Every Hardy Boys book I read is a battle against low expectations. I don’t want much from the story: something to make me chuckle, a little mystery, a little investigating, a chum doing something stupid. If I’m lucky, I might get a surprise, like a neat literary trick from the author or an intriguing mystery. I don’t expect either of the last two.
Shield of Fear has an opportunity to do more than the usual Hardy Boys book, and it avoids that opportunity like it was Ebola. Frank and Joe go undercover at the Philadelphia police academy to see who is making the commissioner’s grandson, who is also undergoing training, look bad. While Frank and Joe are there, they sense that Larry, the grandson, isn’t as enthusiastic about upholding the family tradition of police service as his grandfather wants him to be.
The author could have gone two ways with this:
- Frank and Joe get to see what police training is like. Their father started out as a police officer. Is this something Frank and Joe want to do? Or are they set on going straight into private investigation?
- Larry struggles with the family legacy. Frank and Joe have decided to follow their father’s legacy. Do they have any second thoughts? Might it be worthwhile to make an active comparison between the family scions?
The first part is touched upon; wearing a police cap makes Joe “really feel like a cop!” (51), but given how the Hardy family bosses around police officers, that might mean Joe feels like a menial stooge. He suggests he and Frank should become cops: “Good pay, great uniforms, excitement, adventure …” (2). Since police work is not seen as terribly lucrative and Frank and Joe have already encountered a great deal of excitement and adventure, that has to be a joke. The boys’ attitude toward becoming policemen is not addressed after they actually begin attending the academy.
I don’t know why this idea was allowed to lay fallow. The editor may have decided not to point out what Frank and Joe’s future looked like. The writer might have not considered it an interesting point. The “action” might have crowded out such a minimal attempt at characterization, although Osiris knows the action in any Hardy Boys book is disposable. Maybe the writer figured that level of writing craft was above his pay grade. Or — more worryingly — maybe it didn’t occur to anyone.
Anyway, as I said, Frank and Joe are sent to the police academy by the Philadelphia police commissioner, Andrew Crawford, to investigate who is making his grandson look bad. Crawford says he hasn’t investigated himself because “people would say I was taking advantage of my authority” (8), but sending two undercover operatives into the police academy is the definition of using one’s authority for one’s own advantage. But perhaps I’m not up on big-city ethics. Frank and Joe’s first instinct is that Larry is a screw-up who can’t hack it, which Crawford rejects. It’s good that Frank and Joe realized not everyone is as hyper-competent as they are, though.
Anyway, while the boys are at the police academy, palling around with Steve Guttenberg, Fenton is spearheading a grand-jury investigation into Jack Brannigan, a “crime boss” who’s into “protection, extortion, [and] gambling” (5). When the Hardys leave their meeting with Crawford, they spot a man wearing 1988 bling (“a thick gold pendant … in the shape of a dollar sign”) with his hands on the hood of Fenton’s car. Showing none of the usual Hardy caginess, the three shrug and go on with their lives, but on the way to the Liberty Bell Inn, Fenton’s car loses steering and brakes before crashing down a hillside. Soon after the boys rescue Fenton, the car explodes because it’s the ‘80s. Perhaps they bought the car after it had been used on Miami Vice or Hunter. Joe calls the police and ambulance on the cellular phone Phil Cohen “installed” in the van. Installed! My heavens, what a wondrous world they live in.
After the accident, Frank calls his mother to pooh-pooh her concerns, ignore her worries, and generally get permission to continue the investigation, which he and Joe were going to do anyway. This is the last we will hear about Laura. Keep that in mind.
While Fenton recuperates, the famously friendly city of Philadelphia opens itself up to Frank and Joe. It takes them only five minutes to get from the interstate to their destinations downtown, because why would downtown Philadelphia be busy in the middle of the day? When not gorging themselves on deli sandwiches and pizza, Frank and Joe enjoy the police academy’s light schedule of half-days and tours while using the foolproof aliases Frank and Joe Johnson. Fenton and Frank tell Joe he should do something to disguise his youthful appearance, like wear fake glasses (NERD!) or growing a beard (like he could). Joe, feeling the city’s friendly vibes, tells his family he cannot be expected to conceal his “handsome face” behind a disguise (21). I’m not sure why he’s worried about the largely male recruits seeing his beauty. Maybe he hopes to kindle a romance with Kim Cattrall.
Unfortunately for Joe’s potential romance with Cadet Karen Thompson, Frank and Joe shouldn’t be at the academy at all. Larry has been accused of cheating on tests, which will get him more demerits, which will cause expulsion when he reaches a certain threshold. But cheating should be an automatic expulsion. If you teach recruits that cheating isn’t that bad, it sets a bad example for their later careers.
Anyway, Frank and Joe quickly see that Larry is being hassled by fellow recruit Dennis Fielding, who batters Larry in a couple of fights and tries to drown him in the pool, and Sgt. O’Connor, who blames the incidents on Larry. Lt. Redpath, head of new recruits, is more ambiguous, as he upholds O’Connor’s judgments (despite seeing evidence against them) but doesn’t make any accusations himself. Personally, I think a supervisor who blamed a recruit who had been beaten up for the assault is a pretty poor one. I think he’s this police academy’s Commandant Lassard, compared to O’Connor’s Lt. Harris.
With Fenton sidelined, Frank and Joe take over his investigation as well. Using police mug shots, Joe IDs the man who sabotaged Fenton’s car as Nick Marino. Then, rather than letting the police investigate, the brothers tail the suspect to a toy shop, linking him to game-and-toy enthusiast Brannigan. Soon after, Joe is clubbed while making a food run. He’s knocked out, but he later walks the concussion off.
Eventually, Larry gets his grandfather to admit what Frank and Joe are doing at the academy. When he confronts them, Frank and Joe conjecture that Larry’s difficulties are related to the Brannigan investigation — Brannigan’s gang might allege that Crawford is misusing his position to keep Larry at the academy, trying to get Crawford fired — and after hearing this, Larry concludes Frank and Joe are “amazing” (71). I think Frank and Joe were right originally: Larry isn’t cut out for police work.
Perhaps Joe isn’t either. While sneaking into the toy store they trailed Marino to, he pulls a complete Chet: while trying to remove his squeaking shoes, he knocks over a shelf and turns on a Santa robot. He manages to escape, but geez, Frank should never let him forget that.
Speaking of Chet: He comes to Philadelphia to watch the Phillies play the Mets in an afternoon game at Veterans’ Stadium. Well, he doesn’t say “Mets,” but he does say “New York,” and the Mets are the only New York team the Phillies could have played in the late ‘80s. Chet, Frank, and Joe watch the entire game, but the author doesn’t say whether the Mets or Phils won. You would think someone would mention this, but no, that’s not important — what all three boys note is that it’s a dog of a game. I almost didn’t notice no one mentions who won because of the SEETHING, RED RAGE CAUSED WHEN I READ, “Chet was good at sports, especially football. His favorite sport, however, was baseball” (81).
IF CHET LIKES BASEBALL SO MUCH, WHY WASN’T HE IN DANGER ON THE DIAMOND, WHERE THERE WAS A ROLE PERFECT FOR HIM? ANSWER ME THAT, FRANKLIN W. DIXON. YOU CAN’T, CAN YOU?
*ahem* Please, forgive me. I didn’t mean … well, I get emotional sometimes about odd things. You understand.
Anyway, the Hardys have an amazing piece of luck when they see Fielding and O’Connor outside the Vet after the game. What are the odds? Wow. They trail O’Connor’s car around Philly, with Joe trying to obscure what they’re doing from Chet by making up names and historical context for random buildings around the city. (Joe’s spur-of-the-moment improvisations might have been funny if the idea had been given more than a sentence in the text.) When Chet figures out what’s going on, Frank immediately wants to dump him off at the next corner because why would they ever need a stalwart friend’s help during an investigation? That never comes in handy. Chet refuses to be put off, but he wishes he had when Frank allows a sports car to almost run the Hardys’ battle van off a bridge over the Schuylkill River.
Nice driving, Frank. You have the laws of physics and metallurgy on your side, and you still lose.
During a shooting demonstration at the academy, Fenton is shot at. He prevents future shots by “taking every precaution,” i.e. “moving to a different spot.” After Brannigan’s lawyer engages in a little mudslinging at Crawford, Fenton is kidnapped while searching for a missing witness. After breaking into the toy store to look for him, Joe is also taken. Desperate, Frank confronts Fielding, who crumples like a sports car in a high-speed collision. Frank and Dennis find a warehouse Marino had used before and discover Fenton, Joe, and the witness; the fight between Marino and Frank almost immediately sets the warehouse on fire. Marino and a confederate escape with Fenton and the witness, but Frank and Dennis recover Joe. Dennis decides to turn himself in, then vanishes from the story.
Frank and Joe fall asleep for the next 20 hours or so. Do they call the cops? Do they call Laura? No. No, they do not.
The brothers and Larry follow a slim clue — the narration acknowledges, “It was a long shot, at best” (119) — to the Water Works in Atlantic City. There, they find Fenton and the witness, and they manage to subdue Marino and another thug, despite Larry being distracted by helping a hobo living in in the abandoned works. Oh, and despite Joe being a moron: while Marino is throttling Frank, Marino tells Joe, “Don’t come any closer,” and Joe stops. What’s Marino going to do differently if Joe attacked him? Choke Frank harder? Honestly. It’s not like Marino had a gun or knife.
With the witness back in police hands and all three members of Brannigan’s gang in custody, we learn Brannigan’s plot: He was going to use extortion and threats to buy up toy companies “in an effort to control the toy and game industry in the U.S.” (131). Those tactics might work for small companies, but the larger companies — Mattel, Hasbro, Parker Brothers — are going to sic the FBI on Brannigan so quickly he’ll have to decide which prison gang to join before he knows what has happened.
I will give the writer credit for one surprise: when Crawford mentions Brannigan, the racketeer, was taking over toy companies, I knew — knew — that it was a front for smuggling activities. I mean, the ol’ drugs-in-the-teddy-bear trick is a classic for a reason, right? But no, I was wrong. My explanation made more sense, but I was still wrong.
O’Connor, arrested after Dennis turned himself in, cracks like someone threatened with Michael Winslow’s beatboxing. He confesses to everything, up to and including kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. Still, neither he nor Marino gives up Brannigan’s hiding place. At the airport, Joe shows he doesn’t know how to treat a female impersonator: he tackles Brannigan’s lawyer, who was dressed as a woman.
Frank and Joe wander back to one of Brannigan’s hideouts, a toy museum. The boys believe he’s ducked back there after the police searched it, thinking they wouldn’t look there again. Frank and Joe are right — of course, all hail Frank and Joe — and they manage to beat up the fake security guards and capture Brannigan without any help from Bubba Smith. They do set off the fire alarm, which causes the sprinklers to go off, presumably ruining a great deal of the museum’s inventory. The end!
Oh: Larry tells his grandfather he wants to be a lawyer instead of a cop. The commissioner, showing rare poise, doesn’t weep openly at the choice or the low odds of Larry achieving his goal. Frankly, Larry seems to be about as dedicated to tasks as a puppy exploring a new room for the first time: everything distracts him. But hey, law school — that seems just the thing to arrest his wandering attention for a moment.