Friday, June 19, 2015

Reel Thrills (#127)

Reel Thrills coverOh, good. It’s been a while since I’ve read a Hardy Boys book where Frank and Joe mingle in a glamorous entertainment field …

Oh, wait, that’s right — they were bodyguards for the leader of a boy band in the last book I read, Mystery with a Dangerous Beat. In Reel Thrills, Frank and Joe are thrown into the glamorous world of B movies. (Chet’s impressed, at least.) When someone blows up movie producer Mort Tannenberg’s yacht at the Bayport Marina, Tannenberg consults Fenton Hardy. Fenton says he met Mort at a party, although I’m not sure what kind of party both a producer of schlock movies and the world’s most famous private detective would both be attending. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: if reading Hardy Boys books have taught me nothing else, it’s that Fenton knows everyone. I mean, Dangerous Beat started because Fenton went to college with a prominent manager for musical acts.

Fenton, of course, immediately fobs the case onto his sons and Chet. He’s too busy for the King of B Movies because he and Laura are leaving for Paris. Ooh la la! When Mort meets with the boys, he reveals that not only did his yacht go boom, but props left on the dock indicated the explosion was supposed to mimic the shock ending to one of Mort’s not-yet-released films. This leads the boys to surmise that the villain was working on the film, which, maybe not, but if we assume someone else got ahold of the script, Frank and Joe’s suspect pool would be so large it would drown them.

Since twist endings are Mort’s trademark, he feels extra threatened. He sends Joe to his company offices in New York to snoop around as a gofer, while Frank begins work as a P.A. on Total Annihilation, Mort’s newest film. I was shocked — shocked! — when accidents started happening on set. When has that ever occurred in a Hardy Boys story? (Every time. Yes, I know.) As part of the on-set menace, the author uses the oldest cliché: a sandbag that nearly falls on Lisa’s head. (A sandbag! For Gertrude’s sake, how hackneyed can you get?)

(Also: I mentioned in Dangerous Beat that crawling through office ductwork was the only movie cliché as old as the “tampering with the brakeline” bit. In Reel Thrills, Joe has to escape from a locked room by crawling through the ductwork.)

Frank finds it interesting that if Lisa were injured, the movie would have to stop filming. This line of thinking gets him so worked up that when he sees Lisa grappling with a man, he rushes forward to help, only to get an elbow in the chest from Lisa, who’s just rehearsing.

That night, Mort throws a party, and he has the Hardy boys work as waiters as “free labor.” This is a bit confusing; is Mort not paying anyone for having Frank and Joe do detective work? If so, that’s a sweet deal! If not, he’s not getting free labor. He’s probably getting incredibly expensive labor. At the party, Mort gets gaslighted by someone, with his dead wife showing up and replicating the end to another of Mort’s films before disappearing. Frank and Joe (presumably) get grass stains on their tuxes jumping twelve feet out a window to pursue her.

A few days later, someone sneaks into Mort’s home, breaking into his safe in imitation of the ending of Mort’s unreleased Blood in the Streets. How did the thief guess Mort’s security code? Because he uses the same code that was used in Blood in the Streets. (This is not quite as dumb as President Skroob’s luggage combination. But it’s close.) The break-in worries Mort so much he eventually agrees to Frank and Joe’s suggestion to hire Chet as a house sitter. Mort also asks Frank and Joe to stake out the location where he plans to shoot the most important scene in Total Annihilation … and Frank and Joe head back home after giving the auditorium a cursory glance. Good work, boys!

Suspect pool time!

  • Mort himself. Frank and Joe think he might be trying to pull an insurance scam and attempting to hide it by hiring the Hardys to cover up his own complicity, but since the crimes revolve around things he would like to keep secret, Frank and Joe have to rule him out.
  • Cindy “Poison Pen” Langly: Mort fired her as a writer for revealing “trade secrets,” and now she writes stories that defame him for a trashy tabloid. She even accuses him of destroying his own yacht — for publicity purposes — in print. On the other hand, Langly thinks Mort is hoping for “BIG BOX OFFICE BUCKS,” which is absurd. It’s a B-movie: a large gross at the ticket office is a longshot. He’ll probably get more money from video and cable TV rights.
  • Danny DiNuccio: He has no real motive, but he’s Joe’s boss, he acts mean toward Joe, and he’s does vaguely suspicious stuff. That’s enough for Frank and Joe Hardy! He’s also miffed he suggested the twist ending to Blood in the Streets but received no credit for it.
  • Lisa Summer: A teen star, she is concerned about what Mort’s movies are doing to her career and probably wants out of her contract. (Joe thinks she’s sexy when she’s sad, which is a little creepy.) She’s probably not wrong; in Blood in the Streets, her role is “a ruthless ninja safecracker expert named Raven Blue.” I’m not sure if she’s an expert on cracking safes, an expert on safecrackers, or an expert on ninja safecrackers — if it’s the latter, Raven certainly has the field to herself.
  • Peter Rizer: The assistant director of Total Annihilation. He’s mostly incompetent at overseeing things on set — lights go out, ammonia is placed in the fog machine ... You know, the usual stuff. Rizer is more important because he dates the author, who was most likely was a young lad (or she was a young lass) while Reiser played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1940-2, 1946-8).

    (Also dating the book: Frank’s confrontation, during broad daylight, with three muggers in a New York City parking garage. Ah, pre-Giuliani New York, how we miss thee.)

As it turns out, Langly and DiNuccio are innocent of wrongdoing, unless you count DiNuccio being Langly’s inside source as a crime. (I wouldn’t, although I sometimes admit my legal compass does not match up with the Hardys’.) Rizer is, as I mentioned, merely incompetent. Summer and her trainer are behind the worst of the on-set accidents in an attempt to get Lisa out of her contract. (She wants to exercise a safety clause, but after Frank and Joe confront her, she realizes she’s stuck with Mort.)

The real culprit of the crimes that imitate Mort’s films is Sid Renfield, Mort’s executive producer who got kicked upstairs after directing Mort’s movies for years. Evidently he doesn’t discuss this slight with Mort, because he and the Hardys are shocked when they discover who is behind the plot.

Despite not doing any real investigating, Frank and Joe seem like a big enough threat that Renfield tries to murder them with a Jeep before launching his coup de grace against Mort. But the Hardys are — barely — ahead of him, having figured out how he planned to kill Mort. Joe remove the detonator that would destroy Mort’s brakes (*sigh*) and puts sand in Renfield’s gas tank, forcing Renfield to accept a ride from Mort or admit what he’s done.

Renfield incriminates himself, and Frank and Joe are victorious again. I’d actually declare this a clear win for Frank and Joe, unlike Mystery with a Dangerous Beat; nothing was really destroyed, no one (except Joe, who suffers a vicious concussion when a flat from a set drops on him) is really injured, and the plan to get the villain to incriminate himself is actually kinda clever. Nice job, Frank and Joe (and Franklin W. Dixon)!

But my goodness, lay off some of the clichés next time, OK?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mystery with a Dangerous Beat (#124)

Mystery with a Dangerous Beat coverWell, if I have nothing else positive to say about this book, I must admit Mystery with a Dangerous Beat is a distinct title.

It’s always good to be a Hardy. In this particular instance, Frank and Joe get free tickets to a sold-out concert in L.A., courtesy of Fenton’s college friend, music manager Harold Manstroni. Who are Frank and Joe seeing? Why, it’s none other than the Funky Four, “the best dance band around.” I’m envisioning something between New Kids on the Block and Menudo, without any edginess or interesting ethnicity.

Since this is a Hardy Boys story, the concert can’t end without a heavy object almost dropping on someone; in this case, it’s a huge spotlight that narrowly misses “lead singer and heartthrob Brian Beat.” (As an aside, Joe thinks Brian has “total star power,” and he also regards Brian as the best-looking guy in the band.) A security guard denies Frank and Joe entrance to the stage to investigate the accident, so they have to totally coincidentally run into an incognito Brian the next day at an arcade, where Frank plays Air Racer, while Joe plays Hack Attack (a taxi-based game, which has never been a thing). Because the arcade evidently has the lamest games ever, the brothers have nothing better to do than save Brian when a malicious passerby outs Brian as a celebrity and he is menaced by adoring fans, who threaten to riot. How do Frank and Joe save Brian? By Frank testing that old free speech chestnut and shouting, “Fire!” in a crowded arcade. (Turns out that’s OK.) The author and editor show a lack of understanding about football, saying Frank acted like a “defensive lineman” by clearing a path for Brian and Joe; offensive linemen clear paths, while defensive linemen exploit gaps.

In the aftermath, Joe gets Brian to hire the brothers as extras for a video the Funky Four are making — you know, so Frank and Joe can keep an eye on him. While on set, Brian is hassled by Pico Hernandez, a music reporter who, you know, makes crap up to promote his magazine, Janet Reno’s Dance Party Scene (actually, I think this was from before Reno joined the magazine). Frank and Joe’s “vigilance” doesn’t stop Brian from being nearly electrocuted by a sabotaged microphone stand. Just after, in incredibly ‘90s moment, a woman wearing bike shorts and an “oversize denim jacket” over an orange top rollerblades onto the set to accuse Brian and the band’s manager, Marcus, of stealing a song she had written.

When Brian’s mother is admitted to the hospital, Brian wants Frank and Joe along as part of his retinue. Fenton has no trouble with the boys splitting from the family vacation to LA, saying in essence, “Sure, whatever, knock yourself out. Write if you get (paying) work!” Pico pressures Brian for an interview on the plane. It turns out Brian’s mother is fine, but a man posing as an orderly tosses liquid nitrogen on Brian’s face, but of course there’s no lasting damage, and the man escapes.

At a thinly veiled Magic Kingdom, Brian’s roller coaster car goes off the tracks; the next day, his dressing room is trashed, and the Jet Ski he was supposed to be riding toward a pier — driven by Joe instead — is sabotages so its accelerator is stuck.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Frank and Joe aren’t doing a very good job. Brian isn’t killed, so by that bare standard of bodyguarding, they’re successful. But with all those accusations and crimes, they discover nothing for the first half of the book. Even the boys themselves complain there are “a thousand loose ends.” They also let Brian get socked in the jaw by Pico, which in any rational universe should shut down Pico’s access to the band — but no, casual assault is another key facet of any Hardy Boys book, and not something the police get involved in. So the incident gets written off.

Also, Brian Beat is getting off lucky in the press. Stories about his contract situation, personal tragedies, a plagiarism accusation, and murder attempts should have reporters swarming around him like blowflies on a corpse. The only reason I can think of that they aren’t is that people really don’t care about him or the Funky Four. (Fun fact: The band’s manager really did cheat one of the band members, Jason, out of songwriting credits / royalties — or he thought he did, at least.) But even with that scandal, no one’s sniffing around the band except Pico, and he’s too incompetent to do any actual reporting.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the Hardys’ skill is their inability to find Brian when a ransom note shows up. Do they try to track Brian’s movements? Look for witnesses to his last known moments of freedom? Contact the police? No. They chase Pico for a while, wait, and then go out to Brian’s mother’s house to break the news to her, face to face. Fortunately for them, Brian is actually at his mother’s, and the ransom note is a fake. Unfortunately for them, someone has cut their brake line …

Ah, tampering with the brake line: the old movie chestnut, just as hoary as crawling through the ductwork in an office building. I’ve never crawled through a duct, but I know from experience that cutting the brake line being a sudden danger is bollocks. If you use the brakes at all — as Frank and Joe do on a mountain road before their brakes’ catastrophic failure — you can feel the brakes getting softer and less effective. You have a warning. That Frank can’t detect it also reflects poorly on the boys, or maybe on Fenton’s training. By this point in their careers, he has to know someone’s going to cut their brakes eventually, and he should have made sure they were prepared. I mean, the man has trained Frank to disarm land mines, for Thor’s sake.

With Brian safe, the boys and Marcus decide to try to trap the ersatz kidnapper. Although everyone suspects Pico, it’s Suzi B., the band’s fired dance choreographer, who had accused Marcus and Brian of stealing her song. Her ransom demand was her way of getting the money she was owed. The boys let her go, even though what she did was still a crime. But who cares? Frank and Joe seem to believe only attempted homicide is a crime worth their time.

And they get another attempted homicide; the music video requires a skydiving scene, and Brian’s parachute fails to open. To stack cliché atop cliché, Frank catches up with the falling Brian, and the two ride Frank’s parachute to safety. After this near disaster, the brothers start asking questions, and hey ho! they nail their suspect — Jason, Brian’s (jealous, but hiding it well) bandmate and best friend. Turns out he’s been trying to kill Brian because Brian always steals the spotlight, albeit inadvertently. It also turns out he stole Suzi B.’s song, then let Marcus steal it from him. With all those crimes, Frank seems concerned only with the parachute tampering: “That’s attempted murder … You could go to jail for that.”

Could! What is the source of Frank’s doubt? Does he believe the justice system is incompetent? Does he think a confession is insufficient to secure a conviction? Does he agree with Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, believing “attempted murder” isn’t really a crime?

Congratulations, Frank and Joe! It took only four potentially fatal incidents for you to figure out what the hell was going on. Fortunately for you, the attempted murderer was incompetent!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Danger in the Fourth Dimension (#118)

Danger in the Fourth Dimension coverDanger in the Fourth Dimension is a dumb title. The measure most commonly called the fourth dimension is time. The danger of time is that in the end, it saps us of our vitality, gradually taking our youth and leaving only decrepitude before we eventually die. It’s a long-term danger, one hardly able to be done justice to in a 150-page children’s detective book.

Also: Frank and Joe are not subject to the ravages of time, the bastards. It holds little danger for them, given that it has been 88 years since their debut, and they are still going — not as strong, perhaps, but still going. All it will take is a decent movie or cartoon or TV show and — voom, they’ll be as strong as they ever were.

Anyway, that’s a little off topic. In Danger, Fourth Dimension is a sci-fi theme park in South Carolina. Fenton Hardy has asked his sons to meet him there to help with an investigation, but when they arrive, he has vanished. Frank and Joe are told he checked out suddenly, and they are left in South Carolina with no guidance and no idea what they are supposed to be investigating (other than where Fenton is). Seems like a bit of a flaw in the Fenton Hardy Inc. operating procedures, but what do I know?

I’m not going to go into the suspect pool on this one; suffice it to say when Frank asks himself, “Were Fenton Hardy’s kidnappers too clever for them?” (81), the answer appears to be yes. Frank and Joe have trouble even discovering what Fenton was investigating: the first person who says he hired Fenton is park designer Justin Maceda, who tells the boys he needed Fenton to find blueprints that were stolen from him, while Bayport-resident-on-vacation Ernest Brody says he hired Fenton to foil a retirement-community scam. Unfortunately, even after they get somewhere on the second case, Frank and Joe are completely unable to recognize the villains once they take off their wigs. (Danger retroactively devalues every time Fenton fooled the boys with a disguise in the canon, as they are completely unable to recognize a couple of mooks who put on wigs and costumes, and they are unable to recognize Brody even though he matches the description of the old guy looking for them exactly.) They manage to catch the ringleader (Maceda) only because he forgets to flee at the end, thinking his holograms will be able to hold off the Hardys.

Frank and Joe search for their father at a leisurely pace, making sure not to stay up late or put too much effort into the task. They could get others to help, but they do not. Do they alert park management? Not really; they’re not sure who to trust. That’s not a bad idea; security is so awful at the park that they hand out keys to the boys willy-nilly and do not react to massive failures in the exhibits or the Hardys fighting a man on a roller coaster. Do Frank and Joe call the police? No, because the kidnappers might kill Fenton if they do that. Also, the local police are awful; they think the only way to be able to arrest — not successfully prosecute, but arrest — the villains is to catch the two low-level scamsters in a transaction; I admit it makes a better case, but it’s not necessary. However, they say the only way to arrest — again, arrest — Maceda is to get his confession on a wire, which is stupid. They can get the two underlings to testify against their boss, and if they had just moved quickly, they would have gathered a huge amount of evidence against Maceda and arrested him without a chase. Hmm … perhaps this is why Frank and Joe are so remarkably successful: their competition on the law-enforcement front is pathetic.

So Frank and Joe have to race against time to save Fenton … except it isn’t much of a race. The villains keep threatening Fenton’s life, but they never do anything, even when Frank and Joe refuse to stop investigating. It becomes clear about two-thirds of the way through the book that either Fenton is dead or the criminals lack the stones to kill him — either way, Frank and Joe shouldn’t be deterred. I mean, they aren’t (ever), but they shouldn’t angst about it. Eventually they find Fenton, but not until they’ve been fooled by a hologram of Fenton (under the Hall of Holograms, natch). Really, without Brody, they would have been in trouble.

As a book, Danger is going to succeed or fail on the strength of the Fourth Dimension park. So what’s it like? The basic idea seems to be based around retro sci-fi kitsch — metallic-colored jumpsuits, jet packs, robots, automated homes, BEM (bug-eyed monsters). The housekeeping staff at the park hotel wears garish overalls, because what says “utopia” better than people wearing ugly utilitarian clothing semi-willingly? The café in the park is called the Interstellar Snack Shop — not embarrassing, but I have trouble believing they couldn't have come up with a better name. The park uses a monorail for internal transportation. It has Epcot-type buildings called the Hall of Holograms, Biosphere, and the Science Fiction Exhibit. (The entire park is a science fiction exhibit. Perhaps it should be called the Science Fiction Museum?) The park also has a home of the future, which has a “rock-o-matic chair” — that’s exactly what you think it is, a self-rocking rocking chair. Rocking chairs do not need the improvement, although Maceda manages to almost subdue Joe with the chair.

It’s not entirely Epcot; it does have rollercoasters and a video arcade (with Mega Baseball!), and Frank and Joe play in the “Space War Gladiator Game,” although it’s not clear whether the Laser Tag-type contest is something park guests can participate in or if it’s some sort of entertainment for them to watch. The park also has a solar system mobile, which has scale-model planets hanging dangerously over the crowds; while standing under them, Frank once again proves a law of motion: a suspended object, once no longer suspended, will fall directly toward (but not onto) the nearest Hardy male.

But occasionally Fourth Dimension transcends its retro futurism. In a 1993 book that uses the “National Network” — “the network that links computers in universities and libraries,” which we call “the Internet” — the video arcade has working virtual reality games, which would be impressive today. The park has literal — literal! — flying cars and working laser pistols. I am not joking about either of these. What is described as a hovercraft flies over a low part of a roller coaster, and the book sells the idea that Frank and Joe are scared for their lives when shot at with one of the laser pistols.

It seems Maceda, the park designer, has created these devices — the same park designer who’s running a real-estate scam to get the money to open his own sci-fi theme park. If he wanted money, he should have sold the patent to the flying car he invented. The army would love real, working deadly laser pistols. It doesn’t matter if either is practical for large-scale manufacturing; they both represent such a step forward that companies would offer millions for them. But no, the guy decides to try to bilk the olds out of their money. Honestly … He was bitter against his boss because his boss sees the theme park “merely as a money-making operation” (35), showing he hasn’t thought about capitalism very much.

But hey — at least Fourth Dimension will stand as a lasting monument to Maceda’s genius. Or maybe not. The owner might sell it to Disney, who’d make it into a Star Wars park, or maybe it will just go under because Maceda isn’t there to contribute his innovations. Plenty of abandoned theme parks in the world.