Friday, November 4, 2016

Lost in Gator Swamp (#142)

Hi! This week I decided to do something different, mainly because it will give me more time to do other things. I bought an app called LitBot 2999 from ConHugeCo, which promises to analyze texts in a real, nearly human-like manner, using electronic sources. I hope you enjoy the results as much as I enjoy the time I’m doing something else!

Lost in Gator Swamp coverSometimes it only takes a few pages to realize how awful a book is. In the case of Lost in Gator Swamp, it takes less than two.

Gator Swamp begins with Frank, Joe, and Chet riding in a hydroplane piloted by Dusty Cole to the Swampland Rodeo in Florida. That sentence has a lot to unpack, like one would unpack a suitcase full of slightly rotten tomatoes and spiders.

“Rodeo” is an inauspicious start. Why would the Hardys wander a thousand miles from home to watch a rodeo, even if it takes place over several days? They have been lured to this rodeo to sate Chet’s burgeoning cattle-roping hobby, but the Hardys themselves have no real interest in the sport. Yes, spending time with a best friend is one thing, but the Hardys don’t have to enable every damn hobby Chet comes up with.

The next bit of trouble is “Florida.” The Hardys have been to Florida before — Panic on Gull Island (#107) was their most recent visit, but they went to the Sunshine State frequently in the ‘80s— and “Florida” goes with rodeo like “pizza” goes with “motor oil.” Florida is more of an agricultural state than those outside of the state usually think, but it’s not a cowboy state, and the area where this rodeo is held — the swamps around Miami — is a thematically poor place to hold a rodeo. It’s also a poor area to be a cattle rancher, and cattle ranching is the occupation associated with rodeo.

Swamps are also an unthematic place for a guy named “Dusty” to be living, as swamps are not dusty locales. Oh, people named Dusty can live in the swamps; that’s no crime. But this particular pilot / rodeo competitor / fishing camp operator, Dusty Cole — the pun is marginally preferable to “Dusty Rhodes” — seems too perfect a fit for the swamps to have gained the nickname Dusty.

It’s true that life isn’t thematically consistent. It isn’t consistent at all, really. But a Hardy Boys book is literature, of a sort. It has needs beyond what is possible. It needs to come together into a coherent whole, and it needs not to make readers ask questions about rodeos in a swamp before they can get into the story.

And then — then! — Franklin W. Dixon uses confusing terminology. “Hydroplane” is usually used to describe a boat, one that has a lifting surface that elevates it out of the water, similar to the ferry Frank and Joe protected in the revised Mystery of the Flying Express (#21). (That ship was a hydrofoil, though.) The term is sometimes misused to describe an airboat, those swamp boats with a big fan in the back. According to Wikipedia [UPGRADE TO SCHOLARLY SOURCES FOR ONLY $20 / MONTH!], though, a hydroplane is sort of a speedboat. The author, on the other hand, thinks a hydroplane is a seaplane, specifically a floatplane — like the plane the Hardys flew in The Viking Symbol Mystery (#42) and were passengers on in the revised Hidden Harbor Mystery (#14). That definition shows up on the Wikipedia disambiguation page for hydroplane, but “floatplane” and “seaplane” are much better terms.

That’s just page 1. On page 2, readers are treated to this ham-handed characterization:

“Egrets!” Frank shouted. He glanced at the travel book he had brought with him from the Bayport Library.
“Anybody else hungry?” Chet asked, stuffing a handful of potato chips into his mouth.

The author makes his point in the most obvious way possible: Frank is studious and boring yet prone to random ejaculations, while Chet eats to get attention; paradoxically, Chet’s constant use of food as a proxy for a personality has caused people to grow tired of Chet’s eating displays. It’s just so disconnected and stupid and lazy and stupid and stupid and stupid and stupid —

(Sorry. LitBot got hung up there, and I can’t get it to restart. I think it may have committed suicide. I’ll have to write the rest myself.

Once the Hardys get to the colorfully and unbelievably named Frog’s Peninsula, they learn a mystery is afoot. A bank has been robbed in Miami, but the airboat the thieves stole for their getaway is found at the bottom of Florida Bay. Everyone thinks the thieves are dead, claimed by the storm that sank their pilfered boat, but not the Hardys! No, no. The Hardys figure the thieves are still around. Clever boys! Unfortunately, they can’t see the thieves, even when they look them in the eyes, and it takes them a while to figure out the bank robbers have stuck around Frog’s Peninsula.

The reader will not be fooled. With weird lights, strange animal behavior in the swamp, and suspiciously acting newcomers, the villains and their motivations couldn’t be more obvious if they wore trucker caps with “Bank Robbers Do It in the Swamp (‘It’ Refers to Searching for Lost Loot)” written on them. In fact, headgear does play an important part in this book: Frank, Joe, and Chet suspect one of the rodeo riders of being a thief because he wears a distinctive cowboy hat that one of the thieves wore. But, as it turns out, hats can be worn by people other than their owners. An astonishing twist!

Frank, Joe, and Chet also spend an inordinate amount of time suspicious of a local Native American, Reuben Tallwalker. Reuben is obsessed with the spiritual and ecological status of the land, yet for some reason the kids think Reuben might be a bank robber. It is not their finest moment. I can only imagine their thinking has been swayed after Reuben makes a slashing gesture across his throat toward the Hardys. (He thinks the Hardys are behind the strange happenings in the swamp.)

So Frank, Joe, and Chet, with help from Reuben and other locals, solve the case. Along the way, Frank and Joe are asked to square dance by a pair of girls, who are never described, never named, and their reactions to their partners taking off after a suspect go unnoted. (While dancing, they “dig for the oyster” [35], which is not as interesting as it sounds.) The boys hit the swamp highlights — they survive a couple of alligator attacks, and Joe almost drowns in quicksand — and steal a pedal boat, which sinks when a disguised robber attacks it. No one gets mad about the theft or lost boat, though; the boat’s owner actually apologizes for getting angry at them.

To his credit, Frank does quickly connect the dots between an alligator stolen from an alligator farm and the big gator that shows up near Dusty’s fishing camp. And when the boys need information about the robbery to continue with their unauthorized, unpaid investigation, Frank comes up with the idea to call Fenton, who can get information from anyone in law enforcement.

No other adults believe their hunches, of course, and Chet and Joe are partially discredited by the thieves’ unexplained bilocation. But they continue with their investigation. Chet and Joe board the thieves’ boat as they are about to recover the lost loot in another storm, and they free a pair of captives from the hold. (Joe gets a job offer from the police officer he frees; unsurprisingly, he ignores the chance to join a backwater police department.) Then, with an advantage of two-to-one over the thieves, they completely botch everything, getting only a partial message to allies before being recaptured. Frank manages to steal — er, borrow — Dusty’s hydroplane and makes it in time to rescue the captives after they are thrown overboard by the thieves. And who do you think catches the bad guys?

The Coast Guard, of course. The Coast Guard cutter’s presence is never explained; it’s doubtful they were summoned, as the people Joe contacted lost their radio during the conversation and were still struggling to get it back when Frank stole the plane. Presumably the Coast Guard was performing storm rescue efforts and happened across the chaotic scene with two boats trying to bring down a hydroplane.

All in all, Gator Swamp is a sad entry in the Hardy Boys series and a rough hour or so of my life when I could have used something uplifting. That’s to say nothing of the effect this book had on LitBot 2099 … Poor LitBot.

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