The Hardy Boys – The Shore Road Mystery
by Franklin W Dixon
156 pages, Armada (1986)
**Part one in a summer-long series looking back at the books we read and loved as children. I promise not let the adult that lives in my skin escape for too long...**
Review by Pat Black
The Hardy Boys – in among you, solving crimes, driving all sorts of expensive vehicles, always answering to the authorities and never really putting a foot wrong. Unless you count some stiff uppercuts they deliver to crims along the way... and the blighters deserved that, by jimminy.
In The Shore Road Mystery, teenage sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy have no end of problems to solve. First of all there are a series of car thefts taking place along Shore Road in their beach-bum paradise of Bayport; then there’s the kidnapping of their friend Jack Dodd and his father, after they appear to have been fitted up for the boosts. Add to the mix a hunt for sunken treasure in the bay and a mysterious “spider man” spotted crawling along the sea walls, and you have a great deal of plot and discovery packed into a small amount of pages. And could it all be related to an arms smuggling case their famous detective father, Fenton Hardy, is investigating in New York?
It’s a light, fun read. While I felt that the two lead characters were the least interesting in the book, there’s suspense and quality cliff-hangers all the way through it – every chapter ends on an exclamation-mark of some kind that keeps you reading, and there’s an art to that. The boys spill their motorcycles; there are brutal encounters with the mysterious spider man; there’s a grenade tossed through the window of a house; a machine gun opens up on the boys as they fly over the place where they suspect the gang of car thieves have a den; there’s a daring rescue carried out on Scratch the tramp, left for dead in the centre of a ring of fire after seeing something he shouldn’t; lethal-sounding steel wiring is strung along a road as the lads cycle along, unawares. It’s all rollocking, exciting stuff for little boys - and big ones, too.
I’ve discovered that it’s very difficult to read a Hardy Boys book without adult cynicism creeping in. I tried hard to remember all the way through that these are tales for children, free from the worry and clutter of adult life. And although I scoffed at some of the more left-field critical thought surrounding the series in the course of my research (“the series provides a homoerotic outlet”... you what?), there are some glaring issues that it can be impossible to ignore from an adult perspective.
Most obvious was the fact that the Hardy Boys appear to be extremely affluent. I don’t know too many teenagers with as much access to all kinds of vehicles as they have. Frank and Joe seem to swan around somewhat imperiously among their peers, tooting the horns of their cars and boats and whatnot. I can’t help but imagine myself as the bumpkin teenager in the dunes with his scratched Sanyo tape player and a motley assortment of ragamuffin mates, watching these earnest, over-chinned white boys roaring by in the fast lane with utter envy.
But I’m willing to forgive this as the Hardy Boys were first penned during tough economic times. The books were simple escapism and wish fulfilment for people - and to be honest, who hasn’t dreamed at some point of being super-rich, with access to boats and fancy cars and motorbikes? Okay, I haven’t quite dreamed of opening a detective lab and solving crimes, but if that’s your goal, bonzer.
I gather that the original Hardy Boys books were revised in the fifties and sixties, 20 or 30 years after they first appeared. This was in order to tidy up some material which people might see as unacceptable these days, which I take to mean that they had uncomfortably racist overtones. “Swarthy” villains were always a stock character type for Enid Blyton, and I guess a few of the baddies from the Hardy Boys could easily have that tone applied to them. To be fair, I didn’t notice any dodginess on this score in The Shore Road Mystery, and indeed the boys have Jewish and Italian friends who help them out. The other books in the series I can’t answer for, but The Shore Road Mystery is very much not guilty on this charge.
What about poor old Chet Morton though? Their affable, accident prone friend can barely last a page before you get some reminder of his corpulence – fat-ism isn’t a prejudice even to redacting editorial eyes these days, it seems!
Chet is on a diet in this book, miserably nibbling on carrots and parsnips while the muscular, angular Hardies chortle into piles of mouth-watering food. There is one fantastic moment of comedy at the end when Chet is asked by the Hardys’ formidable Aunt Gertrude to take a massive fudge cake to an old lady in the town while he is on a mission to help the boys crack the case.
So Chet, lightly sweating, starts off by eating the loose crumbs... then the flakes of beautiful, sugary, fondant icing... then he makes a hole... For all I was annoyed at him being characterised as a figure of fun just because he’s not a square-jawed wiry all-American body fascist, this was a piece of comedy that would have graced any adult book. Why is it that this espisode made me think of Jim from American Pie with the, er, pie? But let’s not go into that... this is neither The Time nor The Place.
Now, to girls; and I’ll keep this as clean as I can, too. Frank and Joe do have a couple of sweethearts in this book, Callie and Iola. It’s all completely chaste, even when the boys get together with the bikini-clad girls on board their boat. I’m not sure the lasses get much dialogue at all, even after one of them is almost drowned by the spider man with an underwater net as the teenagers go for a swim in their colour-co-ordinated bathing suits – maybe so you can tell which girl belongs to which Hardy. But this is at least a concession to the brutal fact that most straight 17 and 18-year-old chaps think of girls to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. If you wanted more, well... it’s a children’s book for goodness’s sake! Some of the critical theory I’ve encountered on the Hardy Boys and sexuality is utterly out of order, I have to be honest.
Reading about the boys’ motorcycles and boats made me think that the series could make a success of things with an OC or Smallville-style TV makeover. The boys with their toys and their glamorous girlfriends, getting into fistfights and taking down the baddies. In the new version they could even fight with each other over the girls, and have issues with Fenton, who might be a drunk and getting divorced from his meek little wife after she has an affair with... actually, this is a terrible idea. I’m scrunching it up and binning it, now.
Maybe instead of being cynical we should applaud those Hardy Boys for their clean-living and healthy pursuits. It’s lots of fun to have them there. Here’s to them.