Friday, February 27, 2015

The Alaskan Adventure (#138)

The Alaskan Adventure coverFrank and Joe head to Glitter, Alaska, a small Athabascan Indian town on the Yukon River, to visit their friend David Natik. David visited the Hardy home in an unpublished adventure, so Frank and Joe decide to return the favor by visiting David just a few days before his first Iditarod. Because that’s exactly what you want, just before you enter your first 1,100-mile dog sled race: a pair of visitors distracting you and keeping you from training.

But it’s good Frank and Joe arrive when they do: David’s aunt and uncle’s home is burned down just minutes after the boys arrive, and a few minutes later, a burning log is thrown through the window of David’s parents’ cabin, where the family has taken refuge. This is just one of many acts of vandalism and destruction that have occurred in Glitter. Obviously something is wrong, and the locals have no idea what it is; in fact, they don’t really link any of the events into a coherent whole …

But Frank and Joe do! Unfortunately, they don’t know why these crimes are being committed. They toy with the idea that old conflicts in the town coming to the fore; they think it might have something to do with David’s and his ex-friend Gregg’s rivalry; perhaps it has something with the theme-park company that wants to come to Glitter and make it into a giant living history exhibit?

Yes, that’s it — the last one. It takes Frank and Joe a while to latch onto that idea, but they figure it out eventually. Suspects include Curt Stone, a theme-park rep who remains friendly to the boys despite all their questions and his inability to tell the difference between “accusations” and “insinuations”; Lucky, a miner and living history exhibit himself, who gives Frank and Joe the helpful advice that they need to “be careful whose nuggets they put their hands on” (38); and Gregg Anderson, who suspects Frank and Joe are behind his troubles, calling the brothers David’s “gangster friends” (122). That comment transformed Gregg from insufferable jerk to all right guy.

None of these is the criminal, of course. The criminal’s grand plan is to get the locals to approve the theme park so he can sell native handicrafts to tourists for a profit, which seems like a lot of work for a small payoff. He seems luckier than good, as well; in a little town where everybody’s got their nose in everyone else’s business, he’s fortunate he hasn’t been seen in his villainous comings and goings. (The worst was when he punctured a boat in the middle of the night; people heard the sound, which was likened to chopping wood, but no one decided to look outside to see why someone was chopping wood in the dark.) The culprit also pulls one of my least favorite Hardy Boys’ villain maneuvers: the hemi-glutteal food theft, in which all of someone’s food is stolen, but rather than taking it away totally, spoiling it, or eating it, it’s abandoned somewhere nearby, allowing Frank and Joe to recover it via their superior woodscraft. (The best example of this is the original Mystery of Cabin Island.)

It is extremely ironic that Frank and Joe oppose the efforts of someone who wants to turn an entire town into a theme park. For the Hardys, that’s what travel is for: you watch the locals and see the neat, weird things they do. Everything they do is put on for your benefit, and you get to eat their local foods. At the end of the trip, you get to claim you “understand” or “helped” the natives. In Alaskan Adventure, Frank and Joe see a real “Native American healer” in action, ride a dogsled, are menaced by local wildlife, buy stuff from a general store, attend a native potlatch, and visit Lucky’s mining operation. They don’t meet David’s parents because — and I swear to God this is true — the elder Natiks are in Fairbanks working at a snowshoe factory.

The author seems to sympathize with the anti-theme park side, since a theme park supporter is causing all the damage and David’s extended family all oppose the park. The sole argument for the park — money — seems shallow compared to the … we’ll say “rich traditions” Frank and Joe witness in Glitter. David’s cousin says her father believes the park will make Glitter’s residents “animals in a circus, showing off for visitors instead of being free to live our lives the way we always have” (29). Sure, the town has its problems, but they mostly stem from a single jackass destroying things to get people to vote for the theme park. But at the end of the story, David’s uncle begins to cave to the theme park idea, claiming he thinks Glitter can work with Stone’s company. Capitalism rules!

Despite the downer of an ending, which shows the power of capitalism, Frank and Joe might get a reward: a testimonial letter from an Alaskan State Trooper commander. Wow. We’re a long way from the early books, in which rewards of hundreds and thousands of dollars just tumbled into their laps.

Frank and Joe have always treated their travels as tourism, as shown by their first trip to Alaska (just after it became a state) in The Mystery of Devil’s Paw. The boys stopped Iron Curtain spies from recovering a lost rocket in Devil’s Paw, which is a lot more exciting than putting the kibosh on a vandal, but whatever. In that book, the Hardys met local Native Americans and ate local foods; unlike in Alaskan Adventure, which featured moose steak and moose-head soup at a potlatch, in Devil’s Paw they ate bear steaks, rice-lily bread, raw salmon, stewed rabbit, and wild rose fruit while attending a native wedding. The wildlife shifted slightly in the nearly four decades between the books: both had the Hardys escaping brown bears, but Alaskan Adventure substituted wolves for Devil’s Paw’s skunks.

The story ends just before David and Gregg take off for the Iditarod, which means the story ends in early March. Unfortunately, neither won, but David is prepared for this. After mentioning Gregg wants to be “first in everything,” David says, “Life’s not like that” (14). It might not be like that for you, brother, but it is for Frank and Joe. Wisely, they refrain from correcting him, but we the readers know the truth.

Random Iditarod facts: In 1996, the year in which the book was published, Californian Jeff King won his second Iditarod behind his lead dogs Jake and Booster. He finished the course in 9 days, 5 hours, 43 minutes, and 13 seconds. Forty-nine competitors finished the race; eleven more dropped out before the end. The fastest first-timer, Cim Smyth, was 18th, finishing more than a day behind King. King won $50,000, while Smyth received $6,000 for his finish. King went on to win two more Iditarods. 1996 was the first time the competition had been completed in less than 10 days; King’s record stood until 2000, when Doug Swingley (along with Stormy and Cola) beat it by almost five hours. The shortest time was set in 2014 by Dallas Seavey, who finished in 8 days, 13 hours, 4 minutes, 19 seconds.

Friday, February 20, 2015

High-Speed Showdown (#137)

High-Speed Showdown coverPower boat racing has reached Bayport in High-Speed Showdown. Unsurprisingly, the Northeast Nationals are also plagued by sabotage. Really, you have to wonder why any organization would hold an event in Bayport. Are the hotels that great? Is the convention center huge? Are the women more attractive?

I’m thinking the answer is massive bribes. Massive, IOC / FIFA-level bribes, with piles of cash, drugs, and complimentary subscriptions to Field & Stream.

Given everything bad that happens at Bayport events, it’s the only real explanation. High-Speed Showdown supports that hypothesis, as the corruption in the powerboat racing circuit the Northeast Nationals is part of is an open secret. The racers, owners, and crew are allowed to bet on all the races, and while the assumption is that each person would bet on their own boat, they are not restricted to betting on themselves. If a governing body allows wagering among participations, corruption is always a danger, as some bright fellow is going to figure out it’s more profitable to lose than to win.

(In addition to the implications of gambling, the book is hazy on the mechanics of gambling as well. At one point, a private investigator based in Las Vegas tells the boys incorrectly what 1-to-4 odds means. The PI suggests a $1 at 1-4 returns an additional dollar on a win, but on a loss the bettor has to kick in an additional $4. This is incorrect. If you bet $1, that’s all you can lose; if you win a $1 bet at 1-4, you’ll receive a an additional quarter.)

When you think about speedboat racing, in which massive, finely tuned engines are harnessed to the lightest hulls possible, you also think of safety, and safety is foremost in High-Speed Showdown. The boys always strap in safely before riding in power boats. The narrator makes sure readers know the Hardys and other boaters know how to pass each other on the water. Before saving a man from drowning, Frank strips off his shoes and shirt and mentions that swimming with jeans is difficult. (Did he keep them on for modesty’s sake?) The brothers have a fire extinguisher on the Sleuth that allows them to take care of a fire on a powerboat. When a speedboat wrecks, Frank stops Joe from going to the rescue: “Let the marshals handle it … if a bunch of civilians like us run straight into the path of the racers, we’ll have a real disaster” (125). When the throttle on the Sleuth breaks, Joe’s first instinct is to shut off the engine rather than flail about with the controls. In the end, as the suspect escapes in a motorboat in the crowded waters of Barmet Bay, Frank elects not to pursue: “Too late! Let him go. He can’t escape. Besides, by trying to run away, he’s just proving that we were right about him” (147). And one of the adult crew members, recalling Frank and Joe’s 15-year-old schoolmate Connie, tells us he’s not into young women: “Cute kid, but way too young for me” (85). He’s totally lying, of course, but at least he’s being cautious about what he says about underage women.

(Another competitor, whom we are supposed to hate, is not so cautious around Connie: “I can handle her kind anytime” [33]. He means he can beat her up if he needs to, but that’s still awful.)

Maybe Frank and Joe have just decided to be boring. They use notecards to try to make links between facts in the case rather than their usual random association of incidents. After learning of a lead in Las Vegas, Frank and Joe contact a PI in that city rather than flying out there. Frank’s so cautious he’s worried he might have upset a member of student government that he says, “I hope we never want something from student government” (89). What I remember wanting from student government, during my high school days, is for student government to go away.

The stakes are very low; no one is injured, except for a guy who has a Hardy Boys concussion and another who was either poisoned or ate bad shrimp salad. The most jeopardy the boys fall into is when they are attacked by men with baseball bats, which is admittedly dangerous for most people, but it’s the kind of thing Frank and Joe handle all the time. The second-most peril they are subjected to is when a firecracker explodes under their van’s hood while they are still in the parking lot. The narration tries to sell by saying Joe heard “a high-pitched whistle … the sound of something deadly coming from under the hood” (117), but that sounds like a bottle rocket, not an M-80. The third-most danger is trying the peach chutney Aunt Gertrude put on their chicken sandwiches.

I won’t go into the suspects except to mention they are all powerboat racers (one of whom has the “gratitude of a weasel” [143], which is well known as the most ungrateful member of the weasel family) or owners plus a couple of student protestors. The actual criminal is a complete surprise — unless you’ve read The Masked Monkey or The Stone Idol or The Vanishing Thieves, in which the criminal thinks Frank and Joe aren’t that bright and hires them to investigate the crimes he himself committed. To be fair, this is one of the books in which Frank and Joe’s career is not widely known; one of their high-school classmates has “heard rumors around school that they’re amateur detectives or something” (35). Magnusson, the event organizer, is surprised when Frank and Joe ask for a copy of a threatening fax, as if he expected them to spend their time investigating running into piers and falling off docks.

But they don’t. They’re too cautious for that.

Actually, one suspect I’d like to discuss is Susan Shire, powerboat racer and television actress. The story isn't that interested in her, not so much dismissing her as a suspect and competitor as just forgetting about her, but Frank and Joe do mention she appears in the TV show Brisbane Lane. What kind of show do you think it is? We’re probably supposed to think it’s a Melrose Place clone, but I think there are other possibilities. Indiana Jones-type adventure show with an Aussie protagonist? Daytime soap? A spy show, set in Australia? I like all my Australian ideas, although the major hitch with them is that the name of the Australian city doesn’t rhyme with “lane” — it’s pronounced BRIZ-bin (or BRIZ-bn).

Weirdly, the book is more circumspect in naming (fictitious) entertainment sources in other places. At one point, Aunt Gertrude says she’s “going to watch a rerun of one of my favorite shows” (55), then asks if Frank and Joe would like to join her. They demur, in part because she won’t even name the show. Later Joe challenges Frank to “a computer game … I’ll spot you two power pills and an invisibility spell” (57). Frank accepts the challenge, even though the game isn’t named.

Despite the possibility of high-speed crashes, High-Speed Showdown is kinda dull, and it doesn’t take advantage of the competitive aspects of the sport. I mean, look at that cover, which promises a dull time; it looks like the Sleuth is blathering nonsense to Frank and Joe while they irresponsibly tow a rubber raft that had a couple of cardboard life-sized standees in it. It’s the kind of book that dramatically asks, “Would their meeting with Magnusson leave enough time for a prelunch snack?” (6).

Some might take exception with my stance. For instance, the Amazon page for the book has a single review, which gives the book five stars; the review, which I reproduce here in full, says, “good.” Hard to argue with that, but I won’t budge from my stance.

Unless someone wanted to try to sway me with IOC-levels of subscriptions to Field & Stream … throw in a couple of years of Outdoor Life, and I might be singing the praises of High-Speed Showdown.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Cold Cash Caper (#136)

The Cold Cash Caper coverEven though Frank and Joe aren’t heading out of town in the generically named The Cold Cash Caper, the author has decided to give them a three-day weekend in February — Washington’s Birthday, most likely — so they can enjoy Bayport’s Winter Festival without interruption.

What’s the Winter Festival? you might ask. And why haven’t you heard about it, even though it’s been around for more than two decades? The Winter Festival is a chance for Bayporters to unload homemade sweets and sweaters on one another and spend time outside, all in the hopes of raising money for the local children’s hospital; if the festival raises more than $50,000, the estate of deceased philanthropist Louis Bradford will donate the balance of the hospital’s yearly operating expenses. We’ve probably never heard of the festival because few books have been set in February — The Voodoo Plot, probably, and maybe Hunting for Hidden Gold — and because all other evidence of the event has been thrown in the memory hole. Better not ask any more questions, or you might be thrown into the room with the rats.

Frank and Joe are psyched to compete in the festival’s cross-country skiing and speed skating competitions, respectively, and their interest is piqued even more when they are told they will get to accompany Olympic figure skater David Kennedy around the festival. “His trademark triple axel is truly awesome!” Joe says, even though that is something no actual teenager has ever said. David has been booked to perform in the festival’s closing ceremonies.

Delivering Aunt Gertrude’s culinary contributions to the festival gives Frank and Joe an opportunity for a mild jab at Chet’s weight. At the festival grounds, Joe is jeered by Craig Thompson, the goalie for the Cross Town High hockey team, whom Joe lit up for a hat trick earlier in the season. Putting aside that “Cross Town High” is an awful name for a school — the name frames the school’s entire existence as being opposed to another, implicitly more legitimate (or at least older) school — Joe does not need to compete in another sport, as he already participated on six school teams in the first 85 Hardy Boys books. Joe does not rise to Craig’s bait, perhaps because Craig thinks calling Joe “the hotshot hockey player from Bayport High” (9) is an insult. Craig does get his revenge when Joe takes a spill during speed skating practice; the screws holding the blade to the shoe came unscrewed because of Craig’s sabotage, and Joe careened into a wall.

A note about the festival grounds: they are directly opposite the old Bradford Mansion, which is abandoned and dilapidated. In a story that seemingly replicates itself on every block in Bayport, the house has not been occupied since the wealthy Louis Bradford died, and the building and grounds have gone to seed. If you have read many Hardy Boys books, you know there is a disgraced heir out there somewhere, and he’s probably the villain.

Unfortunately for the festival, a booth is robbed of $2,000. Unfortunately for the Hardys, Chet is IDed as the robber, but they are able to give him an alibi. (Good thing, too; the BPD has picked Chet up for grand theft before, in the original Figure in Hiding.) Officer Con Riley tells the Hardys to work with the festival’s security chief, Dan Meyers, to catch the real robber. Meyers, proving he’s not a local, protests, “That job calls for someone with experience, not boys” (33). He gives in, though, and Chet and Joe find evidence before going home. Someone also hucks a rock at the Hardys’ van as they drive away from the festival. Just to get across that someone is unhappy with the Hardys’ meddling, the rock has an ineffectual threat tied around it.

The next day, Frank and Joe help David Kennedy escape reporters and fans at the airport. They also bring along Kennedy’s coach, Ivan Petrovich. (This could be a reference to Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, of Pavlov’s dog fame, or to the Marvel Comics character Ivan Petrovich, the bodyguard / handler / chauffeur of the Black Widow. Or neither.) David gets a taste of the Hardy life when Craig throws snowballs at them (and triggers an avalanche of deadly, deadly icicles) and when the Hardys pursue the thief who knocked over the “sweater booth” and got away with $1,000.

$1,000 of sweaters were sold in one morning. Huh. Well, allegedly a great number of raffle tickets were sold as well, but still — sweater booth. (The festival also sells “cow mugs,” which evidently are cow-themed coffee mugs.)

David is intrigued by the Hardys’ mystery skills and wishes to subscribe to their newsletter, despite Joe being puzzled about where a thief went when the thief entered one ends of an alley but disappeared before Joe gets to the alley. (He exited the other end of the alley, Joe.) David also doesn’t blink at the various threats to the Hardys’ lives. This will come back to bite him later. The investigation and entertaining David doesn’t stop the Hardys from competing in cross-country skiing (Frank was leading when a pine tree was dropped across the course) and speed-skating (Joe wins the two shorter events, and Frank wins the long-distance one).

So to save time, here are Frank and Joe’s big suspects:

  • Craig, who is so obviously not the true culprit he might as well be named “Red Herring.” Joe calls him “an obnoxious little punk” (127), which is a bit harsh but not inaccurate.
  • Leona Turner, who is one of the organizers of the festival. Her gift shop, which is in financial trouble, is near where the thief miraculously disappeared. She also stands on her rights, refusing to let Frank search the back of her shop, and sports new, expensive jewelry. It turns out she’s a bad businesswoman who is getting married to a rich man; she doesn’t care what happens to her shop.
  • Roger Pender, another festival organizer. His sporting-goods store, which is next to Leona’s, is failing because of a chain store that just came to town. Craig does odd jobs for him as well.

Frank and Joe’s big clue is that the thieves — it turns out there are two of them, working together — travel around in a white minivan. The brothers believe this narrows the suspect list, but Cold Cash Caper was published in 1996; I remember 1996, and white minivans were everywhere. But evidently, Bayport has only one white minivan, and when the brothers see one, it’s always the criminals’.

Later, Frank and Joe get into a scuffle with both robbers. Joe is shoved into a pond, but Frank seems to suffer a small cerebral event while rescuing his brother — he takes Joe home rather than to the hospital and starts saying things like, “What’s that expression? Get right back on the ice?” (114) and that Joe almost became “a contestant in the Polar Bear Club” (111). These cognitive difficulties slow Frank long enough for Joe to put everything together: when David is kidnapped, Joe realizes all the crimes are designed to keep the festival from earning the $50,000 needed to secure hospital funding from the Bradford estate.

The rest of the story writes itself. Actually, the ending would have been better if it had written itself. Chief of Police Ezra Collig won’t listen to the boys, which means they have to do research on their own. Recalling a rumor that the heirs to the Bradford estate would gain the entire estate if the festival didn’t make its $50,000 goal, Frank and Joe discover Dan Meyers, the head of festival security, is Bradford’s grandson. Not coincidentally, his two lieutenants match the description of the two thieves.

Because Collig wouldn’t listen to them before, Frank and Joe decide he won’t listen to them ever. Frank and Joe investigate the festival and Meyer’s and his goons’ apartments and find nothing. They run across the kidnappers’ van; while Joe is calling the cops, Frank is abducted as well. Joe pursues the van but loses it. He despairs; of course, by know the readers all know David is being held in the abandoned Bradford mansion. Joe doesn’t figure it out, but fortunately he stumbles across the van in time and follows it to the Bradford mansion. Despite beating up the two goons, Joe is stopped by Meyer’s gun.

Everything seems lost until Chet leads the festival parade (and the cops) to the mansion. The police arrest the villains, Joe and Craig reconcile, and David performs in the closing ceremonies. The festival makes its $50,000, and the hospital is funded — for this year, at least.

It’s a predictable story, easily forgotten. How do you sell it to an unsuspecting public? Here’s the back-cover copy:

Back cover of The Cold Cash Caper

That’s … badly written, and it’s not accurate — especially not the first paragraph. Frank and Joe don’t volunteer to do undercover security work; they do detective work to clear their friend. They aren’t assigned as David’s “bodyguards,” and they spend more time investigating than doing anything with David. Also: serial robberies are not “bad vibes.” The second paragraph does better, but I never got the feeling the boys were in danger of anything other than a punch in the face.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Hypersonic Secret (#135)

The Hypersonic Secret coverPlot: When the plane flown by the father of Frank and Joe’s new friend, Jamal Hawkins, disappears from radar, the brothers investigate.

I make fun of most of the Hardy Boys books I write about. The Hypersonic Secret is just as worthy of mockery as any, but instead, I want to talk about something else. Frank and Joe induct a new friend into their circle in Hypersonic, which is noteworthy on two levels: one, Frank and Joe haven’t made any new friends since The Tower Treasure, and two, the friend in question — Jamal Hawkins — is black.

African-American characters and black characters of other nationalities are not new to the Hardy Boys series; in particular, William Ellis made an impression on Joe in The Mysterious Caravan, and Peter Walker, a classmate and basketball teammate, served as Frank and Joe’s client in The Voodoo Plot. (If you want to extend this to all characters of color, Jim Foy went into a business partnership with Frank, Joe, and the other chums in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk, and he shared in a sizeable reward with them.) But because of the series’ resistance toward new characters, none of these characters have stuck. They were all one-and-done characters.

Although Hypersonic gives no indication Jamal will be a recurring character, he actually does appear in several other mysteries I’ve recapped on this site: Slam Dunk Sabotage, Danger in the Extreme, The Spy That Never Lies, Speed Times Five, In Plane Sight. And who knows? I haven’t read all the digests. He might have appeared in even more books. No matter how many more books he’s been in, though, those few books represent a step forward, acknowledging the world has changed since the series started in 1927. At this rate, Frank and Joe will meet their first gay person by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

A new character should ideally have a unique role to give that character an excuse to appear in more books. Jamal’s a pilot, and since his father owns a plane service, he can provide Frank and Joe access to planes. Since the Hardy family owns a plane and has a pilot on call, that’s not the best role for a new chum — unless Simon & Schuster is trying to change the status quo to make Frank and Joe seem less privileged. Whether Frank and Joe still have consistent access to a plane is not made clear in Hypersonic; Frank and Joe seem to have piloting skills, although not necessarily pilots’ licenses, and no mention is made of the family plane or Jack Wayne. Jamal does seem to be Frank and Joe’s superior in the cockpit.

Carving that niche from something Frank and Joe could previously do themselves is not the best way to endear him to the reader. There might be something to be gained from Jamal not being from Bayport — Frank and Joe seek him out after he and his high school beat Bayport in football — but the importance of Jamal’s outsider status isn’t clear in Hypersonic either.

If only the author had concentrated on Jamal more — or even the mystery around Bayport. After Jamal’s father’s plane goes down, Mr. Hawkins is missing, and Frank, Joe, and Jamal investigate around Bayport for suspects to the plane’s malfunction. Logically, finding Mr. Hawkins should be the climax of the book. Instead, it’s just another plot point, one that occurs less than halfway through the story. After that, the plot is done with the Hardys’ new friend, and Frank and Joe get to be privileged young white guys again — although this time they get their special treatment because they’re friends of Jamal, who is the son of a real cool ex-USAF guy. They get flown across the country in F-16s, Joe doesn’t get beaten to the ground and arrested when he gets too close to top-secret materials at Palmdale Air Force Base, and they even get to watch a hypersonic jet at Dreamland.

Dreamland! The military base also known as Groom Lake and Area 51! Good grief.

In the second half of the book, the author gets too wrapped up in flying hither and yon, putting Frank and Joe into those F-16s and having them fly around the American southwest with the villain and Jamal. If Jamal’s role was an attempt to make the boys’ experience more relateable, it doesn’t work.

I really like that Hypersonic picks up where the previous book leaves off — Cross-Country Crime is set during Thanksgiving, and Hypersonic takes place in December. However, the book tries to drive home a joke about Frank and Joe not having bought Aunt Gertrude a Christmas gift, but there’s no payoff — no joke about something being Gertrude’s real gift or Christmas arrive without the boys finder a present. Maybe that happens in the next book?

I suppose I’ll find out next time.