Friday, August 30, 2019

The Mystery of the Silver Star (#86)

Mystery of the Silver Star coverSo 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.)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Alternate Visions of the End

So Motocross Madness is an unsatisfying ending to the Hardy Boys digests. That gives me the opportunity to ask myself: How would I have ended the series?

First of all, I would have waited until #200 to end the series. (That’s comic-book thinking; comic-book publishers love to make a big deal out of round numbers.) Continuing the six-book per year schedule, that would have meant #200 would have been released near the end of 2006 … or we could stall for time and release it in 2007, the Hardy Boys 80th anniversary. Making it a Christmas event, playing on the nostalgia market to make it a gift idea (more comic-book thinking) probably would have been more profitable; it would also leave the 80th anniversary year clear for the relaunch. I would have also made the final book an event: double the length, released in a hardcover edition. (More comic-book thinking; round numbers, extra-long issues, and special cover formats go together. I’m not suggesting the book should have a chrome or lenticular or a die-cut cover … well, if it’s a paperback, maybe a die-cut cover wouldn’t be so bad.)

As for the story itself, I would have the Hardys and their friends graduate from high school again. That would be more of a background element, though, like it was in the original Great Airport Mystery (#10). The real mystery would come from Hurd Applegate — or his estate, at least. Hurd appeared in The Tower Treasure, the first Hardy Boys story, and he most recently appeared in The Secret of the Island Treasure (#100), so it makes sense that he’d have a role in #200. In my ending, I’d have Hurd’s will leave a mystery for the Hardys; whether that mystery is a puzzle he constructed to challenge them or an ambiguity they need to clear up or something Hurd wanted resolved doesn’t matter much to me.

The Hardys would be helped by all the chums who’d had a role in the past: Chet, Tony, Biff, Phil, Jamal Hawkins, even Perry Robinson and Jerry Gilroy. Iola and Callie would get a chance to be real girlfriends and to stand by themselves as more than girlfriends; after all, Callie was class valedictorian in The Great Airport Mystery, and with an expanded page count, there’s no reason they can’t participate more fully in the mystery. Fenton, Laura, and Gertrude should make more than token appearances, and if the book throws in some connection to the Hardys’ forebears, well, so much the better.

Ideally, different eras and prominent locales would be represented; a trip to Cabin Island is a must, and they should take a Chinese junk as a ferry to New York, a reference to the Mystery of the Chinese Junk (#39). Perhaps they can visit mad scientist Eben Adar from the original Disappearing Floor (#19), or failing that, they can poke around the Perth estate from the revised edition. Their science teacher / track coach, Cap Bailey, who appeared in a couple of ‘50s mysteries, can advise them, or maybe something sinister is happening at Woodson Academy, Fenton’s alma mater, which showed up in The Yellow Feather Mystery (#33). Jack Wayne and Sam Radley could make cameos. Even one of the dumb mysteries could be referenced; an UGLI or SKOOL agent from The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46) could pop up, for instance. The Blackwing Mansion from The Blackwing Puzzle (#82) might be another return locale. Heck, the Hardys could explore all the historical mansions in Bayport, perhaps using a previously unknown tunnel system.

Say, I like that idea. Linking these tunnels to Bayport’s history, like the slave trading done by the original owner of the Blackwing Mansion, or to the city’s Chinatown might give the book an extra hook. No — link it to the Prohibition era, during which the series began.

That’s what I would want, but Simon & Schuster would probably want links to the books they published after they bought out the Stratemeyer Syndicate. It would be hard to fault them for that, and I’m not against that. Unfortunately, those digests — the ones I’ve gone over here — are not as engaging as the original canon, and to be honest, they aren’t going to be as enduring. (And most likely, the paperback part of the canon, #59-85, won’t outlast the S&S digests.)

So what might we add to this final story from these digests? WBPT has shown up a few times, and I think Jamal Hawkins is a worthy addition to the supporting cast. I’d even add Daphne Soesbee to the mix, even though she’s shown up only three times. Author Stephen D. Sullivan has made Officer Gus Sullivan a viable choice, although he’s less vital than Con Riley or Chief Collig. Granite Cay, the island in The Secret of the Island Treasure, might make another worthwhile setting. Happy Burger from The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping (#120) could pop up. They solve mysteries based around Bayport sports entertainment complexes, temporary or otherwise, more than a dozen times, so I suppose they could visit an empty stadium or two; they have a proclivity for amateur dramatics, so skulking around the Grand Theater from Cast of Criminals (#97) or the Orpheum from The Giant Rat of Sumatra (#148) might work, especially if the tunnel system had an exit there.

But I’m shoehorning; I don’t have any real enthusiasm for any of these, save Jamal. Vette Smash from Wreck and Roll (#185) could play a concert in one of those theatres for a post-graduation bash; that would work. Day of the Dinosaur (#128) introduced the Bayport museum, which is located at the former Sackville Mansion; the mansion would make a good stop on the underground tunnel tour, and the museum’s dinosaur park, stocked with “Dino-bots,” is worth revisiting. Psychic Colin Randles and his family from The Case of the Psychic’s Vision (#177) would be fun to mock, if nothing else.

The story would need the usual trappings: the brothers getting knocked out, people getting kidnapped, car trouble, strange forms of transportation (I don’t think they’ve ever used Segways), smugglers. (That would go with the tunnels.) The food should be plentiful; the storms should be severe. Every bit of crimefighting kit should be at their fingertips or under a coating of dust in storage, and science-fictional devices should be available. (Could combine that with transportation and put the brothers in the new Bayport Hyperloop.) Parental supervision should be nonexistent, even though the Hardy parents and Gertrude would be present; the boys should order the police force around like their own private security team. The Sleuth and the Skyhappy Sal should return.

The boys should kiss their girlfriends like they mean it, just once.

We obviously didn’t get this, and we never will. But honestly, I don’t think I’m asking for too much — just everything I want.


Friday, August 16, 2019

Motocross Madness (#190)

Motocross Madness coverSo Motocross Madness is how the digests end: with Frank and Joe competing in a motocross competition while trying to find out who’s sabotaging the event.

On one hand, it’s an entirely appropriate ending. It’s a Bayport story, and Bayport is the heart of the Hardy Boys stories. The plot involves a multi-stage competition in which Frank and Joe succeed as talented amateurs; these pop every ten books or so. (See Warehouse Rumble, #183, Trouble Times Five, #173, Training for Trouble, #161, or a dozen other books.) Frank and Joe make passing mentions of their history; Frank says, “I remember reading accounts of Hardys riding cycles as long ago as nineteen twenty-seven” (26) — 1927 being the year the first Hardy Boys book was published — and Joe says, “Sometimes I feel like we’ve been solving mysteries for the better part of a century” (40). Aunt Gertrude makes an appearance to worry about the boys’ safety, which is something she always used to do, and when she gave it up, we discovered no one else really cared. Joe also mentions that time “we rode down Bay Road to that House by the cliffs” (40), a reference to The House by the Cliff, the second Hardy Boys story (and still one of the greatest). Bayport continuity pops up in TV station WBPT and the Bayport Journal-Times, which evidently is a merger of two of Bayport’s newspapers.

Stephen D. Sullivan wrote Motocross Madness, and he’s probably the best candidate to write a send-off. (Well, maybe Chris Lampton, who seemed to specialize in Bayport-area mysteries, would have been a better choice, depending on your point of view, but Lampton hadn’t written a book since The Case of the Cosmic Kidnapping, #120.) The book has a few of his hallmarks: Callie, Iola, and Chet head to Jewel Ridge, Conn., and the motorcycle offered as a prize for the winner of the motorcycle competition is an O’Sullivan SD5, with SD standing for “Stephen D.,” one imagines.

On the other hand, I don’t believe the plan was to make Motocross Madness the final book. When the Casefiles series was axed seven years before, Simon & Schuster had at least one completed (or nearly completed) book in the pipeline, and nothing about this book screams “grand send-off.” (That’s not surprising; little about the digests suggests any sort of overarching plan.) Chet, Iola, and Callie are barely mentioned; the only pal present is Jamal Hawkins, who I think is a great character but who would be an odd choice to represent the Hardys’ chums in a final book. The continuity notes could have been bolted on, and Sullivan writing probably was a coincidence.

Motorcross Madness is an inoffensive book, with few of the previous books’ gaffes that made me chortle and make feverish notes. But the mystery itself is half-baked. Sullivan needed more space to develop the story, whether to check on the condition of a competitor whose motorcycle literally explodes in the middle of a jump or to explain how Frank and Joe knew the motive for some of the incidents or to explore the effects of a bridge collapse in the middle of a race. Still, Sullivan keeps the story moving, which excuses a lot of problems.

So Frank and Joe get roped into charity motocross competition by Jamal, who — in addition to being an small-plane pilot — is also a pretty good amateur motorcycle racer. Since the event uses smaller 125-cc bikes and is designed to raise money for the medical expenses of the daughter of a motocross track owner, Frank and Joe don’t need too much convincing. (Today, Corrine Fernandez and her family would head to GoFundMe, which is far less of a hassle than designing, promoting, coordinating, and operating a motocross competition. See how far we’ve come with health care in just 14 years!) The prize is the O’Sullivan, which is similar to post-war BSA motorcycles. The O’Sullivan’s real attraction, however, is that Corrine’s father restored it, in part, with pieces from the garage of Gus Metzger, who designed a super-engine that was destroyed in its first run. (Metzger also destroyed the engine’s plans before the first run and died before he could build a second engine.)

The problems start early. While Frank and Joe are signing up, a helmet-clad trespasser bulls his way out of the track’s office and past the brothers. They can’t be arsed with stopping him or chasing him, which gives me Spider-Man flashbacks. (The non-burglar doesn’t end up killing their Uncle Ben or even their Aunt Gertrude.) Someone uses a small fire at the pre-race party at the VFW to clear the room while he / she / they commit petty theft. During the first day of competition, one of the two top pros at the event is knocked out of contest and into the hospital when his motorcycle explodes during a stunt jump. (No one seems to care; the Hardys don’t interview him or check in on the investigation of the explosion; they don’t even visit the fellow in the hospital.) Someone tries to steal the first day’s gate, which the brothers do care about; they recover the money but lose the thief. On the second day, someone smacks Jamal on the skull, ties him up, and takes his place on the track, racing badly to eliminate him from the competition. But Frank and Joe discover Jamal and alert track officials; before the impostinator can be unmasked (unhelmeted, I guess), he leads Frank and Joe on a merry chase through a nearby construction yard and escapes.

The suspect list is too long to list — or really, the suspects are too indistinguishable to care about. Only Justin Davies stands out, and that’s because of his unspecified grudge with Jamal. We don’t know how Justin and Jamal’s enmity started, but it has escalated; Jamal says Davies “nearly ran me over at a crosswalk last week. Then he tried to make it look like my fault” (45). Before one of the races, Davies uses his motorcycle to splash mud all over Jamal, which causes Jamal to start a fistfight with Davies. With all due respect to Sullivan, I doubt Jamal would have responded with violence so quickly; he’s an upper-middle–class African-American kid who probably endured more and has been blamed for most of it. (As evidenced by Davies trying to make the crosswalk incident look like Jamal’s fault.) He’s never shown a hair trigger before. I have to imagine it would take a shaved-head fellow like Davies using the n-word before Jamal flew off the handle; I also have no doubt Davies probably has used the n-word in Jamal’s presence.

In any event, a reprobate roll call would be useless. Equally useless would be delving into the accuracy of the motocross stunt names Sullivan uses, like “no-footed can-can” and “cowboy split” (61); the former seems legit, the latter not, but I don’t care. Anyway, the final event — an endurance race — starts without Frank and Joe having made any real headway on whodunnit or why. (I mean, they suspect someone wants the O’Sullivan, but that’s a no-brainer.) During the endurance event, thugs on a motorcycle knock out Jamal and another racer in an attempt to steal their rides. Frank and Joe — in the middle of the race, no less — defeat them, tie them up, and rejoin the race. The two thugs are revealed as outclassed competitors who faked injuries to drop out and concentrate on their thieving.

Frank and Joe regain some of their track positon, but as they pass over a bridge, it collapses behind them. They do not seem to care about the effect this will have on the competitors they passed. They end up tied for third, with Corrine’s brother, Paco, winning over the remaining pro, Amber Hawk. (I will give Sullivan considerable credit on one front: The competitors are pretty evenly distributed between men and women, and no one suggests the women / girls are at any disadvantage against their male competitors.) At the unveiling of the O’Sullivan, a masked rider steals the prize, racing off toward the construction site again. This time the Hardys capture him, burying him and the motorcycle under cement dust.

So the mystery’s solution is that there were two different groups working the competition, which would have been interesting if Frank and Joe had figured it out beforehand. The robbery-type crimes were perpetrated by the two Frank and Joe caught on the track; the ones that were designed to eliminate competitors were perpetrated by the father of another competitor, who wanted his daughter to win the O’Sullivan; he also sabotaged the course — including the collapsing bridge — to help his daughter. When that didn’t work, he turned to grand theft motocross.

So why is the O’Sullivan so danged important? Well, it’s because of the parts from Metzger’s garage — specifically, the gas tank. While Metzger burned the blueprints for his supercycle, he used the gas tank to sketch the original design, making the tank valuable … assuming its use as a, you know, gas tank, didn’t also destroy the sketches.

But the good news is that Corrine’s family not only has the money from a successful fundraiser, but they also have the O’Sullivan and the gas-tank designs. Frank and Joe have the pleasure of competing and another mystery solved under their belt. The last page has a note of finality to it; when asked what they are going to do next, Frank says, “Who knows?,” and Joe asks, “A long vacation, maybe?” (154). Jamal hopes they will “both be ready to rev up and race new criminals” (154), which may be a hint about the new series; the Undercover Brothers ad on the inside back cover, which faces the final page, claims the brothers will have motorcycles.

As for me? Well, I was a little disappointed by the finale, but I did learn that “Klaxon” is a trademarked term, as Sullivan capitalizes the word. According to Wikipedia, a Klaxon is specific warning siren — think the “ahooga” of a submarine as it dives. This is a small consolation, though.

But I’m not done! I have one last digest to go: the first one. I’ll be back in two weeks for that one.

Friday, August 9, 2019

George Edward Stanley

One Final Step is George Edward Stanley’s last published book set in anything resembling the original Hardy Boys continuity. He published a few Hardy Boys Secret Files books after Final Step, and he wrote a pair of Hardy Boys books that weren’t published and don’t have a date in the University of Southern Mississippi’s George Edward Stanley Papers guide. One of the unpublished books was written originally for the later Undercover Brothers series with the original title Living with Blue People; the title morphed to Desert Danger and finally to Sahara Oil!, but Living with Blue People is as nearly as perfect an encapsulation of Stanley’s Hardy Boys work as can be imagined. Like his Hardy Boys books, the title is inexplicable on its own and completely clashes with the Hardy Boys style and tone, and I can’t read it without thinking about how bad it is.

I’ve been hard on Stanley, but that’s only because his Hardy Boys books are awful. But that’s just his Hardy Boys books! He wrote literally dozens of other children’s books, as evidenced by the archived version of his faculty web page; some of his works written under pseudonyms, like the digest Hidden Mountain (#186) and his Secret Files work, aren’t even included. He was a professor of African and Middle-Eastern languages and linguistics at Cameron University, a state college in southwest Oklahoma. Another biography has more astonishing information: He earned a doctorate in literature! He was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame in 1994! He was a member of the National Council of Less-Commonly Taught Languages, which isn’t that prestigious, but it’s fun to know! He taught creative writing to others! He was a working writer that publishers turned to, time and again!

George Edward Stanley, who passed away in 2011, had an amazing career. His family and friends should be proud of him, regardless of what I say about him. I mean, his Hardy Boys stories are poor, which is disappointing, given that reading the Hardys and other juvenile series inspired his writing career, but that’s just one aspect of his impressive life. The rest of his career extended far beyond most people’s achievements.

Friday, August 2, 2019

One False Step (#189)

One False Step coverI approached the penultimate Hardy Boys digest, One False Step, with some trepidation. George Edward Stanley, who wrote One False Step, had also written two of the worst books in the digest series (The Case of the Psychic’s Vision, #177, and Hidden Mountain, #186). What if One False Step lived up — or down, if you want to think of it that way — to that standard? Or would it be worse if it didn’t?

Well, One False Step is not in the same class as Psychic’s Vision or Hidden Mountain, for ill or for good. It’s obviously a Stanley story; it has the weird level of unimportant details that Stanley must feel gives depth to the story but just ends up being weird. Do we care Aunt Gertrude is reading a romance novel, The Bride from Butte, that has been written by the granddaughter of one of Gertrude’s college friends? No. Why would we? Neither the book nor its author pops up again. Do we care Callie has an identical (but distant) cousin, Mary Beth Edwards, in New York? Well, kinda, but Mary Beth doesn’t show up at all; she’s just a passing mention, a robbery victim whom Frank and Joe hear about but never talk to. I understand naming the Bayport High School cafeteria lady, Mrs. Conroy, but her banter with the Hardys and their chums is a waste of page space.

And then you’ve got Frank and Joe’s new next-door-neighbor and friend, Matt Jenkins. (No mention of whether his family replaced the Forsythes, mentioned in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk [#39], or if they moved in on the other side.) He never turns into a Larry Stu the way Colin Randles does in Psychic’s Vision, but we learn all sorts of irrelevant detail about him: He lived in Botswana, his father was a well-known mystery writer who died of cancer, his mother is a diplomat, and he wants a “normal American high-school experience” (8) like seeing Aerocircus, a weird circus that sells tickets at more than $200 a pop. None of that is relevant, except for the last one, as Matt drags Frank, Joe, Chet, and Tony to Philadelphia at the last moment to see Aerocirque, without first securing tickets.

Well, Matt also uses his Africa sense when Joe doesn’t read the chapter in his history book on apartheid; Matt gives him a lecture on the subject, which he knows about because he lived in Botswana and “apartheid affected all the surrounding countries” (3). That’s like a Canadian telling a Russian about Jim Crow legislation because, hey, Canadians are like Americans and right next door. Still, Joe says, “I should get an A on that test!” (3), and Frank says, “I learned a lot of things about that time too” (3).

That Frank ended that statement with “fellow kids” should be understood, even though it’s not on the page.

Stanley’s handling of the supporting cast is a mixed bag. Chet in included only so everyone can make food jokes, which is standard for a Hardy Boys story, and even though that should be condemned (to an extent), I also don’t want to talk about it. Tony Prito is added to the boys’ trip to Philadelphia because … because … I don’t know why, honestly. I don’t know why the expedition needs a fifth boy, and Tony adds nothing to the story; they don’t need his muscle or knowledge or even his mass as ballast. He doesn’t even use his Italian heritage and food-service experience to complain about / laud Philly cheese-steak sandwiches or hoagies or Italian roast-pork sandwiches or water ice (aka “Italian ice”) or strombolis. I had to double check to make sure the fifth boy wasn’t Phil Cohen or Biff Hooper or Jamal Hawkins. I’m still not entirely sure Stanley was consistent throughout — not because I doubt Stanley’s ability to get the name right but because it didn’t matter.

Girls, on the other hand, fare better. Iola gets in cutting remarks about Callie’s overachieving nature and her brother’s comic-book collection. Callie appears only momentarily, delivering the news of her cousin’s robbery. Gertrude is teased about whether wedding bells are in the future for her and her friend, Mr. Phillips. (The last time Gertrude had a possible romantic entanglement, it was with Clayton Silvers in Past and Present Danger, #166.) The girls in Philadelphia like the boys, or maybe boys in general; when local girls party with the Hardys and their chums, the boys are never lacking in dance partners, and Tony picks up digits from many of them. The girls ask the boys to tell them about Bayport, which … well, where do you start? (After that, Elisabeth, the hostess of the party the boys go to, points out how rich her female friends are, which confuses Frank and Joe, but I think she confused the word “sleuth” for “gigolo.”) Later, Frank and Joe get a couple of girls to show them some Philadelphia “hospitality,” if you know what I mean.

(What I mean is “historical sites” and “lunch at an exclusive restaurant.”)

In Philadelphia, Frank, Joe, and their friends are allowed to stay with one of Fenton’s contacts, Det. Mario Zettarella, and his wife, Gina. Five teenage boys are a lot to have dumped into your house at the last moment, but the Zettarellas don’t mind; they have five grown boys, and Gina enjoys nothing more the feeding and care of teenagers. She was a stock trader for a brokerage before she married Mario, but raising a family — and cooking! — is more fulfilling for her. Why, even with her children out of the house, she doesn’t consider returning to a brokerage! (This is important, but Stanley doesn’t mention it again.)

Frank and Joe say this is their first time in Philadelphia, but that’ s not true. In Shield of Fear (#91), Frank and Joe helped their father expose organized crime and corrupt officers in the Philadelphia police. (This will become important later — or would have, if anyone had remembered it.) They passed through Philadelphia in the revised Secret Warning (#17), Twisted Claw (#18), and Short-Wave Mystery (#24) and the original Secret of the Lost Tunnel (#29), but Frank and Joe don’t do anything there. Interestingly, the Hardys will return to Philadelphia two books later, albeit in a different continuity, in Extreme Danger, the first Undercover Brothers book.

The only mystery in One False Step is whether everyone in the book is brain damaged, or if we’re supposed to pretend they aren’t. The Mary Beth’s family’s high-rise apartment is robbed, an impossible crime with only a few strange marks left on their balcony. The Edwardses weren’t at home because they were at a performance of Aerocirque, the Cirque du Soleil ripoff that uses helicopters to support the tightropes and trapezes.

(I admit, that level of precision flying and acrobatics is impressive; I don’t believe helicopters could remain reliably steady long enough to support the equipment, and tying two helicopters together sounds horribly dangerous. I also imagine multiple helicopters inside a stadium would produce hearing-destroying levels of decibels. Still, I’d probably go see it.)

Anyway, an impossible robbery of a high-rise apartment should suggest daring, high-altitude acrobatics acts faster than you can say “Wallenda,” but no one makes the connection in New York. No one in Philadelphia makes the connection to Aerocirque when another high-rise apartment is robbed in an identical matter, even though Mario is working security at Aerocirque and is called to the robbery as soon as the show is over. (His position is the only way the boys were able to get into Aerocirque, which is mighty convenient!) The police instead waste their time interviewing fired chauffeurs. Frank and Joe make the connection eventually — not after any epiphany or discovering new evidence but after seeing Elisabeth, the daughter of Aerocirque’s founder, point at apartment buildings while talking to an acrobat.

The brothers tell Mario, and he inserts them into the high-wire troupe that is going to pull the robbery. (These acrobats are all masked mutes, so the impersonations are not as difficult as one might think.) Frank and Joe are supposed to be anchors for the tightrope walkers who will cross over a street to a penthouse from an office building across the street, but one of the two tightrope walkers twists his ankle getting out of their helicopter. After the cable is fired across the street and anchored on their end, Frank and Joe are given the codes for the penthouse’s security and signaled that they must make the crossing. Walking the wire to the penthouse is no problem for the boys, since they do high-school gymnastics and have spent the day training with the troupe, but when they get to the penthouse, the security details they have are for the wrong manufacturer.

Mario and his men are inside the penthouse, so Mario tells Frank and Joe to walk back over and mime to the other two tightrope walkers what the problem is. The police need time to get over to the other building to arrest the thieves before they board their helicopter and escape. Why the police wouldn’t already be in position, given that they had the time to do so while Frank and Joe were walking over in the first place, is beyond me, but …

Well, there’s no “but,” really.

So Frank and Joe walk back over the tightrope. It’s a little more difficult this time, but Stanley makes sure to bleed the scene of most of the tension. When the Hardys complete their second tightrope walk, they find the two acrobatic thieves not only knew who Frank and Joe really were, but they’re not even mutes. The thieves subdue the boys and load them into the helicopter, planning to dump them into the Atlantic, but Elisabeth, the daughter of their legitimate and criminal boss, calls them back; she’s OK with robbery because they need money, but murder is too far. Frank and Joe are locked in a penthouse, where Mario tells them he figured out Aerocirque was behind the robberies before the Hardys did, and he told the gang / Aerocirque leader he had to cut Mario in, or he was going to jail. Mario then leaves.

After she’s left alone with the captive Hardys, Elisabeth tells them everything else. Because Frank and Joe are held in the room where the gang stores its equipment — the storage area is hidden, but keeping Frank and Joe in the same room is still a bad idea — Elisabeth is able to fire one of the cable bazookas, and Frank and Joe make one last high-wire walk. Belatedly, we learn a member of the United States Olympic Committee has told Joe “if [Joe] kept at it, he could make the [gymnastics] team in 2008” (143). Seems like we should have heard about that sort of astounding c.v. earlier!

The gang cuts the wire just before Frank makes it across, but he catches the wire, and a friendly woman lets him and Joe into her apartment. (It wouldn’t be a Stanley story if we didn’t learn completely irrelevant and boring information about the woman, Louise Schuster. “She tries to help wayward teenagers,” Frank says (147), and I weep for whatever editor worked on this book.

From there, Frank calls the FBI. Mario is arrested — he did it “for the money” (130-1), which suggests that if his wife had gone back to work, he might have remained honest — as are two of his officers, the Aerocirque acrobats, and Elisabeth. Her father escapes to the Caribbean, presumably with all the money. Crime does pay! The book ends with Matt suggesting Frank and Joe walk a tightrope as a school fundraiser; despite having decided never to walk the wire again, Frank and Joe give in to teasing and peer pressure.

This moment of lightheartedness allows us to forget Gina, whose life has been ruined by the Hardys intrusion. Frank and Joe do not see her after their abduction, and Tony, Chet, and Matt slink away. Callow teenagers!

One False Step is a poor story; an ungenerous yet still accurate assessment would be that it’s a very poor story. The digest series is littered with stories that plumb that depth, and I’m disappointed Stanley would not crash beyond that low-water mark of ineptness to give readers something sublimely ridiculous or ridiculously sublime. This was Stanley’s last chance to challenge Dr. John Button for the title of worst Hardy Boys writer, and he failed at it. That he didn’t fail by succeeding is an altogether appropriate capstone for his Hardy Boys career.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Farming Fear (#188)

Farming Fear coverFarming Fear is one of the few digests with a reasonable setup that is able to deliver on that setup.

In Farming Fear, written by Stephen D. Sullivan — and yes, Officer Gus Sullivan makes his appearance, as disinterested in doing his job as ever — Chet and Iola are concerned about their grandparents. Dave and Marge Morton live on a farm outside of Bayport, the old Morton family farm, but things aren’t all relaxing and bucolic there: “shadowy figures” (2) are lurking around the property, the animals are spooked, and small tools are missing from the barn. Chet and Iola’s parents are on a Caribbean cruise, so of course Frank and Joe are willing to help! (Callie — who is definitely Frank’s girlfriend, according to Farming Fear no matter what Hidden Mountain, #186, says — is skiing with her family.)

Despite the book having a huge retcon — the Morton farm is owned by Chet and Iola’s grandparents, not their parents, and the latest generation of Mortons has never lived on the farm — Sullivan wants to link the book to the series’s past. The farm was founded in 1927, the year of the first three Hardy Boy books, and Dave and Marge have lived there since Bayport was a “tiny seaside village” (3). This ignores that Bayport has always had a population of 50,000; I imagine when the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts they heard of a large but boring city down the coast. Since it’s winter, it’s vague what the Mortons farm, which is consistent with past depictions; I was never sure what Mr. Morton raised either. In Farming Fear, Dave and Marge have a lot of fields, which suggests they grow row crops, but the fields have a lot of ponds, which suggests they raise livestock. Yet Iola says they have only a couple of cows, and Chet says they keep the cows and some horses “for tradition” (9). The Mortons had horses and cows in the original canon, and the land contained a bog, but in Farming Fear there are no orchards and no vineyards, no mention of pigs or poultry; the only heavy equipment seems to be one tractor. What are Dave and Marge growing?

(Also retconned, inasmuch as anyone cares: Chet and Iola’s grandfather is Ezekiel Morton, not Dave, in both versions of The Crisscross Shadow [#32]. Old Mr. Smith has land abutting the Morton farm in both versions of the next book, The Hooded Hawk Mystery, and the Abby Sayers estate is next door in The Four-Headed Dragon [#69], but neither is mentioned in Farming Fear; I admit both are prime candidates to be bought out. An apple orchard is mentioned several times in the canon but isn’t mentioned at all in Farming Fear; according to The Melted Coins [#23], Chet and Iola’s father bought the farm, but Farming Fear says it’s been in the family for five generations. In The Pentagon Spy, #61, Mr. Osborn is the Morton farmhand, although Farming Fear does mention the Mortons cut back to one farmhand during the fallow months, so Osborn could be laid off for the winter. Or throwing pumpkin bombs in New York.)

Soon after Frank and Joe go with Chet and Iola to the Morton farm, a tractor charges them from the barn. The Mortons’ farmhand, Bill Backstrom, claims someone rewired the tractor to start up unexpectedly and jammed both the gas and brake, but … well. Later, when the kids go on a horse ride, someone shoots at them. Well, maybe someone shoots at them; they hear the crack of a rifle several times, but it’s not like they hear bullets whistling by or the smack of a bullet into a tree or rock, and the only person they see with a firearm is the Mortons’ crotchety neighbor, Vic Costello, and he has a shotgun, not a rifle. Could’ve been a hunter, for all they know.

The next day, the Mortons’ sheepdog, Bernie, is stolen. The Bayport PD sends a pair of officers out, but they aren’t very interested. Why should they be? The crime didn’t happen in Bayport. Shouldn’t the Mortons have called the sheriff of whatever county they are in? Besides, it’s winter, which means Bayport is never more than six hours from a possible blizzard, and the cops have better things to do than look for a missing dog. It’s probably a prank, according to Officer Sullivan: “Farm kids have strange sense of humor, sometimes” (49), which — as a former farm kid myself, with absolutely no ability to self-reflect — I have to say I resent.

Because officers Gus Sullivan and Julie Scott shrugged their way through the interview, the kids decide to investigate. They track snowmobile tracks in the Mortons’ motorized buggy, which is an old, stripped-down VW Beetle with no body panels on it. After Chet makes a Batman reference, they follow the snowmobiles to a ridge which marks the border between the Morton property and a neighbor, and the Hardys trigger an avalanche. Chet and the owner of the neighboring property, Leo Myint, dig the Hardys out.

After that … well, mysteries like Farming Fear makes me wonder about Frank and Joe’s efficacy. No, even though the initial problems are always ignorable — although maybe only barely — before they investigate, you can’t blame them for the increased violence and destruction. And yes, they solve the mystery … more or less. On the other hand, when Frank and Joe get involved in one of these vague cases, things escalate quickly. I mean, they get out of hand, fast.

Nobody gets stabbed in the heart with a trident, of course, but the two snowmobilers Frank and Joe catch in the barn that night attempt the American equivalent: trying to run them through with pitchforks. (Frank and Joe pursue them, but Frank drives the buggy into one of those pesky ponds.) A blizzard hits the area, knocking out electricity and telephone service. A realtor, Patsy Stein, keeps pressuring Dave and Marge to sell their farm so they can build yet another mall in Bayport. (Given commercial trends over the last fifteen years, I think Dave and Marge are doing her a favor.) Frank and Joe get treed by Vic Costello’s dogs, which he claims someone set loose. Someone tries to burn down the barn, and only with the help of Backstrom and neighbor J.J. Zuis do they get it under control. (For some reason, while putting out the fire, they don’t think to use the abundant piles of solid water, a.k.a. snow, to put it out.) The farm’s water tower is sabotaged, collapsing as the teenagers try to draw water for the night.

All this is dispiriting to Dave and Marge, who tentatively decide to sell out. I mean, they blame “foreign trade” and “market fluctuations” (130), but they admit all the problems are making the modern farming world less attractive to deal with. Iola and Chet are stunned, but Frank and Joe don’t give up. While the teenagers are pulling the buggy from the pond, they spot the snowmobilers, Chet and Iola go for help; Joe drives Frank after the snowmobilers. They discover the two snowmobilers are opposed to each other; one, driven by Costello’s son, crashes, and while Frank and Joe load the teenager onto their buggy, the other returns, firing a rifle. The boys flee, and in a story as old as time, the villain shoots a power line, causing it to snap and crackle, and accidentally electrocutes himself. Oops!

The boys unmask — unhelmet? — the rifleman and reveal he’s Leo Myint, who didn’t want the Mortons or Costello holding up the development because his industrial park is hemorrhaging money. (The other guy who tried to pitchfork Frank and Joe was one of Myint’s employees.) But it doesn’t matter, really; it could have been Backstrom or Stein or J.J. Zuis or J.J. Yeley or J. Jonah Jameson. As long as the Hardys caught someone, the mystery can end, they can recover Bernie the sheepdog, and the Mortons can back out of selling their land. (Although at one point I thought Joe might be behind the sabotage — the only time he gets to touch Iola is either when he pulls her out of the way of danger or when he’s comforting Iola with a “sturdy arm” [25].)

In any event: it’s a back-to-basics book, with plenty of emphasis on chores and winter sports and little concern with “investigating” or “thinking.” It could be better, possibly; it most definitely could be worse. As it is, Farming Fear is pleasant, and with only a few books to go, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Friday, July 5, 2019

No Way Out (#187)

No Way Out coverBy the time you get to pg. 3 of No Way Out, you’ve got a decision to make: Do you reject the reality of a story set on Cape Breton Island and based around a “Mazemaster” named Chezleigh Alan Horton, or do you roll with it? If you decide to roll with it, you’ll have to make the same decision every few pages: Do I care how Frank and Joe have known Ray and Kay, Horton’s twin children, “for years” (2) despite being, well, from Cape Breton Island? Why are mazes celebrated with a RenFaire? Would the opening of a new hedge maze really draw multiple news outlets, and would it draw a raucous crowd who supply thunderous applause?

A reasonable person would reject this weird reality at some point. As someone very close to having read all the Hardy Boys digests, I do not qualify as “reasonable,” so I marched through No Way Out.

You — again, supposing you to be a reasonable person — would expect that since the story begins with a Mazemaster (ugh) unveiling a brand-new maze as part of a maze competition, then mazes would be a key element in the story. Hell, put aside a reasonable person’s expectations: The laws of storytelling demand the maze figure prominently in the mystery. But no, No Way Out mostly ignores the maze and its inherent dramatic possibilities. (This will disappoint anyone who wanted a Shining homage in a Hardy Boys book.) Without the maze, the title is nonsensical; I mean, it’s hard to find a “way out” of a maze if you don’t go in, but that’s a technical distinction reasonable and most unreasonable people overlook.

Instead of the maze, the story piles up other elements that go nowhere and add nothing: codes, espionage, a ghost story, rumors of a lost family treasure, Olympic archers. It’s all so pointless — even more so than the standard Hardy Boys story.

And we never do find out how Frank and Joe know Jay and May.

The story begins, as too many Hardy Boys stories do, with the Hardys meeting previously unrevealed friends in a far-off place, bonding over an unusual hobby. The far-off place is ostensibly exotic but as in reality as dull as the places your parents took you for family vacations; the hobby is supposed to be interesting but is presented in a way that makes a museum on a Wednesday morning seem livelier. In this case, the Hardys have arrived on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, for a maze competition. But just as Chezleigh Alan Horton — he goes by Alan — unveils his maze and announces some medieval competitions, like jousting, that will lead up to a main mazerunning event, someone shoots an arrow into the maze, setting hedges on fire. Oh noes! And while extinguishing the fire, Alan discovers the interior of the maze has been wrecked as well. Double oh noes!

The obvious suspect is Vincenzo Blackstone — of the Roman Blackstones, I suppose. He’s a rival … *sigh* mazemaster who allegedly sabotages rivals to make up for his lack of talent. Unfortunately, no one other than the Hardys can be arsed to figure out whether he’s on Cape Breton Island. Joe hacks into Blackstone’s computer to get background and contact info; Frank copies it into his PDA, an act that is about as early 21st century as a story gets, and it helps distract readers from the improbability of Joe the impetuous meathead being a hacker.

Joe shows his lack of respect for privacy doesn’t extend only to villains’ private info; he also wanders into Alan’s private sanctum without knocking. When Alan snipes that his family knows not to “invade my little den unless they’re invited” (39), Joe says, “I hear you” — and then doesn’t leave or apologize. When Alan’s private phone rings and Alan pointedly holds off answering until Joe leaves, Joe still stands around like a lump. You’re a great houseguest, Joe.

During another ceremony at the maze’s Renaissance Faire, Alan is attacked on horseback by a rival antiquities collector, Bruce David MacLaren. See, in addition to being a … in addition to designing mazes, Alan has a metric ass-ton of medieval artifacts: “A barrel of gauntlets,” according to Faye, and “crates and rooms full of other stuff,” according to Tay (22). Alan has so many medieval tchotchkes he gives them away as prizes; when Joe wins the amateur jousting competition, perhaps drawing on some of the skills he learned as a knight in Crusade of the Flaming Sword, he receives a burgonet. For fourth place, Frank receives a leather belt with a dragonhead buckle — less cool, but more practical.

Then Alan disappears. His wife says she didn’t notice because she left the festivities early: “I got a headache during the last jousting match” (62). Headache, jousting … I get it — *wiiiiiiiiiink*. Because the area — maybe all of Cape Breton — has only one constable, and he doesn’t seem to care enough to call in provincial or national police forces for help investigate a kidnapping, Frank and Joe have a free hand, leading the search for Alan and the two suspects. Instead of finding the victim or culprit, though, they find an abandoned marble mine and a caretaker’s shack that isn’t as abandoned as it should be. (The Hardys don’t investigate the shack, instead noting the discrepancy and moving on.) Joe is lured into a cunning trap that involves a peregrine falcon, which slices up his calf enough to be dangerous to his health but not badly enough to cause lasting damage.

The constable finds Blackstone and his fire-eating henchman — the man is literally a fire eater — and the latter admits he and Blackstone trashed the inside of the maze. But he denies setting the fire or kidnapping Alan, which leads the Hardys to believe the pair is innocent of that charge. It’s not like kidnapping is a very serious charge, while vandalism isn’t! I can’t imagine anyone perpetrating that sort of deception to divert attention from his major crimes.

So the brothers have to find MacLaren. To find information on MacLaren and Alan, Joe taps into Fenton’s computer, which gives him access to secret information governments had given the elder Hardy. I’m sure all those governments would be thrilled Fenton has given access to a pair of “trustworthy” teenagers!

Before we get to the end, we have to endure a great deal of nonsense, the sort of nonsense the Hardy Boys books thrive upon: the revelation that MacLaren is an Olympic archer, that the previous owner’s ghost allegedly haunts the estate, that Alan’s house has secret rooms and a secret elevator into the mine, that Alan is a spy who uses his code name, EagleSpy, as the name of his estate (or vice versa; it’s not clear which), that the previous owner’s brother is searching the estate for a hidden treasure, that the brother killed the previous owner, an “accident” during a “physical fight” (136) … It’s an exhausting concatenation of lazy revelations.

Finally returning to the caretaker’s shack with about fifteen pages left in the story, the brothers find John Brighthall, the previous owner’s brother. Brighthall admits killing his brother and covering up the crime, and Frank and Joe seem mostly fine with that — I suppose being siblings themselves, they’ve probably had fantasies / nightmares about such things. Brighthall admits MacLaren caught him at EagleSpy and took his maps of the marble mines as payment for his silence. The brothers cajole / blackmail Brighthall into helping them, forcing Brighthall into offer Joe as a hostage for ransom to MacLaren. Joe will be wearing a GPS, which, despite using satellites, will work perfectly in a mine, and when MacLaren takes Joe away, he’ll lead Frank and the police to wherever he’s holding Alan.

Of course the police are late, forcing Frank to act on his own, but everything turns out fine. MacLaren confesses to everything during his grand villain moment, Frank and Joe easily beat him up, and the police arrive in time to take MacLaren into custody. MacLaren does not say, however, why he attacked Alan in front of a large crowd by charging him on horseback when his plan was to capture the spy and ransom him — something that would have had a much higher chance of success if Alan (and others) didn’t know he was around. Just par for the course for No Way Out

Because I am a fair-minded person (HA!), I admit I unironically enjoyed some elements of the story. When Alan goes missing, Frank and Joe take control of the situation, outline what needs to be done, and assigns tasks to each member of the Horton family. Given how often the Hardys have been in this situation — the story specifically points out the boys have had to search for Fenton before, and even though the narration doesn’t mention any specific mystery (*ahem* The House on the Cliff, #2), it’s good to know someone remembers this — they should be able to lead the search efforts in the absence of competent law-enforcement officials.

I also liked the secret rooms and passages in the Horton home. Secret passages and secret rooms are cool.

But none of that is enough to make up for all of No Way Out’s flaws. In the end, the book is a bunch of loose ends hoping — in vain, I think — to ensnare some unsuspecting reader. Better luck next time, Franklin W. Dixon!

Friday, June 21, 2019

Hidden Mountain (#186)

Hidden Mountain coverI’ve breezed my way through these digests, and by and large, they’ve blurred as I passed them by. Some of them I have a hazy-but-fond memory of, some I vaguely recall disliking, but most blend into a flavorless paste that disappears into the wrinkles of my brain. Occasionally, I have stumbled across something like The Secret of the Island Treasure (#100), one of the best digests, or The Case of the Psychic’s Vision (#177), which spectacularly misjudges what a Hardy Boys book should be. Nothing comes close to the disasters like the original Disappearing Floor (#19) or Flying Expess (#20) or triumphs like the original House on the Cliff (#2) or Mystery of Cabin Island (#8).

Hidden Mountain is more Psychic’s Vision than Flying Express, but this book is closer to catastrophe than you might think. (Like Psychic's Vision, Hidden Mountain is written by George Edward Stanley, according to the University of Southern Mississippi's libraries' archives.) Hidden Mountain doesn’t have Flying Express’s continuity errors or Disappearing Floor’s ludicrousness; rather, Hidden Mountain spectacularly misjudges what makes a Hardy Boys story a Hardy Boys story. Had this been an adventure of the Generic Teen Detectives — well, if it had been an adventure of the Generic Teen Detectives, I wouldn’t have been reading it, because “Generic Teen Detectives” is a horrible name for a mystery series. But if it had been part of that series, and I had read it, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I wouldn’t have found it so awful either.

To start off with, Hidden Mountain posits a group of teens who don’t feel like the Hardys and their friends. Neither Frank nor Joe is in a “serious relationship” (1), and they date Callie and Iola only “from time to time” (1). The Mortons live in an older part of Bayport, which I suppose is the new status quo, but it still feels weird — and honestly, I feel the Mortons should live in a newer development, as refugees from rural poverty. At the Mortons’ home, Chet complains about all the food his mother has made, saying, “‘Good grief, Mom!’ Chet cried. ‘You’re not feeding an army!’” (7). It’s a bit like Cookie Monster labeling cookies a “sometimes food” — perhaps for the best, but weird and wrong at the same time.

Plus, Chet owns a shortwave radio.

The shortwave radio used to be a vital part of the Hardys’ crimefighting arsenal, but with the advent of cell phones, the shortwave radio lost its importance; the radio (called a “ham radio,” which is more of less the same) was last mentioned in The Blackwing Puzzle (#82), as far as I can tell. Here, though, the narration reframes radio’s role in the Hardys’ lives: Joe “and Frank had solved a couple of mysteries that involved shortwave, but it was almost always the bad guys who used them” (10). Boo! If the unknown Dixon here had reframed shortwave as a Hardy thing — Fenton or Gertrude with an old set in the attic, or a childhood hobby Frank and Joe set aside but Chet seems have mastered — I would have been fine. But no, shortwave radio is no longer cool enough for Frank and Joe to have ever used.

Anyway, Chet gets a message over the shortwave from Darren Wilkerson, a former classmate who left Bayport suddenly with his family. Darren is in trouble in Hudson’s Hope, British Columbia, Canada, and he needs Chet to get a message to Frank and Joe — but the transmission is cut off before Darren can get off more than a request for help. If I had more confidence that this Dixon and his editor knew the series’s history, I would suggest this book was homaging to The Short-Wave Mystery (#24), a book which involved shortwave radio and a trip to Canada. (And during which Frank killed a lynx with a radio antenna, while Chet took up taxidermy. These were two completely unrelated events.)

After Fenton pretends to exercise parental oversight over the boys, he gives in, arranging for backup in Hudson’s Hope and buying Frank and Joe hiking / mountaineering equipment. Once the boys’ “school vacation” (13) begins* two days after the shortwave call, they are off to Canada, flying from LaGuardia to Edmonton to Dawson Creek, B.C. — a real city of 11,000, not the place named after a James van der Beek character. At this point, the book becomes filled with weird details that go nowhere.

Gertrude laments over a friend in Wisconsin whose house has burned down, and the house was uninsured because her husband might have Alzheimer’s. Neither Wisconsin nor Alzheimer’s (or any other form of dementia) come up again; for that matter, neither does Gertrude. Chet can’t come with Frank and Joe because Mrs. Morton has decided to redecorate the house in “New Mexico style” (19), so she’s going to New Mexico and needs Chet to schlep paintings around. Chet frequently has lame excuses to avoid adventures, but this is a strange yet strangely detailed excuse. At LaGuardia, Frank and Joe inexplicably meet their old babysitter, Annie Wilson, who is working for the airline, and she fawns over them; on the plane to Edmonton, two flight attendants (Bonnie and June, rather than Benny and Joon) give the boys an extra meal each and stop barely short of flirting. This sounds like an airplane fantasy, although that may be because I don’t believe an airplane would serve an in-flight meal, let alone a steak dinner with anyone getting an extra portion, after 2001.

(Flying through Edmonton reminds me of The Viking Symbol Mystery, #42, a clunker that deserves more vitriol directed at it for having the boys casually rack up 5,000 miles of travel in Canada in less than two weeks, flying from Calgary to Saskatoon to Edmonton to Fort Smith, over and over again. At least in that story, Fenton was supervising them from the same province.)

In Dawson Creek — again, a real place — Fenton’s “good friend” (13), Rupert Kitimat, meets the boys when they get off the plane. Rupert is supposed to be a private detective, but the book frequently refers to him as “Detective Kitimat.” That title is almost never used for private detectives; “Detective,” as a courtesy title, is reserved for police detectives. Plus, there’s the question of who’s paying for Rupert’s time? If it’s Fenton, he’s running up a hell of a bill; if Rupert is donating his time, then Fenton must be one hell of a friend.

Anyway, the boys and Rupert take a pontoon plane to Williston Lake, a short-but-rugged hike from Hudson’s Hope. This flight disturbs the boys even though they were certified to fly seaplanes in Viking Symbol. Honestly, it’s like this book doesn’t care about the 75+ years of stupid continuity! Frank, Joe, and Detective Kitimat hike into town over rugged hills, encountering a bear, despite perfectly good roads linking Williston Lake and the town. Anyway, when they get to Hudson’s Hope — surprisingly, it too is real, although it has only about a thousand people — Darren and his family are gone, and a couple of men break into their cabin, shooting at Frank and Joe as the boys flee.

When the men catch up with Frank and Joe, we learn the meat of this stupid, stupid plot:

1) The Wilkersons are part of the Witness Protection Program,
2) But their cover was blown in Bayport — the fourth time this has happened — so the family hiking across the wilderness to the ultra-secret Witness Protection fortress, Hidden Mountain;
3) Hidden Mountain is in Canada, despite being a haven for people in the US Witness Protection Program, which I admit is probably an effective place to hide them — I certainly didn’t expect the US to keep vulnerable, valuable witnesses in a foreign country, because it’s a stupid thing to do;
4) The two men who shot at Frank and Joe claim to be FBI agents, sent to help the Wilkersons to Hidden Mountain, even though
5) They are so obviously not FBI agents, and the Witness Protection Program is run by the U.S. Marshals Service, which is an entirely different agency that predates the FBI by almost a century and a half;
6) Frank and Joe (especially the former) are able to track the Wilkersons through skills gained through a lifetime of summer wilderness programs, including a summer spent in Oklahoma with another of Fenton’s “good friends” (92), a Kiowa lawyer named George Long Bow;
7) When the Hardys finally shed the two fakes, they run into real FBI agents — again, WITSEC is run by the Marshals Service — and Kitimat, but the fake agents blunder into the Wilkersons;
8) Before the Hardys and the FBI agents can put a plan together, one of the FBI agents is “badly mauled” (101) by a bear and the other injured, evidently suffering a head injury so bad he’s amazed by a travois;
9) But don’t worry about the bear — the FBI agents are allowed to run around a foreign country unsupervised, but they aren’t allowed to kill wildlife, so one of the agents shoots the bear with a “special tranquilizer” (101) that puts the bear into “a twenty-four hour hibernation” (101);
10) So while the FBI agent is pulling his mauled partner toward safety, Frank and Joe insinuate themselves back into the Wilkersons’ / fake agents’ group, even though
11) They have no plan about how they’re going to take care of the fake agents, so the boys are inert as they get closer to Hidden Mountain, not attempting to overpower the fake agents or escape them, although I suppose
12) Escaping would be useless, since the villains have the map to the ultra-secret location that was given to the Wilkersons by some moron, and the villains want to kill all witnesses, so
13) Frank and Joe open a sealed envelope the non-mauled agent gave them, which gives them orders that are kept from the readers;
14) But I suppose the subtlety is best kept from the readers, as the directions are “rocks fall, kill everyone,” which is relevant because
15) To get into Hidden Mountain, everyone must climb the mountain, which means, SCREW YOU, DISABLED OR INFIRM WITNESSES;
16) After getting themselves and the Wilkersons to an overhang while rocks do kill the fake agents and gaining entrance to Hidden Mountain, the Hardys need special permission from Hidden Mountain’s “Supreme Council” to be allowed to leave (138), but
17) They gain that permission to leave because even thousands of miles away from Bayport, in the lost wilderness of Canada, Fenton Hardy’s name opens doors, which is good
18) Because I have no idea how the Canadian or US government resupplies a hidden facility, hundreds of miles from a city of any real size, that has a fifty-mile no fly-zone around it (forgot to mention that) and can be accessed only via mountain climbing, but
19) The story isn’t over, because once back in Bayport, the Hardys are followed by organized-crime figures, and once the FBI arrests those, they announce Frank and Joe will be under FBI “around-the-clock surveillance” (153) for the foreseeable future. Hope Iola and Callie find government surveillance a turn-on, or dates with the girls will go from occasional to nonexistent!

Hidden Mountain is intensely stupid, but its worst failing is that it can’t commit — like these Hardys, who aren’t in a serious relationship. Detective Kitimat follows the Hardys through the Canadian wilderness, but he does nothing to help them or the Wilkersons. The FBI agents show up, ostensibly to help (or take control — this is their moronic operation, after all), but they ignominiously are forced from the book by a bear attack, having done jack squat. They shoot the bear, but they can’t hurt nature’s killing machine; the agents must use stupid, science fictional tranquilizers that will put bears into hibernation for 24 hours, regardless of the size of the bear. The Hardys aren’t willing to hurt the fake FBI agents as they approach Hidden Mountain, even though they know the plan at Hidden Mountain is to kill them; they could have saved the men’s lives by trying something, but they’re willing to let them die rather than, you know, try.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a dozen moronic details — in Hudson’s Hope, for instance, the Wilkersons were warned they’d have to leave by a traveling salesman, which would be the opposite of an inconspicuous way to communicate anything in 2004 in a town of about 1,000 people — but I trust you get the idea: Hidden Mountain is a product of a line and era that often feels like watered-down Hardys, but this book’s stupidity is full strength.

* Which school vacation? The boys are out of school for only about a week, which suggests Spring Break or Easter Break or some sort of fall teacher’s conference, but in Canada, daylight continues until 11 p.m. That must be some time near summer — June, at least — but what occasion results in a week’s vacation from school in June? Even those poor unfortunates who go to school year-round get longer between the end of one term and the beginning of the next, surely.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Wreck and Roll (#185)

Wreck and Roll coverWreck and Roll (#185) is a standard Hardy Boys book. The plot involves Phil Cohen dating a singer in a rock-and-roll band, and — of course — that band is the victim of sabotage, harassment, and light attempted murder. (No one has, as far as I know, ever been charged of attempted murder in one of the digests.) Everything goes about how you’d expect, and although I admit the culprit is better concealed than normally, that’s because the Hardys do little investigating in Wreck and Roll. They react to crises when they’re around the band, but they’re too busy not caring when they’re not around the band.

If you’ve read a half dozen of these books, you can probably guess the specific nature of the disasters: electrical malfunctions, theater mishaps, vehicular attacks. I’ll admit the sabotage of the band’s bungee jump and poisoning of a pre-show buffet was a bit unexpected, but we can’t be expected to think of every way to try to kill a rock band (but fail). Instead, I’m going to use Internet history as an inspiration and create a FAQ, even though we all know there are no questions about this book, let alone questions that are frequently asked:

1. Who is Franklin W. Dixon for this mystery?

Stephen D. Sullivan again.

1.1. How can you tell?

Sullivan doubles down on his namesakes in this book: BPD Officer Gus Simpson returns for this book, and Simpson’s son, known only as “Simpson,” works as the band’s bouncer. Sullivan also brings back the Browning Theater from Trick-or-Trouble (#175).

1.2. Is that a conclusive identification?

I also read it on the Internet.

2. Who is the returning cast for this book?

Phil, who is described as “tall and thin” (78), is the Hardys’ entre into the action. Callie and Iola accompany Frank and Joe to a couple of concerts, although eventually they lose interest. Fenton and Laura show up, lawyer in tow, to pick up Frank and Joe after they are taken into custody for the crime of being attacked. The Cohens appear at the same time. (In the original canon, Mrs. Cohen was in The Bombay Boomerang, #49, but Mr. Cohen never appeared in the canon.)

2.1. Where’s Chet?

He’s helping at the family farm, which is run by Chet and Iola’s grandparents, for a week. For some reason, Chet’s getting school credit for his labor. Iola doesn’t explain how that works; I can’t imagine Chet taking ag classes, but who knows? Maybe he’s getting biology credit, or maybe it’s part of SkillsUSA, which I knew as VICA as a high schooler.

I think this is mentioned to move the Mortons’ farming heritage a generation back — Iola and Chet probably have never lived on a farm any more — and to foreshadow Sullivan’s next Hardy Boys book, Farming Fear (#188).

2.2. Where do Callie and Iola scarper off to?

They decide spending a weekend at a farm with Chet would be more interesting than hanging around an up-and-coming rock band or watching their boyfriends avert crises.

2.3. Is Phil cool enough to be dating a frontwoman for a rock band?

Of course not. Julie Steele, who performs as “Chrome Jewel,” is a several orders of magnitude cooler than Phil, although Sullivan soft-pedals Phil’s nerd credentials. He’s great with electronics and wiring, but he’s also the guy who drives an aged Toyota plastered with bumper stickers featuring his girlfriend’s band. Julie shows none of the rock passion one might expect, and the band’s lead guitarist actually says “rocked to meet you” (19), but still … by being the bassist and lead singer of a rock band, she’s much cooler than Phil.

Phil’s also the only significant other who comes backstage with the band, and he always brings along the Hardys. He’s trying too hard, and he’s dragging his own tagalongs backstage as well. Uncool, Phil.

2.4. Does Iola have reason to worry about Joe’s affections?

Not really. The band’s drummer, Jackie Rude, tells Callie and Iola to hold on to their “smart and handsome” boyfriends, or she “might steal one” (20), but she makes no moves on the brothers. Frank was never going to do anything, but Joe also makes no move. I suppose all those hugs Iola gives Joe are enough to keep him from straying … for now.

3. Is a middle-aged man writing about the music the youths love embarrassing or acceptable?

Mostly acceptable.

Let’s start with the band’s name, which I’ve withheld until now. Vette Smash is an acceptable band name, although the name conjures up the image of a person who would put a brick on the accelerator of a sports car and watch it slam into a brick wall in a beautiful fireball. (But not an expensive European sports car, like a Lamborghini or a Porsche; a Corvette, which suggests a more blue-collar sort of destruction.) I’d expect Vette Smash to be a punk band or a hair band, and while Vette Smash definitely isn’t the former, I can’t rule out the band being the latter. I mean, hair bands had been uncool for more than a decade when Wreck and Roll came out, but Vette Smash is only locally cool. We all know Bayport is stuck in a time warp, so when American audiences were rockin’ to Green Day, Nickleback, Maroon 5, and Evanescence in 2004, who knows what’s popular in Bayport at that time?

The members of Vette Smash are Jackie Rude, Ken Fender, Ray Chong, and Julie Steele, who — as mentioned — performs under the name Chrome Jewel. Other than the uninspiring “Ray Chong,” these are solid names, and we can excuse Ray because “Ray Chong” is probably his name.

Vette Smash plays “radical covers of older tunes, power ballads, and original compositions” (17). From what I gather, this is normal for newer acts, and as they grow in popularity, they shift more to their own music. (This may not true; I am not now, nor have I ever been, “hip.”) I’m not sure whether a band in 2004 would play “Riders on the Storm” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” classic rock songs from the ‘60s, over more contemporary ‘90s songs. Grunge may be cover-resistant, for all I know, but it’s hard to believe a band looking for a national contract in 2004 would have the courage to play “Deadman’s Curve,” a 1964 song by surf-rock notables Jan and Dean, even if the cover was “hyped up” (17).

On the unlikely side, the band hangs out at a bar that serves health drinks / food and no alcohol. The bar’s former existence as a gym and clever name (Vince’s Powerbar) almost makes up for that — almost, but not quite.

3.1. But this is definitely a middle-aged guy writing this, right?

Oh, yeah.

3.2. Can you give me examples?

Sure! He starts the story with Phil telling other teens, “Grab your dancing shoes and prepare to party!” (1). Frank tells Callie and Iola they look “super” (2). Joe calls Phil “the Philmeister” (3), years after Rob Schneider left Saturday Night Live. For some reason, he thinks Joe, a noted lunkhead, would know the word “obsequious” and be able to correctly use the word in conversation (61). He calls the band’s version of “Riders on the Storm” a “blazing cover” (63). He picked “Deadman’s Curve” as a song for the and called it an “old classic” (17). This is a man whose knowledge of youth is a little out of date, is what I’m saying.

He also has Frank and Joe conduct a normal conversation while driving motorcycles. This is preposterous, but to be fair, this is a long-standing Hardy Boys tradition, going all the way back to The Tower Treasure.

4. What about the agents who want to sign Vette Smash to a national contract?

The two agents are Walker Crown, a sexist Texan, and the all-business Kelly Miyazaki.

4.1. Sexist?

Crown always calls Miyazaki by her first name, while she calls him Mr. Crown; more importantly, he uses terms like “little filly” (27) and “little kitten” (36) to address her. I mean, he’s trying to demean her in front of potential clients, but he’s doing that with the kind of language that diminishes women.

4.1.1. So they definitely sign with Miyazaki?

No, they don’t.

4.1.2. They signed with Crown?

They did not.

4.2. Then which agent do they sign with?

Neither! Their manager dithers, and the band stalls, so Vette Smash doesn’t make a choice. And why should they? Nothing can go wrong for Vette Smash! There’s no reason to hurry — none at all!

5. Do Frank and Joe get to use sick martial arts?

Boy, do they! At the beginning, Frank is undone in fights by his reluctance to crack heads, giving Joe the opportunity to use hammerlocks and other boring moves to teach the unruly a lesson. But the Hardys and Vette Smash are set upon by mobs twice, giving Frank and Joe a chance to use their awesome moves to hold off the unwashed hordes until the police can be arsed to do something.

Frank uses a judo flip and “a quick chop” (118) in one rumble and “sweeping martial arts kicks” (87) in the other. Most likely Joe would have gotten a few good shots of his own — he has to settle for a slamming his fist into a guy’s gut — but he and Frank were busy protecting Phil and Vette Smash. Like when you’re running an escort mission in a video game, the brothers were prevented from doing cool stuff by the need to keep the feebs they were protecting from dying.

6. On a scale from disinterested to incompetent, how would you rate the Bayport Police Department?

Grossly incompetent. They don’t arrest any people who assault Vette Smash; even without Vette Smash pressing charges, the mob caused damage to property, and the police don’t seem to care. I mean, a mob pulled a man from his car and tried to beat him up! If one of those people had been African-American — as far as I know, Bayport doesn’t have Black people — in 2015, the National Guard would have been called out to keep the peace! And when Vette Smash is attacked again, this time by a rival gang, everyone gets arrested, and then … everyone gets released? The police take everyone’s fingerprints, and then nothing happens.

Nothing happens after Ken is almost killed by a sabotaged bungee cord. Nothing happens when an electrical fault sets the Browning Theater on fire; nothing happens when an electrical fault zaps Julie and her metal costume. Nothing happens when someone steals Ken’s convertible, stuffs Ken in the trunk, and tries to run over Julie with the car. Nothing happens when a rival band’s guitarist gets shocked by a guitar Ken was meant to play. It’s not just — just — that no culprit is captured or identified; I know justice can take time. But it feels like the police don’t ask the important questions: Does the band want protection? Who is out to get the band? Should we send an undercover or uniformed cop to be on top of things if another attempt is made? It’s hard to understate how much the police seem to be ignoring the nearly unignorable.

Perhaps Frank and Joe are to blame for this. They’re supposed to have “police contacts” (76); maybe those contacts were waiting on the go-ahead from Frank and Joe before doing anything. But the lack of work by the police and the lack of investigation by Frank and Joe does make Bayport seem like a lawless, early ‘90s urban hellhole (absent the hard-core drugs) that had been on the wane for a few years by this point but was still entrenched in the public mind.


Friday, May 24, 2019

The Dangerous Transmission (#184)

The Dangerous Transmission coverThe Dangerous Transmission has precisely two things going for it: 1) a surprisingly metal cover illustration, with a raven, the scavenger of battlefields, holding an electric tooth in its beak, and 2) a title that could have easily fit in among the early Hardy Boys canon. (It’s a better title than The Secret Warning and more era-appropriate.)

That’s it, really. And it’s just those two specific elements — the cover itself isn’t great, and the title has flaws. Despite the picture that serves as the not-at-all fictional thrashcore band Electric Raventooth’s logo, the cover itself is dull, giving nearly as much room to the stultifying notebook-and-file-folder trade dress while minimizing the psycho corvid. The cover tag line, “Somebody’s got a sweet tooth for crime!,” is nonsensical, given that no sweets are mentioned in the book; that line has me primed for a criminal who has trained crows to steal either candy or cavity-filled teeth — both, maybe. The trade dress gives much too much room to that phrase for me to ignore it. Similarly, the book has no transmissions, either by radio or as part of an automobile, so it’s impossible to say the transmission is dangerous or perilous or even benign. The transmission doesn’t exist.

There’s a story that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Superman editor Mort Weisinger thought readership would turn over every few years, so he’d recycle popular stories. I have no idea whether The London Deception (#158) was popular — I kinda doubt it, but I don’t have access to Simon & Schuster’s numbers — but the two books’ setups are identical. Frank and Joe are in London for a vacation, forcing an English exchange student who had stayed with the Hardys to pay back the hospitality. Rather than being drawn into the world of the London stage by high-school student Chris Paul, as they were in London Deception, this time they’re staying with London orthodontist Jax Brighton, who had stayed with the Hardys for a semester “a few years earlier” (2) while studying at Bayport College.

Jax isn’t just an orthodontist; he’s also a taxidermist, a pursuit he picked up because of his father, a professional taxidermist. This isn’t the first time taxidermy has appeared in the Hardy Boys: Taxidermy popped up as Chet’s hobby in the original Short-Wave Mystery (#24). In fact, it’s Chet’s second hobby ever, after old coins and the digging for them in The Melted Coins (#23). Setting the course for later stories, Chet makes his usual hemi-glutteal mess of his taxidermy efforts, creating a “lopsided” and “bulgy” (213) deer and then getting two pre-teen boys to finish the job. It would have been nice if the boys had mentioned this: “Boy, our friend Chet sucked at this!” they might have said. “But you’re actually good!”

Also something Frank or Joe could have mentioned: This is the second time they’ve come to the UK and immediately run into someone whose livelihood is teeth. In The Witchmaster’s Key (#55), Joe starts the book by getting a wisdom tooth pulled by Vincent Burelli, who is a) named after the book’s author, Vincent Buranelli, 2) is the book’s villain, and iii) is also known as “He-Goat.” I think any book would be improved by adding a guy named “He-Goat.”

Jax is making false teeth for an exhibit on the medieval period at the Tower of London, which means the Hardys get to tour the grounds with Jax and his friend, Nick Rooney, when there are no tourists around. It also means that when the exhibit catches fire and arson is suspected, Jax is politely but firmly questioned. Well, the police question him until Frank and Joe, who keep lurking around as Jax is questioned, drop Fenton’s name, and then that plot thread is snipped neatly off after Fenton vouches for Jax’s character.

But taxidermy and orthodontics aren’t all Jax has to offer the world. No, he’s invented the Molar Mike, which is a receiver / transmitter embedded in a false tooth and not — not, let me emphasize — a male stripper who wows the ladies with his gleaming teeth. Although Jax believes the Molar Mike is his ticket to riches, it’s actually the beginning of his troubles: a break-in that ends with an assault on Frank, a lawsuit from his downstairs neighbor over the Molar Mike’s creation, another break-in that sends Jax to the hospital, the Molar Mike’s theft and ransom for 100,000 Euros. (Euros — or “Euro dollars,” as they’re referred to on pg. 79, are the only currency mentioned; maybe this Dixon or his editor thought the UK had switched to Euros from pounds, because there’s no reason for Frank to pay for his “lemon drink” with Euros. In fact, there’s no reason for Frank to have Euros at all, unless he was going to the Continent later in the trip.)

The suspect pool is limited. There’s a soccer coach from Toronto, who is pushy and aggressive but is so obviously a red herring I’m not going to look up his name. There’s also “AA42,” a former Soviet secret agent Frank spots following them in London; the Hardys learn her code name because Fenton tracked her down a few years before, and they have access to his casefiles. She’s eliminated from suspicion because Fenton tells the boys she’s a double agent now, helping … I don’t know, somebody — “basically on our side,” according to Fenton (125). (I doubt she’s an asset to either side; in her home territory, she’s easily spotted and identified by two American schoolboys.) I’m not sure how Fenton knows so much about her or why she’s in her files; maybe he’s still working with SKOOL against UGLI, as he was in The Secret Agent on Flight 101 (#46).

Still, a goon is hanging around her, and the thug pulls Frank’s arm hard enough to strain his rotator cuff. This man is never mentioned again as a threat or suspect again. Despite his pain, Frank doesn’t seek medical attention for his injury immediately, setting a bad example for all the boys reading Dangerous Transmission. Instead, he treats his injury with a “tube of medicine” (70), presumably Icy-Hot or Ben-Gay or some other similar brand. He eventually does go to the hospital, but when Joe gets kicked in the ribs and knocked onto the Underground tracks, he too uses the tube of medicine to seek relief. I would say the boys are being too masculine for their own good, but the head injuries might be taking their toll, causing them cognitive difficulties; when Jax is knocked unconscious while retrieving a stuffed raven, falling with the raven on his chest, Frank “smacked the stuffed raven away” (71) like he was afraid the raven would attack him or Jax. Maybe he’d seen the electric tooth on the cover and was afraid it was the raven that was electric.

Oh! When Joe is kicked onto the tracks, the attacker loses his custom-made athletic shoe. This is a clue that goes exactly nowhere.

That’s because this Dixon has failed to set up that the actual criminal, Jax’s friend Nick, has prescription shoes. I mean, there’s enough in the book for the readers to realize Nick probably isn’t on the up-and-up — he’s the only other person who could have set the fire in the Tower of London, he’s worked all over the world and has “contacts everywhere” (108), and he knows enough karate to take care of the Hardys — but nothing about his shoes. Anyway, Nick is caught ridiculously easily at the ransom drop, so we don’t need to talk about him or Dangerous Transmission again.

Although I will mention plug London tourism. As Dangerous Transmission mentions, you can make brass rubbings in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; it’s a classy souvenir, and I have a rubbing hanging in my hall. The Tower of London is also a neat place to see if you’re in London, even if you do have to visit while other tourists are there. I also recommend Sir John Soane’s Museum, which Frank and Joe don’t visit but should have; that place is chockablock with all the things a 19th century collector would have found interesting, including a mummy. I don’t know what to make of the Black Belt, a fictional karate restaurant Frank and Joe visit. At least I hope it’s fictional; I’m not quite prepared for a restaurant that hosts karate exhibitions and has such an on-the-nose name to emerge from a Hardy Boys book into real life.