Friday, April 29, 2016

The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105)

The Smoke Screen Mystery coverI’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.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tricks of the Trade (#104)

Tricks of the Trade coverWarning: Somewhere in this article is an Arrested Development joke unsuitable for general audiences. If you’ve seen the the show’s pilot, you know which one I’m going to use.

In Tricks of the Trade, Frank and Joe have accompanied Chet to New York to watch a magic exhibition. Frank seems mildly interested in magic, but I can’t tell why Joe has tagged along — unless he’s there to crap on Chet’s enthusiasm, which is plausible and supported by the text. Magic is Chet’s new hobby; although Chet gets new hobbies every week, the narration notes his interest in magic has lasted “two weeks” (2). Ha ha, Dixon. There’s no need for you to dump on Chet too, especially when you couldn’t remember Chet had already had magic as his hobby in The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46). That was a total dog of a book, Frankie W., but you don’t get to erase it from history — that’s a bigger trick than you or Tony Wonder could pull off.

Chet is thrilled to attend performances of (and workshops by) Lorenzo the Magnficent, a master magician and a devoted de Medici cosplayer. Chet is entranced by Lorenzo’s act and his beautiful assistant, the Mysterious Larissa. Frank finds Lorenzo’s act impressive, but I’m more impressed that Frank could stand magicians at all. Were I Frank, I would still be traumatized by The Billion-Dollar Ransom (#73), in which a rogue magician (Zandro the Great) kidnapped both Frank and the president of the United States. (Frank and Joe did receive a medal inscribed “To the two greatest magicians in the world” from the villain’s main rival at the end of Ransom, but given that Frank’s keen detective mind can’t figure out Larissa is using a “farewell kiss” to pass Lorenzo a key just before Lorenzo’s big escapology trick, I don’t think we can put much stock in that accolade.)

I’m sure Joe isn’t watching Lorenzo or Larissa or thinking about that time he saved the president from Zandro the Great; he’s more interested in denigrating Chet’s interest in magic. Joe causes the trio to be late for the train to New York, talks during several performances (prompting a teenager to tell Frank to tell Joe to shut up), gives Frank “a knowing glance” because “they would have to put up with Chet’s excitement for the weekend” (2), and complains about testing out trick handcuffs (“the things you do for your friends,” he says [21]). Frank and Chet think it’s the funniest thing in the world when the trick handcuffs don’t release, which makes Joe even surlier. He can dish it out, but he sure as hell can’t take it.

To be add to the humiliation, Frank can’t pick the lock, so the handcuffs rank among the Hardys’ greatest adversaries.

Lorenzo and Larissa emphasize that their act isn’t slight-of-hand tricks: it’s about illusion. Of course it is; a trick is something a whore does for money … or cocaine. One of their illusions is making the lights of Manhattan, shining outside the hotel window, disappear, but they make the audience close their eyes while they perform the illusion. It’s very reminiscent of radio magic, which I assume was a thing, because radio ventriloquism definitely was a thing. Perhaps the better trick was making a teenager and Chet use ‘50s slang to describe the act: both call it “too much” (40, 118).

At Larissa and Lorenzo’s first performance, a diamond bracelet is stolen; because the hotel doesn’t want to cause a fuss, no one is searched, and the magicians steal away before the search is complete. The hotel management is informed, and they tell the police, but Joe is miffed by what he perceives as a lack of zeal. It’s unclear what Joe would have them do, other than let the Bayporters investigate. The hotel says that’s right out, although they offer to pay for the boys’ supper at the hotel diner. Joe, surly, says he’ll pay for his own meal.

The hotel is not the only organization reluctant to investigate. The hotel has Lorenzo performing, in part, to entertain the board of the American Hotel Association, but even though the victimized woman was a board member, the association won’t question its own members. The board pays for that hands-off attitude when another board member’s emerald earrings are swiped during a later performance.

“Someone’s obviously using the magicians for cover,” Joe realizes (46). Of course they are, Joe. Or maybe the thief is a magician? I mean, stealing jewelry off someone’s body sounds like a sleight-of-hand trick — and I don’t mean an illusion.

Whoever the villain is, he or she tries to scare off Chet and the Hardys with a thrown knife and a weak threat: “You may be the Hardy boys, but we’ve got experience on our side. Go home before it’s too late” (64). Tricks start going badly for Larissa and Lorenzo: a misbalanced blade thrown by Lorenzo nearly hits Larissa, Lorenzo almost saws Joe in half when the trick box is tampered with, and Lorenzo gets the wrong key during his signature escapology trick, forcing Frank and Joe to save him. Someone sets a flash-paper-and-trash fire in Frank, Joe, and Chet’s room, which actually works to the boys’ benefit: they easily extinguish the fire, they get a room upgrade, and no one mentions their clothes smell like smoke. (For some reason, the smoke alarm in their room is barely audible in the hallway, and it doesn’t alert the hotel management at all. I hope they mention this in their Yelp review of the hotel!)

Suspects: Now you see them ...

  • Nat Dietrich, assistant manager of the hotel. Lorenzo reacts violently whenever Dietrich approaches Larissa. Joe also doesn’t like him because Joe thinks he isn’t doing enough to investigate the robberies.
  • Clyde Spector, who works security at the hotel. The boys see him chatting with Larissa just after the first robbery, and later they catch him with the diamond bracelet near the hotel’s safety deposit boxes. When they pursue him, he slips away — almost as if he knows the hotel better than they do! Although the Hardys seem disinclined to search for him, the police eventually find and arrest him. He maintains his innocence.
  • The Mysterious Larissa. Well, she is mysterious, and the boys see her chatting with Spector. She has the dexterity needed to swipe the jewels and access to flash paper. Late in the story, after a third item of jewelry is stolen, the boys find it in her dressing room.
  • Lorenzo the Magnificent. He acts weirdly around Dietrich, and he has the magician skills to pull the thefts. Still, the Hardys seem reluctant to accuse him, partially because someone is sabotaging his act. He pulls a weird practical joke at his old mentor’s magic shop, swiping the money from the till, but for some reason Frank won’t ask Lorenzo if he was the thief, even when Lorenzo strongly hints that he was.

While Frank calls to ask the police to do background checks on the suspects, Chet and Joe go to accuse Larissa. In Larissa’s dressing room, Chet and Joe are knocked out by “poisonous” dry ice (128) — all dry ice is poisonous: it’s carbon dioxide, which isn’t healthy to breathe in large quantities for an extended period — and tied up. They escape their chains by using a Houdini trick Chet remembered. (The trick is basically “wiggle until something comes loose.”) Joe realizes it must have been Lorenzo who tied them up, since Lorenzo’s handcuffs were part of the bonds, so when they get loose, the chase is on. With Frank, who wanders in about that time, they pursue Lorenzo and his associate, Dietrich. Frank reveals Lorenzo was a safecracker, and Dietrich blackmailed him into helping with rob the hotel safe — which the Hardys prevented.

This isn’t the only magician-gone-wrong the boys have pursued. Besides Zandro the Great in Ransom, the boys caught the Incredible Hexton, an agent of UGLI (Undercover Global League of Informants), in The Secret Agent on Flight 101. Poor Lorenzo doesn’t measure up to Hexton, who kidnapped Fenton, was part of an international criminal ring, and had his own Scottish castle; Lorenzo is just an illusionist who was blackmailed into returning to thievery.

Larissa says the jewelry was planted in her dressing room, and she had given Spector the bracelet he was caught with after another attempt to frame her. Spector, in an attempt to divert suspicion from Larissa, hadn’t turned the bracelet over immediately.

The Hardys bask in the thanks of the hotel and self-congratulations. Joe says, “I guess you’d call his robberies sleight-of-hand thefts!” (152). You mean “illusions” — no, wait, I guess you do mean “thefts.” Joe credits his brother with breaking the case open, with his brilliant decision to ask (demand?) the police run background checks on the major players in the case. The hotel gives the boys jack-all for saving its reputation. Better get something in writing next time, boys!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Million-Dollar Nightmare (#103)

The Million-Dollar Nightmare coverSo, while wandering the streets of San Francisco, hoping to take in the tourist spots, Frank and Joe run across a man who has been missing for three years, suspected of one of a well-publicized horse theft. This happens just a day after Frank saw a television series highlighting the theft and the missing man.

You have to admit, that’s extremely unlikely. I mean, it happens — America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries found missing people, both criminal and not, and helped solved crimes — but it’s not something anyone can count on. Well, not unless you’re Frank and Joe Hardy, I guess.

Million-Dollar Nightmare starts with Joe marveling over being able to wear jackets during the summer in the City by the Bay, although I’m not sure why: the brothers always wear jackets during the Bayport summers. (See the cover to Spark of Suspicion for an example.) They stumble across Julian Ardyce, whom Frank had seen on the brothers’ favorite show, America’s Most Mysterious Unsolved Crimes. (It’s a clever name, Franklin W. Dixon is saying. Get it? Get it? Geddit?) Joe had missed the show because he was packing — a weak excuse — but he’s just as hot to follow Ardyce, who was suspected of stealing the thoroughbred racehorse Nightmare. According to AMMUC, Ardyce vanished soon after Nightmare’s disappearance and hasn’t been seen since — until he wandered across Frank and Joe’s path.

Despite being “the two hottest teenage detectives on the East Coast” (2) — I can’t imagine there’s much competition for that title, although I’d like to see the brothers up against the West Coast contenders — the Hardys lose Ardyce after an earthquake. (Two San Franciscans argue whether it was a 3.0 or 3.5 on the Ricter scale, but “Frank felt the floor actually roll under his feet like a roller coaster” (7), plus glasses and plates fall off the tables, so the quake was probably somewhere around 5.0 — not even close to 3.5, which some people wouldn’t even notice.) Frank, in a burst of emotion, “slapped the side of his leg in disappointment” (9). Careful, Frank: If you let your emotions get the best of you, soon you’ll be shouting “fudge you all!” and “golly darn it!”

Frank and Joe are sure Ardyce is a criminal and not someone who, to avoid adverse publicity, went into hiding. (Joe also theorizes Ardyce is racing Nightmare secretly in underground horse races, and he tucks his t-shirt into his jeans. When he orders room service, he gets nachos and a strawberry milkshake. It’s best not to pay attention to Joe’s opinions.) Unable to find Ardyce, Frank and Joe head to Stallion Canyon, home of Nightmare’s owners, the Glass family. Why do the Hardys do this? For “leads,” but mostly they raise the Glasses’ hopes, especially those of their teenage daughter, Nina, and then dash them when Frank and Joe admit they have no idea what’s going on.

Frank and Joe have searched for stolen racehorses before: They found Topnotch in both versions of The Sinister Sign Post (#15), although the criminals in the original version of the story were also arms dealers, saboteurs, and spies; the horse theft is a tacked-on distraction, a clear case of criminal overreach. Nightmare’s abduction is faintly reminiscent of the case of Shergar, an Irish racehorse retired to stud, who was kidnapped by the IRA in 1983. Frank and Joe were not involved with the investigation into Shergar’s abduction, so the ending was far different: Shergar was killed by his bungling captors, and the search for the horse ended up uncovering several IRA weapon caches. Neither horse murder or IRA weapons are seen in Million-Dollar Nightmare.

The Glasses see the Hardys as half full of competence, though, and they give the brothers a run-down of the suspects:

  • Danny Chaps, Nightmare’s groom. He was buying a soda from a vending machine while Nightmare was taken. Police were able to narrow Nightmare’s disappearance down to a 45-minute window, which means Chaps took a long time to get that soda. (Nobody mentions that, though; they concentrate on the convenience of the alibi.) The Glasses fired him after the theft, which they were right to do: it turns out the thieves paid him $1,000 to buy that soda.
  • Buzz McCord, Nightmare’s trainer. He was with the Glasses when Nightmare was stolen, but after the theft, he left the Glasses and opened his own, more successful, ranch.
  • Billy Morales, Nightmare’s jockey. Morales arrived at the track four hours before Nightmare’s race. Since jockeys usually see their rides only a few minutes before the race, this is seen as suspicious; more suspicious is he went home before Nightmare’s disappearance. Billy tells Frank and Joe he was suffering from dizzy spells and couldn’t shake his fear about what would happen if he became dizzy and fell from his horse during the race: “It’s a horrible thing, fear … once you get the fear, it’s all over” (50). Poor guy.
  • Julian Ardyce, of course. He was seen in the stables around the time of the disappearance, and his horse Spats was substituted for Nightmare to give the thieves extra time to get away.

While sorting out the suspects, Frank trots out a Fenton aphorism: “If you’re not sure a suspect’s telling the truth, you’re better off thinking he’s lying … at least at first” (51). Joe’s way ahead of you, Fenton: not only does he not think everyone’s lying, he’s willing to accuse everyone too.

When the Hardys and Nina visit McCord’s ranch to ask what he remembers, McCord diverts them into a horse-riding tour of the ranch. Frank is immediately thrown from his ride, Blackbeard, and knocked unconscious. Although the horse appears difficult to ride, McCord assures the teens Blackbeard is gentle. Given that Frank and Joe are excellent riders, having shown their equestrian abilities in at least ten books, readers know who to believe. (This scene is reminiscent of The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28), in which a malicious ranch foreman gives Joe a bucking bronc that throws the teenager. The foreman, Hank, wasn’t a villain, though — he just didn’t like Frank and Joe.)

A stablehand tips Frank and Joe that a nearby ranch, Wind Ridge, is actually owned by Ardyce. When they investigate, they are turned away at the gate; a bit of trespassing reveals nothing. While driving back to the city, Frank falls unconscious, and the brothers are forced to take his concussion seriously. Well, sorta — Frank gets checked out by Nina’s mom, who’s a doctor, and he rests for a few moments before returning to the case.

The usual shenanigans ensue, with a bit of San Francisco flair. Frank is pushed in front of a cable car. Joe goes undercover at Wind Ridge, but even though he lets himself get baited into fighting his supervisor, he manages to find sketchy evidence Ardyce has visited the ranch and learns of a mysterious, hidden horse-breeding operation at the ranch. (For a criminal operation, Wind Ridge’s hiring practices are shockingly lax.) Joe escapes on Blackbeard, riding him him bareback as he does so. After hitching a ride to a phone, Joe’s picked up by Frank, and they eat at a burger joint called Clown Alley, which is (was — it’s closed now) a real place. The boys are ambushed in their hotel room; the villains tie up Frank and Joe on an Alcatraz to let the tide drown them, then check them out of their hotel and steal their stuff to make it seem like the brothers left town on their own.

Frank and Joe escape their bonds, of course, although they are arrested by the Coast Guard for trespassing on government property. This isn’t their first arrest for a federal crime: They were arrested for robbing a mail plane in the original Great Airport Mystery (#9). Unlike in GAM, where Frank and Joe had to get bailed out by a pair of rich men, Fenton’s word — over the telephone! — is enough to spring the boys. Fenton tells the boys their case is “getting out of control” (86). He makes no attempt to help or rein the boys in, though. Have fun fighting against desperate criminals three thousand miles from home, boys!

Having nowhere else to go and for some reason being unwilling to leverage the hotel’s complicity in the theft of their belongings into new accommodations, the boys impose on the Glasses. Mr. Glass and Nina immediately take Frank and Joe to a barbecue. There, they decide to take a balloon ride — of course there’s a hot-air balloon at the barbecue; isn’t there always? — but as they wait in the basket while the pilot’s getting a lemonade, the balloon is cut loose. Joe acts like a total newb during the flight even though the brothers have flown in balloons in The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46) and The Clue of the Hissing Serpent (#53). While floating through the air with the greatest of difficulty, they think they spot Nightmare at McCord’s ranch.

The balloon’s owner’s lawyer threatens to sue them for theft, but Joe threatens to sue them right back. The threats of lawsuits go out the window when the lawyer realizes he’s talking to the Hardy brothers, and he helps them get back to the mysterious horse. (When they try to figure out whether it’s really Nightmare, they realize they don’t know the ID number tattooed inside its lip. They don’t ask for it later, though.) After returning to the ranch with the Glasses, they find the horse has been moved. Frank realizes it has been moved to Wind Ridge, but even though they confirm Ardyce owns that ranch, no one crumbles at their accusations.

After their failures, Frank and Joe stick around for the Santa Rosa Cup, where the Glasses spot a horse owned by McCord that looks exactly like Nightmare. To secure a blood sample to prove the horse’s paternity, Frank, Joe, and Nina steal the entire horse, using the same method that was used to swipe Nightmare. The plan goes off without a hitch, and with the threat of exposure looming, Ardyce tells reporters McCord stole Nightmare to sell its breeding rights, which Ardyce paid for. (The story of Alydar gives an idea of how lucrative breeding rights can be and how that money can drive people to criminal acts.) Ardyce also gets a dig in at the reporters who hounded him: “‘You don’t know [who stole Nightmare], do you? …’ Ardyce was mocking them. ‘It took two young detectives only a week to discover the truth” (146).

McCord is arrested, and Nightmare is restored to the Glasses. As a reward, Ardyce gives Frank and Joe his signature ebony walking stick, which is topped with a solid-gold horse’s head. The Glasses? They give Frank and Joe nothing, although Nina, riding on Nightmare, gives Joe a chance to use the “riding off into the sunset” line.

Frank and Joe will return to San Francisco in Skin & Bones, and Joe will even rent a horse to ride after a car thief in that book. But of course they will never see the Glasses again — they have truly ridden off into the sunset.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Terminal Shock (#102)

Terminal Shock coverIf you’ve read my recap of Dungeon of Doom (#99), you will not be surprised that I enjoyed how Terminal Shock begins: with Joe being a recalcitrant jerk and someone — Phil Cohen, in this case — calling him on it. Joe wants nothing to do with computers, both because he enjoys his ignorance and because he’s on Spring Break and has declared an embargo on learning: “I think it’s illegal to learn anything over vacation” (2-3).

“If you don’t take [computers] seriously, you’re going to be useless as a crime fighter,” Phil says (2), later adding, “Don’t blame me if your detective career goes down the tubes.”

“Hey!” said Joe. “I’ve been great without a computer until now, and I’ll continue to be great.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” said Phil (3). Man, that’s menacing — especially how he leaves it unclear whether he thinks Joe will continue to be great or whether he’s ever been great.

When Joe goes inside, Frank is using a “microcomputer” — ah, don’t ever change, 1990 — and a modem, which emits a “harsh, roaring sound” as it connects with a local BBS. Joe, always someone who will mock what you like, is deliberately obtuse, not understanding any of the technical information Frank tells him and sounding proud of it. When Joe pronounces sysop as “size op,” Frank corrects him: “sizz op” (6). It’s neither, of course: the second s is soft, and it’s “siss op.” I’m beginning to think Frank might be a newbie too, despite his lectures to Joe about BBSs (bulletin board systems) and modems and CPUs. However, he’s right to call Joe “a font of ignorance” (7), and Joe sounds like a fuddy-duddy: “Why can’t you just pick up the phone and talk?” he shouts at his brother when Frank wants to chat with the sysop (10).

Joe’s technophobia is pushed into the background when the mystery actually begins: the BBS’s sysop, Jim Lerner, sends a chat message to Frank, saying that he’s dying. The Hardys rush to Jim’s home, only a few blocks away, and find him unconscious. In his hand is a note saying, “ShE IS ILL” in block letters. (You can see it on the cover.) When the cops arrive, the boys are pushed aside: when they try to tell a cop they’re detectives, he tells them, “And I’m an astronaut. See you on Mars, boys!” (17). You’d think the Bayport Police Department would give their officers a briefing about what to do when they see Frank and Joe — or maybe they have, and sarcastic dismissal is their official policy. But you’d think with all the crimes Frank and Joe help the BPD solve, the cops would be a bit more accommodating …

Frank and Joe aren’t dissuaded, though. The next day, they return to ask Jim’s mom and girlfriend, Becky, if they know anything. As they pull up to Jim’s house, they see a man sneaking out of Jim’s second-story room. Joe gives chase, and even though the thief trips over a convenient rake — classic slapstick — he still escapes Joe. However, Sideshow Bob did drop his ill-gotten goods: a box with two 3 ½" floppy discs. Ah, floppy discs, I remember thee. But I don’t remember them holding much information, and these two discs contain the entirety of Jim’s BBS, including the private e-mails between BBS users. The private info is encrypted, and everyone — including Phil — is impressed by Jim’s cryptographic skills. I, however, am impressed by whatever compression algorithms Jim used to get everything onto two disks, when the capacity of a floppy in those days was 1.44 MB. Not even a megabyte and a half! How did we run anything in those days?

At Bayport General, a doctor tells Frank and Joe that Jim has been poisoned by an experimental toxin, and probably only the person who administered it knows the antitoxin. (Joe naively says, “I thought a poison was a poison,” which is stupid; he surely knew some snakes have more potent venom than others.) Frank and Joe give the discs to Phil to crack, but when they get home, they find a note demanding the discs “or your lives are in danger!” (46). C’mon, dude: you have to make specific threats, or the Hardy Boys won’t take you seriously. (They might not even know what case you’re talking about.) While they and the cops are waiting to make the dropoff, Phil’s workshop is set on fire. Because of his ultra-cool, super-duper fire suppression system, it does no damage, though.

After a brief meeting with Becky at Mr. Pizza, “a favorite hangout for Bayport teenagers” (57), they head to Digital Delights, a computer store where Jim worked. (Digital Delights conjures up a different sort of image in the Internet Age.) There, the brothers meet Jim’s bosses, their only real suspects: the pleasant Larry Simpson and the sour Jerry Sharp. (Larry says Frank and Joe are “celebrities,” while Jerry claims never to have heard of the boys.) Jerry’s prickly personality makes him a suspect; the brothers’ suspicion is increased when they see Jerry talking with the thief, who is posing as a deliveryman. Jerry gives them the wrong name for the thief, which they take a measured response to; usually, they would breaking into Larry’s office or home when given such a pretext, but for some reason, they don’t.

Probably because Larry keeps helping. He lets them paw through Digital Delights’ invoices — they’re selling computers to Canada and Eastern Europe, to the brothers’ amazement — and he explains user names by comparing them to CB handles. This isn’t the only time the Internet has been compared to CB, I think, but it’s strange to think of 21st-century technology being linked to ‘70s culture.

Becky, Phil, Frank, and Joe try to guess Jim’s password, trying social engineering first and then asking other BBS sysops what his password is on their sites in case he reused a password. In a shocking lack of security, many sysops comply, but it doesn’t help. Then Phil realizes the scrap of paper with “ShE IS ILL” has been turned upside down and really means “711 51 345,” which, duh.

That’s the password, of course. In the e-mails, they learn of a “drop” at Cabot Hill; they and the cops foil the handoff, capturing the receiver and recovering a Workwell computer. (The person dropping the computer, who was in a helicopter, escapes.) The BPD asks for Phil’s help looking at the computer and Jim’s disks, showing we weren’t at risk for a BPD: Cyber spinoff. Phil notes new chips have been installed in the Workwell computer.

Frank and Joe poke around at Digital Delights, where a van is loaded with Workwell computers. Frank is pistolwhipped, and the van takes off. Joe and the concussed Frank follow, but they are run off the road. Continuing on to Jerry’s house, they find the van concealed nearby; while they are in the middle of accusing Jerry, Larry interrupts them with a gun. He tells them the entire story: a Canadian lab has developed super computer chips, and he’s using Digital Delights’ orders to smuggle those chips into Eastern Europe. He and his supplier used BBSs to coordinate their movements — poor, na├»ve, unimaginative Frank calls it “the ultimate in privacy” (128) — until Jim accidentally read one of their messages.

Rather than shooting his hostages, Larry hands the poison to Joe and tells him to drink it. Joe instead splashes it into Larry’s mouth. While he’s sputtering and spitting, the brothers overpower him. Still, Larry escapes after Frank reaches into Larry’s glove compartment and gets a mousetrap on his finger for his trouble. That’s some planning from Larry: trapping your glovebox with a mousetrap on the off chance someone will poke around in it.

Expecting Jerry to call the cops — they never ask him to — Frank and Joe pursue in their van; when a helicopter tries to force them off the road, Joe climbs from the speeding van onto the helicopter’s skid, and from there he climbs into the cockpit. He knocks out the pilot before realizing he can’t land the helicopter. The pilot regains enough consciousness to make a hard landing, and the car chase ends nearby when the police show up. (It takes place near Interstate 78, according to the BPD’s Con Riley, which puts Bayport in northern New Jersey, near New York — Newark, Jersey City, Elizabeth, or maybe even as far south as Perth Amboy.)

Everything ends happily: Jim gets the antidote, and Joe agrees to take computer lessons from Phil … but with innuendo: “When Phil’s not looking, I’m going to stick a computer game in his disk drive” (152). Whatever turns you on, Joe — hopefully it turns Phil on as well.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Money Hunt (#101)

 coverSo after Dungeon of Doom, a pretty good (if drawn out too long) book, The Money Hunt is a letdown. I mean, I literally fell asleep while reading it.

Money Hunt begins with Frank and Joe planning the route they will take on their fall vacation trip to Florida with Chet and Biff. I’m not sure how many schools schedule a lengthy fall vacation, but Bayport High School certainly seems like the kind of school to do so. Perhaps they even instituted Fall Break in consideration of the Hardys! Or maybe Frank and Joe aren’t in high school; they don’t mention their education at all.

But their vacation plans are hijacked. Fenton gets a phone call from Steve Johnson, a former police colleague — a lot of Fenton’s old pals are mentioned in this book — who’s having trouble at his Maine lodge. Fenton can’t go because he’s injured his ankle, so he volunteers Frank and Joe without asking them if they want to help. Of course Frank and Joe do, but it is inconsiderate for him not to ask first. Just as Fenton doesn’t consider his sons’ opinions, Frank and Joe don’t consider what Chet and Biff want. For Frank and Joe, mysteries are the most important thing in life. Perhaps they could even establish a mystery-based religion, which would allow them excused absences for mystery-related holidays … the Dixonian Mysteries? No, too meta. The Fentonian Mysteries, perhaps. Mystery religions are well established the world over, although this would take the concept in another direction.

Fenton was injured, not in a life-and-death struggle or because a malefactor got the better of him but because he “lost the suspect … when he tripped over a flower pot and severely sprained his ankle” (3). That’s just sad, Fenton. It’s not like you were running from a tiger, like in The Disappearing Floor (#19), or shot in the leg with a poisoned arrow, like in The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28), or even stabbed by Ranse Hobb, like in The Blackwing Puzzle (#82). (He did sprain his ankle in The Short-Wave Mystery, #24, as well.) C’mon, man.

Fenton describes Maine by quoting from the first line of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” — “murmuring pines and the hemlocks,” not the better known, “This is the forest primeval.” He’s trying to get across the idea that he wishes he could go, but it’s not hard to imagine that’s he’s happier in his own home, lying in bed, napping and reading mystery novels, rather than working at a remote hunting lodge. Especially since Steve Johnson’s troubles are so trivial; someone’s setting animal traps that almost hurt Steve’s lodgers, who have also heard mysterious chainsawing during the night. There are also minor thefts and an ATV-riding ghost, but the latter is too stupid to go into. Also — and this is an aside, not important at all, no no no — thirteen years ago, before Steve bought the lodge, four bank robbers from Boston hid out at the lodge while it was abandoned. Three were caught, but only the fourth knew where the loot was hidden.

No mystery is too trivial for Frank and Joe, as they head to Maine to dive head-first into the Fentonian Mysteries. (Chet and Biff can’t go, for some reason.) They fly over Moosehead Lake — which is a real lake in western Maine — on their way to Mirror Lake, which is not. (Well, a few Mirror Lakes exist in Maine, but none of them are near Moosehead.) As Steve drives them back to the lodge in his jeep, the brakes fail, although rather than cutting the brake line, someone’s removed the brake lining. Certainly a twist on a classic, which I appreciate.

They survive, of course, and Steve’s sure one of his guests is behind his problems. Joe tells him they’ll solve the mystery if he can keep his cool: “A happy innkeeper …” Joe starts, and Steve finishes, “Keeps his head?” (38). Is that a proverb? I’ve never heard it, and Google shrugs when I ask it. In fact, Google doesn’t find any proverbs beginning with “a happy innkeeper.”

Let’s keep our heads as well — let’s examine … the suspect pool!

  • Mr. Burns, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Buckley: The Three Bs are “middle-aged businessmen from Providence” (38), but they’re evasive about what their business is.
  • Arthur and Adele Ackerly: She’s a champion trap and skeet shooter, trying out hunting live game for the first time. She’s also a talker; her husband rarely gets a word in edgewise.
  • Len Randle and Mike Mallory: Len says he’s a writer for Outdoor Life magazine on his first assignment, while Mike is his photographer
  • Mr. Peters and Mr. Fletcher: Peters is an elderly man who has come to Maine to watch birds. Fletcher is his assistant and caregiver.

The usual shenanigans occur. The ATV ghost, a figure in white joyriding on the lodge’s ATV, rides by Frank and Joe and scares them into falling into the shallow end of Mirror Lake. Someone throws a hunting knife at Joe, and Adele Ackerly seems the only reasonable suspect. A dummy is left in the fridge with a note warning the boys off. When the boys dispose of it, Len Randle thinks it’s a body and calls 9-1-1. (Joe calls 9-1-1 back and cancels the order for police, which is exactly what a murderer would try to do while he murders more people.) Randle then admits he’s trying to sell an article to a supermarket tabloid, In the Know, rather than an outdoors magazine.

Frank and Joe summon Biff and Chet, and for some reason, the chums are now available. (It’s Frank and Joe’s first full day at the lodge, just 24 hours or so after they left Bayport; why couldn’t Chet and Biff have traveled with them?) While Frank and Joe are poking their noses into everyone’s cabins and the grounds, Frank is locked in a burning shed and is saved by Steve’s handyman, Willy.

When Frank and Joe try to follow the Three Bs, the brothers notice someone has moved the trail markers. More importantly, they literally run into a net trap, and they are saved only by a Chester ex machina: the helicopter Chet and Biff have rented to make it to the lodge flies near them, and Joe uses his red scarf — a not-very-well-made gift from Iola — to flag them down. Fenton managed to get Chet and Biff to Maine quickly by calling on one of his old friends who runs a commuter service, so the two arrive in time to save Frank and Joe’s bacon. Fenton also sends information on the bank robbery, dug up by another old friend at the Bayport Times.

Chet and Biff pretend not to know Frank and Joe. Chet takes on the persona of a worldly hiker, telling everyone about his walking tours in Africa and the Canadian Rockies. His friends give Chet stick for his tales, but he has been to sub-Saharan Africa (in Revenge of the Desert Phantom, #84), and he has been to the Canadian Rockies (in The Mystery at Devil’s Paw, #38). He’s not lying, fellows. But when he and Biff dress up for hiking later, Joe says Chet and Biff look like “an ad for L.L. Bean” (104) in their new hiking gear.

After an attack on Burns by “a ghost,” Frank and Joe use the information Fenton provided to figure out the Three Bs are the paroled bank robbers. Once they reach that conclusion, the real villains — not the Three Bs — move quickly, cutting off the lodge’s radio and telephone communication with the outside world. The kids follow various suspects into the wilderness, but Biff and Chet lose their quarry quickly, and Joe has to turn back when Frank is menaced by a bear. (Bears were common threats in the canon, appearing in seven books. Seven! And the Hardys were threatened by all sorts of bears: black, brown, grizzly, and polar. This one’s a brown bear.)

One thing Franklin W. Dixon has never before tried to pull off as a threat to the Hardys was a deer, but that happens in Money Hunt. After recovering from the bear attack, the Hardys and Biff find Chet tied to a tree, with a buck with a “magnificent rack” (121) standing near him. (The buck is described as a six-pointer; I’m assuming the writer is from a state that counts only one side of the rack, which means the deer could have also been described as a more impressive 12-point buck.) Fortunately, the Hardys, Biff, and the Ackerlys frighten it away by using the advanced wilderness technique of “moving closer.” Before it flees, everyone except Fletcher and Peters gathers around, lured by what is evidently the only deer in Maine. Pooling mental resources, they figure out Peters is the remaining bank robber in heavy disguise.

Now, Frank and Joe have been slow on the uptake not to realize this; that’s not unusual. But Frank … he’s supposed to be the smart one, and he’s been frequently wrong in Money Hunt. He misidentifies the capital of Maine as Portland. He believes the sun sets in the northwest in autumn in Maine. (The book doesn’t correct him on this; that he believes this is supposed to be part of his wilderness lore, and it helps him get his bearings.) He doesn’t realize the musical scale doesn’t include “H.” C’mon, Frank: you’re supposed to be better than this!

When the Hardys return from their forest powwow, they find Peters and Fletcher (an electrical engineer and poacher who found the dying Peters thirteen years before) stealing a float plane. Frank and Joe are kidnapped, of course. Once aloft, Fletcher attaches a device to the plane that will aim it right at the lodge and kill everyone inside (plus Frank and Joe). The two villains, who have the stolen bank loot, will escape to Canada in the confusion. After the villains abandon ship, Frank and Joe loosen their bonds enough so that they can nudge the controls, and the plane miraculously makes an uneventful water landing. (Well, it would be a miracle in the real world. Frank expects it.)

Everyone goes back to the lodge for dinner for a celebratory dinner. The criminals aren’t caught, although Frank and Joe are sure they will be: their electrical boat engine wasn’t charged, and the authorities have been alerted. After all, what are the chances that two men who eluded a search thirteen years ago in the Maine woods could do it again?

Interestingly, Peters might be in the clear for the original bank robbery; the federal statute of limitations is only five years, and the Massachusetts statute of limitations is only 10 years. However, there’s a catch: the statute of limitations is paused (“tolled”) if the accused is not a resident or is in hiding within the state. So depending on how Peters spent the time, he might have been untouchable for the crime!

I kinda hope he gets away with everything. Good luck to you, ATV ghost!