The giant rat of Sumatra is a loose end that Arthur Conan Doyle left in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.” In that short story, Holmes says, “Matilda Briggs … was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”
Obviously, you can’t leave an opening like that and not expect someone to try to stick a story in it, although you might expect people to jump on Matilda Briggs rather than a rodent as a subject for a story. “Sussex Vampire” originally appeared in 1924, and within two decades, a story about the Sumatran rodent was featured on an episode of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio show. Movies and TV shows — including an infamous Doctor Who serial, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” — have used the concept, and at least seven Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels have had titles that include the phrase “giant rat of Sumatra.”
The Hardy Boys book The Giant Rat of Sumatra (#148) makes eight (well, it comes before many of the others, but for dramatic purposes, I put it at the end). Unlike pretty much all the other stories, the Hardys’ “giant rat” isn't a rodent; instead, he’s a gangland leader in Victorian England who is Sherlock Holmes’s chief antagonist in a new off-Broadway musical uncoincidentally named The Giant Rat of Sumatra. I’m not sure a singing Holmes and Watson is a good idea, but then again, whouda thunk a musical about Alexander Hamilton would be so popular?
The play’s author, Donald O’Lunny, comes to Fenton, hoping the Hardy patriarch will look into some vague intimations of sabotage of the play. O’Lunny is unable to come up with any specific problems he’s encountered — translation: The author ran out of time or space to come up with any — but he’s hoping Fenton will help. I assume O’Lunny wants to hire Fenton, but when Mr. Hardy says he can’t help because he’s got a job in Seattle but the boys can step in, no mention is made of, you know, paying Frank and Joe for their help.
Also: the narrator says Fenton has “enlisted the help of his two sons on many tough cases” (2), which was often true when the Stratemeyer Syndicate controlled the books (#1-83 or 85), but it hasn’t happened much in the digests up to this point. Together, the boys and Fenton solved the mystery in The Desert Thieves (#141), but they were on vacation together rather than working one of Fenton’s cases. Fenton fobbed the theatrical sabotage in Reel Thrills (#127) onto his sons and Chet; that time he and Laura were heading to Paris. The last time Fenton wanted Frank and Joe to work on a case with him was Danger in the Fourth Dimension (#118), which was 25 books (and four years) before Giant Rat Before that, the Hardy males worked together in Shield of Fear (#091). So: two mysteries out of nearly 60 … that’s not “many.”
Frank and Joe are sent undercover to the Bayport Orpheum Theater, where Giant Rat is working out the kinks in its preparations for Broadway. Frank’s cover is as O’Lunny’s assistant, while Joe … Joe gets to be an actor, prancing around in the background as one of Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. His mother is very proud of him, but by the end of the story, the other actors (without much malice) tell him he’s not very good. We shouldn’t be too surprised, as readers; when one of the stars explains a rather simple plot to him, “Joe looked stunned” (9) — most likely because the explanation focused on a romantic subplot, and Joe has trouble with this emotion you call “love.” (Joe also says, “I don’t know why they call these things plays. Being in one is hard work, not play” . *ugh* If I could reach you, Joe, I would hurt you.)
Remember, Joe: There are no small parts, just crummy actors. You should have been a stagehand instead.
On opening night, the play has a few small snafus: Some VIPs are given duplicate tickets, and a scenery flat nearly falls on the show’s star as he’s arguing with his Watson. O’Lunny smoothes over the former by finding the displaced theater-goers other seats and inviting them to a champagne reception — one that serves potato chips! — although Frank and Fenton are rude enough that they don’t really deserve it. (Fenton rolls his eyes at the inconvenience, and Frank gets darn near belligerent.) Joe pulls Sherlock Holmes (Charles Battenberg) out of the way of the flat, while Frank and some stagehands catch the flat before it falls.
These incidents don’t rise to the level of sabotage — they’re inconveniences, really, since the flat wasn’t life-threateningly heavy — but it gives the boys an idea of what they’re dealing with. (It also introduces me to the word “shindy,” meaning “a noisy disturbance or quarrel,” which I’ve never seen before.) But if I know anything about a Hardy Boys mystery, it’s that the violence will escalate when the boys start investigating, and usually they’ll be the victims. That’s what happens here, as Frank gets sandbagged — literally — while wandering backstage. He manages to avoid passing out, but he’s woozy and unsteady. No one suggests the emergency room.
Before they go home, the Hardys discover a death threat against Battenberg spray painted on a flat. The custodian sees them in front of the damaged scenery and draws the logical conclusion, but the Hardys talk their way out of things and take a sample of the paint. Later, after Joe uses social engineering to guess the theater’s computer password, Frank and Joe discover the ticketing program (written in BASIC! in 1997!) had been altered to double book seats. Seems This implicates Hector, one of the Irregulars, who is also a computer programmer. Why does he want the play to fail? Well, he was offered a part in a TV pilot but turned it down because he’d accepted the role in Giant Rat already. If the play were to fail … well, he’d be out of a job, since the role in the pilot has probably been recast, but for some reason Frank and Joe think producers hold small roles open indefinitely.
Who else might want the play to fail? Battenberg will have to turn down a movie role to continue with the play. Ewan Gordean, who plays Watson, thinks his friend, Will Robertson, should have been Holmes instead of Battenberg. Li Wei, the lyricist, has a secret meeting with Tertius Lestell, a financial backer Gordean says can’t be trusted, after Gilbert Hornby, the producer cuts her favorite song. Even O’Lunny appears to have paint spatters on his shirt that match the graffiti. (Mr. Hiroto, a forensic chemist Fenton knows, says it’s spray talc. He also makes it clear Frank and Joe are burning one of Fenton’s favors; I wonder what the old man will say about that.)
During the next day’s practice, an effigy of Holmes is hanged in front of the cast. You know, effigies get a bad rap these days; they’re too associated with racism. But I long for the days when you could let the bastards in charge know you weren’t going to take their crap with a crude representation of one of them set on fire in the night, followed by some violent chanted slogans. Mom would hand ‘round the Molotov cocktails …
Anyway, the fishing line used in dropping the effigy seems to implicate Gordean, an avid fisherman. Later in the performance, ammonia is put in the fog machine, which creates hazardous fumes. Villains pulled the same trick in Reel Thrills (#127), although that was on a movie set rather than on the stage. (Is the author the same? Reusing this distinctive trick and shuffling Fenton off while Frank and Joe investigate show-biz sabotage makes Giant Rat seem a lazy copy.) Everyone escapes, but Frank is attacked by one of the Irregulars, Max, after Frank finds the ammonia bottle. Max blames Frank for the prank, which is ridiculous; everything gets smoothed out again.
The sabotage continues, of course. Joe almost falls through an open trap-door meant for Battenberg, but he manages to save himself through his “martial arts training” (89). The light system gets shorted out just before the performance one night. Lestell arrives after a performance to look over everyone’s shoulder, obviously setting up a meeting with someone in the cast or crew; Frank and Joe stake out his hotel the next morning, obviously believing detectives and suspects should keep bankers’ hours. This is the brothers’ most common failing: They like sleep more than mysteries, whatever they say.
As the other suspects get cleared, suspicion slides to Hornby, who’s doing an awful job promoting the play. Well, I say Hornby becomes a suspect, but for some reason, Frank doesn’t twig to the possibility when Hornby yells at Frank for looking at a collection of headshots. Hornby claims they’re private, which is ridiculous: They’re headshots. They’re meant to promote actors and the play. Frank’s a little slow in Giant Rat; later, he’s impressed when Joe quotes the “whenever you’ve eliminated the impossible” line, despite that coming up several times in the past.
But remember: Frank’s been hit hard in the head. He gets conked again on the head and placed, unconscious, on the turntable stage so he’s likely to be crushed; Joe saves him, but Frank gets a long gash on his leg. Frank refuses a hospital visit, although that’s only for the bloody leg wound, not the head injury. Even Frank can’t ignore Hornby as a suspect when he and Joe find an important file has been deleted from the computer — a computer Hornby was one of the few to have access to — although it takes both him and Joe a while to admit it.
Now the game is afoot! (But not before Battenberg accuses Frank of being the saboteur; Frank drops the name of the rarely mentioned Chief Collig to slip the charges. A BPD officer actually calls Frank “Mr. Hardy”  after the false accusation.) After a stage gun fires a real bullet, narrowly missing a cast member, Frank and Joe have an incentive to wrap up the mystery. (Frank’s head injury’s hardly constitutes an inducement. I’m beginning to think he likes them.)
When they search the play’s office, the Hardys find all the evidence on the pranks; Hornby sees the jig is up and tries to make a break for it. Like with everything else, Hornby fails, and he’s caught by Joe after the chase spills onto the stage. His motive? Thinking the musical was going down the tubes, he hoped to cash in on a $1 million insurance policy on Battenberg’s availability to play the lead role. With Hornby out of the way, Lestell steps in to make The Giant Rat of Sumatra into a hit. Hornby’s henchman, Max, escapes, and it’s uncertain whether anyone will be bothered to bring him back to face justice.