Monday, October 31, 2016

Trick-or-Trouble (#175)

Trick-or-Trouble coverRarely have I read a Hardy Boys book I enjoy and respect as much as I have Trick-or-Trouble.

Really, the first fifteen pages are near perfect: lots of playful but slightly cruel patter, camaraderie, and realistic behavior from the teenagers. I mean, I literally laughed with the characters more often than I laughed at them in this book. Trick-or-Trouble is a low-stakes, Bayport-based adventure that remains more-or-less plausible throughout. The teenagers act — more or less — like teenagers, albeit ones who have had their hormones surgically removed. (Although see the end of the entry about that last bit.)

In Trick-or-Trouble, Bayport’s teens are gearing up for a Halloween contest organized by Bayport merchants. Frank and Joe’s friend Daphne Soesbee and her mother have written Halloween- and horror-themed clues that will direct contestants around the city to claim prizes. Most of the prizes are small, but some are impressive, with the top prizes being a motorcycle, classic VW bug, and a reconditioned RV. This is a more sensible plan than most Hardy Boys contests: The clues are given out by merchants, who will also hand out most of the prizes directly, and each contestant will have to show the physical clues that led them to solve the riddles. Since Iola and Chet Morton have volunteered to help Daphne and her mother, who runs the Book Bank (a bookstore located in a former bank, complete with a still functional vault), Frank and Joe team up with Callie to figure out the clues.

This is the first book I’ve covered that Daphne has appeared in, but she also appears in Crime in the Cards (#165) and Warehouse Rumble (#183). (She also comes up in Bayport Buccaneers, the sixteenth Undercover Brothers book. That book, like Warehouse Rumble, has a TV game show based more on physical ability than mental.) As you might guess, the same author wrote all the books with Daphne: According to The Hardy Boys Unofficial Home Page, Stephen D. Sullivan wrote those three digests plus nine more. He also claims to have written Bayport Buccaneers and at least one more Hardy Boys book . Sullivan has written a great deal of licensed work, including Dungeons & Dragons stuff … and holy crap: For those of you who are Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, he wrote the adaptation of Manos: The Hands of Fate.

That last credit is pertinent because Sullivan slips in a lot of horror references in Trick-or-Trouble. To wit:

  • Frank and Joe’s redheaded classmate who attends a costume party as a witch is named Allison Rosenberg. Red-haired Alyson Hannigan played Willow Rosenberg, a witch, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 1997-2003.
  • During a car chase, the Hardys follow a suspect down Howard before their quarry takes a quick turn on Phillips. H(oward) P(hillips) Lovecraft is a legendary but controversial horror writer; he specialized in cosmic horror and created the Cthulhu Mythos in the 1920s.
  • Soon after, the chase takes them down Ashton. This is an allusion to Clark Ashton Smith, a horror writer who corresponded with Lovecraft and also wrote in the Cthulhu mythos.
  • The contest’s celebrity guest of honor is Vincent Blasko. The first name is certainly a reference to long-time horror movie star Vincent Price; I’m not sure what the last name refers to, but it could be a nod to Marvel Comics villain Belasco, a wizard who served the Elder Gods (similar to the ones created by Lovecraft) and ruled a strange dimension where time is non-linear.
  • During the contest, Blasko’s movies are played at the Browning Theater. Tod Browning was a movie director who made many horror films, including the original Dracula and Freaks.
  • One of the businesses participating in the contest is Romero Remodeling. George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, which helped cement zombies in the popular consciousness and changed the creatures from their association with voodoo to a more secular undead monster.
  • Frank, Joe, and Callie win a prize from Corman and Cross Electronics. I don’t know who Cross is, but Corman is a reference to low-budget movie director Roger Corman, who made many sci-fi and horror films during his career, stretching from the ‘50s to the modern day.

I’m probably missing some references, but that should give you an idea of how Sullivan’s mindset. (He also names the blockheaded BPD cop the Hardys run into several times after himself, although Officer Sullivan’s first name is “Gus.”) For some reason he names several streets after Wisconsin cities: Racine, Waukesha, Kenosha. (Probably because he worked for TSR, the company that made Dungeons & Dragons. It was based in Lake Geneva, Wisc., at the time.)

Anyway, to get back to the story … the contest’s opening ceremony / teen dance party is held at the old Niles Mansion, which had fallen on hard times but is being renovated. Of course! Bayport always has a mansion that’s falling apart or otherwise in need of renovation. Frank and Callie go as a gypsy couple, but when they suggest Joe go as a werewolf, Joe says, “Iola doesn’t go for beards” (9).

*cough* Moving right along from that set-up line … At the party, the kids meet their competition: fellow teens Allison Rosenberg, Ren Takei, Brent Jackson, and Missy Gates and Jay Stone. The Hardys are friendly with Allison and Ren, but Brent carries a grudge against Joe resulting from a football rivalry, and he needles Joe about Iola’s absence. (Brent gets the better end of the exchange, which explains why Joe maintains the grudge.) Missy and Jay are part of “a self-styled cybergang who also dabbled in cars and motorcycles” (17). A cybergang! What could I possibly add to that?

During the party, which features a DJ who combines “an eerie mix of techno pop, creepy classical music, horror movie soundtracks, and Halloween novelty tunes” (15), the lights are turned out. Frank and Joe are merely inconvenienced because they have their flashlights. Callie is surprised by this for some reason. Callie, do you know these guys? Their father taught them a half dozen places to conceal a flashlight on the human body; if you’re lucky, maybe Frank will teach you some of them. The power outage does little other than annoy some bats, which are set loose in the mansion, and give some contestants a head start. Later, the trio sees Allison robbed of her clues by a man in a devil mask. Frank nearly catches the thief, but he’s lightly hit by a car driven by Howard “Harley” Bettis, a friend of Missy and Jay’s who now works at Magnum American Motors. (All three were in The Spy That Never Lies, #163.) After being a thug in Spy, it looks like Harley’s trying to go straight — or is his job a cover for criminal activities?

(HINT: Harley will be playing Red Herring for this mystery.)

During the next few days, the Hardys use the Internet to try to decipher clues, with mixed results. At night, from dusk to midnight, Callie, Frank, and Joe hit local stores, winning occasional “instant win” prizes, like free coffee, food, and CDs. (Dusk is earlier in this book than it is today; Trick-or-Trouble was published in 2002, when Daylight Savings Time started on the last Sunday in October rather than the first in November.) Joe shows his poor judgment by eating something called a “clam roll,” which I’d never heard of but is evidently fried clams served in a hot dog bun, at the Kool Kone. Huh. The clam roll evidently has a disastrous effect on Joe, as he gets banned from the Kool Kone for getting into a fight with Brent. This turns out to be irrelevant.

It wouldn’t be a Hardy Boys mystery unless someone tried to inflict bodily harm on the kids. Someone tries to whap them with the blades of an abandoned windmill while they investigate a puzzle clue; later, they are hit with a landslide of pumpkins. Later, the three trail a suspect to a theater, and of course the fire curtain is dropped on them.

The trio visits Tony at Mr. Pizza — hi, Tony! — but he’s no help. At the Book Bank, Chet is lured away with pizza (not from Mr. Pizza, though) so someone can rifle the clues. Frank, Joe, and Callie almost catch the robber, but instead they are locked in the vault and have to wait for Chet to free them. “Man, I hate waiting to be rescued,” Joe says (75); his blasé acceptance of this potentially dangerous situation says a great deal about his life experiences. No clues are missing, though, and since physical clues are needed to claim a prize, this baffles Ms. Soesbee and the teens. With nothing stolen, Ms. Soesbee declines to call the police, citing the adverse publicity. (Since the Bayport Police Department solves nothing, this is a rational decision.)

While the Bayport Chronicle reports on the contest winners — Allison is ahead, having won the VW Bug, a leather jacket, and an MP3 player — the Hardys and Callie have been shut out. When they finally are first to a prize — two pairs of walkie-talkies — they are attacked by a man in a motorcycle helmet who steals a parade float. Frank and Joe swipe another decorated car and chase him through downtown Bayport to Bayshore Drive, following him onto the beach. Unfortunately, their car gets stuck in the sand, and the villain escapes.

Of all the prizes to win, though: Frank and Joe should have no use for walkie-talkies. Instead, they treat the victory like they’ve never even considered owning the devices before.

Frank, Joe, and Callie come across three figures (later revealed to be Allison, Brent, and Ren) trading clues. They aren’t collaborating on solving the clues; they’re just trading extra clues to one another. Callie is incensed by this, saying the three are trying “to fix the contest” (105), but since cooperation is explicitly allowed — Frank, Joe, and Callie are allowed to compete as a team, for instance — I’m not sure what her problem is. Allison tells her the same thing when Callie runs her down, and she’s right.

With the contest running down, Ren begins to give Allison a run for her money, winning a handheld computer, a pager, a skateboard, and Bayport Barons tickets. (I don’t know what sport the Bayport Barons play; I don’t think they’ve ever showed up anywhere else in the series.) On the last night, when Frank, Joe, and Callie show up at Magnum American Motors to claim a prize — a motorcycle helmet — they find Magnum’s owner, Rod Magnum, knocked out on the floor. Callie asks, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to find someone prone and motionless on the floor, “Is he dead?” (126). She’s not concerned; she’s merely asking for information. Later she says, “Blows to the head can be serious” (127), but we all know that’s not the case in a Hardy Boys book, where the words “concussion protocol” are anathema.

The motorcycle that is Magnum’s grand prize for the contest is still there, but someone has stolen his clues. Frank and Joe run down Brent, who fled from Magnum as they arrived. Brent claims he ran because he saw Magnum on the floor and didn’t want to be blamed. The Hardys are unsure whether to believe him; Harley does work at Magnum and is their favorite suspect.

Their chase disrupts the Halloween parade, which prompts an angry mob to head for the Book Bank. Why are people mad at Ms. Soesbee? Because she really pushed for the Halloween contest, and it isn’t going as smoothly as it might. Nothing goes smoothly in Bayport, though, so I’m not sure what these people are hoping for. Vincent Blasko talks them down, the press wanders away in search of another shiny object, and the contest continues.

(Charmingly, Ms. Soesbee’s big commercial concern is a new chain bookstore at the mall. Chain bookstores put a lot of local bookstores out of business, but then those chain bookstores were destroyed by Amazon. It’s the circle of commercial life.)

Callie, Frank, and Joe discover one of the clues has been altered; learning the original wording sends them to the abandoned Northwestern railroad trestle north of town. There, they find the devil-masked man, who turns out to be Ren. He denies altering the clue, saying he’s arrived to claim the prize at the trestle. He offers to split the prize with the Hardys and Callie, but when a motorcycle-riding man shows up and starts swinging a chain at everyone, Ren turns on the Hardys. But flame-resistant Ghost Rider turns on him as well. In the end, Ren and the motorcycle rider are subdued, and Joe finds the prize: the motorcycle, which Rod Magnum, the cut-rate Johnny Blaze, was trying to prevent people from winning.

The mystery is solved. Ren attacked the Hardys and Callie at the windmill and pumpkin farm and stole Allison’s clues to win more prizes; Rod broke into the Book Bank, altered the clue and led the Hardys on a merry car chase through Bayport, faked a head injury, and burned the last night’s clues because he couldn’t afford to give the motorcycle away as a prize. Rod also probably hired Harley as a fall guy if things got too hot. As a reward, Frank, Joe, and Callie are given their choice of flying or boating lessons; both are appropriate for the Hardys (although they should know how to do both). Callie chooses flying lessons. By the next mystery — In Plane Sight, also by Sullivan — both Frank and Joe will have their pilot’s certifications, which Joe finished only because of this prize.

Although I said the teens had their hormones removed, that’s not entirely true. Sullivan hints that some physicality exists between the brothers and their girlfriends. For instance, when Iola teases Joe, she ruffles his hair. Callie puts her hand on Frank’s shoulder and calls him “the best arm in Bayport” when a rival girl (Allison) calls him “a sports hero” (16). Joe offers to take Iola out for a “midnight ride” (59), which is definitely a euphemism. Frank gives Callie “a quick hug,” although that’s after she calls him and Joe “weirdos” (61). Callie returns the favor after she’s told they’ve won either flying or boating lessons.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Kickoff to Danger (#170)

Kickoff to Danger coverYou know, I’ve never considered the idea that I would ever question a Hardy Boy book’s characterization of Biff Hooper, but now I’ve read Kickoff to Danger (#170), and well, that day is here.

Kickoff is a weird title. On one hand, it’s a Bayport-based mystery that uses the Hardys’ chums and supporting cast. Those kinds of mysteries are really my favorites. The book also makes a concession to reality — more than one, really, as not only does Frank leave the football team to take an advanced computer course, but someone outperforms a Hardy on an athletic field. I approve, and if either of those changes would have stuck, I’d have overlooked all the book’s problems.

On the other hand, too many supporting characters are introduced; it would be OK if I expected to see any of them again, but Kickoff will likely be the only appearance for various school personnel and students. And sometimes Kickoff portrays recurring characters all wrong. For instance, Biff Hooper goes along with what the popular kids are doing, which isn’t too out of character, but what the popular kids are doing is bullying everyone else in the school, and Biff participates, even when the bullying involves ganging up on Chet Morton. Iola Morton doesn’t appear in the book despite Chet being accused of whacking Biff in the head with a coal shovel. A subplot in which a meek teacher is run out of school goes nowhere. In another scene, Frank and Callie discuss football like people who have heard of the sport but are unsure of the terminology. Given that it’s debatable whether the kids speak like real teens (or real humans) in the first place, though, maybe I shouldn’t dock a Hardy Boys book for its dialogue.

What pushes the book into “good book” territory is the violence and a random bit of Hardy Boys continuity. For the former, Biff gets whanged so hard with a coal shovel that he’s put in a coma, and later on, someone gets very close to killing him. The two incidents give a bit of extra weight to the events of the book, even if it’s strange the events go from bullying to assault to attempted murder.

The bit of continuity that is dredged up is that Seneca Tech is Bayport’s cross-county football rival. Do you know what book originally revealed that Bayport vs. Seneca Tech is the big game for both squads? The Sinister Sign Post (#15), published way back in 1936. (Kickoff was released in 2001.) And how did that game turn out? Bayport won, with Joe out with an arm injury. Frank was not on the squad at all — just like in Kickoff.

Kickoff begins with Callie and Frank commiserating over the difficulty of trigonometry. (The “commiseration” extends to physicality, as Callie ruffles her boyfriend’s hair. So that’s what they’re calling it these days!) Both are planning on college; in fact, Frank is taking a toughie of a college computer programming course, which is why he isn’t playing football. The course seems to have removed all of Frank’s fun circuits too, as he calls a football player who jumps off a loading dock on his way to practice a “clown” (4). While watching Joe practice, he spells out the plot to Callie: new student Terry Golden is awesome at the footballs, is getting scouted by college programs, and is a giant jackhole whose entourage wants to be the same as he is.

Callie’s reaction? She’s sad because she “liked dating a football hero” (7). You should have thought of Callie, Frank! It’s not every boy who has a girlfriend who will ruffle his hair, if you know what I mean, and I think you don’t.

After practice, Golden gives a puff-piece interview with the Beacon, the school newspaper; after the reporter leaves, he and his cronies bully Chet, snapping their towels at him. Biff helps them, which takes all the fight out of Chet. The next day, Chet’s still feeling the effects — after Golden steals his dessert at lunch, Chet throws in the towel and tries to get in good with the Golden Boys.

After deciding not to head to Mr. Pizza to see Tony Prito, Frank runs into the aftermath of the rivalry that will drive the book: he finds Dan Freeman, debate club champ and Beacon photog, after he has been pantsed by the Golden Boys. Freeman refuses to rat out his attackers, though. The next day, the Golden Boys shove other students around, and they nearly push Phil Cohen down the stairs; only the quick reactions of Joe and Biff save him. (This is Phil’s only appearance in the story, so all you Cohen fanatics better appreciate it.)

Frank and Joe approach the football coach to have him talk to the unruly athletes, but he refuses, which sets the scene for “tragedy.” After a big win vs. Seneca Tech, the Golden Boys stage an elaborate prank in which they steal the debate team’s backpacks; when the debate nerds follow the thieves into the basement, other Golden Boys are there to pummel them. Chet, who thought he was in on the joke, gets beaten too, and when Frank and Joe follow the chaos, they find Chet with a black eye and a coal shovel in his hand, standing over Biff’s unconscious body. Joe considers violating the rules of the Fentonian Mysteries by wiping the fingerprints from the shovel, but Frank — steady, faithful Frank — chastises his brother for his weakness. The evidence is preserved, and surely those who have kept it holy shall be blessed.

Biff is taken to the hospital, and the Hardys learn he was trying to foil the assault on the debate team. (He did a poor job of it, though.) Chet’s taken to police headquarters, and his name is released on the evening news. Mr. and Mrs. Morton come by, in a panic; additionally, Mr. Morton is in a “blue velour jogging — or rather, leisure — suit” (66), which is inexcusable. Honestly, man, have more pride than that. Also: You should shave our head, since you’ve “lost almost all the hair on the top of his head except for a little tuft just over his forehead” (65-6). You’re going bald. Own it.

Fenton gives the Mortons good advice — get a criminal defense lawyer, not a real-estate lawyer — but he gives the information in a jerkish, “haven’t I done enough for your family?” sort of way. The Mortons are not pleased, and Laura calls her husband on his bedside manner.

The school is useless in the investigation, the TV news has no interest in finding another suspect, and the Bayport Police Department is, after all, the Bayport Police Department. Frank and Joe feed Con Riley a lead — the coal shovel should have been filthy, but it was wiped and had only Chet’s fingerprints, meaning someone else had used it and wiped his / her fingerprints — but that goes nowhere. It’s up to Frank and Joe to investigate! They suspect Golden whacked Biff, although they should have suspected one of the nerdlingers: A shovel is a tool, and intelligent creatures use tools, not knuckle-dragging morons.

They are immediately threatened with a shunning, although a weak-minded Golden Boy reveals his co-conspirators by flinching when Joe guesses their names. Coach Devlin belatedly tries “discipline,” although his version of discipline involves — as it often does for middle-aged men physically in charge of young men — yelling and making the boys run. This doesn’t stop one of the larger Golden Boys from taking a swing at Joe; in response, Joe uses “that move [Frank] taught … where you catch the guy’s wrist when he throws a punch and use that to twist his arm” (95), then tries to stuff the attacker into a locker. (The guy won’t fit, sadly.) Nice move, Joe!

But retribution comes: someone throws a 2x4 at the Hardys’ van, shattering the windshield and nearly hitting Callie. After taking Callie home and securing Con’s help, they randomly accuse Golden Boy Wendell Logan. He cracks, admitting tossing the caber at the van, but he knows little else. And he doesn’t know much about the attack on Biff, either. Frank and Joe are convinced the law would be useless against Logan, so they don’t press charges. They could at least sue the jerk-o for damages!

On the way home, an SUV tries to bump the Hardys off the road repeatedly. After a narrow escape, they learn the SUV was stolen from near Golden’s house. Fenton complains about the repair costs, but we all know the Hardys have SUPER INSURANCE — it’s the only way they could afford their destructive lifestyles — so they should be OK. Nobody files any charges with the police, although Joe does let Con know over the phone.

The next day, Frank ditches a chance to see Callie, instead going with Joe (who is skipping football practice himself) to see Biff at Bayport General Hospital. Frank “silently promis[es] to make it up to her later” (128). No, you won’t, Frank. You never do, you non-football hero.

At the hospital, the Hardys find Dan Freeman battered in the bushes and a fire alarm blaring at the hospital. Freeman tells the Hardys that Golden pulled the alarm and is using the confusion to slip in and attack Biff. While Joe fruitlessly attempts to get hospital security interested in a possible murder — they will be struck down by a righteous, Fentonian god for their inaction — Frank and Freeman go to rescue Biff. Freeman admits he whanged Biff; in the dark, he didn’t know who he was hitting. But Golden worked Freeman over after Freeman backed out of his own plan to kill Biff. Freeman tries to pass his murder scheme as a, you know, thought experiment, but really, once you’ve started thinking about murdering somebody, you’re on thin ice.

Thankfully, Frank prevents Golden from putting an air bubble in Biff’s IV, then beats him up before he can physically assault Biff. He keeps him down until the guard assigned to protect Biff can return. And that is that! No one mentions what Golden is going to be charged with, just that his football career is down the tubes. Freeman is suddenly less attractive to colleges, but no one expects him to serve any jail time for his conspiracy to murder Biff. Joe gets in a dig about “NFL” standing for “National Felons’ League” (147), and Biff is forgiven for his heel turn. We will never speak of this again!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Post-hiatus schedule update

Now that I’ve gone back and written about the books I picked up over the hiatus — Breakdown in Axeblade (#94) and The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120) — you’d think the next book on my agenda would be #142, Lost in Gator Swamp.

Well, you are wrong, chum breath. I will write about #142 — it will be the first post in November — but I’m going to be more seasonal with the next two. The next post will be Kickoff to Danger (#170), which focuses on Bayport High football, and the one after that, the one just before Halloween, will be Trick-or-Trouble (#175).

The plan from there will be to read the books more or less in order, filling in the books I haven’t yet covered after #141. Unfortunately, I don’t have a few of the books at the moment, so there will still be gaps beyond Demolition Mission (#112), Sabotage at Sports City (#115), and Carnival of Crime (#122). (That last one sounds awful. I’m not looking forward to it.) Additionally, I reserve the right to pick a book that goes with the season when I want to.

And in case you’re wondering, the last two digests I plan to cover are the first and last ones: The Mystery of the Silver Star (#86) and Motocross Madness (#190).

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120)

The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping coverI like the digests’ habit of giving Chet jobs instead of just hobbies; the teenage years is the time when someone can flit from job to job and not make it look like he’s incompetent or a serial killer. In the digests, Chet has been a DJ (Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades, #116), an airport shuttle driver (Spark of Suspicion, #98), a salesman for an ersatz Amway (Tricky Business, #88), a zoo intern (The Search for the Snow Leopard, #139), an ice cream salesman (The Mark of the Blue Tattoo, #146), and maybe a few others I’ve forgotten.

In The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping, Chet is a cook and assistant manager at “Happy Burger,” a new diner. Assistant manager! Who would put Chet in charge of other human beings? Or, for that matter, put him in charge of ordering supplies or bookkeeping or anything else that requires close attention and dedication? I mean, I’m not making Chet’s shortcomings up out of thin air: on page 3, after being told he’s botched the books again, Chet reveals he doesn’t know how to use a calculator (or perform basic math, maybe): “It’s that electric calculator he’s got back there. I can never remember when to press the plus key.”

It’s addition, you moron, not differential calculus. It’s pretty evident when you should press the + key. Your boss, Fred Hawkins, is right to yell at you, although sternly telling Chet to clean his station and to “try to eat only five hamburgers a day” (5) hardly counts as treating him “pretty rough,” as Iola claims. She also says, “Even Dad doesn’t hassle you that much,” although I’m not sure how to take that. Does that mean Chet and Mr. Morton have an adversarial relationship? Or are the readers supposed to realize that, given Hawkins’s mild rebuke, Chet’s relationship with his father is probably normal?

Chet reveals to his chums (Joe, Frank, and Callie) and Iola that Happy Burger is doing poorly, business-wise, so that does help explain why someone with no experience and no prospects is given a position of authority. Not even the rest of the Hardys’ teenage crowd wants to hang out at Happy Burger, as they all prefer Mr. Pizza.

But Chet’s qualifications soon become moot, as the Hardys, their girlfriends, and Chet see Hawkins seemingly abducted by a UFO. Chet claims this is “a close encounter of the third kind” (11) but that’s not true; the third kind involves human contact with an extraterrestrial entity. Since the kids can’t confirm that anyone was driving the UFO, it’s a close encounter of the fourth kind: Abduction.

The Bayport Gazette is on the scene soon after the police decide to ignore the kids’ UFO report, and a story in the next day’s paper makes Happy Burger the most popular place in town. UFOlogists, the media, and random curious bystanders flock to the Happy Burger, keeping Chet busy and making Happy Burger — at least temporarily — a success. The Gazette has to be considered a success as well; it’s never appeared in a Hardy Boys story before, from what I can tell, and it’s created a media event out of a bunch of stupid kids seeing a UFO.

Fenton and Laura are in Europe for both work and pleasure, and Gertrude (back to being “plump,” as she was in The Smoke Screen Mystery) warns them to be careful after they decide to look for Hawkins. Given Happy Burger’s success, the police and the boys are leaning toward the idea that Hawkins staged his own disappearance. Good to see some competence being displayed! And then after showing that bit of competence, Frank and Joe spend 40 pages wandering around Happy Burger and the shopping plaza it’s in. What do they discover? Well, Happy Burger is deeply in debt — no surprise there — to a guy named William Harbison and … nothing else, really. They avoid the media, even though they’ve worked at both radio station WBBX, which Joe mentions (in Rock ‘n’ Roll Renegades), and TV station WBPT, which neither mentions, even though both did spots for the station in Danger on the Air (#95) and Spark of Suspicion.

The brothers do meet the cast as they wander aimlessly for what feels like forever: Hawkins’s wife, Clarissa; author Hodding Wheatley, who writes about UFOs; and fringe UFO devotees, including the belligerent Carl Thurmon. Since this book was published in 1993, the same year The X-Files hit the air, the people who believe in UFOs are seen as kooks. Frank and Joe don’t consider the possibility that Hawkins’s disappearance is an abduction at all.

After Frank and Joe joke about Joe learning to be a detective from TV shows — I’m not sure Frank is joking — the brothers visit Harbison, who’s a loan shark. Joe plays the tough detective role to the hilt, growling at Harbison and invading his personal space to intimidate him. They get nothing but a denial from Haribison, but I admit: acting like a bit of a thug is a nice technique and a good change of pace. Also, it made me laugh.

The next day, the media attention has only grown, with Sandra Rodriguez, host of Mysteries Today, doing a live show from the “tiny town” (83) of Bayport. No details about Mysteries Today are ever given; is it syndicated? Is it a show about the paranormal, or is it more Unsolved Mysteries? All we learn is that Rodriguez has a boyfriend — “Mr. Matt Hunk Everton” (74), as the jealous (or attracted) Frank calls him — who is also a helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet. Someone claiming to be the aliens interrupts MT’s signal, saying Hawkins will be returned in Bayport Meadows soon, but all they find is a letter on Happy Burger stationery, saying “Help.”

For their next magical trick, Frank and Joe decide to follow Matt’s helicopter. “It shouldn’t be too hard to tail a helicopter” (90), Frank says, forgetting that helicopters fly much faster than city traffic, don’t have to follow roads, and never have to stop for lights or stop signs. Other than that, sure! But of course it works, and after Matt drives away from the abandoned farm where he lands his helicopter, the Hardys break into the barn, finding the fake UFO inside. A metal hitch at the craft’s top allowed the phony ship to be towed by a cable from a helicopter — Matt’s helicopter, of course. Matt returns and tries to threaten the Hardys with a gun, but Frank and Joe easily disarm him. The gun was unloaded anyway.

Matt confesses all: The kidnapping was all Hawkins’s idea, although he needed Rodriguez’s show’s backing for funding. After Hawkins signed a letter absolving Rodriguez and Matt of all wrongdoing, they agreed to help. But Hawkins was supposed to reappear in Bayport Meadows, and now he’s truly missing.

This calls for someone to jump to a conclusion, and since about 50 pages remain in the book, the Hardys jump to the wrong one. They follow Harbison to the man who gives him money to loan, Amos Woodworth IV, a prosperous legitimate businessman who is, reassuringly, also a smuggler. Haven’t had one of those in a while, and it’s nice to know they can still pop up. Unfortunately, goons discover Frank and Joe snooping around Woodworth’s home as fake pool men, and worse yet, Woodworth recognizes them as “those detective brothers everyone talks about. The Harley brothers” (115). Luckily, though, he gives them a stern talking to and makes them promise to let him know when they find that welcher, Hawkins.

The brothers go to Clarissa, who admits she learned the kidnapping was a fake. At the Hawkins home, Joe spots the angry UFOlogist, Thurmon, in a picture of a Vietnam veterans’ gathering — the same one at which Hawkins pitched his loony plan to Matt. The Hardys track down Thurmon and a tied-up Hawkins at an isolated cabin via Thurmon’s fellow UFO enthusiasts. Frank and Wheatley nearly talk Thurmon down, but a TV report playing in the background reveals Frank is a detective (and Joe’s brother; Thurmon hates Joe, as all hotheads do). In the ensuing scuffle, Frank gets a bleeding head wound, and Thurmon burns the cabin down, but the fake UFO, towed from Matt’s helicopter, shows up as Thurmon is about to kill Frank. Amazed at seeing what he has long sought, Thurmon lets his guard down, and Joe emerges from the UFO to subdue the violent kook. The police are close behind.

Everything ends well. Hawkins isn’t arrested for anything; he merely has to apologize. I’m sure he did something wrong, though. I suppose he didn’t file a false report, but he knew one would be filed, and he did waste Bayport Police Department resources looking for him, even though he wasn’t in danger. Or maybe not — the BPD didn’t seem to care about Hawkins’s disappearance, so perhaps they didn’t spend any time looking for him. Woodworth is investigated for his loansharking, and Hawkins’s loan is transferred to a legitimate bank at a better interest rate. I’m not sure that’s how it works, but then again, I’m not acquainted with this state’s stringent usury laws. Rodriguez seems to suffer no consequences for organizing a hoax and then broadcasting it as if it were a real story. At least Thurmon is arrested for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon … but not attempted murder or arson, despite having the Hardys — super witnesses! — to testify. Well, I guess a plea bargain from Thurmon makes more sense than Hawkins and Rodriguez getting off without consequences.

Remember, kids: Crime does pay! Just make sure it’s non-violent crime that doesn’t victimize any private citizen. Then you too can pull your generic hamburger stand out of the toilet and into prosperity!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Breakdown in Axeblade (#94)

Breakdown in AxebladeI know I said I was going to return from my hiatus with The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120), but I lied. Well, not really a lie — I found Breakdown at Axeblade (#94) at a used bookstore, and since it was an earlier digest, I decided to start with it instead.

In Axeblade, Frank and Joe drive into the movie Bad Day at Black Rock. Despite having three more arms between them than Spencer Tracy’s lead character, Macreedy, does in the movie, they seem to combine for about half the brains, which makes the challenge of getting out of a corrupt town about the same for Macreedy and the Hardys.

While on a summer vacation road trip, Frank and Joe’s super-duper ex-police van develops engine trouble in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. The van limps into Axeblade, a town of 300 people, without giving up the ghost; I was disappointed the brothers weren’t forced to use the knowledge they gained in Seven Stories of Survival, but maybe that’s for the best, since they don’t even think about how they’d have to survive if the engine quits outside of civilization.

Frank says the van has a bad fan belt, while Joe says it’s the water pump; the smiling garage mechanic, Bill Hunt, says it’s both. Frank imperiously tells him to get cracking then, but Bill says the repairs will take a few days, as he doesn’t have a replacement pump. Bill’s demeanor changes when the brothers say they’re going to camp in the nearby national forest the van is being fixed. (Which forest? Who knows! Take a look at this map if you want to make a guess; the text gives us no real hints except that it’s near a four-lane highway and some grasslands.) Bill tells them they should drive on to nearby Lawton — or stay with him, or at a motel. Lots of bears around, you see.

But Frank and Joe are not dissuaded. They go camping, and while being pummeled into unconsciousness during the night, they are warned to leave the area. They wake up dumped by a four-lane highway, several miles from town. After hiking back to Axeblade, the sheriff rebuffs their attempts to report a crime, and a desk clerk tells them the vacant motel is full up. (Frank and Joe don’t question why a town of 300, in the middle of nowhere, has a motel at all, especially since the town seems to discourage tourism.) After spending the night in their van, Joe is unsuccessful at “flash[ing his] baby blues at the waitress” (22) to get free food; the brothers can’t get any service at the Morning Glory Restaurant. Even the drugstore won’t sell a sticky bun to them.

Fortunately, they don’t get the cold shoulder at Becky’s Café, operated by the eponymous Becky and her adopted Vietnamese son, Kwo. Becky’s husband had an “accident” a few years before, and she blames rancher Ben Barntree, who runs Axeblade. Kwo supplies that a weekly fleet of tanker truck dumps toxic waste on Barntree’s ranch, the B-Bar-B. (I like to think the B-Bar-B raises several hundred head of Ken, Skipper, and Barbie dolls.)

After Frank and Joe get in a scuffle at the café, they remember some of Fenton’s advice: “Sometimes people start a fight to change the subject” (38). Since they were talking about Barntree’s toxic waste dumping at the time, the boys decide to head out to the B-Bar-B. Becky loans them her husband’s classic Harley and tells them her husband’s not the only opponent of Barntree’s to die from a fall … and suddenly Axeblade is looking a lot more like a Casefile repurposed into a digest.

The reconnaissance of the B-Barbie is a dud; the boys are chased around and around by dogs, then are showed off the ranch by Barntree and his cronies. The boys do get a ride in a groovy van with “an expensive, detailed airbrush painting on the side — a skeleton riding a beautiful galloping mustang horse with fiery eyes” (46). The van’s owner, Robbie McCoy, is a bit of a jerk, though.

Back in Axeblade, Bill’s sister, Sara, invites Frank and Joe to supper, despite being married to one of the cowboys who tangled with the Hardys at Becky’s Café. Before they go, the interior of their van is set on fire, although the blaze is quickly extinguished. The arson causes Frank to contemplate homicide, although not on the arsonist: he “wanted to strangle the old man” (65) who stood around squawking that their van was burning. Good to know Frank has a dark side.

It is then, and only then, that Frank and Joe think to call someone to let them know they’re in a dangerous place where they don’t understand the rules. They call home, but Fenton and Laura aren’t there, so they give up. I mean, who else could they call for advice / aid? Well, in no particular order:

  • Con Riley or Ezra Collig, from the Bayport Police Department
  • Sam Radley, who has worked for Fenton (although he hasn’t appeared since The Revenge of the Desert Phantom, #85)
  • Gertrude, who probably isn’t with Fenton and Laura
  • The Mortons, who have probably been drawn into enough of Frank and Joe’s nonsense to know the drill
  • Any of their other chums
  • Anyone of authority who owes them from a previous case, like Andrew Crawford, the police commissioner of Philadelphia, whom they helped in Shield of Fear (#91)

Of course Frank and Joe don’t do that. Why would they? They’ve been beaten, shunned, and threatened. That’s just an average vacation for them. Their reluctance to call home becomes stranger after they are arrested; the address Sara gave them was vacant for the week, and the brothers are accused of stealing silverware, which was planted in their van. The brothers realize the cop is corrupt, so they call … Becky. Sure, why not? With all their contacts in law enforcement, a café owner who was friendly toward them seems the right call.

(Also: Joe is arrested while playing the arcade game Flyswatter. It’s one of his favorites … probably right up there with Hack Attack.)

Becky is reluctant to help them, and when she leaves, she tells the sheriff she was wrong about Frank and Joe, who are sure they’re sunk. You idiots — no matter what she thinks, she has to tell the police that. Otherwise, she’ll be arrested (or killed) next. Becky returns later, seducing — as much as anyone is ever seduced in a Hardy Boys book — the sheriff over pie and drugged coffee. (The sheriff is already talking marriage.) Frank and Joe can’t see this middle-aged steaminess, but then again, they don’t realize the sheriff’s complaints about the funny-tasting coffee and his difficulty forming words indicates he’s, you know, been drugged. Morons. If anyone should recognize the symptoms of being doped, it’s those two dopes.

Becky frees the halfwit Hardys, then loans them a car. Frank and Joe drive the car to the toxic dump site. Turns out, it’s on federal land! Whodathunkit? The dumping is actually killing animals; Frank and Joe see a dead raccoon and squirrels. Unfortunately, Frank and Joe don’t cover their tracks well, and Barnwell’s men start searching for them. The brothers run across a random missing boy; they tell him to yell for help, but he has no real effect on the story.

The brothers hide in the mountains, but Joe is awakened by a rockslide that gives Frank his second concussion of the book — his eyes don’t focus when he wakes up, and “his brain [was] temporarily scrambled” (114). Geez, that sounds bad. Joe’s more broken up about Barntree’s pollution than any possible TBI his brother has, though. I see the logic: The bill they’ll have to pay for repeated blows to the head won’t come due until they reach an age they will never be allowed to reach.

Barntree’s forces catch the Hardys without much trouble the next day, and Barntree wants to kill them; fortunately, some of his men are squeamish about killin’, including Robbie (the guy with the cool skeleton on his van). Barntree agrees to just tie them up and leave them in his basement for a while, but he and his wife know they’re going to have to kill the boys. While Frank suggests to Joe that their next vacation be to Hawaii — something that doesn’t happen until The Treasure at Dolphin Bay, #129 — they manage to free themselves with Frank’s pocket knife.

After radioing Kwo to get the police from Lawton, they escape from shotgun-packing Mrs. Barntree, who misses with both barrels, despite the basement’s close quarters. They tie her up and try to delay Barntree and the toxic-waste tankers. Joe fails to slow Barntree, though, losing a more brutal than usual fight with the rancher: Joe gets his head slammed against the steering wheel, and he throws Barntree out of his jeep after grabbing him by the “seat of his neck” (138). (That should be scruff, I’m guessing.) Frank bluffs Barntree, though, threatening his wife, and Joe puts Barntree in handcuffs. Barntree is furious when Frank tells him they left Mrs. Barntree in the basement: “Our mom and dad didn’t raise kidnappers,” Frank says (142), although after being serial kidnapping victims, you’d think Frank and Joe would have picked up some tips.

The cops arrive in time, with the aid of Robbie, who got cold feet. Everything is sorted out, but Frank and Joe can’t leave town, even after they unload everything onto law enforcement … because Bill still doesn’t have their water pump.

*sad trombone*

Still, other than Frank and Joe being, you know, morons, this is one of the better digests. ON the other hand, Frank and Joe are so often incompetent that I can’t really hold that against Breakdown in Axeblade.