The Desert Thieves is not, as I had hoped, a wacky caper about a bunch of scoundrels trying to steal the Atacama or the Gobi or Painted Desert. It is a morality tale set in the Hardy Boys’ world, and like most stories with an emphasis on morals, it is not that entertaining.
Frank and Joe are on winter break — even though last book took place during summer vacation — so Fenton takes them out west on a business trip. After the business is done, Fenton takes the boys to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the Sonoran Desert, where his old college buddy, Winton “Grish” Grisham, is a park ranger. The Hardys make a surprise visit to see ol’ Grish, who hasn’t seen Fenton in 20 years. Twenty years! I know if a college friend dropped by out of the blue after 20 years, I’d probably tell them as politely as possible to take a hike. I mean, 20 years …
Oh, crap. I just realized I’ve been out of college for almost 20 years. That means I’m almost Fenton’s age, and I still haven’t realized my goal of becoming the #1 private detective in America. I’m not even a private detective! I may have wasted my life.
Anyway, Grish — and I’m betting Fenton hung that nickname on him, out of spite — tells the Hardys about the cactus rustling that’s been happening at Organ Pipe. It sounds strange, but in essence it’s the same type of human stupidity that leads to trade in rhino horn or ivory: in this case, cacti are pretty, so people want them for their yards, and the best cacti are in protected environments. Frank and Joe immediately want in on the investigation, and here’s the lesson beginneth.
Grish does not want the boys — “a couple of amateur detectives” (8) — butting into the mystery. He doesn’t have time to be responsible for their safety, and besides, this is a federal matter, not vandalism or a snow-leopard theft. Grish wants to keep the investigation as secret as possible so as not to alert the perpetrators, so having a couple of teenagers blundering around wouldn’t be helpful. Besides, Organ Pipe is large, and according to Grish, the job requires people who know the territory. Joe unreasonably bristles at being called amateur — I mean, Frank and Joe call themselves that, half the time — but Grish’s knowledge of the territory is called into question when Fenton has to remind him he’s on a one-way road and that pickup roaring toward him might be a problem.
Still, I can’t fault Grish for not wanting to work with teenagers who call each other “bro” and “dude” (18) and use phrases like “nuke box” when they mean “microwave” (32).
So after this brush-off, what do Frank and Joe immediately do? Poke around, arousing suspicion, and talking about the case so anyone wandering by can overhear details of the sensitive operation. While they do this, Fenton looks on, bemused and not interested in helping. Although I don’t think the author has youth lingo down, he or she knows kids: if you tell them they can’t do something they want to do, they’re likely to do it anyway, because what the hell do you know? You’re only an adult.
Grish seems to be the model of patience, as he doesn’t put his foot in the boys’ asses, metaphorically or literally, when they tell him they’ve been doing the exact thing he’s told them not to do. He doesn’t tell them to go elsewhere — I’m sure the nearby Sonoran Desert National Monument, Saguaro National Park, and Coronado National Forest are wonderful in the winter. He nods and praises the boys’ efforts, even though they have told pretty much everyone about the investigation by the end.
So, Lesson #1: It is better to ask forgiveness than permission; if you’re good enough, you won’t even have to ask for forgiveness. Those who wouldn’t give you permission will probably thank you.
Of course, because the boys have been telling everyone about their investigation, they are the victim of indirect attacks. Their climbing rope is cut, their gas line is cut, and a rattlesnake — the traditional symbol of treachery — is left in their rented RV. (Also, a not-very-determined coyote tries to drag away a sleeping Joe but gives up when Joe wakes up.) After the climbing accident, Grish tells them to Just. Stop. It. The investigation is too dangerous!
But the brothers ignore him, of course, and Fenton and Joe stumble across the conspirators in a town near Organ Pipe. Fenton is caught by them, and Frank and Joe have to spring into action, with the help of the army of people they’ve told about the investigation. But — shock and surprise — the ringleader of the cactus rustlers is Grish!
Lesson #2: If someone is stopping you from doing what you want to do, they must be a bad person, and time — or your meddling — will reveal that.
Frank and Joe find Grish’s gang in the desert. Frank is almost immediately captured by Grish while trying to rescue Fenton. When the police helicopters show up, Grish slips away with his two captives. But with the unwitting help of a local artist, who shines his headlights in Grish’s face, Joe manages to sock Grish on the jaw, disarming him. Joe decides to give the artist some credit; the artist claims he had a plan rather than just getting lucky, and Joe doesn’t contradict him. This would be magnanimous of Joe if he himself hadn't been floundering around for most of the mystery. He couldn't even get the license plate numbers of the truck that drove away with his father!
Lesson #3: It’s better to be lucky than good. But it’s best to be lucky and good, and those who are both shall be given the keys of the Bayport.
If Grish had just had supper with the Hardys after they arrived and then sent them on their way without telling them about the cactus thefts, they probably would never have known about the criminal activity at the national monument. No, instead he says he mentioned the crimes so he could keep tabs on the Hardys, which is stupid; I mean, if he thought they were investigating the cactus thefts, which he claimed no one outside of Organ Pipe knew about, then it makes sense, but he should have at least felt them out about the case before spilling his guts.
Lesson #4 is something about hubris, although I imagine you can figure that one out yourself.
Here, as Jim Malone sayeth in The Untouchables while teaching Eliot Ness, endeth the lesson. Thank Dixon.