Friday, February 9, 2018

The Demolition Mission (#112)

The Demolition Mission coverThe Demolition Mission is, in some ways, an old-school Hardy Boys book.

The opening pages promise a certain kind of Hardy Boys story as Chet pulls up to the Hardy home in a POS jeep he’s just purchased through some “pretty shrewd dealing” (2). Predictably, the brakes don’t work, and as he is about to crash into the Hardys’ van, he and Joe manage to have a conversation during the split-second crisis — yelling complete sentences at each other, with Joe next to the van and Chet in the jeep’s driver’s seat. The conversation is a little lacking; Joe and Chet don’t digress into a discussion on the ontology of perception — how can we know the imminent collision, for instance, is truly real? It’s a missed opportunity here for the Dixon 5000 writing machine.

But Mission isn’t about how Chet got ripped off (although he probably did): It’s about how Fenton fobs Frank and Joe off on a client, and then Frank and Joe wanders around Bayport for 125 pages, wrecking cars and getting the snot knocked out of them.

Five concussions (of the knocked cold variety). Three car accidents, one of them in which the jeep is knocked off a hillside (and no one is hurt, despite lax seat-belt safety) and another one caused by a literal bomb inside a racecar. That crash count ignores Joe’s demolition derby practice, when his car gets T-boned and knocked on the passenger-side door. Callie is kidnapped, a villain tries to kill the Hardys through smoke inhalation (but they escapes because of Joe’s knot lore), and the heroes explore (semi-)secret tunnels. The boys fortuitously overhear a criminal conversation at a diner, but they miss an important clue about identity of the speakers. Really, all that would be needed for Hardy Boys Blackout Bingo would be a sudden storm and a trip on Barmet Bay in which the boat malfunctioned (preferably simultaneously).

Anyway: Fenton is working for the Treasury Department, so Frank and Joe are asked — not hired, really, since no one mentions money — by engineer Felix Stock to protect his new high-performance car, the Saurion, ahead of a race against Miyagi Motors’ Sata Speedster at Bayport Motor Speedway. This is what is known as a bad decision: within an hour of Frank, Joe, and Chet’s arrival, Joe destroys the Saurion’s transmission to save his own life during a sabotage attempt, then the car is stolen. Crackerjack work, boys. While everyone is looking for the Saurion, all the shelving in Stock’s parts warehouse are knocked over, domino-style, and Joe allows the culprit to get away without even an idea of how the escape was made.

Felix has no confidence in the cops, so he doubles down on his Hardys reliance. The police show up only when Con Riley arrests Chet for a crime Con knows Chet didn’t commit. (The book can’t even decide whether Riley is an “officer” [60] or “detective” [115 and 141].) Frank and Joe know the cops are most useful off the page, though. I mean, in the digital world of the ‘90s, it’s easy for the Hardys to get help from the police to identify fingerprints: After snapping an “electronic picture” of the print, Frank “transfer(s) the signals from the digital disk into our laptop fax machine, then send(s) it through the modem” to the police (91-2). Simple!

As a side note: Man, Bayport’s criminal ecology is fascinating: the police are ineffectual and the city’s best crimefighter has graduated to bigger ponds, so the city should be flooded with criminal rackets. And it is! But these rackets are so pathetic teenage boys outwit them continually. Perhaps we’re seeing the Hardys prey upon the lowest strata of criminal enterprise, the weakest of the villainous herd that are sacrificed so the rest may thrive. I would love to read an exposé, but Bayport’s various newspapers — the Examiner is mentioned in this one, although Callie is no longer a stringer there as she was in The Smoke Screen Mystery (#105) — are not up to the task. The Third Estate’s weakness is another symptom of the rot that has set into Bayport society.

At the Circuit Diner on Shore Road, the boys overhear a threat against Katie by key employees of the demolition derby, which will be held the day before the Saurion / Speedster race. The boys’ tour of Miyagi Motors, where Callie is interning, reveals nothing, but a robot arm pimp slaps Frank. (This is probable concussion #1.) It’s just an accident! Nothing to see here! Definitely nothing to report to OSHA.

On the way back to the speedway, Chet’s jeep is forced off the road by a white panel truck. Callie falls out of the jeep while it careens down a hillside, but neither she nor anyone else is hurt. (Auto accident #1; Callie is “dazed,” but I made an executive decision that it isn’t a concussion.) When the Hardys get back home, Fenton is there, but Frank and Joe ask for no help from him, other than to use his computer to run license plates. The plates don’t exist, which means the criminal has access to license plate counterfeiting equipment. Nothing comes of this.

What should be vitally important, though, is that Frank and Joe have found a random bit of electronic equipment near Felix’s garage. The next day, Grayson’s Electronics identify it as a radio-control circuit. Given that the Saurion had a sudden malfunction when Joe was driving and another prototype has a sudden, dangerous malfunction later (auto accident #2), RC criminals should be the obvious culprits. It takes three concussions for Frank to put it all together, though.

Instead, Joe joins the demolition derby to spy on derby coordinator Dwain Rusk, who they overheard at the diner. In a practice session, Joe’s junker gets knocked on its passenger-side door because Joe doesn’t know the rules. Joe survives by getting into the back seat just before the collision. (I have no idea how that works, and I can’t recommend it as a safety procedure.) When Rusk says Joe has guts, Joe “[tries] to look modest” (69), which suggests he fails to look modest.

After lunch, Frank realizes the Saurion may be hidden in the raceway’s underground tunnels and is so excited he blunders immediately into a pit in a darkened shed; Joe follows him into the inky void (concussions #2 and 3). Joe, in fact, hits the concrete floor so hard he forgets he’s carrying a penlight and then “rouses” Frank by slapping him, which can’t be good for brain health. But the boys find the car and the thief; unfortunately, the thief gets the drop on them with a flare gun, has Joe tie up Frank, then bops Joe on the head. (Concussion #4, and Joe’s second in an hour.) The helmeted crook lights a fire to kill the boys through smoke inhalation, but before they are overcome, Frank frees himself from Joe’s “slipknots” (83), and the boys escape with the Saurion.

The double concussion and smoke inhalation don’t stop Joe from driving in the demolition derby a few hours later. Why should they?

Frank, though, is concerned about Callie’s absence. He receives a note from her explaining the delay, but it’s not written in her handwriting. He figures out that Felix’s shift former mechanic, Marvin Tarpley, was around when Callie was last seen; when he confronts Tarpley, the mechanic intimates he stuffed her into the trunk of the junker Joe’s driving in the derby. To save Callie, Frank gets Joe to throw in the towel, even though he was one of only two drivers left.

Callie’s sangfroid is amazing. She’s abducted, then stuffed into a dark trunk and jounced around who knows where. This should be traumatic! But her reaction after being freed from the trunk? “‘When you invited me to the demolition derby,’ she said dryly … ‘I never thought I was going to be demolished.’”

This sort of emotional reserve is shared by other characters. When Joe drives the car for less than five minutes and destroys its transmission, no one — not the car’s designer, and not the car’s usual driver, Katie — is angry at him; they completely believe his contention that the only way to stop the malfunctioning car was to shift it into reverse while it was traveling at full speed. (Remember: this happens within an hour of Felix meeting the boys.) I mean, I might believe Joe’s assertions about what the car did, but seeing the state-of-the-art machine I designed, built, and staked my business on destroyed by a teenager would at least rattle me. I imagine I would be somewhere between screaming curses at the kid and wailing sobs, but that’s just me.

I’m not saying the book doesn’t portray people’s reactions to crises convincingly; no no no. I’m saying the lesson this book tries to teach kids is that keeping your cool is the ultimate virtue. And also that crashing cars is kinda cool.

Frank and Joe run into Tarpley the next morning after a little B&E in one of the speedway owner’s office. The boys get away with just a blow from a tire iron to Frank’s shoulder; Tarpley just gets away. Frank shrugs off the injury. But the boys discover Katie helped Tarpley escape, which means Joe gets to drive the Saurion in the big race. Frank says one of Joe’s ambitions is to drive in the Indy 500 (64), but that doesn’t mean he’s qualified. Felix is in a bind, though, and Joe’s right there — and when the Hardys visit Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Double Jeopardy (#181), Joe does get to drive an F1 car (and claims to have driven an Indy car previously), so obviously Joe has a skill: conning people into letting him drive race cars.

(Cringeworthy moment: Felix admits the reason he hired Katie to drive was because he had a crush on her. Ewwww.)

While Joe, Chet, and Felix get ready for the race, Frank investigates other leads, then gets drawn into a trap by the most convincing lie of all: that was in another car crash. Once he’s trapped, Frank is conked on the noggin for concussion #5 (third for him). While the race is roaring along, Frank comes to, escapes easily from the raceway’s tunnels, and tracks down the villains — Katie, Tarpley, and one of the speedway’s owners — with Callie and Chet.

They snatch away the controls, but a bomb has been set to explode in the car 77 minutes after the race’s beginning. Seventy-seven minutes gives Joe long enough to win the race — seems like poor planning to me: why cut it close? Why not have it explode long before then? — and the bomb takes out only the brakes. Joe survives the crash, and everything turns out OK. (At least until the chronic traumatic encephalopathy sets in during the Hardys’ forties.)

The three villains reveal they were sabotaging the Saurion to get control of Felix’s automotive intellectual property and the track itself, but that’s not important, nor is their double crossings, which don’t make any real sense. The important bit is that Frank and Joe were hit on the head several times, there were car crashes, and no one got too upset about it later.

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