Friday, February 26, 2016

Shield of Fear (#91)

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.

 coverShield 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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).


*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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Couple of Notes, Inspired by Danger on the Diamond

Two things about Danger on the Diamond that I didn’t mention in my previous post …

First: Danger has some overlap with two Hardy Boys books written by James Lawrence: the revised Figure in Hiding (#16) and Tic-Tac-Terror (#74). Like Danger, both books include baseball scenes that exclude Chet. Danger also has a scene at the Bayview Motel, which has run down quite a bit since it appeared in Figure. Danger also visits Bayport General Hospital, which was in both versions of Figure and Tic-Tac-Terror. (And The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, #28, which admittedly has nothing to do with Lawrence.)

Could Lawrence have written Danger on the Diamond? He wrote eight other books that we know of, with Tic-Tac-Terror being the last one that is definitively linked to him. Tic-Tac-Terror came out six years before Danger, which isn’t much of a gap, considering Lawrence wrote his first Hardy Boys book in 1957. I think it’s likely, given Lawrence’s considerable experience in the industry (he also wrote in the Tom Swift Jr. series). Lawrence died in 1994, six years after Danger was published.

Second: The cover artist for Danger on the Air (#95), Paul Bachem, must have been really liked the cover he created Danger on the Diamond. I suppose it’s not too surprising, given the similarity of titles; if the books have only one word different, perhaps their covers should be as similar. But the composition of the two is a bit too similar for me. Take a look at Danger on the Diamond’s cover:

Danger on the Diamond cover

Now compare it to Danger on the Air’s cover:

Danger on the Air cover

You have Joe jumping toward the right side of the cover in each, trespassing into the cover art’s blue border to suggest his escape from the attack. His right leg is bent and in the air; his left is planted. Both arms are up, with the right arm higher, above the head. He’s even dressed similarly: belted pants, with a shirt tucked into the trousers. (That’s especially silly for Diamond.) Frank is shrinking off to the left. Behind (and mostly between) the boys is a fiery blast.

Bachem was the digests’ go-to artist at this point (he drew all the covers between #89 and #112). You can’t infringe upon yourself — see Fantasy Records v. John Fogerty — but given the quality of work Bachem has on his web site, I think he could have worked a bit more to distinguish these two. Or to distinguish Joe, at least; Joe has changed his hair style (and maybe color), but nothing else, not even his position.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Danger on the Diamond (#90)

Danger on the Diamond coverGhost-written series books have many problems: absent continuity, the inability to change the series’ premise, inconsistent characterization … the list goes on.

But one of the most frustrating difficulties is when the author uses a character in a role that is obviously better suited to another character. Chet Morton, for instance, is plopped into The Witchmaster’s Key (#55) as Phil Cohen’s companion on a biking tour of Ireland and the Isle of Man. The role is much better suited to a more athletic chum, like Biff Hooper, Jerry Gilroy, or Tony Prito — although Tony always has too many responsibilities to get away for a biking tour, and Jerry hadn't appeared in a book in almost two decades at that point. Still: Biff.

In Danger on the Diamond, one character is described as a practical joker who learned how to pick locks for a magic act he performed a few years before. That character obviously should be Chet, whose character was originally conceived as a jokester and who is forever picking up and dropping hobbies. But no, the role is given to Tony Prito — Tony, the always responsible one who is always working for his father or on another job.

I get that this character has to be athletic enough to attend a baseball camp and play for the Bayport High School baseball team. Tony was a second baseman in The Mummy Case (#63) and an outfielder in Tic-Tac-Terror (#74), but Chet was a catcher on the team in Mummy Case, and the heavyset Chet is not laughable as a catcher. Yes, Chet wasn’t on the team in the revised A Figure in Hiding (#16), but there’s no reason why he couldn't have been in Danger on the Diamond. Chet’s the jokester, dangit, since all the way back in the beginning! [*bangs fist on desk*] His attempted fish prank in The Shore Road Mystery (#6) was hilarious! And Tony’s the worst choice for a lighthearted prankster! [*froth starts dripping from mouth onto keyboard*] Why can’t Franklin W. Dixon get this right?

[*deep, heaving breaths, gradually slowing*] It just makes me mad, that’s all.

Phew. OK, I’m better now.

Anyway, Frank, Joe, Biff, and Tony are attending a baseball camp in Bayport that Chet is not allowed in. (The other members of the Bombers — the BHS nickname, also used in Slam Dunk Sabotage — are also there.) Dangerous things start happening: the bleachers collapse from sabotage, the pitching machine malfunctions and beans Frank, a rubber ball the pitching instructor squeezes explodes (not in the pitcher’s hand, though), and the locker room’s showers get stuck on very hot, nearly scalding Biff. Tony, whom Biff calls “a clown,” gets blamed for what are believed to be pranks gone wrong. Putting aside that Tony is not a prankster, the Bombers’ willingness to blame Tony speaks to a deeper resentment. Are they angry that his industriousness puts them to shame? Are they indulging in anti-Italian sentiment? Or are they behaving irrationally to further the plot?

That last one, I think. I mean, even Biff keeps blaming Tony. Then again, Biff tries to lure Joe into a shower where they are both intentionally obscured by clouds of steam, so maybe he’s not being written in character either. (He claims it’s to create a “steambath,” but I’m not sure whether filling the shower stalls with steam and take a shower together with a friend is something that would appeal to a heterosexual teenager.)

The incidents bring up larger concerns, none of which are connected to the plot. Perhaps the most interesting is that the author actually takes concussions seriously. Frank is hospitalized briefly after getting beaned, and he keeps a follow-up appointment with the doctor. The doctor says the headaches Frank experiences are normal, which is true, but they’re normal post-concussion syndrome symptoms as well. Since Frank doesn’t seem to experience any of the other symptoms, we’ll let that go. On the other hand, Joe is dazed after getting clubbed in the head and knocked down, but no one cares about that because he doesn’t have a boo-boo on his head like Frank did.

The writer doesn’t seem to have a good handle on baseball, which is worrying. Frank can’t hit at the beginning, so he consults an instructor to improve. The big realization that improves Frank’s hitting? That the hitting instructor “never took his eyes off the ball” while hitting (19). Although this is technically impossible — the visual angle of the human eye and speed of thrown pitches makes it impossible to see the ball the entire way from the pitcher’s hand to the plate — that same advice has been given to every kid who has ever played baseball. Repeatedly. Perhaps every practice. Who gets to their senior year of baseball without knowing this? Perhaps this shoddy coaching is why the Bombers seem so awful; the players we follow — Joe, Biff, and Frank — seem pretty bad, striking out and making constant errors.

Also: Taking his eyes off the ball is how Frank gets beaned by a pitching machine, so, you know, maybe he needs a few more reminders.

The kids are also amazed that the former major-league instructors are so much better than them at baseball. Of course they are! These guys made it to the top of the profession, and they’re not out of shape; they’ve been playing baseball at camps like these for years. Of course they can school cocky little twerps like you.

Whether they should is a better question. Is making all the attendees look awful a good business plan? I honestly don’t know. The consequences of the blow to the kids’ little egos argues against that tactic, but the tear-them-down-to-build-them-up school of thought says you need to make them realize how bad they are before they’ll listen. Since only fifteen players, all from the Bombers, are at the camp, I don’t think the camp can afford the defections this approach would cause. Maybe humiliating players has already had an effect; perhaps rumors about the camp’s techniques discouraged other schools, like intra-county rival Seneca Tech (from The Sinister Sign Post, #15), from sending their players.

The instructors seem committed to the abuse. When Frank and Joe approach the former major league pitcher, Zeke Horner, he tells them to “get lost”; when Joe protests, Horner says, “I’ll say anything I want … Keep your mouths shut and maybe you’ll learn something” (30).

The most worrying part of the plot is that the author expects us to believe that one of the coaches was kicked out of baseball for association with gamblers, and no one heard about it. That’s asinine, although I have the benefit of having seen the Pete Rose investigation unfold; Danger was published in 1988, while Rose was investigated and banned from baseball the next year. Major League Baseball couldn't keep a lid on the investigation into Rose for much more than a month. Even during a time when the players and press were much more cozy, like the ‘60s, the rumors would have been rife. If MLB could have hushed it up at the time, the story would have leaked in the intervening years. And I’m not convinced MLB would have kept it quiet. A chance to frighten the players by crucifying a minor player would have been too good to pass up.

Anyway. After a series of “accidents” and assaults, the Hardys throw themselves into the investigation. Technically, the Bayport Police Department also investigates, but we know how effective they are. This time, Chief Collig settles on Tony as a likely suspect, does nothing about it, then abandons the case. It’s clear the BPD doesn’t care: when Frank finds a tie-clip at an arson site, Collig tells them to bring it to the police station the next day. Chain of custody? Forensic evidence? Nope! That’s going to reflect negatively on the department when the Hardys give them their evaluation.

(To be fair: Frank just picks up the suspicious tie-clip from the ground and carries it to Collig, so it’s not like he’s concerned with good investigative techniques either.)

Frank and Joe’s plan for the case is to make accusations and browbeat the victims of the crimes they witnessed. It turns out this is an effective technique — they get the owner of the camp, Spike Nolan, to admit what’s going on, and Horner agrees to meet them at the Bayview Motel to discuss what’s going on — but they’re working on the wrong assumptions. Frank and Joe assume the accidents and damage are part of insurance fraud being pulled by Nolan or his employees, but a loanshark / gambling kingpin’s attempts to blackmail and extort Nolan and Horner are the reasons for the accidents.

(By the by: The Bayview Motel appeared in the revised Figure in Hiding (#16), way back in 1965! The years have not been kind to the Bayview, which is now “a rundown motel on the edge of town” (117). Bayview Beach was mentioned in Tic-Tac-Terror, but there’s no solid evidence the two are close to each other.)

Frank and Joe’s haphazard interest in this “evidence” thing they’ve heard about is especially galling when they quote Fenton: “It’s just like Dad’s always saying: Solid investigative skills usually pay off with good results” (110-1). Geez. Tell that to the driver who got run off the road by gangsters who thought it was the Hardys’ van. If Frank and Joe had, you know, alerted the police about the danger, perhaps an innocent’s life wouldn’t have been jeopardized.

Anyway, to get more this “evidence,” Frank and Joe get a bug from Phil Cohen before they head to the Bayview Motel. Phil insists on accompanying them, and Frank and Joe reluctantly agree. Why they are so reluctant to let Phil run electronic equipment in the van? I dunno, but he comes in handy after Frank and the victim are kidnapped by hired goons. While Joe goes to rescue his brother, Phil gets the cops. The BPD arrives too late, of course, and are forced to take possession of the criminals Frank and Joe have already captured. Oh, and they probably are forced to put out the goons’ van, which exploded when Joe ran into it with a lawnmower. I wonder if the van was based on the Corvair or the Pinto? To be fair, it must have been a super lawnmower, because Joe managed to catch up with the van while riding the lawnmower.

Anyway, the bad guys are taken into custody, and Nolan — cleared of gambling allegations that got him banned from baseball — gets an offer to coach from a major league team. Does he take it? No! He’s going to stick to running baseball camps. Why? Because he’s stupid, just like this book.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Sky Blue Frame (#89)

The Sky Blue Frame coverLogic is a truly wonderful creation of our minds. We manage to construct arguments that support our ideas; we use evidence to support the arguments. Our evidence can be likened to bricks, building our arguments to be strong and withstand the attacks against them. Like the strength of a wall made of bricks, the strength of those arguments is linked to the quality of our evidence and our skill assembling them together.

But it is all too easy to miss the flaws in an argument, somehow not seeing a shoddy or even missing brick. Worse yet, we might grow accustomed to shoddy materials and not even blink when they are used to construct an argument we have heard many times before — or a story we have read many, many times.

I was struck by this early in The Sky Blue Frame. Frank and Joe are hired to put on a mystery weekend at the Sky Blue Inn, and before they can even begin, Iola is grabbed by some thugs, tied up, and tossed in a van while a brick with a warning wrapped around it is hurled at Frank, Joe, and Chet. The van turns out to be Frank and Joe’s, but the readers are still confronted with the idea that Iola was in great danger and could have been hurt or killed.

So how do the teenagers react to this threat? Ah, trick question; they don’t react to it at all. They don’t change their plans or take any action to protect themselves. The note told the boys to stay away from the Sky Blue Inn, but they still plan to go there. They don’t hand over the physical evidence to the police. They don’t notify the Bayport Police Department or the owner of the Sky Blue Inn. They don’t even investigate by themselves. They continue with their mystery weekend planning, and the attack makes Iola even more determined to help Frank and Joe.

What is wrong with these people? What kind of person blithely shrugs off that sort of threat without a response of any sort? Have the ever-present threats presented by Bayport dulled their sense of danger, to the point where anything short of direct bodily harm is ignored?

Well. We may have quantum theory to blame. In another universe — the Casefiles — Iola is dead at this point. Perhaps some awareness of that event has passed between universes, giving Digests Iola either the knowledge that death is not to be feared or a determination to live her life however she sees fit.

So what goes on at a mystery weekend? I don’t know, personally, since I’ve never been to one. What happens at this one is that Frank and Joe stage a robbery of Iola’s cheap (but expensive-looking) necklace, and then — after planting clues that implicate a few of the guests and Chet — hope their fellow guests figure out they were supposed to think Chet was the thief. In other words, a mystery weekend isn’t much different than the usual Hardy Boys mystery: wild accusations, bad investigative technique, and no means with which to gather clues other than breaking and entering and asking uncooperative or bewildered people questions.

This mystery weekend is complicated by a couple of other thefts at the hotel. Even though the Hardys know the area has been subjected to a wave of hotel burglaries, Frank and Joe manage to convince everyone the first theft — a fellow guest’s camera and watch — is part of the mystery weekend. When someone rips off the hotel’s safe, well, they mostly manage to keep people from realizing what’s going on … except the police, who haul Frank and Joe in for questioning when they find burglar’s tools in the boys’ room.

Frank and Joe are shocked. Those tools aren’t theirs! They draw the line at lockpicks, and there’s no evidence they brought theirs to the mystery weekend.

The cops aren’t impressed by Frank and Joe’s abnormal deference to their authority — seriously, the boys don’t tell them to gather evidence or try to direct the investigation at all — nor do they care about the boys’ parentage or their insistence that they were hired to stage a burglary. (This is why you always get a contract when you’re hired to perform semi-illegal acts. If nothing else, this book has taught me that.) “Sometimes the sons of law enforcement officers turn out to be bad apples,” says Det. Culp, although within less than a page he acknowledges their considerable reputation as investigators. Interestingly, Frank and Joe get no apology or admission that mistakes were made from the police when they are cleared.

Frank and Joe are also mocked by Brad, a surly youth who has been razzing the Hardys since the beginning of the weekend. He thinks the Hardys’ situation is “hilarious” (131); earlier in the weekend, he tells the Hardys, “Any idiot can solve a crime” (38). He’s obnoxious, and readers immediately know he will go down one of two character paths: villain or guy who reconciles with the Hardys when he learns they aren’t that bad. Quick — guess which it is! The answer will not surprise you.

Not long after their release, the Hardys enumerate the attempts to scare them away from the Sky Blue Inn: the brick hurled at them, being tailed to the Sky Blue Inn by a mysterious motorcycle, a (harmless) spider in their chocolates, a chemical in Frank’s food that causes his throat to close, and Joe getting knocked out. That last one was kinda funny, because while he was unconscious, someone wrote (“scrawled”) “Get out and go home!” (80) on his t-shirt with a marker. It would have been even better if the attacker had made a rude drawing on his face while he was out.

But when they were listing all the attacks, they forgot two: Iola’s original abduction, and Iola getting knocked out while preparing to take a hot shower. (Only her terrycloth robe saved her from burns. Believe in the amazing protective power of terrycloth!) You know what? I don’t think Frank and Joe value Iola’s safety very much.

Or maybe they skipped over the second attack because it brought up awkward questions. Just before Iola is attacked, Frank and Joe are in her room to check it for “surprises.” When Iola steps into the bathroom, Frank says, “She sure likes a hot shower” (44). Why does Frank know about Iola’s shower preferences? Is this knowledge, in any way, linked to his tepid goodbye to Callie, which involved giving “her arm a reassuring squeeze” (23)?

And this brings up another point, another false brick I have often ignored because I had become too use to its falseness. How likely is it that a teenager would go to a mountain hotel, hours from home, with her or his boyfriend / girlfriend, and not get a lecture? I’m not saying all good parents, or even most parents, would stop their teenage kids from going on the trip, but even with both partners’ brothers along, any sane parent would have to expect some level of hanky-panky (defining hanky-panky how you like, anywhere from “super-duper make out” to “steamy monkey love”). And it’s not like Chet’s sharing a room with his sister: to conceal Chet’s affiliation with the Hardys and make him a less visible suspect in the mystery weekend, Chet is in a separate room from his sister. The potential for a bit of adolescent dalliance is glossed over, of course, because Bayport teens appear to have their hormones removed soon after puberty. It’s for their own good, of course.

Anyway. With things coming down to the wire, Iola gets another threatening note: “Tell your friends to back off — or else!” (111). Suddenly, Iola is frightened by vague rhetoric, even though she admits she doesn’t know what “or else” might mean. (She should be frightened that someone knows Frank and Joe are her friends, not her brothers; Iola and the Hardys had been posing as a family for the mystery weekend.) Frank and Joe claim to be frightened — “We’d be fools if we weren’t,” Frank says — it doesn’t change their behavior at all. The note turns out to be just a bit of set dressing, like the graveyard on the Sky Blue Inn’s grounds that the clerk mentions when they check in; it gives Iola “the creeps” (35) briefly, then it’s never mentioned again.

More serious matters do rear their head. When the Sky Blue Inn’s real owner shows up, Frank and Joe learn the “Mr. Maxwell” who hired them to do the mystery weekend was a fake. When they pursue the fake Maxwell — who was inexplicably hanging around the grounds — they are stopped by the police, who have confined them to the inn’s grounds. This means the plot is the uncommon “fake out” gambit, like in The Masked Monkey, in which the criminals hire the Hardy Boys to investigate their own crime. Usually, they do this to cover themselves — the situation demands they do something, so they hire someone they hope will be incompetent — but there’s something more going on here …

After someone fires a potshot at the brothers, Frank and Joe make their big breakthrough when they realize the last threatening note was typed on the same typewriter the instructions from the fake Maxwell were typed on. Since Brad is the only one they know in the hotel with a typewriter, they break into his room. Brad confronts them there, along with the inn’s clerk, who has a pistol. As it turns out, Brad’s the brains behind the rash of hotel burglaries and the trap the Hardys find themselves in. It’s not the fake-out gambit — it’s the extremely rare revenge trap! Brad wants Frank and Joe sent to jail for his hotel robberies in revenge for Fenton arresting his father, Joe Wingo, who was “the head of a gang of criminals who operated on the East Coast” (144-5).

Joe Wingo … I can’t find any mention of a Joe Wingo in my notes on the first 85 Hardy Boys books or on the Internet, although I did find articles on a Pastor Joe Wingo who pled guilty to stealing millions from a charity he and his wife ran. (The article doesn’t mention Fenton Hardy.) It would have been nice if the writer could have used a name from a previous book, but no — we get a completely new, made-up name. Continuity is something that happens to other series, I suppose.

And we don’t even learn what kind of crimes Joe Wingo was responsible for. Was it something unspeakable, like clown smuggling? Dealing in lucrative but illegal antihistamines? Stealing bridges, melting their iron down, then creating commemorative statues of those very same stolen bridges to sell at a huge profit?

Anyway, Brad’s attempts to “scare” Frank and Joe away from the mystery weekend were attempts to intrigue the brothers, which worked perfectly. Frank cheerfully admits how they were suckered as he punches the clerk into submission. Fortunately for the Hardys (and justice), the bellhop / handyman at the inn was an undercover detective, and he heard Brad’s admission of guilt.

The case is solved, and while Frank and Joe explain to their fellow guests what happened, one of them hauls Chet in for the theft of Iola’s necklace. Everyone laughs at him for solving a (fake) crime that all of them were there to solve. You did what you were supposed to do! You idiot.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Tricky Business (#88)

Tricky Business coverI read Tricky Business quite a while ago. I thought I could just put the book aside, but what I read keeps gnawing at me. I must get this out. I must tell you — tell you about the time …

Chet joined Amway.

Well, not really “Amway” — that’s a protected brand name, and Odin knows the Hardy Boys don’t touch those. And it’s not just a straight-up Amway clone either: it’s Trusty Teens, a company whose “entire sales force is between the ages of sixteen and nineteen … [who sell] household products and personal-care items, like shampoo and cosmetics … for the Trusty Home Products Company” (2-3). The Trusty Teens also get “bonuses” for “recruiting other teens and getting a percentage of their sales” (3) — a clear pyramid scheme. So it’s Amway for teenagers.

It had to be Chet that joined the Trusty Teens; any other character would have been frightened away by it’s secretive, cult-like nature. Chet is the person Bayport High School would have voted “most likely to join a cult / Amway,” anyway. He’s a joiner, someone who has always been willing to follow even the most foolhardy (ha!) orders of charismatic teenagers. You can read his obsession with food as a bit of an addictive personality.

With that set-up, it’s a shame we don’t get many scenes with Chet and Trusty Teens …

Anyway, on a late-night visit to Trusty Teens after a concert (featuring Iron Tiger! and Blaster Boys!), Frank, Joe, and their dates witness attempted arson of a warehouse. Trusty Teen salesman Andy Quayle (called “Jimmy” on the back cover) is blamed immediately, which makes Frank and Joe suspicious: accusations like that should be made only after a few days of half-hearted investigation. The boys run into Quayle on the way home; after their questioning, Frank believes in Quayle’s innocence, while Joe thinks he set the fire. When Joe gets a chance, he rats out Quayle’s location, prompting a genuine moment of conflict between the two boys.

The tension is almost immediately dispersed, but it was there, I swear it was, I saw it, it wasn’t swamp gas or the planet Venus or a commercial jetliner. And I didn't imagine it!

With Fenton on vacation, the boys decide to investigate. Sgt. Prescott of the Pine Beach Police Department gives them a hard time but lets them talk to Quayle. Joe offers the advice that “if you’re really innocent, then you don’t have anything to worry about,” to which the more world-savvy Quayle says, “Yeah, and you probably believe in the tooth fairy, too” (31). But Frank calls a bail-bondsman, and the brothers offer their help for free, so Andy and his mother accept

Because this is the Hardy Boys, Trusty Teens must either be under assault by unscrupulous employees or ripe for a RICO indictment. It’s just the way Bayport — or in this case, the nearby city of Pine Beach — works. If Andy Quayle didn’t set the fire, who did? Allison Rosedale and Vince Boggs were his chief rivals for the role of top seller — at least until Bob Goodrich, the executive manager, canned Quayle for being all distracted and stuff after Quayle’s father died.

The teenagers have to get evidence to support their wild accusations, so the Hardys send Callie and Iola into Trusty Teens undercover. Iola is a little reluctant, but she agrees, saying, “When have I ever refused a little excitement?”

“‘Never,’ said Joe, smiling at her” (42). I think we all know what Joe and Iola mean here, but don’t get too happy, Joe — she did say the excitement was “little.”

Before they head to a Trusty Teens rally, Frank and Joe get a threat in the mail — “DROP THE QUAYLE CASE … OR ELSE!” (47). The brothers ignore what is the emptiest of empty threats and head to a Trusty Teen gathering with their girlfriends. The brothers note the suspiciously quick rebuilding of the warehouse before a fight between Goodrich and Boggs ends the meeting. Chet — Newcomer of the Month! — keeps his supervisor from assaulting a teen, which then gets Chet sacked as well. It’s for the best; given Chet’s enthusiasms, he was most likely two weeks from quitting or being pulled in for life.

Frank and Joe figure some light B&E is the next logical step. They decide to go in early the next morning, using Chet’s extra Trusty Teens IDs and uniforms — and banking on their anonymity, since Iola tells Joe, “There are a lot of … blond, blue-eyed guys like you.” Joe tries to laugh it off, saying, “And I always thought I was one of a kind” (61), but we all know Iola could replace Joe in a heartbeat if she wanted.

Frank and Joe use the aliases “Chris Knight” (aka Peter Brady on The Brady Bunch) and “Randy Potter” (aka Joe’s ideal adult-film name). The Hardys discover nothing, other than Boggs was dating Goodrich’s daughter and Allison thinks she has something to hold over Goodrich’s head. After their criminal trespass, they follow a truck loaded with Trusty Brite detergent, except that the Trusty Brite boxes contain the explosive “Splode-All.” They grab a box, but when they bring it to Prescott, he pooh-poohs the discovery, partially because Splode-All is an incredibly stupid name that no criminal, military, or munitions company would ever use. But mainly it’s because he’s crooked and in Goodrich’s pocket.

The next day, they talk with Boggs, who tells them he has invented the Internet of Things, albeit not in those words (or really with the Internet part). Frank is eager to find the sinister implications of the idea. After they leave, they find a bomb in the van and chuck it into a field just in time. Soon after, someone tries to blow up Andy Quayle’s mom.

Then comes the most disturbing part of the mystery: Iola and Callie order two pizzas for themselves, Chet, and the Hardys. One of those pizzas is double cheese. What kind of teenagers (who aren’t specifically vegetarian) orders a double cheese pizza? Needing to order a double cheese pizza means the pizza place you’re ordering from skimps on cheese, anyway. And then, after eating, they immediately head to a restaurant. Sure, they do it to listen to music, but I’m sure they were going to nosh while listening …

Anyway, Iola and Callie have discovered Allison is dating a crooked foreman at Trusty, and she’d received a baby grand piano from Sgt. Prescott. The piano, Frank and Joe learn, are Allison’s profits for blackmailing Goodrich. Allison’s boyfriend — who, by the way, is much older and rocking the cradle of love with his Trusty Teen — cracks under the Hardys’ light questioning. With his information and the work of Pine Beach’s honest Sgt. Clement, most of Goodrich’s gang is arrested. However, the arrest of Goodrich is botched, and Frank and Joe’s throw themselves into the operation. They are immediately captured, along with Allison and her boyfriend; Goodrich admits to being a smuggler, a middle-manager in an international munitions ring, and to framing Andy. Goodrich almost gets revenge on the blackmailing Allison by locking all four captives in a burning building, but they manage to escape the conflagration.

While escaping in their van, they elude Goodrich but not Prescott, who orders them into the woods so he can execute them. Prescott admits to setting all the bombs and being Allison’s go-between for her blackmail scheme. However, Prescott’s proposed woodland execution goes awry when Goodrich shows up; the standoff distracts both villains long enough for the boys to get the drop on the gunmen and capture them. Andy is cleared, Allison’s boyfriend gets lenient treatment, and Allison gets arrested in Havenhurst. Everybody’s happy!

Well, except for the criminals. And Chet probably shouldn’t be happy, given that he was fired from his summer job. But it could be worse: he could still be working for Amw — Trusty Teens.