The New Hardy Boy Case Files
Everyone Dies (unless they’re a main character)
I told you every book on this list wouldn’t be a “landmark of world literature” (description of Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust from the back of the Vintage Books edition). I’m going in chronological order of the books that had a lasting impact on me, so hear me out.
That little tiny library I told you about in the previous post, that serviced our elementary school, had many of the original (according to wikipedia they were probably updated because the originals contained racial stereotypes) Hardy Boys‘ mysteries in stock. I loved them. This is another clue (get it? sorry) that I would eventually love detective fiction when I got older. In 1987, they were relaunched as the Hardy Boy Casefiles. A darker, more dangerous series than the original.
But instilling a love of mystery is not why the Hardy Boys Casefiles #1: Dead on Target is on this list. No, it’s on this list because it starts off with a death, a very important death.
This book begins with the death of Iola Morton, Joe’s girlfriend and a major character in the original books. This amazed me. She didn’t come back to life at the end of the book. She didn’t miraculously escape and only appear to die (I’m looking at you Fast & Furious 6). She died. Dead dead. Do you have any idea how amazing this is?
At 11 years old I suddenly realized that in almost every movie and television show, none of the main characters, or major supporting characters, ever die. After reading this book that fact became ridiculously apparent. I began to notice it in everything I watched. G.I. Joe had snipers who could write their names on walls with machine guns, but couldn’t hit a terrorist who was firing back. The A-team rarely get shot (I was going to say never, but I wasn’t sure) and even if they did, they would survive.
No one dies.
Children and dogs are especially immune to death. You see a kid in mortal danger, even in horror films that will slice a person in two, that kid will be O.K. in the next shot.
This almost ruined media for me.
I think this is part of why I love Joss Whedon and Hong Kong cinema so much: people die. It was in High School that I discovered Quentin Tarantino which led me to Raymond Chandler (more on him in a later post) and John Woo specifically but Hong Kong cinema more generally. One of the first things I noticed in those early days of watching VHS tapes of poorly sub-titled (NEVER DUBBED! NEVER!) HK movies is that: the protaganist has a 50/50 shot at surviving.
How refreshing! To watch a movie and think, “I wonder if he’s going to make it?” and mean it.
It’s also why I loved Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs & Pulp Fiction – not everyone makes it. Groundbreaking cinema for that reason alone.
Joss Whedon, if you don’t know him, is lovingly teased about killing off your favorite characters (skip ahead to avoid spoilers) Tara, Anya, Wash, Shepard Book, Agent Coulson (briefly).
The thing about these deaths is that in each of these movies and television shows they raised the stakes for the other characters. You can’t keep putting people in mortal danger with no consequences or eventually your audience won’t care. Joss Whedon understood this when he made Serenity. Without those deaths earlier in the movie, the final battle would only be half as exciting.
Or look at Scream. Kill Drew Barrymore at the beginning (a legitimate movie star) and what chance do any of the characters have of surviving (they’re just TV actors, after all).
Or look at The Walking Dead (TV or Comic), by having any and every character (with the exception of Rick) capable of being killed off any week, you watch each attack with actual fear and dread. When someone’s surrounded by zombies, you really wonder if they’re going to make it.
At 11 years old reading about the death of Joe’s girlfriend I was shocked. That single death purchased my belief that anyone could die for the 27 books I read till I aged out. It also left me with a hunger for media that would put characters in true danger. I enjoy silly action films like the ones with Jason Statham or the Fast and Furious series, but I truly love a movie that says, “Even the hero isn’t safe”.
So for making an 11 year old begin to critically look at media, I say thank you to Hardy Boys Casfiles #1: Dead on Target.
Next week: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.
So, everyone, what’s the earliest book you remember having an impact on your life?