“The Ghost at Skeleton Rock” by Jim Lawrence (1957)

This week, at approaching four decades old, I read my first Hardy Boys book. In specific, I read the thirty-seventh Hardy Boys book, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock, ghost-written by Jim Lawrence. It’s a strange place to start, but my interest is not with the Hardy Boys in general (although I find the whole industry that produces these serial books fascinating), but rather with the author, the late Jim Lawrence. Over on The Adventure Gamer, I have been slowly working my way through all of the games created by Infocom. In a few weeks, I’ll start playing Seastalker, the twelfth adventure, and the first written by the pair of Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence. The game is Infocom’s first “juvenile” game and they brought on board a master of juvenile fiction to help script it. By the 1980s, Jim had already proven himself a master of juvenile fiction across radio, newspaper comics, and books– most of the latter ghostwritten for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. To ensure I approached his game with an understanding of the genre, I committed myself to reading several of Jim’s original books. This is my first.

With so many books to choose from, it was difficult to know where to start. The Hardy Boys are a recognizable name and I was at least familiar with their concept, even if I have not read any of the books myself. Once I made that decision, it was easy to jump to the thirty-seventh in the series, the first written by Mr. Lawrence (based on an outline by Andrew E. Svenson). These books were often team efforts with different authors working on the outline, manuscripts, and corrections under various pseudonyms. Authors were generally paid a flat fee and were not permitted to advertise that they had written the books. Even today, we do not know the authors of all of the books, although most have been revealed through the Syndicate records and other sources. This book was written towards the end of the “first” run of Hardy Boys books, from 1927-1959. After this point, many of the books were rewritten or republished with details changed, especially to reduce racism and other aspects that readers of the time found objectionable. This one was shortened and republished in 1966, but I have tracked down and am reading the original. I’m just that detail-oriented.

The Hardy Boys, Jim and Frank, with their friend Chet.

When I sat down to read this book, I was a complete newbie at Hardy Boys but it’s not easy to figure out the premise once you start. Joe and Frank Hardy are two sibling detectives in their late teens. They are joined in this adventure by friends Tony and Chet, but I am getting ahead of myself. The story opens when the boys receive a coded message from their father (also a detective) that reads simply, “Hugo purple turban”. This begins an improbable quest that leads the boys to discover a fraudulent psychic, diamonds hidden in a popular children’s toy, and eventually a pineapple-themed smuggling ring that operates out of an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. The “ghost” of the title turns out to be a glow-in-the-dark inflatable that is used to scare away some native Americans (Carib Indians) that might have gotten too close to the smugglers’ base of operations.

I’ll be honest and say that I had some difficult following the plot, especially as it careened into the finish line. This is in part because so much of the narrative drive is based on the boys making incorrect decisions then, completely by accident, end up stumbling on the plot anyway. Their first guess was to call all the “Hugos” in the phone book, but that doesn’t end up right… but one of the Hugos tells them about a “Hugo” fortuneteller on the outskirts of town. Is that who they were supposed to investigate? No! But they happen to be thieves anyway and the boys catch them trying to steal their wallets. The thieves run off and the boys have one of their pilot friends try to locate their distinctive trailer from the air. While they wait, they go to a friend’s house who wants to (by coincidence) learn ventriloquism and purchase a Hugo doll, a popular toy based on a TV ventriloquist of the day. They arrive at the store right in time for it to be robbed and his new doll stolen, but thankfully the owner has a second doll in stock… which turns out to have a purple turban, diamonds hidden in the eyes, and a note about “Skeleton Rock”. And thus, the boys discover the plot! The smugglers return to the store when they realize they have the wrong doll and steal the receipt register which somehow tells them that the kids purchased the correct doll– but then they stupidly grab an incorrect doll again when they go to rob his house that night.

From there, the boys learn that those incorrect crooks they chased in the beginning of the book have been spotted so they– completely unnecessarily– fly off with their father’s airplane and pilot to confront them. They are nearly shot out of the air by one of the crooks wielding a shotgun and eventually have to limp to a nearby airport for repairs, but (by coincidence!) the real smugglers are there and one of them looks identical to Joe. Wow! Because Joe accidentally speaks the passphrase near the smugglers’ contact (“calypso”) when remarking on music playing nearby, the contact gives him the smuggled cargo instead… only to have it stolen back when one of the smugglers that has been disguised as a security guard ambushes them. From here, it gets hard to follow. They end up flying to Puerto Rico to meet with their father, get redirected to a fictional Caribbean nation on the verge of a civil war and almost get blown up by a bomb planted in their plane. When they make it to Puerto Rico, they have a few more misadventures where they eventually discover that their coded messages lead them to an island just off the coast of a pineapple-shaped peninsula. They meet a man named Hamilton that seems nice enough at first, but then he poisons one of their friends and sends the boys out on a boat to another island to fetch a doctor, except that he sabotaged the boat and it sinks in shark-infested waters. They eventually escape, meet up with terrible caricature of Carib Indians, discover that the “ghost” is just a distraction to keep the natives from meddling, and that their host, Hamilton, is trying to expand his smuggling operation into nuclear materials to help foment revolution in the little country that they passed through.

The fortuneteller’s second career.

Oh, and remember the two fortune tellers that they were chasing after in the beginning, that they only were interested in because one of them happened to be named Hugo? They are also in the smuggling operation and turn up again in Puerto Rico… as if that makes any sense.

I might not be doing the book justice, but that’s the best I can make of it. It’s actually quite fun while you are reading it and I glossed over many of the little adventures and cliffhangers that keep the story propelled forward. It’s only when you sit back and try to figure out what the heck happened that I am just left scratching my head. For example, we find out at the end that the guy that looks like Joe (his name is Beppo) looks that way because of makeup. That’s great, but why would he try to look like Joe at all? His disguise is so perfect that it even fools Frank, Joe’s brother, not to mention numerous police and security guards. It plays like a scene out of a soap opera. 

All in all, I can see why these characters are popular. They are rich and intelligent, they drive a nice convertible, and they are learning cool skills like flying a plane. They speak French and Spanish fluently, except when the plot requires them to not understand someone, and their father is a famous independent detective that does work for the government. It’s fun! That said, they also seem to live in a town with almost no minorities, women bake pies and do not go on adventures, and it’s okay to tease your friend for being overweight. This is perhaps unsurprising from a boys’ book from the 1950s.

I have no idea if this book is representative of other Hardy Boys books, but it was fun while it lasted. If Seastalker has any of the kinetic energy of this type of story,  I could be in for a treat. I hope next to jump back to the first published book that I have been able to identify: 1954’s Tom Swift and his Atomic Earth Blaster. With a title like that, it has to be good, right? I do not know how many of these I will read before I ran out of time, but I am glad that I am filling out a critical gap in my childhood education.

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