Friday, March 29, 2013

Hardy Boys Adventures: Secret of the Red Arrow by Franklin W. Dixon

Yep, you read that correctly. They are booting up the old franchise again (Nancy Drew as well - the first volume of her new series is Nancy Drew Diaries: Curse of the Arctic Star).

The story is told in the first person with Joe and Frank taking turns by chapter. After numerous legal battles and other problems, Frank and Joe have agreed to stop sleuthing - if they're caught going back to their vigilante ways, it's reform school. As part of the Deal, their father has also retired and is now writing books. Frank thinks his biggest problem now is giving a speech in public on civics and Joe is just interested in girls.

But the other kids don't know about the Deal and when a series of weird pranks start happening, culminating in a particularly frightening and painful prank played on a bully whom Frank and Joe busted for steroid use, several fellow students ask the teen sleuths for help. Frank and Joe manage to solve the mystery and get out alive, but it's only the tip of the iceberg as they discover corruption and dark secrets in Bayport. The story ends on a cliffhanger with a few chapters as a teaser for the next installment.

Before you wonder why I'm spending acres of electronic ink on...The Hardy Boys?? allow me to explain that I write this facing two six foot tall shelves filled with series from the early 20th century, especially boys' adventure series. Hardy Boys, Rick Brant, Ken Holt, Don Sturdy...yep, I love them all.

So, I had high hopes for this new series - that cover looks awesome. Was the publisher finally going to get it right and take us back to the carefree days of mystery where clues littered the ground, there's always a motorcycle and a helpful policeman around when you need one, and two brothers and a few friends can track down the bad guys, escape the death traps, and Serve Justice?

Sadly, no. The cover isn't even accurate - the boys are caught in a trickling-water deathtrap, but they're not tied up or gagged and they're trapped in a storage container - no open sky involved. This first story is mostly set up for continuing adventures, but once again the publisher tries way, way too hard to make the stories realistic and relevant while still being readable by the original middle grade audience. The thing is, Hardy Boys (and pretty much every other adventure or mystery series like this) are total fantasy and wish-fulfillment. Kids want to feel powerful, like they can make a difference. They want to read exciting adventures and imagine that they too could track down the bad guys and be famous. You don't need to tell them it's not realistic; they already know it's just for fun.

So, Frank has a crippling fear of public speaking (to make him more relatable?) and there are numerous gratuitous mentions of technology, "current" music, and that this is the 21st century. Since teens can't actually go around solving crimes, there have to be all sorts of legal problems involved. Just for fun, they add in family problems with Frank and Joe's refusal to quit sleuthing destroying their dad's job, presumably causing their mother endless worry (at least in the original books she got to cook and even had a few lines of dialogue) and putting their future in jeopardy. Apparently teenage sleuths don't get to go to college, get good jobs, and have families (yes, that's almost a literal quote).

I'm not saying these books should never be updated; the originals had a lot of extraneous text, including the random racist lines and outdated language. There's nothing wrong with adding a little technology, although being more generic would make the books last longer without feeling outdated. The first-person, alternating chapters isn't bad, although it puts pressure on the authors to make the teens sound more authentic, something that's difficult to do within the confines of the formula and which ends up with weird conjunctions of 1950s and 1990s dialogue colliding in mid-sentence, resulting in an explosion of Britney Spears and Angry Birds.

However, why break up a winning formula of light-hearted and pulse-pounding mysteries with a happy ending for all by throwing in all these extraneous problems? It's not even credible; even the boys point out that it's unbelievable that they've lived and investigated crimes in Bayport their whole lives and never even noticed this huge conspiracy going on all around them.

Verdict: I was, personally, very disappointed. Nancy Drew has always been the higher circ at my library, but my personal preference is for the Hardy Boys. Will kids check these out? Yes, despite the flaws, the cover is attractive (if misleading) and they will circ, if only briefly. I don't think these will have much staying power and I'll think twice or more about buying any of the sequels. I certainly won't buy them in hardback.

ISBN: 9781442465855; Published 2013 by Aladdin; Purchased for the library

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