Friday, July 29, 2016

Day of the Dinosaur (#128)

Day of the Dinosaur coverBayport has a lot of old mansions, and most of them are abandoned. (It certainly seems that way, at least.) In the original canon, Frank and Joe encountered nine abandoned Bayport showplaces — that’s one every nine (or so) books! The ratio is even greater if we consider the mysteries set primarily in Bayport.

When Simon & Schuster took over the series, it curtailed the amount of time Frank and Joe spent around large, derelict buildings; Cold Cash Caper (#136) had an abandoned mansion, and Warehouse Rumble (#183) takes place in a formerly deserted warehouse, but that about all I’ve run into so far. Day of the Dinosaur is mostly set in an old, Bayport-area mansion — but the Sackville mansion, located on the outskirts of Bayport, isn’t just rotting away. Instead, it’s being refurbished into a prehistory museum, focusing on dinosaurs, and the money for doing so was left by old man Sackville. Let’s hear it for superior estate planning!

Frank and Joe visit the museum, which is about two weeks from opening, to see the animatronic dinosaurs. When I say “visit,” I mean “trespass,” but fortunately they meet their old friend Sally Jenkins, whose father is a detective who worked with Fenton. (Mr. Jenkins was never mentioned in the canon.) Sally is an assistant exhibitions director at the museum, scrambling to get the museum ready in time for its opening. She’s more than happy to have Frank and Joe volunteer, which they do because they like to get access to all the coolest stuff in Bayport and aren’t afraid to use their connections to do so.

What follows is an odd mystery; Frank and Joe have no client, not even by their nebulous “amateur” standards, and no one gets arrested at the end. I don’t know if those two things make Day of the Dinosaur unique, but it’s certainly unusual.

Before they get hired as unpaid gofers, Frank and Joe get a tour from Sally. She shows them the museum’s prize exhibit, a 15,000-year-old clay sculpture of a buffalo from southern France, which I thought was nonsense — clay sculptures that old? — but it turns out to be a real thing. (Shows what I know.) They also meet Dan Parker, who has created the Dinobots, and his rival, academic paleontologist Carl Lubski; Dr. Clarence Smith, the museum director; and Tom Smedly, the head custodian.

How do Frank and Joe get to spend the week working at the museum during the school year? You’ll be surprised to know they aren’t out of school because of some breakdown in the school’s physical plant or some vague administrative holiday … well, they’re not out of school all day because of vague administrative holiday; the first day they work, they have to go to school for only a couple of hours because of “some teacher’s meeting” (10), while on subsequent days they get out early because their last scheduled class is study hall.

Frank and Joe’s support staff is largely missing in this book. Chet, for some unspecified reason, is grounded, and the rest of the gang isn’t mentioned. For most of the book, Fenton is out late / gone early working on a case. Gertrude is in Arizona, visiting “an old friend,” although I think we all know she doesn’t have friends, just people she’s known for a while and doesn’t hate. However, Laura, that perpetual non-entity, is around to cook meals for the boys. She gets no lines, but this is the first time I can remember her appearing in a book in a long time. I can’t even remember a digest I’ve covered this year in which Laura does as much as she does in Dinosaur.

Despite no actual mystery presenting itself, Frank and Joe can’t stay out of trouble. Joe gets a jolt of electricity while trying out Parker’s virtual reality helmet without permission; I thought it was a security feature, but it turns out to be a short in the system. Well, serves you right, Joe. Smedly almost drops a light fixture on Frank’s head — and more importantly, almost on the buffalo sculpture. It’s at this point the Hardys suspect a mystery, although this seems unjustifiable paranoia: by now, Frank and Joe should be used to electrical shocks and heavy objects almost falling on their heads. These things should be second nature to them; Frank is certainly no Flitcraft.

Still, weird things keep happening. A Dinobot picks up Joe in its mouth, and only Frank’s quick thinking saves the day. Parker blames Lubski, saying he must have sabotaged and reprogrammed the Dinobot, but Lubski has shown no programming experience. (Still, it turns out he did do it as a prank.) Lubski can’t be blamed completely, as the Dinobot attacked after Parker and Joe were trying to repair a problem with the Dinobot still on. That has to be an workplace safety violation of some sort.

Lubski almost gets stepped on by a Dinobot the following day — a definite accident, but one that prompts a bit of investigatory B&E from the boys. For some reason, they break into Lubski’s lab. Although Frank and Joe are acting like criminals, I am happy to see Frank uses the proper tool for the job this time: lock picks. (For some reason, Frank didn’t have to go to the van to get them; he just had his lock-picking tool in his pocket.) They find nothing of interest, other than Lubski and Parker having different theories about dinosaur extinction.

The day after that, the bison gets chipped when a wheel falls off the dolly Smedly was using to move it; the sculpture has to be taken to the restoration shed. After work, Joe follows Smedly and discovers him visiting the tony home of Raymond Casada, a name that means nothing to either Hardy boy. Later, the brothers break into the museum, eluding the worst security guard ever. They discover Smedly’s personnel file is missing and spot a figure sabotaging a Dinobot, but the intruder flees before he can do any real damage.

Fenton’s on the couch with Laura when the boys get home, but Frank and Joe don’t ask him if he knows anything about Casada or any criminal connections he might have. Because why fall back on such expert resources? Fortunately Sally clues them in later: he’s a “wealthy antiques dealer … suspected of dealing in forgeries and stolen artifacts” (111).

While Frank and Joe are unloading roof tiles the next day, an unattended Dinobot rampages through the restoration shed. Joe prevents it from running into the lake, but the shed — and the bison sculpture inside — are ruined. Smith quickly sweeps up the sculpture’s remains and double bags them, sealing in that prehistoric goodness. Smedly was injured by the Dinobot, but from the wounds, the Hardys suspect he started the Dinobot and aimed it at the shed. He’s taken to Bayport General by concerned roofers; one of them says, “I’ve had plenty of concussions myself. I know how the guy feels” (108). Plenty! Maybe concussions are just something that happens around Bayport — you’re not a man until you get your first one.

Frank and Joe avoid a concussion on their way home when their van is run off the road. “Not another dent on that side [passenger] of the van,” Joe says (115), blithely ignoring the possibility they could have been killed or seriously injured. They think they recognize Smedly’s pickup as the one that hit them, and the driver, although wearing a ski mask, was also wearing Smedly’s bandanna, or one like it. This, of course, makes Smedly one of the dumbest criminals the Hardys have faced. Couldn’t he at least have stolen a truck to run them off the road?

Now the boys know something’s up. They break into the museum again to get a sample of the destroyed buffalo sculpture, but they find Parker is a step ahead of them. The next day — Saturday — a friend of Parker’s examines the fragment, and she declares it a fake. Somehow they convince Sally to approach Casada as a buyer, but while she and Frank discuss matters with Casada, Joe sneaks into Casada’s office. He’s caught, but he manages to find a receipt for the buffalo, made out to Smith. I have to say I’m disappointed in Casada; he should have had his butler / thug punch Joe a few times or at least intimidate him. But no: all three fakers are politely escorted to the door. I think Burn Notice has led me to expect too much of such criminals.

Sally, Parker, and the boys set a trap: they convince Lubski to tell Smith that he thinks the sculpture was a phony. That night, they find Smith in the process of burying the shards under concrete on the museum’s grounds. (I’m not sure what staff would have made of the sudden appearance of a patch of concrete on the museum grounds, but after the shards are entombed, Smith wouldn’t care.) Smith confesses he unwisely purchased a fake with the museum’s money and blackmailed Smedly, who had lied about his job experience and competence, into destroying the fake. Smedly was as competent at destruction as he was at his job, though, and things spiraled out of control.

That’s where matters are left; the police are not involved, and crime triumphs! The museum trundles toward its opening with a new director. Smedly vanishes. Smith resigns and heads for a tropical vacation. And Casada isn’t mentioned at all, meaning he gets away with peddling a forgery. Great work, Frank and Joe!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mystery on Makatunk Island (#125)

Mystery on Makatunk Island coverThe Hardy Boys are heading back to Maine in Mystery on Makatunk Island.

We’ve been to Maine with the Hardys before, although the state has been mentioned as a vacation destination as often as it has been shown as one. Frank, Joe, and Chet went whitewater rafting in Maine in The Roaring River Mystery (#80), and that book claimed the brothers had gone backpacking in Maine before. Mystery of Smugglers Cove (#64) claims the brothers hiked the Appalachian Trail a few weeks before; perhaps the two books referred to the same event. In The Secret Agent on Flight 101, the boys went to a deserted Maine island with the coordinates 44 degrees, 18' 10" north, 68 degrees 23' west to look for Fenton. (An island, Mt. Desert Island, is located at those coordinates, but even though those coordinates are part of Acadia National Park, that’s the island with Bar Harbor on it and not a deserted island. Many small islands are located near Mt. Desert Island, though.) In addition, Fenton took Laura to Maine for a vacation in the original While the Clock Ticked (#11).

[EtA: I forgot Frank, Joe, Chet, and Biff went to Maine to investigate in The Money Hunt (#101). Oops! Money Hunt featured plenty of hiking, of course. ]

Frank, Joe, and Chet are headed to Chet’s aunt’s vacation home on Makatunk Island. This aunt — Emma Morton — hasn’t been mentioned before. Chet (and his sister, Iola) have an unnamed aunt and uncle in Los Angeles, mentioned in Mystery of the Desert Giant (#40); an uncle (Tyler Morton), who is a big-game hunter, according to The Wailing Siren Mystery (#30); and another uncle, Jim Kenyon, who is an art instructor in The Haunted Fort (#44). (In a sort-of callback to Haunted Fort, Chet does a little painting while on Makatunk. Haunted Fort is not referenced, though.) Additionally, two cousins have been traipsed their way into the series: William “Bill” Morton, who appears in the original Sinister Sign Post (#15), and Vern Nelson, who lives with his sister in Montreal in The Vanishing Thieves (#66) because his parents have died. Emma must be on his dad’s side, like Uncle Tyler, but the story doesn’t mention whether Emma is Chet’s aunt by blood or marriage.

Emma lives in “the city” — presumably the same one the Tick lives in. She hasn’t been able to rent her island vacation home, so the boys are allowed to use it for a week. But of course Makatunk Island is having trouble — vandalism, like broken windows and destroyed lobster traps — and the tourist trade is drying up. People aren’t coming to see the island’s natural beauty, visit its art galleries, or even to gawk at the home of famous artist Kent Halliwell. (Never heard of her? Don’t worry. She’s fictional. I don’t know who she’s based on, although I will wildly guess P. Buckley Moss, even though their landscapes they paint are hundreds of miles apart.) I’m not sure how famous Halliwell really is, though; when a few of her paintings are stolen, the owner of the gallery they were taken from estimates they were each worth “a few thousand dollars” (59), which doesn’t sound that much for an incredibly famous artist.

Makatunk Island is reminiscent of Mt. Desert Island and Mackinac Island, Mich. Like Mackinac Island, there are art galleries, no cars, an old shipwreck just offshore, and a single island inn. (The name “Makatunk” is more than reminiscent of Mackinac as well.) Like Makatunk, Mackinac Island can be reached only by ferry, although it doesn’t take as long to reach Mackinac. However, Mt. Desert Island is more or less in the right place geographically and is big enough to have large forested tracts for tourists to explore. The population of Makatunk seems more similar to Mackinac Island (population 492) than Mt. Desert Island (population 10,615).

Like pretty much all locals around a tourist destination, though, the people of Makatunk Island have a love / hate relationship with tourists. The visitors are a pain in the tuchus, but without them, the community would be impoverished.

Anyway, Frank and Joe can’t resist the opportunity to investigate, and the criminals oblige them by continuing their crimes right in front of the boys. The sheriff’s boat, for instance, is sabotaged and starts sinking while Frank and Joe are discussing matters with the sheriff. (The sheriff doesn’t seem very good at his job, hemming and hawing, threatening that he might maybe do his job sometimes right soon.) The lobster traps turn up as kindling at the local hotel. Frank and Joe find a vial marked “salmonella” at the shipwreck; they turn it over to the sheriff

At supper that night, Frank and Chet go wild about the fresh halibut, keeping up their habit of eating seafood only outside of Bayport’s crime-polluted waters, but Joe says, “I’m not crazy about fish” and orders the vegetarian platter instead. Two other tourists at the table order the vegetarian platter, with one of them saying, “It sounds very good.” Given that the description of the vegetarian platter was limited to the words “vegetarian platter,” that’s a strange thing to say, but it turns out it’s a plot point rather than a weird Dixonism. Then, in a scene reminiscent of Airplane, people begin suffering from stomach pains, and according to a passing doctor, “Everyone who ate the fish is as sick as a dog” (68). My mind supplies a flash of lightning and a peal of thunder. Surely he can’t be serious!

Frank and Chet are not immune to salmonella; fortunately, the two seem to get hit by abdominal cramps and avoid the bloody, sudden onset diarrhea, nausea, and fever. It turns out someone took the salmonella from the sheriff’s house and liberally dosed the halibut. While Frank is sick, Joe is lured to a late-night meeting by the promise of information about Halliwell’s stolen paintings, but the roof of the shack he was supposed to meet in is dropped on him. He survives, somehow. Frank deduces it wasn’t an accident, which is the top-flight detective work we’ve come to expect in this series.

The Hardys endure more attacks — an arrow fired at Joe, their ropes cut while they rapelled down a cliff (the narration makes it clear they were rock climbing, not rappelling, but the danger is the same) — before finding a map that shows a corporation is trying to buy up the island to construct a resort. We should have known it: developers are the natural enemy of natural places. The two guys who ordered the vegetarian plate are the developers’ emissaries, but who are they working with? The too-committed environmentalist hippie? The chiseling man-for-hire with tax problems and a grudge against the sheriff? Kent Halliwell, who has vicious dogs she doesn’t treat well? The owner of the inn, who also doesn’t like the sheriff? Frank tries to find out by following the two men, but he’s chloroformed, and Joe later finds him sprawled in the middle of the road. He’s all right, Frank says: “I was chloroformed, that’s all” (111). No one, I think, has ever said that before.

It’s none of these suspects, though. You might have noticed the sheriff isn’t all that well liked, and he’s not all that competent. Turns out his incompetence was planned! (Also: It might be innate.) He tells Frank and Joe that authorities on the mainland want him to take the investigation even more slowly. When the brothers ask to talk to his superiors themselves, he says the island is incommunicado because an incoming storm has knocked out the telephones. Shockingly, the Hardys — amateur radio users from way back — do not think to ask about ham radios. The Hardys! Forgetting ham radios!

Further casting doubt on the author’s attention to detail is the description of Fenton as “a high-ranking police detective back in Bayport” (132). Oh, dear.

Frank and Joe, in order to save Chet, also burst in on the sheriff and his two co-conspirators and … and … and beat up all three. That’s something Frank and Joe almost never do in the books: defeat a numerically superior foe. At the end of a book, with allies rushing in to make up the numbers, they can take an equal number of combatants, but never do they overcome superior numbers. They do here, though, and Joe even disarms a guy with a rifle! Frank breaks the wrist of the sheriff with a karate kick! It’s wild and violent and I kinda like it.

For saving the island, the locals reward Chet and the Hardys. Finally. I’d had enough of this “goodness of their hearts” crap, or “for the kicks” motivation. The hippie gives them a pair of carved wooden acorns — well, it’s the thought that counts — and the inn’s owner gives the entire island a free meal and tells the boys to consider the inn “your home away from home” (147). (It’s unclear whether that means free accommodations or if it’s just a marketing slogan.) The surly chiseler promises to stop chiseling them, for a while. Most importantly, Kent Halliwell gives them a “matted watercolor” (147) of a forest on the island. That painting was worth several thousand in 1994; it could be worth double several thousand now!

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Robot's Revenge (#123)

The Robot’s Revenge coverThe title and cover to The Robot’s Revenge are really disappointing. Before you get too excited, no robots take revenge or attempt to take revenge in this book. If you were hoping for man-vs.-android carnage, or a robot cleverly subverting Asimov’s three laws of robotics, well, sorry. I know: I’m just as disappointed as you are. And although I really wished this cover was an homage to The Terminator, with the German shepherd-typedog snarling at the cybernetic organism, but the scene actually appears in the book. (More or less; I don’t think the book mentions Joe’s sweater, although looking at that picture, it definitely should have.)

I’ve mentioned Joe having stupid hobbies / jobs before, but The Robot’s Revenge proves Frank can have a wildly improbable hobby himself. In this case, it’s inventing, as he and Phil Cohen team up to create Roger the Lobber, a robot that can retrieve and serve tennis balls. (It’s also modular; it can fit in a traveling case, but this isn’t particularly seen as a positive as much as it’s a necessity for transport.)

Frank, Joe, and Phil fly into Chicago, which would have … well, not thrilled me, but it would have interested me as a child. I grew up in southern Illinois, more than 300 miles from Chicago, but knowing the Hardy Boys at least visited the state I lived in would have been cool. Admittedly, they have visited Chicago in other books: the original Hunting for Hidden Gold (#5), The Mystery at Devil’s Paw (#38), Mystery of the Desert Giant (#40), and The Shattered Helmet (#52). But Chicago was always a stopover for the Hardys, where they switched trains (Hidden Gold) or planes (the other three), never a destination.

The trio exhibit their robot at the fictional Cahill College along with the rest of the finalists in the Teen Inventors’ Club. Of course they name it something boring and descriptive like “Teen Inventors’ Club” and not something fun like “Junior Edisons (or Teslas) of America.” Still, the prize for winning the contest is a college scholarship. That’s something Frank and Joe have absolutely no use for, although I suppose Phil might have plans to go to college. I mean, he’s never going to be allowed to age that much, but it’s nice to have dreams.

Phil’s in fine fettle to begin the book; when he forgets where he stored a component and remembers only at the last moment, Joe shouts at him, but Phil shrugs in response. You’re not the boss of me, Joe Hardy, that shrug says, which is true: Joe’s a tagalong and not really an inventor. Unfortunately, Phil gets shoved to the side to make semi-googly eyes at female rivals and man the booth while Frank and Joe get to investigate.

After an argument with competitor Megan Sweetwater, in which she accuses the Hardys and Phil of invention theft / sabotage and the boys accuse her of siccing her dog on them, Roger the Lobber is stolen. Very little is done about the theft; a security guard tells them he’s the person they need to report the crime to, but “there’s nothing I can do until tomorrow” (24). (This is at about 5 p.m.) At least Frank and Phil could have complained more; Megan complains loudly and seems to get results, but the Hardys let it go. You’d think Cahill College would have campus cops, or the TIC would take burglary seriously enough to call in real cops, but only security guards are involved.

Oh, and the Hardys, of course, but no one in Chicago takes the Hardys seriously. That’s because they don’t invoke their credentials, either as “amateur” PIs or as Fenton Hardy’s sons. The security guard calls them “troublemakers” (82). Ari Zorba, the head of the competition, thinks the Hardys are a complication he doesn’t need, and after they report another competitor’s misconduct, says he hopes he doesn’t see the brothers again. He also accuses the boys of “grandstanding” (90), which is an unusual accusation against Frank and Joe. A Chicago PD detective, Det. Novello, keeps shooing them from a crime scene. As with a lot of other mysteries, what Frank and Joe are left to do is badger other people.

What are they badgering the people at TIC about? Two things: Someone is after Megan’s invention, a “radio-control leash” (17), and someone tried to kill one of the judges, Nicholas Makowski, by using a remote controller to fire an arrow at him during a cruise on the Chicago River. The arrow missed, but Makowski fell in the river, and Joe had to rescue him. Being in the Chicago River is dangerous enough without the risk of drowning; the river was heavily polluted until beautification efforts in the 1990s. Still, in 1993, it’s likely the river was still contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals, and garbage; heck, the river has too much poop bacteria even today.

I would have demanded an immediate shower after saving someone from the cold, dirty waters of the Chicago River, but Joe toughs it out, just changing his clothes. Joe’s on a macho kick for some reason in Robot’s Revenge; later in the book, after he’s knocked out, stuffed in a closet, and pricked with an arrow, he lies to a doctor about his headache and bump on his head because “doctors always told you to get plenty of rest” (87). I’m not sure why this would concern Joe, since he could ignore it — just like usual. Frank thinks Joe’s decisions are based on Joe having “been in so many scrapes, he knew his own limits” (36). Actually, it’s because Joe is too stupid or too addled to realize the damage being done to his brain. He’s also too addle-minded to accept when a bunch of girls want to dance with him at a TIC reception. C’mon, Joe! I live vicariously through you! …

… Oh. I, uh, didn’t really mean that. It’s, uh, a joke. Ha!

Meanwhile, someone wants Megan’s radio-control leash, which is essentially the same as those invisible fences people put in their yards, except the doggie gets zapped if he strays too far from whoever wears a special belt. That someone tried to buy the invention from Megan before she left New Mexico, then they threatened her, planted her dog’s hairs in the device that fired the arrow at Makowski, and stuffed her into a rocket in the Science and Industry Museum after she reached Chicago.

The Hardys are divided about whether she attacked the judge — Joe (and Phil) say no, but Frank’s not sure. (Phil pulls a total Chet by keeping Megan informed about the investigation as it’s going on.) Megan’s worried someone will steal her device before she can patent it. Well, why didn’t she start the patent process before she left the contest? And she doesn’t need a prototype to patent the leash; according to the US Patent Office, she needs only drawings or a specification (a description that will allow an engineer-type person make and use the patented object). Most patents are complex enough to need drawings, but Megan has them!

While investigating, the Hardys get a couple of their competitors disqualified. Byron Paige, whom Frank publicly humiliates by correcting him on basic astronomy, is disqualified from the contest after the Hardys show he stole Roger the Lobber and reprogrammed him. Yueh Chu is disqualified after the Hardys establish his alibi when Makowski was attacked; he drove home to St. Louis with judge (and classmate) Tanya Zane, which constitutes improper help from a judge. (Tonya’s earlier evasions made it sound like they were doing something far more interesting, perhaps in a bedroom somewhere.)

That’s a shame: Yueh seemed like he had a little fire. When Megan accuses him of impropriety, he retorts with, “Why, you little —” (89). What was he going to call her? My mind drifts into the obscene, of course, but dozens of more family-safe insults could be inserted there.

After the leash is stolen by blowing the hotel safe with explosives, Megan and the boys head to a laser show at Sears Tower, where someone reprograms the lasers to say, “HARDYS! YOU’RE NOT WANTED HERE! GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN!” (103). It’s impractical, but I can’t deny that it’s the best medium for a warning message ever. Very 1990s of the crook (Byron, in this case).

With all the suspects out of the way, the Hardys find a note indicating Megan has been lured into exchanging her drawings for the leash. Even though they have the address for the exchange, Frank and Joe take her dog to find her … How do they get Megan’s dog? Glad you asked! Before asking for the dog, they pound on the counter and tell a hotel desk clerk, “Look, there’s no time to explain” (124). I wonder if that will work for me? “Look, there’s no time to explain, but I need everything in the hotel safe. Hey, I know none of it belongs to me, and I’m not even staying here, but there’s no time to explain.”

Before heading out, they tell Makowski to call the cops; he responds, “Don’t worry … I know just how to handle [the police] (125), which is an odd thing to say. Anyway, they find Megan under a heavy trapdoor near the waterfront address on the note. Before they can bring her out, the door is shut, and the river starts rushing into the basement they’re trapped in as Megan’s dog yelps in pain. They struggle with the door, but eventually they add some basic competence to their mighty moose muscles and escape. The dog has been tranquilized but is basically OK. (Also: I don’t think Megan is mentioned as white, but given that three wet, bedraggled teenagers with an unconscious dog have no trouble hailing a cab afterwards, I think it’s a safe bet.)

So who’s trying to steal Megan’s invention? Suddenly Frank realizes the cops never arrived. The criminal is Makowski, who faked the attack on himself (and put the dog hairs in the arrow launcher). The pieces come together quickly — Joe realizes Makowski knew about the launcher and arrow, even though he never mentioned them to the judge, and Makowski is a dog breeder and engineer with the connections to make a mint off the leash. They manage to capture Makowski without a hitch, ending the contest.

Unfortunately, Tony and Frank don’t win the contest, nor do any other contestants we’ve read about. It’s just some guy we haven’t heard of. Also, they receive no reward from anyone … although they do get a free meal at a fancy restaurant for being in the room when hotel staff see how badly Megan’s room has been trashed.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Mystery in the Old Mine (#121)

The Mystery in the Old Mine coverThe Mystery in the Old Mine is an old-school title, but it is not an old-school plot. It could be, if it tried, but I think someone decided, “Eh, let’s not get too ambitious here.”

The story begins in Bayport, where Frank and Joe’s weightlifting buddy, Garth Trimmer, has them look into his trashed apartment. Frank and Joe, according to the book, lift seriously in a downtown gym between cases only, but Garth is a mountain of a young man (250 pounds of “solid muscle”), developing the kind of body you only get when you’re constantly reminded you have been named “Garth” by people who ostensibly loved you. Anyway, the only clue Frank and Joe find in Garth’s apartment is a few orange dog hairs, which they are sure were left by the vandal and not left by the apartment’s previous resident.

Soon Garth gets a letter telling him his sister, Liz, has been kidnapped. Her abductors ask for a notebook in exchange for Liz. Which notebook? Nobody knows. Since Liz sent Garth some books recently, the boys surmise the notebook is with those, but they find no trace of it. Their best plan, the boys decide, is to bluff the kidnapper; they inform the sheriff of Ridge City, Penn., where the handoff is supposed to take place, and hope the police can catch the kidnapper.

Despite his friend’s anguish, Joe enjoys the situation: “It was exciting to be on a case again” (13). Heaven protect me from friends like Joe. And from ones like Frank, too: Although they will reach Ridge City with little time to spare if things go right, Frank sets the cruise control to 55 when they reach the open highway. Remember when the speed limit everywhere was 55? Man, that was a long time ago, and no one went 55 then, either. The three boys reach Ridge City in time, but the kidnapper slips the trap, in part because the deputies assigned to capture him are set up in the wrong place and mistake the boys for the kidnappers.

The trip out to Pennsylvania illustrates a key area that Franklin W. Dixons need to be good at but frequently aren’t: friendly banter. In Rock ‘n’ Roll Revenge (#116), Frank, Joe and Chet give each other good-natured ribbing that feels right for teenage boys (albeit in a PG sort of way). But this Dixon can’t get the hang of banter, with Garth and the Hardys spouting nonsensical non-sequiturs in the guise of amusing badinage. C’mon — you have to try harder than Joe saying, “Hey, hold on” and “punching Garth on the shoulder” (15) after Garth’s poor attempt to burn Frank and Joe.

Ridge City, which is located in the center of the state according to Garth, is a stand-in for the real-life coal-mining town of Centralia, Penn. In both towns, a seam of coal caught on fire, and as a result, the ground under the town is burning. Centralia’s coal deposits caught on fire in 1962, although the dangers of the underground fires didn’t become apparent until almost two decades later. In 1980, Centralia’s population was 1,017, down from 1,435 just before the fires in 1960; by 1990, after the state bought out and relocated most of the town, Centralia’s population was 63. Pennsylvania’s governor declared eminent domain on the town in 1992, although court cases delayed that declaration. Today just 10 people live in Centralia; as a result of their court battles with the state, they received about $350,000 and the right to stay in Centralia until they died. The state will take the land when they do.

Ridge City is in an early stage of that dissolution. The coal fire has been burning for less time, but the town is dying, and the government — it’s never declared whether it’s state, county, or federal — is planning to buy out the residents (or maybe just compensate them) and close down the nuclear plant. Why the coal region has a nuclear plant isn’t explained; perhaps the town was embracing its own obsolescence even before the coal fire. The government has made a proposal to the town, and even though the mayor is in favor of it, Liz believes the people deserve more. This has made her unpopular with the local power structure — such as it is — and gives the boys no shortage of suspects for her disappearance.

The person who should be at the top of their list is David Handler, Liz’s on-again, off-again boyfriend. He is so perfect for the role of suspect it is baffling that Frank rejects Handler as suspect so absolutely. Were we as a nation that na├»ve in 1993, that we wouldn’t think to immediately look at the guy who had broken up with a missing girl multiple times? Or is Frank just stupid? I’m thinking the latter, but I don't remember 1993 as well as I used to. For his part, Garth vouches for Handler, but he also thinks central Pennsylvania is “outside of Pittsburgh” (46), so maybe his perspective is skewed.

Still, Frank authorizes an investigatory B&E at Handler’s home. They find a golden retriever, whose fur roughly matches the hairs found in Garth’s apartment, and letters from Handler to Liz. One of them says, “You make me want to kill you sometimes, Liz Trimmer, as much as I love you” (66). This is deeply disturbing, and whether he did anything Liz, his protestations that he loves her should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. In fact, if Garth doesn’t tell his sister to stay far away from Handler, he’s not a very good sibling.

Eventually, the boys discover Liz wasn’t kidnapped; she disappeared to investigate some shenanigans going on in Ridge City, hoping to get the residents a larger government payout. Oh, yeah, and justice, I suppose. Can’t forget the justice. Or “justice.” The “kidnapper,” as it turns out, was using Liz’s disappearance to get some sort of evidence she had gathered.

Liz worked at the local nuclear power plant, which is having unreported accidents. (Frank and Joe are no strangers to nuclear power plant problems; they were at the Bayridge Nuclear Power Plant during an accident — an earthquake, specifically — in The Infinity Clue [#70].) The boys think it’s plausible that Liz was investigating the plant, especially when the head of the plant and technicians give them the brushoff while they’re dealing with the accident. (I wouldn’t want a bunch of teenagers around while I repaired a malfunction at a nuclear plant.)

The search for Liz turns to the abandoned mine tunnels beneath Ridge City. It’s a crime it takes more than half the book to get to them; I can’t imagine a more atmospheric and dangerous environment for the Hardys to investigate. A mine is a dirty, dangerous place, but this book doesn’t take advantage of it in the way that the early Hardy Boys book would have. When the boys are down there, they don’t suffer from the noxious gasses that should be released by the burning fire, and their only real difficulty is when a wall falls on Joe. Rescue crews dig him out without much trouble, and when he realizes Joe is safe, Garth “let out a howl of relief” (93). I’m having trouble figuring out what that would sound like; at the moment, I’m leaning toward a cross between a wolf howl and a sigh.

No closer to finding Liz or her fake kidnapper, Joe briefly suspects Ridge City’s mayor, who wants to accept the current government payoff and considers Liz an annoyance. Her big-city wardrobe and coiffure makes his detective sense twitch: “He observed … her neat suit and her perfectly styled hair. Could she be ambitious enough to have threatened Liz?” (101). Since she has no real power, she’s eventually rejected.

Frank is annoyed by the sheriff, who wants to briefly stop searching the mine tunnels for Liz because of things like “rest,” “food,” and “safety.” The sheriff invites Garth and the Hardys to look for themselves. While they are down in the mine, they are almost run over by a mine train. They suspect Handler, but when they catch up with him, he provides a note from Liz telling him she was going to vanish. Later, through the power of luck, instilled in him through the Fentonian mysteries, Joe finds barrels of hazardous waste. The kids and Handler walk away from the barrels that night, presumably whistling, figuring the police have probably closed for the night. By the time Frank and Joe come back the next morning, with the promise of FBI agents to follow, almost all of the barrels are gone.

Luckily, they find Liz. Unluckily, the villains — the sheriff, the head of the nuclear plant, and most importantly, their guns — find Liz and the Hardys. Frank is clubbed unconscious, then he, Joe, and Liz are tied to the train and aimed at the underground fire. Fortunately, they free themselves and stop the train before they crash, or burn, or succumb to carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide poisoning. They reverse the train and quickly run down (not literally) the villains, who have forgotten they had weapons.

All is set right! Somehow, the hazardous waste dumping has made the unlivable Ridge City even more unlivable, so the people of Ridge City will get a bigger payout. I would have thought that subsidence and poisonous gasses from an underground fire would be enough to total the real estate, but what do I know? Liz got more money from the federal government, although that’s according to the nuclear regulator who was shocked — shocked! — at the malfeasance at the plant. Of course she’s going to say Ridge City is going to get more money.

That will make the people of Ridge City happy, giving her more time to get to a country without an extradition treaty before the head of the nuclear plant swears there’s no way he could have dumped hazardous waste without the regulator’s help.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Trouble at Coyote Canyon (#119)

Trouble at Coyote Canyon coverAs Trouble at Coyote Canyon begins, Frank and Joe are flying into Durango, Colo., to help Mike Preston protect his horseback tour business, Teen Trails West, from “accidents.” How do Frank and Joe know Mike? Well, they don’t — Doug Newman, the windsurfer / meathead from Wipeout (#96) has recommended the brothers to Mike. How does a windsurfer in France know a guy running a wilderness tourism business in southwestern Colorado? “Apparently, they’re old friends,” Frank says (2), showing as much interest in how the two men are linked as I do.

I’m more interested in how recommendations work in the digests. Frank and Joe rarely get paid — they don’t get paid here — so what do people need to say to get their endangered friends and loved ones to “hire” Frank and Joe? If your business is about to go under, as Mike contends his is, then what’s to lose by giving a free tour to a couple of kids who believe they can help? I suppose they need someone to get their name to the person in trouble; Trouble at Coyote Canyon came out in 1993, when an Internet search on “free teenage detectives” would have been impossible.

(Speaking of 1993: at one point, a character says a guy he knew thought the Anasazi tribe disappeared because they were taken away by aliens. That’s a theory mentioned by Fox Mulder of the X-Files, which debuted in fall 1993.)

On the other hand, Frank and Joe must be well known: when they reveal their roles on the tour to their fellow campers, one of them says, “You mean you’re that Frank and Joe Hardy? … The detectives? I’ve read all about your famous cases!” (140). I suppose it could be that Frank and Joe are the selective ones; if you are from out of town and want them to investigate, then someone has to recommend you to the Hardys.

So what are Frank and Joe supposed to do for their free Western vacation? Well, Teen Trails West has suffered some accidents, and Mike thinks someone has it out for his business. Suspects abound: the business rival, the spoiled rich girl, a possible agent from the other business …

Books like this make me want to go back to my old format, in which I talked about funny bits and how the book aligned with previous Hardy lore: using martial arts (they don’t here) or where they say Bayport is (New York, just outside the city), how often the Hardys have ridden horses and if they have ever gone to Colorado — yes, before you ask: while camping in Danger on Vampire Trail (#50) and while investigating in Mystery of the Desert Giant (#40). (They even visit a Shetland pony ranch in Desert Giant! Can you imagine? Well, you’ll have to, because it’s not like the writers of that period are going to paint you a word picture.)

So there’s no point in recounting Coyote Canyon’s plot. And it’s not a badly written book; it’s just one that sticks closely to the digests’ pattern. Someone’s making things hard on a small businessman (the backbone of America), he or she keeps doing stupid things that looks like bad luck or maybe sabotage, veering between annoying his victims and attempted manslaughter. (Coyote Canyon even has an insane prospector, which is an incredibly Hardy Boys thing to have happen.) Then Frank and Joe solve the case before someone dies. The end.

I want something different. I want Frank and Joe, during their snooping, spotting a couple of teens in the middle of hot monkey love, or maybe Joe and the stuck-up girl having a session of hate makeouts. I want Frank or Joe to pick up a rifle and think about having to use it. Just something — anything — different would be welcomed. But instead, we get something right out The Sign of the Crooked Arrow (#28) or The Secret of Wildcat Swamp (#31) or Desert Giant or The Money Hunt (#101) or … well, there’s not enough snow to make the original Hunting for Hidden Gold (#5) a direct comp, but it’s still pretty close.

The most surprising thing about Coyote Canyon is that the first knockout of either brother comes on pg. 133, and that’s the only KO in the entire book.

That being said, I want to go over a few things in Coyote Canyon:

One of the characters on the tour is Jessica Springer, a rich girl from Beverly Hills, the daughter of a movie director who has been in movies herself. Jessica is always portrayed as a jerk, and she is a jerk. But she’s not always wrong, and the book fails to acknowledge that.

At one point, the teen tourists are told they might see coyotes on the trip. Joe’s excited by the prospect, but Jessica says, “Coyotes are boring” (7). Jessica is right: they are boring, as wild animals go. I grew up in the lower Midwest, and in the fall and winter, I heard coyotes howling almost every night. People keep trying to call her “Jessie,” which Jessica — rightfully — resents and corrects. (I would too, if I were in her shoes.) She sniffs when Mike tells her his wife, Dottie, cuts both their hair; I imagine their hairstyles to be extremely utilitarian and not up to the standard of even an average teenage girl (or these days, the average teenage guy). Everyone laughs at her when she falls over her saddle after her stirrup is positioned too high, which is just mean.

Like I said, she’s supposed to be unlikeable, but a “nice” character keeps telling his friends he wants to put all sorts of creepy critters in her bed roll. (I think we’re supposed to read something crypto-sexual into the “nice” guy’s desires, but I can’t swear to it.) We’re supposed to understand that it’s an extreme, not acceptable response to Jessica’s snobbishness, and I appreciate that. But Jessica is the bad guy because she’s verbally unpleasant; she doesn’t do or threaten anything physical, like the “nice” guy does.

Greg, the guy who wants to put something shocking into Jessica’s bed, claims to be a musician, although he actually plays the accordion. I find it hard to believe the tour would allow him to lug that big of an instrument out on the trail, but evidently Mike has no policy against bulky “musical” instruments. The villain, on the other hand, has a more sensible policy, interrupting one of Greg’s impromptu concerts: “Before he could start to play, the silence was shattered by the sound of three closely spaced gunshots!” (93).

The brakes have failed on several of the vehicles Frank and Joe have been in during the series. Coyote Canyon has a special distinction: it is, I believe, the first time the brakes have failed on a horse-drawn wagon (specifically, the chuckwagon).

As I mentioned, Coyote Canyon has plenty of suspects, one of which calls Frank and Joe “out-of-town muscle” (10), which I appreciate. Later in the book, the worst act of sabotage happens: two-thirds of the tour’s water supply is destroyed. The tour leader plays down the significance of this but privately confides to Frank and Joe that it’s pretty bad. But later, with clouds rolling in, the group makes no attempt to catch any water in buckets. “These cloudbursts generally end as quick as they begin,” Mike says (115), but not even trying to get a little water — which could make a difference in a life-or-death situation — suggests the danger isn’t as great as Mike made it out to the Hardys.

While on the five-day tour, the camp provides food and drink. Somehow, after the water supply is depleted, the campers are still given orange juice for breakfast. For some reason, “orange juice” is not listed among their assets in staving off dehydration, but more importantly, how did they keep orange juice cold for several days on the trip? I don’t think standard coolers can keep orange juice cold for multiple days on the trail.