So this is how the Simon & Schuster digests begin: with the theft of a bicycle.
After reading the final book, The Mystery of the Silver Star feels like part of a different series for two reasons. The most obvious is Silver Star is the product of a different era, both chronologically — it was written almost two decades before Motocross Madness — and in the conception of how a “typical” Hardy Boys book should be constructed. In Silver Star, the link to the previous paperbacks hasn’t been severed yet; Desert Phantom (#84) is mentioned early on, and all the previous paperbacks are listed on a front flyleaf. More importantly, Silver Star feels invested in the lives of the Hardys and their friends in a way later books don’t.
The Hardy adults are part of the story. Frank and Joe have to ask permission for long trips. (They sometimes are said to ask later in the series, but in this case, it feels like a hurdle rather than a perfunctory line of narration.) The family has a Gertrude-cooked supper together, and the family banters during the meal. Laura Hardy worries about her sons, coming up with chores to keep them at home when a psychic predicts disaster for them — I mean, she’s listening to a psychic, so the book isn’t perfect, but the concern is real, as is her belief in her sons.
The Hardys’ friends aren’t ignored. Callie has a birthday party at El Caballo Blanco, and she warns Frank not to miss it, like he did last year. The description of the party takes several pages, and one of the gifts involves an inside joke that goes on for far too long. Chet serves as an inspiration for a role Joe has to slip into so the Hardys can catch the villain off guard. The boys borrow Laura’s station wagon — geez, I can’t remember the last time that was mentioned — to go on a double date with Callie and Iola, and when they have to divert to New York, they make sure Laura knows she can use their van. By itself, this investment in the Hardys’ lives doesn’t make Silver Star a good book, but the effort makes it a better book.
But the second reason is one I haven’t touched on often while writing about the series. A few months before Silver Star was published, Simon & Schuster released the first few Hardy Boys Casefiles, a parallel series with a different continuity. In the first volume, Dead on Target, Iola Morton died in a car bombing meant for the boys, and Frank and Joe took on a group of assassins called, well, “the Assassins,” and work with / against “The Gray Man,” an agent of “The Network.” Joe vowed to kill Iola’s murderer; the boys use firearms — not in the casual way, like in the early books of the canon, but in the serious, gritty ‘80s way.
It’s kinda silly, but I get it: The Hardys must’ve seemed pretty hokey to the adults creating the series at the time. The Casefiles stories are a product of their era, and despite the series running twenty books longer than the S&S digests, the Casefiles were canceled almost a decade earlier, in 1997. (That’s what happens when you put a new book out every month, I suppose.)
Anyway, Silver Star attempts to differentiate the digests from the Casefiles. Instead of a bombing, the instigating crime is the theft of a bicycle — an experimental, top-of-the-line racing bicycle, yes, but still a bicycle. It’s hard to think of a larger disparity in crimes than the one between bicycle theft and assassination. When the stakes escalate, Frank tries to downplay their experience: “Kidnapping is a little out of our league,” he says (97). This has literally never been true; the Hardys rescued the kidnapped Fenton in The House on the Cliff (#2) and Chet and Biff in The Missing Chums (#4), and as recently as The Demon’s Den (#81), they’d battled kidnappers. Later, Silver Star’s plot veers toward Dead on Target, as it includes espionage and the cooperation of a spy, but even that is used to illustrate the difference between the two series: The spy is a CIA agent, not from the fictional, ultra-super-dooper-secret Network, and no one dies. The spy the boys capture has the decency to be embarrassed that he was outwitted by teenagers rather than committing suicide, like the Assassin did in Dead on Target.
Silver Star has its good points, but as I mentioned above, they mostly revolve around the depth of the supporting characters and Frank and Joe treating them like real people. Chet steals his early scene, using his double-dip ice-cream cone to impersonate a reporter and make fun of the set-up: “Bayport’s pride and joy, that duo of dynamite detective work, Frank and Joe Hardy! … Eighteen-year-old Frank Hardy, the brown-haired, brown-eyed older of the two — … give me your honest opinion. Don’t you think all of this hoopla is a bit much for just a silver-colored bicycle?” (2-3). Chet knows his friends are working because when they are on a case, Joe is wears sunglasses — which isn’t true — and because “Frank always comes off like a walking encyclopedia on topics he didn’t used to know anything about” (4), which is absolutely true.
As it turns out later, some of Frank’s arcane knowledge is that competitive cyclists sweat, and they drink water to replace the fluid. I mean, the narration specifically says Frank mentions this “to demonstrate his knowledge of cycling” (13). I don’t remember the ’80s that well, but I do know that we were told all the time when competing, even in more sedate sports, that we needed to drink water.
Is it any wonder Frank and Joe ditch Chet the first time he turns his back (for more ice cream)? He thoroughly broasted them. (Isn’t that what the kids say today?) And Frank and Joe can’t even come up with a decent parry when Chet says, out of nowhere, “I’m built for endurance, not for speed” (3). I mean, the possible put-downs for that out-of-nowhere line practically write themselves.
So racing cyclist Keith Holland asks Frank and Joe (through Con Riley) for their help. The setup has been done a bazillion times before in the Hardy Boys: Pranks / accidents have been following Keith during his long-distance charity race against Gregg Angelotti, and Keith, worried, wants Frank and Joe to get to the bottom of things. After chatting with Keith in his motor home, which is decorated like a kid’s bedroom with trophies and ribbons, Frank and Joe accept. As always when Frank and Joe investigate, things have to get worse before they get better. In this case, someone shoots Keith’s experimental super-bike, the Silver Star, during a race and steals the bike. Later, Keith disappears, leaving a note behind saying he’ll be back, but no one connected to him believes he left of his own free will. To find him, Frank and Joe solve the mystery of Keith’s neighbor, who has been arrested for espionage, and discover a rogue secret agent. Of course they find Keith and his bike, and they capture the spy. The end!
I mean, it’s not really that simple. Silver Star has a few complicating factors, of course. There’s a local psychic, Molly Frankel, whom everyone takes seriously — Frank says, “She’s always been legit” (37) — and who makes several doom-laden predictions about Frank and Joe and Keith. Someone plants a bug in the Hardys’ van, but they don’t notice him until he jumps out — while the van is in motion — and they don’t find the bug for days; the spy escapes, even though Frank makes the van go so fast the tires squeal on dirt. (When they do find the bug, they crush it, rather than use it to spread misinformation, and the villain mocks the brothers’ jejune conversations during their final confrontation.) When a suspect resists their questioning, Frank “wished [they] had something that looked like a private investigator license” (30), never thinking, well, Frank might be able to get a license; the suspect calls Bayport “crime-ridden” (30), not even knowing teenagers are the city’s main crime investigators. Frank gets an address wrong, and he and Joe end up in the middle of ‘80s New York, where they are accosted by a gang of knife-wielding auto thieves who are scared away by their car alarm.
Once Keith vanishes, the documentarian filming the race admits he pulled the pranks, trying to build some drama for the narrative. Realizing their investigation has uncovered nothing of value, the Hardys head to Keith’s hometown, Boulder, Colo., to look into Keith’s next-door neighbor, Mariana Bornquist, whom the CIA has accused of espionage. The CIA initially arrests Frank and Joe for breaking into Mariana’s home, but one phone conversation with Fenton gets Frank and Joe out of custody and into the thick of the investigation. (I like to think it wasn’t Fenton’s name or reputation that bailed out his sons but rather Fenton’s knowledge that the CIA isn’t allowed to conduct domestic operations in the United States, and the FBI should be in charge.)
(Side note: The narration contends doughnut holes are a local delicacy in Boulder. They’re everywhere now, of course, but Silver Star was written in 1987. Does anyone know if this was true? I mean, Dunkin’ Donuts created the first Munchkins in 1972, and Tim Hortons introduced Timbits in 1976, but I don’t know how great their market penetration would have been other than the northeast / northern Midwest.)
Frank and Joe’s plan to capture Derek Willoughby, the spy who blackmailed Mariana into stealing weapons secrets, is complicated by the boys’ lack of operational intelligence, and Frank and Joe run headlong into the villains’ trap. Derek’s thugs kidnap the boys but find the tracker the CIA had planted on the boys without their knowing only halfway through the abduction. (It’s good to know the CIA suspects the boys are morons.) The thugs take the Hardys to Keith, Derek, and the bike. Derek is looking for the microfilm Mariana claimed to have hidden in Keith’s silver bike, now disassembled; Frank cooks up a cock-and-bull story to convince them to reassemble it, then rides out the door with Frank and Keith running behind. The CIA, in the area anyway because of the tracker, and Derek is humiliated. As he should be — not only was he foiled by teenagers, but the microfilm was in a bike in Keith’s Bolder garage, not in the super experimental Silver Star.
And that’s the end of the beginning for Simon & Schuster’s digests, and that’s the end of the end for me. Thanks for reading! I may be back with other posts, but don’t expect anything on a regular schedule. (Like you should expect that anyway, given this site’s posting history.)