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This issue featuring a look at The Secret Agent On Flight 101, Leslie McFarlane's involvement with the Dana Girls series, new collectible discoveries, the Mike Humbert Department and more.
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Modern culture has become completely devoid of imagination.
by Matthew H. Waln, DC
In the 46th publication of the Hardy cannon, The Secret Agent on Flight 101, Dixon cleverly and almost imperceptibly weaves a truth into the story that the reader would do well to memorize and practice daily.
It is worth noting from the beginning that the uninitiated reader may well miss the very important point that is intended to be made. A reader who has not sufficiently delved into the full canon, who has not made the memorization and daily practice of the truths presented a paramount goal of his life may well read this tome and judge it to be the worst of the series. It is not! Consider first the timing of the novel. In 1967, television was surging forth in popularity and like the bubonic plague of centuries past it was creeping around the neighborhoods and infiltrating every open space. This had a devastating effect on the imagination of the populace. Mr. Dixon has taken a series of unimaginative events and woven them into an unimaginative story. Why? Did he just become lazy or run out of ideas? Of course not! We are not supposed to believe that the master literateur couldn’t come up with anything better than UGLI and SKOOL but rather to realize that this is an entire novel devoted to the principle that imagination is ruined in a television culture.
The reader is well reminded of the Simpsons episode that deals with this fact. Principle Skinner tells the class that they are in for a real treat as the field trip of the day will not be to the chocolate factory, or the slide factory, or the fireworks factory, but rather to the box factory. Bart says that he will simply let his imagination run wild and take him to fun places. As he closes his eyes he imagines Principle Skinner saying that no, we are not going to the box factory, we are going to the ...dramatic pause... box factory. Bart opens his eyes and curses the TV that ruined his imagination.
Another important factor of society at the time of this writing was the preeminent broadcast series about life during the cold war. This show, Get Smart, was obviously the basis for Mr. Dixon’s invective against television. With it’s good guy agency named Control and the bad guy agency named Kaos Mr. Dixon felt that the show clearly defined a culture in dire need of the imaginative process. Shoe phones, fingertip guns, and walkie talkie deli sandwiches obviated the need for the viewer to use his or her own imagination. The entire series was one giant fantasy that inculcated the public with a laissez fair attitude about invention.
Now consider the book we have just read. We are treated to a kidnapping, a bomb on a plane, a sailboat capsizing, hurricanes, power boats ramming each other, plane crashes, cut control cables on another plane, secret entrances in a castle, and balloon escapades. These are not the plot twists that throw the heroes for a loop, for there is no real plot. Mr. Dixon has masterfully put to paper a series of unlikely events that are so completely devoid any real substance that the reader must be forced to ask himself why. Just in case you, the good reader, could have made it to the end of the book without realizing that this is a scathing endorsement for throwing out the TV, Mr. Dixon actually has Joe use the title of the book in a sentence. He says, on pg 118, "I’ll feel like a secret agent on Flight 101!" This is the kind of thing bad rock bands do when they put their own name in the song somewhere. It is an obvious self-parody meant to shake the reader into consciousness.
Of course, Mr. Dixon can’t just direct us to the truth. If he did he would not be a novelist but an editorialist. So in the end of the book the Hardys get thrown in a locked case, are rescued by Chet, our perennial hero, and catch the Jewel thieves. All is well as the story closes with the evil Vordo gazing at the jewels he came close to absconding with and exclaiming, "missed them by that much."
The Secret Agent On Flight 101 is available from Amazon.com
by Brian Porick
"How can the hand be quicker than the eye? That's hard to believe!" remarks Chet Morton to open The Secret Agent on Flight 101, Franklin W. Dixon's 46th entry into the Hardy Boys mystery series. In typical Dixonian fashion, this statement contains more truth than a quick reading might lead one to believe.
The Secret Agent on Flight 101 has long been criticized as one of the worst books in the Hardy Boys canon. It is easy to see how that might be the case. Critics point to lack of continuity and sheer absurdity of the events described within as being evidence as to the book's failure to be grounded in plausibility.
However, Dixon's opening statement makes the more observant reader realize that much like the hand can indeed be quicker than the eye (as hard as it is to believe), the fantastic can be more true to reality than the mundane. The point Dixon is attempting to make is that normalcy is not equivalent to ordinariness; rather, people's lives can often be comprised of a series of extra-ordinary moments, and it is quite a normal thing.
This is particularly the case for the likes of Frank and Joe Hardy, as they are asked to trace an international ring of spies headed up by a particulary slippery magician named the Incredible Hexton.
One cue that Dixon throws the reader that he is up to more than what seems is through his use of absurd acronyms. After 45 volumes of contemplative, complex thought, it is hard for any Hardy Boys fan to really think that Dixon would present his audience with such an obvious example of silliness. One has to admit that the acronyms for the Undercover Global League of Informants (or UGLI) and Secret Knowledge of Organized Lawbreakers (or SKOOL) are nothing less than insulting. Why would a reader ever believe that these could pass as legitimate acronyms of espionage organizations? But that is precisely Dixon's point. He wants his reader to realize that the mere fact that these are such laughable acronyms is to cause the reader to consider the absurdity of some things that he might consider ordinary.
Another cue toward the end of Dixon's fantastic normalcy is the sheer number of airplane mishaps the Hardys get into over the course of the novel. They are first caught in a plane that is "diving vertically toward the ground" (Dixon 51). Later, Frank manages to get snagged to the tail of a helioplane as it's taking off (Dixon 83), but of course, this doesn't stop him later from climbing out on the wing of a plane thousands of feet in the air in order to remove a bomb from the nacelle of the engine. One would think by this point, the Hardys would learn to avoid planes altogether, but right near the end of the mystery, they manage to get into a plane which runs out of gas and crashes into the ocean. Why on earth would Dixon allow this many aerial catastrophes to occur, unless there were a larger purpose behind it all? Thankfully, for the careful Hardy Boys reader this purpose becomes increasingly clear. Isn't it those strange series of occurrences that make one's life fantastic?
Dixon best sums his own point with the words of Jack Wayne, the Hardy's pilot friend. Jack describes flying to the Hardys, but the observant reader quickly realizes that this is a metaphor for the author's larger purpose. Wayne says, "I was once told that flying involves long hours of boredom, interrupted by moments of extreme fright". It is the normalcy of the fantastic interrupting the mundane that gives life its interest and keeps us as humans on our toes. There is a certain absurdity to this jaunting rhythm of life, but Dixon points out that perhaps it is best to embrace it instead of trying to supress it. This lesson was clearly important enough to Dixon that he would risk the mass criticism that has come with the release of Secret Agent on Flight 101. If the Hardy Boys fan can look past the critics and find Dixon's underlying threads of truth, he will come away from this book well rewarded.
The Secret Agent On Flight 101 is available from Amazon.com
by Richard M. Moritz
As many readers of this site know, Leslie McFarlane, as well as creating the breeder volumes and writing many of the early texts of the Hardy Boys, also wrote the first four volumes of the Dana Girls series. The Dana sisters, Louise and Jean, aged 17 and 16, respectively, are similar in make-up to the Hardy Boys. Louise, like Frank, is a dark haired, a year older than her sister and the serious, thoughtful one. Jean, like Joe, is the fair-haired, younger, impetuous half of the duo. Both sophomores (how is not explained in the text) at the Starhurst School for girls, they seem to trip over mysteries that are just strewn in their path. Like the Hardys, they have a good deal of independence as their boarding school is situated in Penfield, a good train ride from Oak Falls, where the girls’ residence is with their Uncle Ned, an ocean freighter captain (of the Balaska) and his "maiden" sister Harriet. (The Dana Girls’ parents are long deceased). Other characters appearing throughout the stories are the clumsy Dana house maid Cora Appel or "Applecore" as Jean named her; Mr. And Mrs. Crandall, who run the Starhurst school, Evelyn Starr, the Girls’ closet friend, and the inimitable, wealthy, smug and gullible Lettie Briggs and her confidant in evil deeds, Ina Mason.
The latter two characters are what set the Danas apart from the Hardys in characterizations. The Hardys do not have one recurring villain or even a bully who torments then from story to story. Their coterie of friends is just that: buddies & chums, loyal and faithful. The Danas are spied upon, demeaned, tricked, gossiped about and tattled on by Lettie, with Ina acting as her sounding board in these deeds. Lettie’s tricks are such that one wonders what kind of psycho she really is. Still (and perhaps a reflection of the era (1935)) when the Danas and Lettie, meet on the street in New York in "The Three Cornered Mystery", they are civil to each other. Coolness on the side of the Danas; haughtiness on the part of Lettie, but surprisingly more friendly than one might expect after what has gone on in the three previous McFarlane penned novels.
Different from the Hardys, and other series books, is that the first four books follow a specific time period. By The Light Of The Study Lamp takes place in the fall, the return to school. The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage covers the period before and after Thanksgiving. In The Shadow Of The Tower takes place before, during and after Christmas and in January. Finally, The Three Cornered Mystery unfolds the following spring. Though the Danas later join the same time warp the Hardys are in, this chronological season beginning is unique. Was this deliberate from the outlines McFarlane received or his idea?
Though the Danas are not the Hardys in terms of physical activity in their adventures, the Girls manage to perform a raging river/falls rescue, fall through a plate glass window (unharmed), do an enormous amount of hiking/walking/horseback riding/car-riding (including getting thrown from a few running boards while trying to hang on to some fleeing suspect) and are pretty good at disguises and mental deductions of all sorts. All of this with a full school, recreational and sports activities schedule! Resilience is the word that comes to mind. Even Chet Morton became far more winded following Frank and Joe’s non-stop activities. Unlike the Hardys, who occasionally pack revolvers (q.v. the unrevised The Shore Road Mystery), the Danas rarely dabble in firearms. (A detective rescues Louise and Jean from rattlesnakes with a gun in one story, but that’s it.)
And what of the writing quality and interest level in these books? Should Hardy/McFarlane fans pick these up? It’s surprising how well McFarlane did in writing these tomes and how different they are from the Hardys. The first two stories are okay – nice introductions, but sometimes a bit tedious (By The Light Of the Study Lamp) and predictable (The Secret Of Lone Tree Cottage). However for a real hoot, In The Shadow Of The Tower, is a wild, melodramatic, moody story, much like a Universal studio mystery of the 30’s. McFarlane’s writing is truly descriptive, setting moods and creating atmosphere unlike recent the bland revisions of classic series stories or the modern series books (all talk/action and less descriptive paragraphs.) Be forewarned though, when one hears of stereotypes in these older books, In The Shadow Of The Tower is full of them. However, this is no different then movies of the same period, so it is to be read in the context of that time. The characters are sympathetic but broadly conceived. The story dealing with Louise and Jean helping a "hunchback girl" as well as attempting to recover a stolen portrait and how it all intertwines is worth a read. It does fall apart by the 23rd chapter and ties things up a bit too cozily and conveniently after that, but the pleasure from the early parts remains. I might step out on a limb and call this the The Mystery of Cabin Island of the Dana Girls series. There is something dark and wintry, disturbing yet comforting about this book. It is a page-turner.
The Three Cornered Mystery has a rather ordinary plot meanders on and on for the first twenty or so chapters, but comes alive as the Danas reach New York. The novel is distinctive in that there is a definite "adult" twist to the plot, revealed in the final chapters that make the seemingly unbelievable story of a fast disappearance of two women, a mother and daughter, from a farmhouse believable. It’s the only time I’ve seen the words "making love" in any Stratemeyer originated "classic" novel.
If you are interested in what else Leslie McFarlane could do with a slew of characters and an outline, by all means pick up one of the first four Dana Girls mystery stories. No, they are not the Hardys, but they are fun.
For more information about the Dana Girls, visit my Dana Girls Page.
When I got home I pulled The House On The Point out again and again it turned me off. For one thing, he makes no mention of the McFarlane book which is in my estimation the only book about the Hardys worth reading. Besides that, his big idea--What if a Hardy Boys book was done by someone with investigative reporting experience, etc.?--is totally self-serving. Frankly, IF there is a need for a re-do of a Hardy Boys book, I'd rather see it done by someone with great writing skills or a great sense of humor. Period.
I also got a kick out his Preface where he says, in effect, that if he took up the challenge of writing this book he thinks the world needs, he'd have to expend effort paring the original back to an outline. As I recall, McFarlane included just such an outline in his book, by way of showing how Stratemeyer worked! (Which probably explains why he did not mention the McFarlane book.) Etc.
It also really irritated me that he referred to the original text as "factory book" writing. First of all, that should be "book factory," not "factory book." Second, while these kinds of books were never meant to be examples of great literature, McFarlane did about as good a job with these texts as anyone could. He certainly did a better job that whoever ghosted the rewrites!
I would review the book but I am in up to my neck with a full time job and writing the book I mentioned. But maybe later--if you don't get to it first. - Pete Curry
I would like to congratulate Steve Servello on a great job done keeping track of the locations mentioned in the OT of The Tower Treasure. That is the worst book of all for any attempt at mapping. Particularly, the boys' final motorcycle ride is a kaleidoscope of misdirections. At even 40 mph they would be too far from Bayport for the events concerning the "real" tower.
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