminals never said that, and the boys were entirely unclear about why the train had been attacked. Better communication skills wouldn’t have helped the crooks, but it would have allowed everyone to take them more seriously.

The narration uncharacteristically editorializes after the final villain was captured: “From that point on, he behaved like the whining weasel he really was” (147). Perhaps he was a weasel, but he deserves more respect than that; he almost got away with it! (Unfortunately, the boys just happened across him at a food court near the Hardys’ hotel. In all of the city of Indianapolis, he just happened to be at the wrong place!)

You’re learning about trains!: Frank, Joe, and Jackson are awakened every morning at 6:30 by the arrival of the Hoosier State, an Amtrak train that runs between Indianapolis and Chicago, as it prepared to head to Chicago. The Hoosier State leaves even earlier in 2014; according to Amtrak’s June 9, 2014 schedule, the Hoosier State leaves Indianapolis at 6 a.m. on its way to the Windy City. The Hoosier State runs only on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, but the Cardinal, which runs from New York to Chicago, leaves Indianapolis at 6 a.m. on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.)

The boys (and Jackson) stay at a hotel in Indianapolis’s old Union Station; the three share an old Pullman car, still resting on its tracks, refurbished as a hotel room. Shockingly, these rooms are real, and they are still available for guests of the Crowne Plaza at Historic Union Station hotel. The rooms sound cool, but they also sound very noisy.

I don’t think you’re real EMTs: After Frank and Joe save the adult collectors from the Ridiculously Slow Death Trap after a day of imprisonment, the paramedics prescribe “soup and juice right away” (143) for Agawa. Soup and juice? It was only one day; it’s not like he was about to starve. Are these people in the pocket of Big Soup and the Juice Conglomerate?

Opinions: Sidetracked to Danger is a bit bland, and it even fails to live up to the promise of action model trains imply. True, there are scenes on real trains, but those trains are either stationary or the party / excursion train. Neither is worthy of the great Hardy adventure tradition. Combine that with the glittering city of Indianapolis, and you have a book that fails to generate much interest.

Grade: C. In three months, I will forget I ever read this book, even though it has a travelogue of downtown Indianapolis, a place I have been to and probably will return to.