You get stuff, not for what you do but for who you are. Well, maybe not so much stuff — stuff can be stolen, as the Hardys know, or broken or exploded — but experiences. Work hard, or work not at all, and the vacations to exotic places (and the equipment needed to fully enjoy that vacation) are handed to you. Want an internship? A chance to be on TV or on stage? Just wait, and you shall be rewarded.
The Hardys’ reward in The Secret of Skeleton Reef is a trip to St. Lucia, a Caribbean island of about 180,000 people. How did Frank and Joe get to this little island paradise? Their new friend, Jamal Hawkins, invited them down to his uncle’s bungalow on the island. Jamal also flew the brothers and himself down there. Jamal knows competition for Frank and Joe’s friendship is stiff, so he’s pulling out all the stops — he’s on a working holiday while Frank and Joe sit on their fundaments.
And honestly, thank Odin the boys were able to slip away to a tropical paradise. They hadn't been to one since The Treasure at Dolphin Bay (#129), which was fifteen books ago. And they’re not scheduled to go on another tropical vacation until The Caribbean Cruise Caper (#154). After that, they have to wait until Typhoon Island (#180), and they have to go on that trip with their *ugh* girlfriends. To endure that 26-book gap, Frank and Joe have to content themselves with trips to London, Italy, Kenya, and France (twice). Quelle peine!
Skeleton Reef mentions Frank and Joe had gotten to know Jamal on one of their cases, but by now, he’s appeared in two books: Cross-Country Crime (#134) and Slam Dunk Sabotage (#140). (Joe says one of those was their “scariest case yet” , but he doesn’t say which that was. The former involves Area 51, and in the latter, Biff gets dosed with rat poison.) Frank is described as “seldom anyone’s fool” (2), but as the last mystery, The Giant Rat of Sumatra (#143), showed, he’s often someone’s punching bag.
The boys’ noses for mystery start twitching when a couple of random guys on the beach tell them they’re part of a treasure-hunting crew, searching Skeleton Reef for a sunken ship … but they are “trying to keep thing quiet” (4). Sure, telling a trio of random boys what you’re doing is a great way to keep things quiet. Loose lips sink ships, guys, and then you can get another ship to salvage that ship.
A local calling herself Auntie Samantha wanders by, offering to tell them a story “if you cross my palm with, oh, just a little bit of coin” (6). This sounds like a come-on — as in, “I’ll tell you this story while naked” — but Frank literally gives Auntie Samantha some pocket change and asks for a pirate story. Whatever turns you on, man. Samantha — the only St. Lucia native the boys engage with during the story — tells them about Rebecca, a 17th-century woman who haunted the pirates who murdered her and stole her diamond necklace. Her ghost is still occasionally seen around the islands, according to Samantha.
As soon as Samantha scuttles off, looking for more men to “tell stories” with, the boys find an unconscious woman in the surf. The narrator notes she wore “only” a bathing-suit top and shorts. As if that’s scandalous! What do you expect someone who washed up on the shore to be wearing? Swimwear, that’s what. I think the narrator was trying to shame the poor girl even as she’s dying.
Frank saves her life — only then does Joe realize “she was tan and pretty” (11) — and they head to the hospital. At the hospital, the girl (name: Chrissy) claims amnesia about how she ended up on the beach, and she begs the boys not to go to the cops. That’s not a problem; Frank and Joe don’t trust first-world cops, so why would they involve some Banana Republic policemen?
The next day, while Jamal ferries passengers around the Caribbean, Frank and Joe check out the treasure-hunting ship, Destiny, whose crew is investigating the sunken Laughing Moon. (I unironically appreciate that name.) While there, the brothers prevent a bear of a man, Lou Brunelli, from flattening a shipmate. Joe, who was evaluating Chrissy the night before, turns his attention to Lou: “Lou … [was] not bad looking as far as bears go” (21). The author has to know what he’s saying there, doesn’t he? I mean, I didn’t know Joe paid attention to bears, and I don’t know if he has a thing for them, but … c’mon.
Frank and Joe learn Chrissy was a member of the crew, but they don’t rat her out. They do offer to look for Chrissy, and while they’re waiting for visiting hours at the hospital, they “notice how relaxed and happy everyone seemed” (26) in the tourist areas. Sure, because why would these simple people be worried about anything? Joe does admit to liking the calypso music, which he also got a kick out of in The Ghost at Skeleton Rock (#37). (Note the similarity in titles; both take place in the Caribbean.)
Chrissy has already fled, though, leaving a pillow-and-sheet shaped form in the bed to confuse people. (Hospitals in St. Lucia don’t use electronic monitors?) Frank and Joe use their failure to infiltrate the Destiny’s crew. When the expedition’s financial backer, Montclare, mishandles the winch lowering the anchor, the rope catches Frank’s leg, and everyone sees “blood oozing through the sock” (37). “Good thing you had socks on,” the captain says (38), which is weird. Can socks prevent steel hawsers from cutting through your leg? Are socks vital safety equipment on boats?
Joe, who is qualified to scuba dive, is allowed to watch the underwater treasure gathering; Joe (and Frank) have done a considerable amount of underwater salvage already in the original Secret Warning (#17). (They also scuba dived in The Secret of Pirates’ Hill [#36].) After being frightened by a shark, Joe witnesses one of the crew secreting gold artifacts in her wetsuit, and Frank verifies she doesn’t hand them over to the government archaeologist on board. This makes the diver, Peg, a suspect in the attack on Chrissy: “As you know, where there’s one crime, there’s often another,” Joe says (51).
Peg, though, professes ignorance about what happened to Chrissy: “No one would be out to get Chrissy. … She’s a nice girl from the States.” Tell that to Natalee Holloway, Peg. Frank allows the line to pass. Hardy Boys novels often feel like they are in their own little bubble — Panic on Gull Island (#107), in which Iola is kidnapped on Spring Break and no one cares, is the bubbliest — but that unchallenged line takes the cake. (Not that locals are out to prey on white girls from the United States. But not being concerned that someone would assault her for being young and female seems oblivious, especially from another woman.)
Another pair of suspects pop up: Rob and Davy, Australian jackasses who try to poach treasure from sunken ships after someone else finds the ship. They offer to hire on the crew, but Capt. Flask says he has no room. When Frank and Joe take their motorboat — actually Jamal’s uncle’s boat — back toward land, Rob and Davy firebomb the boat, alleging that they want Frank and Joe’s spots on the crew. Frank and Joe survive the bombing, but the boat sinks, and Frank’s bleeding leg attracts sharks. Jamal rescues the brothers by trailing a rope from his plane, which is truly stupid; the plane and the rope would be flying by at more than a hundred miles an hour, which would make it hard to catch and harder to hold onto.
Back on land, Frank offers to buy Jamal’s an uncle a brand-new boat. Must be nice to be able to throw that kind of money around. No mention is made of going to the police, because who would want to report destruction of private property and attempted bodily harm against a pair of dangerous jackasses?
Things speed up from there. Someone sends the boys the Black Spot from Treasure Island. The boys’ next step is a bit of investigatory B&E: Frank heads to Montclare’s home, while Joe and Jamal go to Peg’s. Frank steps into Montclare’s home through an unlocked door, and in an interview, he gets Montclare to admit money problems. Joe and Jamal break into Peg (and Chrissy’s) place and are still there when Peg returns; they see her clean the encrusted treasures she stole, then they squeeze through a bathroom window. Jamal marvels over the close escape, prompting Joe to say, “Stick with me, Hawkins … I’ll show you every trick in the book.” Oh, I doubt that, Joe — you tease.
To round out the day, the boys fly over the ocean to find the Destiny. They find it at the wrong end of Skeleton Reef, and someone on deck shoots at them. When they get back to the hangar, they learn Peg stole the treasure for Capt. Flask, who is using the gold to interest outside investors into buying out Montclare and funding a pirate museum. Flask says he’ll replace the loot when he’s done.
The next day, Frank and Joe head out to find Auntie Samantha to see if she knows of another wreck the Destiny might have been near. After being shot at with spear guns — later referred to as warning shots, even though one skims Frank’s head and another grazes Joe’s arm — they find Auntie Samantha, who tells them a sunken Cuban fishing boat is at the other end of Skeleton Reef. The boat had been used to smuggle uranium out of Cuba during the Cold War. The source of the story is the “husband of a woman who was the sister-in-law of a friend of a cousin of my very own mother” (123). Obviously, that’s trustworthy.
When they get back to Jamal’s uncle’s at sunset, Jamal has struck out looking for Chrissy, but Chrissy has found her way back in an attempt to jog her memory. Frank and Joe try to feed her lines to reinforce what they think has happened, but she doesn’t remember any of it. The boys take it as confirmation anyway.
Frank gets a brainwave: He has Chrissy impersonate the ghost Rebecca as they row to the Destiny. While the two St. Lucians with rifles are agog, Jamal and Joe swim to the boat, capture them, and throw the rifles overboard. Unfortunately, Brunelli puts a knife to Frank’s throat, and two other Destiny divers turn the tables on the boys and Chrissy. The trauma does jar Chrissy’s memory: She had joined the uranium hunt but had chickened out after she realized uranium’s destructive power. Brunelli tossed her overboard, and she barely made it to land.
After Joe uses the anchor trick that caused Frank’s injuries on Brunelli, the battle spills over into the water. In a speargun battle that desperately wants to be Thunderball, the boys emerge victorious. Jamal is relieved that he’s still alive and that he’ll actually get a vacation; Joe is so excited he squeezes Jamal’s arm, which is more than Iola gets usually.