I’ve read The Smoke Screen Mystery before, but I don’t remember it at all — not a plot development, not a red herring or stupid suspect, not a jot or tittle — and that surprises me. Yes, I read it more than a dozen years ago, but I believe I should remember more of it, because I’m convinced it was written by the ghost of Dr. John Button (or maybe Dr. John Button, Jr.).
Button, for those of you who don’t know, wrote two of the worst books in the Hardy Boys canon: the original Disappearing Floor (#19) and The Mystery of the Flying Express (#20). He also wrote three others: The Secret Warning (#17), The Twisted Claw (#18), and The Clue of the Broken Blade (#21). Those last three were mostly mediocre, but Floor and Express … they were full of non-sequiturs and botched continuity. The digests aren’t big on continuity, but this one stretches the series’s approach to continuity from “relaxed” to “you’ll be happier if you don’t think about it.”
Examples? you ask. Sure!
- Aunt Gertrude is a “heavy-set, middle-aged woman” the boys call “Aunt Gert.” Gertrude Hardy has been described as “slightly plump” (Disappearing Floor), “portly” (Flying Express and The Melted Coins), and “solidly built” (The Secret of Skull Mountain), but in almost every other books her weight is mentioned she’s “angular” or “bony.” When her age is mentioned, she’s almost always past middle age (or hinted to be), and she’d never let her nephews get away with calling her “Gert.”
- Frank and Joe have become volunteer firefighters after taking a 16-week course. When would Frank and Joe have time to take a 16-week course?
- They still have time to play pick-up hockey. Sure, they sound like aliens impersonating hockey fans — “These blue eyes need lots of rest so they can focus on winging that puck past you and into the goal net!” Joe says (16), his automatic translation protocols malfunctioning — but why hockey? It’s not a sport either of them has played in the canon.
- Callie and Iola have jobs: Iola works in a real-estate developer’s office, and Callie’s a stringer for the Examiner. Sure, that’s fine — they should have part-time jobs. But neither of those jobs stick, and neither has shown any proclivity for those kinds of work.
- The Examiner! Bayport has had a bunch of newspaper over the years, most prominently the Times, but never before has it had an Examiner. (See Maximum Challenge for a list of newspapers.) Why couldn’t the author have used one of Bayport’s other fishwraps?
Maybe I’m being too sensitive. I dunno. But Gert? Becoming firefighters on top of detectives, “students,” athletes, and all the rest? Hockey? A new newspaper? It … it’s a bit much for me. I’m going to go lie down for a while.
Back now. Anyway: Frank and Joe, volunteer firefighters. (I would have thought the movie Backdraft might have inspired the plot, but no: Backdraft came out in 1991, while Smoke Screen was published in 1990. No luck there.) During their training and brief time on the job, the brothers have become great at their job … well, maybe it’s more that their co-workers aren’t that good. At one point, for instance, Frank explains to a fire inspector what a Molotov cocktail is, and the inspector doesn’t slap him silly.
When Frank and Joe are off duty, Joe is eager to check out all the new pizza and burger places in Bayport. He and Frank manage to visit Pizzaworks (which all the kids agree is awful), Pizza Your Way, and Burgerworks. (No mention whether Pizzaworks and Burgerworks are affiliated in any way, other than authorial / editorial laziness.) The boys also meet Iola at the Bayport Diner, but that’s not new: it first appeared in The Jungle Pyramid (#56) before being mentioned in four more mysteries in the canon.
Iola works for Donald Pierce, the former White Bishop of the Naughty Hellfire Club and later leader of the cyborg Reavers. Pierce’s buildings are being burned to the ground, evidently while he’s busy trying to kill mutants; after the Examiner blames him for the fires, he “hires” (no money changes hands) Frank and Joe to find out who’s really behind the arson. The boys take the case, with Frank saying they haven’t handled an arson case in a while. I couldn't remember any arson cases in the canon, but firebugs have been involved in six cases in the canon — most recently The Swamp Monster (#83).
Strangely, Joe does not immediately want to blame Pierce for arson; perhaps even he realizes blaming Iola’s boss would not be healthy for his relationship or his body. Frank and Joe’s friend and fellow firefighter, Kevin, becomes their chief suspect, mostly because Pierce fired Kevin from a job as a super. Another piece of evidence against Kevin is that he’s always late to fight fires, which is strange: This might be evidence Kevin’s a poor firefighter, but why would an arsonist be late to fight fires? If he set the fires, he could be right on time — he could even be early, although he’d have to be a stupid criminal to do that.
When Joe falls through the ice while the Hardys and another friend, Scott, are playing hockey, waiting for Kevin, even more suspicion falls on Kevin. But they aren’t thinking straight. Perhaps it has something to do with their very lax attitude toward hypothermia, as they allow Joe to sit on the ice, wet and freezing, while Frank rubs his feet to restore circulation. They then leisurely stroll to the van — Frank takes the time to find the missing “Thin Ice” sign, show it to Joe, and debate who’s responsible — before going home to get a change of clothes for Joe.
They don’t suspect Scott, for some reason, despite the extravagant lifestyle he’s living on a grocery-store salary. Aren’t investigators supposed to look into the finances of possible suspects?
The arsonist takes a break from burning Pierce’s buildings to set fire to the Hardy garage. Well, kinda set fire to the garage: the arsonist hits it with a Molotov cocktail, and Frank puts out the fire with a fire extinguisher after riding home on a fire engine. Frankly, Gertrude should have been able to handle the small blaze, but she wilts in the presence of the fire, and she worries how Fenton and Laura react to the damage. (It seems mostly cosmetic, a blackening of the wall farthest from the house.) This is even more evidence that the Ghost of Button has replaced Gertrude with someone — something — else. Gertrude beat up intruders and sassed everyone; there’s no way she should be reduced to seeking comfort from a neighbor at a small fire. Besides, the Hardy property has seen much worse damage; I mean, the back of the house was gutted by fire in The Flickering Torch Mystery (#23), and Gertrude’s window was broken by a gas bomb in Tic-Tac-Terror (#74). This is negligible in comparison.
The flannel used as the Molotov cocktail’s fuse matches Kevin’s shirt, so he remains the primary suspect. Even a discussion with Kevin can’t clear him. But later, when Joe pursues an investigatory B&E at Kevin’s, he encounters a masked intruder who drives away in the arsonist’s van. Even the Hardys aren’t stupid enough to think Kevin would break into his own home wearing a ski mask. Still, Kevin bugs out of Bayport soon after, and the Hardys are unsure what to think.
Pierce fires the brothers for lack of results — although what does “fire” mean, when you aren’t paying someone and they aren’t using your influence to gain access to anything? — but Frank and Joe stay on the case. They manage to find the arsonist’s van and link it to Scott, although they don’t understand his motive. The revelation that Pierce worked at a New Mexico bank at the same time as Dawson, the Examiner’s publisher, opens a new angle for investigation. Info gathered by Iola indicates Pierce has been blackmailing Dawson for years. The conclusion is obvious: Dawson hired Scott to burn Pierce’s buildings, which allowed Dawson to lambaste Dawson in print. Frank and Joe don’t confirm this until a tense confrontation at Pierce’s office, in which Scott and Dawson hold Frank, Joe, Iola, and Pierce at gunpoint. (Dawson started his campaign against Pierce because he was furious Pierce kept blackmailing him for embezzlement after the statute of limitations ran out. Like the revelation that you built your fortune on embezzlement wouldn’t be worth keeping secret!)
While Pierce’s skyscraper in a cornfield starts burning — Bayport’s town council refused to let him build the twenty-story building downtown, for some unfathomable reason — the kids and Pierce are rescued by a police helicopter, and Con Riley arrests Dawson and Pierce.
And the reason Kevin was always late and unwilling to talk about it? He was trying to get a job with the New York Fire Department, and he didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Good to know he was willing to risk jail for a jinx. It’s not the dumbest part of Smoke Screen, not by a longshot, but it’s still pretty dumb.
As bad as Smoke Screen is, it does have a bit of foreshadowing: Iola says, “If I didn’t have to work during vacation, I’d definitely take off for Florida” (2). The book’s conclusion pretty much guarantees the end of her employment, and Iola takes off for Florida over spring break in Panic on Gull Island (#107) — with disastrous consequences, of course.