I like the digests’ habit of giving Chet jobs instead of just hobbies; the teenage years is the time when someone can flit from job to job and not make it look like he’s incompetent or a serial killer. In the digests, Chet has been a DJ (Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades, #116), an airport shuttle driver (Spark of Suspicion, #98), a salesman for an ersatz Amway (Tricky Business, #88), a zoo intern (The Search for the Snow Leopard, #139), an ice cream salesman (The Mark of the Blue Tattoo, #146), and maybe a few others I’ve forgotten.
In The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping, Chet is a cook and assistant manager at “Happy Burger,” a new diner. Assistant manager! Who would put Chet in charge of other human beings? Or, for that matter, put him in charge of ordering supplies or bookkeeping or anything else that requires close attention and dedication? I mean, I’m not making Chet’s shortcomings up out of thin air: on page 3, after being told he’s botched the books again, Chet reveals he doesn’t know how to use a calculator (or perform basic math, maybe): “It’s that electric calculator he’s got back there. I can never remember when to press the plus key.”
It’s addition, you moron, not differential calculus. It’s pretty evident when you should press the + key. Your boss, Fred Hawkins, is right to yell at you, although sternly telling Chet to clean his station and to “try to eat only five hamburgers a day” (5) hardly counts as treating him “pretty rough,” as Iola claims. She also says, “Even Dad doesn’t hassle you that much,” although I’m not sure how to take that. Does that mean Chet and Mr. Morton have an adversarial relationship? Or are the readers supposed to realize that, given Hawkins’s mild rebuke, Chet’s relationship with his father is probably normal?
Chet reveals to his chums (Joe, Frank, and Callie) and Iola that Happy Burger is doing poorly, business-wise, so that does help explain why someone with no experience and no prospects is given a position of authority. Not even the rest of the Hardys’ teenage crowd wants to hang out at Happy Burger, as they all prefer Mr. Pizza.
But Chet’s qualifications soon become moot, as the Hardys, their girlfriends, and Chet see Hawkins seemingly abducted by a UFO. Chet claims this is “a close encounter of the third kind” (11) but that’s not true; the third kind involves human contact with an extraterrestrial entity. Since the kids can’t confirm that anyone was driving the UFO, it’s a close encounter of the fourth kind: Abduction.
The Bayport Gazette is on the scene soon after the police decide to ignore the kids’ UFO report, and a story in the next day’s paper makes Happy Burger the most popular place in town. UFOlogists, the media, and random curious bystanders flock to the Happy Burger, keeping Chet busy and making Happy Burger — at least temporarily — a success. The Gazette has to be considered a success as well; it’s never appeared in a Hardy Boys story before, from what I can tell, and it’s created a media event out of a bunch of stupid kids seeing a UFO.
Fenton and Laura are in Europe for both work and pleasure, and Gertrude (back to being “plump,” as she was in The Smoke Screen Mystery) warns them to be careful after they decide to look for Hawkins. Given Happy Burger’s success, the police and the boys are leaning toward the idea that Hawkins staged his own disappearance. Good to see some competence being displayed! And then after showing that bit of competence, Frank and Joe spend 40 pages wandering around Happy Burger and the shopping plaza it’s in. What do they discover? Well, Happy Burger is deeply in debt — no surprise there — to a guy named William Harbison and … nothing else, really. They avoid the media, even though they’ve worked at both radio station WBBX, which Joe mentions (in Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades), and TV station WBPT, which neither mentions, even though both did spots for the station in Danger on the Air (#95) and Spark of Suspicion.
The brothers do meet the cast as they wander aimlessly for what feels like forever: Hawkins’s wife, Clarissa; author Hodding Wheatley, who writes about UFOs; and fringe UFO devotees, including the belligerent Carl Thurmon. Since this book was published in 1993, the same year The X-Files hit the air, the people who believe in UFOs are seen as kooks. Frank and Joe don’t consider the possibility that Hawkins’s disappearance is an abduction at all.
After Frank and Joe joke about Joe learning to be a detective from TV shows — I’m not sure Frank is joking — the brothers visit Harbison, who’s a loan shark. Joe plays the tough detective role to the hilt, growling at Harbison and invading his personal space to intimidate him. They get nothing but a denial from Haribison, but I admit: acting like a bit of a thug is a nice technique and a good change of pace. Also, it made me laugh.
The next day, the media attention has only grown, with Sandra Rodriguez, host of Mysteries Today, doing a live show from the “tiny town” (83) of Bayport. No details about Mysteries Today are ever given; is it syndicated? Is it a show about the paranormal, or is it more Unsolved Mysteries? All we learn is that Rodriguez has a boyfriend — “Mr. Matt Hunk Everton” (74), as the jealous (or attracted) Frank calls him — who is also a helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet. Someone claiming to be the aliens interrupts MT’s signal, saying Hawkins will be returned in Bayport Meadows soon, but all they find is a letter on Happy Burger stationery, saying “Help.”
For their next magical trick, Frank and Joe decide to follow Matt’s helicopter. “It shouldn’t be too hard to tail a helicopter” (90), Frank says, forgetting that helicopters fly much faster than city traffic, don’t have to follow roads, and never have to stop for lights or stop signs. Other than that, sure! But of course it works, and after Matt drives away from the abandoned farm where he lands his helicopter, the Hardys break into the barn, finding the fake UFO inside. A metal hitch at the craft’s top allowed the phony ship to be towed by a cable from a helicopter — Matt’s helicopter, of course. Matt returns and tries to threaten the Hardys with a gun, but Frank and Joe easily disarm him. The gun was unloaded anyway.
Matt confesses all: The kidnapping was all Hawkins’s idea, although he needed Rodriguez’s show’s backing for funding. After Hawkins signed a letter absolving Rodriguez and Matt of all wrongdoing, they agreed to help. But Hawkins was supposed to reappear in Bayport Meadows, and now he’s truly missing.
This calls for someone to jump to a conclusion, and since about 50 pages remain in the book, the Hardys jump to the wrong one. They follow Harbison to the man who gives him money to loan, Amos Woodworth IV, a prosperous legitimate businessman who is, reassuringly, also a smuggler. Haven’t had one of those in a while, and it’s nice to know they can still pop up. Unfortunately, goons discover Frank and Joe snooping around Woodworth’s home as fake pool men, and worse yet, Woodworth recognizes them as “those detective brothers everyone talks about. The Harley brothers” (115). Luckily, though, he gives them a stern talking to and makes them promise to let him know when they find that welcher, Hawkins.
The brothers go to Clarissa, who admits she learned the kidnapping was a fake. At the Hawkins home, Joe spots the angry UFOlogist, Thurmon, in a picture of a Vietnam veterans’ gathering — the same one at which Hawkins pitched his loony plan to Matt. The Hardys track down Thurmon and a tied-up Hawkins at an isolated cabin via Thurmon’s fellow UFO enthusiasts. Frank and Wheatley nearly talk Thurmon down, but a TV report playing in the background reveals Frank is a detective (and Joe’s brother; Thurmon hates Joe, as all hotheads do). In the ensuing scuffle, Frank gets a bleeding head wound, and Thurmon burns the cabin down, but the fake UFO, towed from Matt’s helicopter, shows up as Thurmon is about to kill Frank. Amazed at seeing what he has long sought, Thurmon lets his guard down, and Joe emerges from the UFO to subdue the violent kook. The police are close behind.
Everything ends well. Hawkins isn’t arrested for anything; he merely has to apologize. I’m sure he did something wrong, though. I suppose he didn’t file a false report, but he knew one would be filed, and he did waste Bayport Police Department resources looking for him, even though he wasn’t in danger. Or maybe not — the BPD didn’t seem to care about Hawkins’s disappearance, so perhaps they didn’t spend any time looking for him. Woodworth is investigated for his loansharking, and Hawkins’s loan is transferred to a legitimate bank at a better interest rate. I’m not sure that’s how it works, but then again, I’m not acquainted with this state’s stringent usury laws. Rodriguez seems to suffer no consequences for organizing a hoax and then broadcasting it as if it were a real story. At least Thurmon is arrested for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon … but not attempted murder or arson, despite having the Hardys — super witnesses! — to testify. Well, I guess a plea bargain from Thurmon makes more sense than Hawkins and Rodriguez getting off without consequences.
Remember, kids: Crime does pay! Just make sure it’s non-violent crime that doesn’t victimize any private citizen. Then you too can pull your generic hamburger stand out of the toilet and into prosperity!