Rarely have I read a Hardy Boys book I enjoy and respect as much as I have Trick-or-Trouble.
Really, the first fifteen pages are near perfect: lots of playful but slightly cruel patter, camaraderie, and realistic behavior from the teenagers. I mean, I literally laughed with the characters more often than I laughed at them in this book. Trick-or-Trouble is a low-stakes, Bayport-based adventure that remains more-or-less plausible throughout. The teenagers act — more or less — like teenagers, albeit ones who have had their hormones surgically removed. (Although see the end of the entry about that last bit.)
In Trick-or-Trouble, Bayport’s teens are gearing up for a Halloween contest organized by Bayport merchants. Frank and Joe’s friend Daphne Soesbee and her mother have written Halloween- and horror-themed clues that will direct contestants around the city to claim prizes. Most of the prizes are small, but some are impressive, with the top prizes being a motorcycle, classic VW bug, and a reconditioned RV. This is a more sensible plan than most Hardy Boys contests: The clues are given out by merchants, who will also hand out most of the prizes directly, and each contestant will have to show the physical clues that led them to solve the riddles. Since Iola and Chet Morton have volunteered to help Daphne and her mother, who runs the Book Bank (a bookstore located in a former bank, complete with a still functional vault), Frank and Joe team up with Callie to figure out the clues.
This is the first book I’ve covered that Daphne has appeared in, but she also appears in Crime in the Cards (#165) and Warehouse Rumble (#183). (She also comes up in Bayport Buccaneers, the sixteenth Undercover Brothers book. That book, like Warehouse Rumble, has a TV game show based more on physical ability than mental.) As you might guess, the same author wrote all the books with Daphne: According to The Hardy Boys Unofficial Home Page, Stephen D. Sullivan wrote those three digests plus nine more. He also claims to have written Bayport Buccaneers and at least one more Hardy Boys book . Sullivan has written a great deal of licensed work, including Dungeons & Dragons stuff … and holy crap: For those of you who are Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, he wrote the adaptation of Manos: The Hands of Fate.
That last credit is pertinent because Sullivan slips in a lot of horror references in Trick-or-Trouble. To wit:
- Frank and Joe’s redheaded classmate who attends a costume party as a witch is named Allison Rosenberg. Red-haired Alyson Hannigan played Willow Rosenberg, a witch, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 1997-2003.
- During a car chase, the Hardys follow a suspect down Howard before their quarry takes a quick turn on Phillips. H(oward) P(hillips) Lovecraft is a legendary but controversial horror writer; he specialized in cosmic horror and created the Cthulhu Mythos in the 1920s.
- Soon after, the chase takes them down Ashton. This is an allusion to Clark Ashton Smith, a horror writer who corresponded with Lovecraft and also wrote in the Cthulhu mythos.
- The contest’s celebrity guest of honor is Vincent Blasko. The first name is certainly a reference to long-time horror movie star Vincent Price; I’m not sure what the last name refers to, but it could be a nod to Marvel Comics villain Belasco, a wizard who served the Elder Gods (similar to the ones created by Lovecraft) and ruled a strange dimension where time is non-linear.
- During the contest, Blasko’s movies are played at the Browning Theater. Tod Browning was a movie director who made many horror films, including the original Dracula and Freaks.
- One of the businesses participating in the contest is Romero Remodeling. George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, which helped cement zombies in the popular consciousness and changed the creatures from their association with voodoo to a more secular undead monster.
- Frank, Joe, and Callie win a prize from Corman and Cross Electronics. I don’t know who Cross is, but Corman is a reference to low-budget movie director Roger Corman, who made many sci-fi and horror films during his career, stretching from the ‘50s to the modern day.
I’m probably missing some references, but that should give you an idea of how Sullivan’s mindset. (He also names the blockheaded BPD cop the Hardys run into several times after himself, although Officer Sullivan’s first name is “Gus.”) For some reason he names several streets after Wisconsin cities: Racine, Waukesha, Kenosha. (Probably because he worked for TSR, the company that made Dungeons & Dragons. It was based in Lake Geneva, Wisc., at the time.)
Anyway, to get back to the story … the contest’s opening ceremony / teen dance party is held at the old Niles Mansion, which had fallen on hard times but is being renovated. Of course! Bayport always has a mansion that’s falling apart or otherwise in need of renovation. Frank and Callie go as a gypsy couple, but when they suggest Joe go as a werewolf, Joe says, “Iola doesn’t go for beards” (9).
*cough* Moving right along from that set-up line … At the party, the kids meet their competition: fellow teens Allison Rosenberg, Ren Takei, Brent Jackson, and Missy Gates and Jay Stone. The Hardys are friendly with Allison and Ren, but Brent carries a grudge against Joe resulting from a football rivalry, and he needles Joe about Iola’s absence. (Brent gets the better end of the exchange, which explains why Joe maintains the grudge.) Missy and Jay are part of “a self-styled cybergang who also dabbled in cars and motorcycles” (17). A cybergang! What could I possibly add to that?
During the party, which features a DJ who combines “an eerie mix of techno pop, creepy classical music, horror movie soundtracks, and Halloween novelty tunes” (15), the lights are turned out. Frank and Joe are merely inconvenienced because they have their flashlights. Callie is surprised by this for some reason. Callie, do you know these guys? Their father taught them a half dozen places to conceal a flashlight on the human body; if you’re lucky, maybe Frank will teach you some of them. The power outage does little other than annoy some bats, which are set loose in the mansion, and give some contestants a head start. Later, the trio sees Allison robbed of her clues by a man in a devil mask. Frank nearly catches the thief, but he’s lightly hit by a car driven by Howard “Harley” Bettis, a friend of Missy and Jay’s who now works at Magnum American Motors. (All three were in The Spy That Never Lies, #163.) After being a thug in Spy, it looks like Harley’s trying to go straight — or is his job a cover for criminal activities?
(HINT: Harley will be playing Red Herring for this mystery.)
During the next few days, the Hardys use the Internet to try to decipher clues, with mixed results. At night, from dusk to midnight, Callie, Frank, and Joe hit local stores, winning occasional “instant win” prizes, like free coffee, food, and CDs. (Dusk is earlier in this book than it is today; Trick-or-Trouble was published in 2002, when Daylight Savings Time started on the last Sunday in October rather than the first in November.) Joe shows his poor judgment by eating something called a “clam roll,” which I’d never heard of but is evidently fried clams served in a hot dog bun, at the Kool Kone. Huh. The clam roll evidently has a disastrous effect on Joe, as he gets banned from the Kool Kone for getting into a fight with Brent. This turns out to be irrelevant.
It wouldn’t be a Hardy Boys mystery unless someone tried to inflict bodily harm on the kids. Someone tries to whap them with the blades of an abandoned windmill while they investigate a puzzle clue; later, they are hit with a landslide of pumpkins. Later, the three trail a suspect to a theater, and of course the fire curtain is dropped on them.
The trio visits Tony at Mr. Pizza — hi, Tony! — but he’s no help. At the Book Bank, Chet is lured away with pizza (not from Mr. Pizza, though) so someone can rifle the clues. Frank, Joe, and Callie almost catch the robber, but instead they are locked in the vault and have to wait for Chet to free them. “Man, I hate waiting to be rescued,” Joe says (75); his blasé acceptance of this potentially dangerous situation says a great deal about his life experiences. No clues are missing, though, and since physical clues are needed to claim a prize, this baffles Ms. Soesbee and the teens. With nothing stolen, Ms. Soesbee declines to call the police, citing the adverse publicity. (Since the Bayport Police Department solves nothing, this is a rational decision.)
While the Bayport Chronicle reports on the contest winners — Allison is ahead, having won the VW Bug, a leather jacket, and an MP3 player — the Hardys and Callie have been shut out. When they finally are first to a prize — two pairs of walkie-talkies — they are attacked by a man in a motorcycle helmet who steals a parade float. Frank and Joe swipe another decorated car and chase him through downtown Bayport to Bayshore Drive, following him onto the beach. Unfortunately, their car gets stuck in the sand, and the villain escapes.
Of all the prizes to win, though: Frank and Joe should have no use for walkie-talkies. Instead, they treat the victory like they’ve never even considered owning the devices before.
Frank, Joe, and Callie come across three figures (later revealed to be Allison, Brent, and Ren) trading clues. They aren’t collaborating on solving the clues; they’re just trading extra clues to one another. Callie is incensed by this, saying the three are trying “to fix the contest” (105), but since cooperation is explicitly allowed — Frank, Joe, and Callie are allowed to compete as a team, for instance — I’m not sure what her problem is. Allison tells her the same thing when Callie runs her down, and she’s right.
With the contest running down, Ren begins to give Allison a run for her money, winning a handheld computer, a pager, a skateboard, and Bayport Barons tickets. (I don’t know what sport the Bayport Barons play; I don’t think they’ve ever showed up anywhere else in the series.) On the last night, when Frank, Joe, and Callie show up at Magnum American Motors to claim a prize — a motorcycle helmet — they find Magnum’s owner, Rod Magnum, knocked out on the floor. Callie asks, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to find someone prone and motionless on the floor, “Is he dead?” (126). She’s not concerned; she’s merely asking for information. Later she says, “Blows to the head can be serious” (127), but we all know that’s not the case in a Hardy Boys book, where the words “concussion protocol” are anathema.
The motorcycle that is Magnum’s grand prize for the contest is still there, but someone has stolen his clues. Frank and Joe run down Brent, who fled from Magnum as they arrived. Brent claims he ran because he saw Magnum on the floor and didn’t want to be blamed. The Hardys are unsure whether to believe him; Harley does work at Magnum and is their favorite suspect.
Their chase disrupts the Halloween parade, which prompts an angry mob to head for the Book Bank. Why are people mad at Ms. Soesbee? Because she really pushed for the Halloween contest, and it isn’t going as smoothly as it might. Nothing goes smoothly in Bayport, though, so I’m not sure what these people are hoping for. Vincent Blasko talks them down, the press wanders away in search of another shiny object, and the contest continues.
(Charmingly, Ms. Soesbee’s big commercial concern is a new chain bookstore at the mall. Chain bookstores put a lot of local bookstores out of business, but then those chain bookstores were destroyed by Amazon. It’s the circle of commercial life.)
Callie, Frank, and Joe discover one of the clues has been altered; learning the original wording sends them to the abandoned Northwestern railroad trestle north of town. There, they find the devil-masked man, who turns out to be Ren. He denies altering the clue, saying he’s arrived to claim the prize at the trestle. He offers to split the prize with the Hardys and Callie, but when a motorcycle-riding man shows up and starts swinging a chain at everyone, Ren turns on the Hardys. But flame-resistant Ghost Rider turns on him as well. In the end, Ren and the motorcycle rider are subdued, and Joe finds the prize: the motorcycle, which Rod Magnum, the cut-rate Johnny Blaze, was trying to prevent people from winning.
The mystery is solved. Ren attacked the Hardys and Callie at the windmill and pumpkin farm and stole Allison’s clues to win more prizes; Rod broke into the Book Bank, altered the clue and led the Hardys on a merry car chase through Bayport, faked a head injury, and burned the last night’s clues because he couldn’t afford to give the motorcycle away as a prize. Rod also probably hired Harley as a fall guy if things got too hot. As a reward, Frank, Joe, and Callie are given their choice of flying or boating lessons; both are appropriate for the Hardys (although they should know how to do both). Callie chooses flying lessons. By the next mystery — In Plane Sight, also by Sullivan — both Frank and Joe will have their pilot’s certifications, which Joe finished only because of this prize.
Although I said the teens had their hormones removed, that’s not entirely true. Sullivan hints that some physicality exists between the brothers and their girlfriends. For instance, when Iola teases Joe, she ruffles his hair. Callie puts her hand on Frank’s shoulder and calls him “the best arm in Bayport” when a rival girl (Allison) calls him “a sports hero” (16). Joe offers to take Iola out for a “midnight ride” (59), which is definitely a euphemism. Frank gives Callie “a quick hug,” although that’s after she calls him and Joe “weirdos” (61). Callie returns the favor after she’s told they’ve won either flying or boating lessons.