27 August 2013

The Hardy Boys Mystery

by Dale C. Andrews


       On a fall night in 1956 The Mickey Mouse Club, which back then ran on ABC every night between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., premiered a new serial adventure titled The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure. My life-long love of mysteries began that night.

      I was so awed by Disney’s television adaptation of the first Hardy Boys mystery, originally published as The Tower Treasure, that I immediately went out in search of Hardy Boys books that I could devour on my own. Naturally, the first place I tried was the library. But when I summoned up the courage to ask the librarian where I might find the library's collection of Hardy Boy books she looked aghast.  Her eyes widened, she snorted  and then, looking down over the tops of those half spectacles, informed me that the Hardy Boys series was simply not the sort of book that one found in a library.

       This was astonishing to me at seven. Why would the library refuse to stock an entire series of books?  Particularly a popular series written for kids?  But no matter.  I was on a mission. I persevered. 

Stix, Baer and Fuller, Clayton Missouri
circa 1956
"Second floor, Books."
       The neighborhood bookstore also did not carry the Hardy Boys, and I sensed in them, too, a degree of disdain when I asked about the books. But this was the 1950s, a time when department stores were truly stores with departments. So the next time I went shopping with my parents at the neighborhood Stix, Baer and Fuller department store (a St. Louis fixture back then) I headed straight for the book department. And there they were. Row after row of hardcover Hardy Boy mysteries, each for sale for $1.00. I immediately purchased the first three books in the series, exhausting my saved allowance funds, even though my mother warned me that, at age 7, I probably would have an extremely difficult time reading them.

     I didn't. As soon as we got home I wedged myself into the corner of the living room sofa and was lost in the marvelous adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy.  I think that it was those books that really taught me the joy of reading for pleasure.

       For the next several years Hardy Boy mysteries topped every one of my birthday and Christmas wish lists. But as I got deeper into the series things began to bother me. How could Frank and Joe remain, respectively, 16 and 15 years old in each mystery? And who was this “Franklin W. Dixon” who had written the marvelous series, beginning way back in the 1920s? 

       As time passed, like every other fan of the Hardy Boys, I began to grow up. My taste for mysteries had been whetted and more and more my collection of Hardy Boy books sat gathering dust on the bottom shelf of the bookcase as I turned to Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen and others. But I never forgot about Frank and Joe, and if asked, I would readily volunteer that my thirst for detective fiction, in fact my appetite for reading fiction, began with, and was fueled by, their exploits. 

       If the theme of my last article, on pseudonyms, was John Steinbeck’s admonition that “we can’t start over,” the theme of this one must be Thomas Wolfe’s “you can’t go home again.” Have any of you tried to go back, as adults, and re-read a Hardy Boys book? Or a Nancy Drew mystery? It is only when I attempted this myself that I finally understood the librarian's aghast look as she stared down at me over her half specs when I was seven. No two ways about it, the Hardy Boys are repositories of atrocious writing. 

       Back in 1998 Gene Weingarten, staff writer for The Washington Post (and a very funny man) reached the same conclusion in a wonderful article chronicling his own adult-rediscovery of the works of Franklin W. Dixon: 
Now, through my bifocals, I again confronted The Missing Chums [which is the fourth volume of the series]. Here is how it begins:
 "You certainly ought to have a dandy trip."
"I'll say we will, Frank! We sure wish you could come along!"
Frank Hardy grinned ruefully and shook his head. . . .
 "Just think of it!" said Chet Morton, the other speaker. "A whole week motorboating along the coast. We're the lucky boys, eh Biff?"
"You bet we're lucky!"
"It won't be the same without the Hardy Boys," returned Chet.
Dispiritedly, I leafed through other volumes. They all read the same. The dialogue is as wooden as an Eberhard Faber, the characters as thin as a sneer, the plots as forced as a laugh at the boss's joke, the style as overwrought as this sentence. Adjectives are flogged to within an inch of their lives: "Frank was electrified with astonishment." Drama is milked dry, until the teat is sore and bleeding: "The Hardy boys were tense with a realization of their peril." Seventeen words seldom suffice when 71 will do:
"Mrs. Hardy viewed their passion for detective work with considerable apprehension, preferring that they plan to go to a university and direct their energies toward entering one of the professions; but the success of the lads had been so marked in the cases on which they had been engaged that she had by now almost resigned herself to seeing them destined for careers as private detectives when they should grow older."
Physical descriptions are so perfunctory that the characters practically disappear. In 15 volumes we learn little more than this about 16-year-old Frank: He is dark-haired. And this about 15-year-old Joe: He is blond.
These may be the worst books ever written. 
       Gene Weingarten captures perfectly the surprise and disappointment that a returning reader encounters when cherished childhood memories are found to have been premised not on greatness but on hack mediocrity.  His reaction (and my own) to discovering, as an adult, the shortcomings of the mystery series we loved as children is not uncommon. It is, in fact, almost universal among those who attempt to “go home again” to those Franklin W. Dixon volumes that highlighted our childhood. 

       When Benjamin Hoff, bestselling author of The Tao of Pooh re-read the Hardy Boys as an adult he felt compelled, like Pygmalion, to try to set things right. Mr. Hoff went so far as to re-write the second book in the series, The House on the Cliff and published his re-imagined story, re-titled The House on the Point, complete with two appended essays analyzing the original Franklin W. Dixon work. A noble attempt to re-build that childhood home that he had returned to only to find in shambles.

       But ultimately you can’t do it. Here is what Austin Chronicle reviewer Tim Walker wrote of Hoff’s futile attempt: 
Benjamin Hoff's loving tribute to his boyhood heroes the Hardy Boys recalls The House on the Cliff, the second installment of the original series. As one would hope, Hoff's book is executed with a literary sensibility far superior to the original's. While the narrative seldom attains the gentle flow of Hoff's The Tao of Pooh, its many historical and physical details lend fine verisimilitude, and Hoff has drawn its characters with a real human depth that is absent from the stories that have been selling strongly for 75 years.
[But] any Hardy Boys tribute will run up against the thorny fact of the originals' bad writing. The plots make little sense, the wooden dialogue is in some way an improvement on the cardboard-cutout characters, and the boys themselves take on lethal dangers with barely a second thought in an otherwise sober setting that doesn't make the fantasy element of the book clear. . . . Hoff's book is worth reading, but if it fires you up to re-read the Hardy Boys, understand that you'll be doing it only for nostalgia.
Edward Stratemeyer
       So. Who was this Franklin W. Dixon, and how could he have produced such a popular but, at base, awful series of books? The answer to that question is pretty much common knowledge now.

       In fact, there never was a “Franklin W. Dixon.” The name is a pseudonym utilized by a number of contract writers who produced the Hardy Boys series and the Nancy Drew series ("written" by the equally fictional Carolyn Keene), for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a self-proclaimed “packager’ of books established in 1905 to provide reading material for young adults (and to make money along the way). The syndicate was the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, who wrote the first Bobbsey Twin book before realizing that producing series of childrens’ books under different pseudonyms, ghostwritten by hired writers, would play better in the marketplace. This assumption proved entirely correct. By 1930, the Stratemeyer Syndicate had sold over 5 million copies of its ghosted books and basically controlled the U.S. market for childrens’ books. 

       One of Stratemeyer’s greatest successes was the Hardy Boys. The original series consisted of 58 installments, and was followed by several related series, re-imagining Frank and Joe in more modern times. The latest, The Hardy Boys Adventures, was launched in 2013, and new volumes are currently being published in that series. From the date of the original publication of The Tower Treasure in 1927 there has never been a year when the Hardy Boys series was out of print. 

Leslie McFarlane
     While many authors toiled away producing the hundreds of Hardy Boys installments under the Franklin W. Dixon name, for the first twenty two books in the original series, the scribe who oversaw Frank, Joe, their friends and family, and the city of Bayport was a frustrated author and gentleman named Leslie McFarlane. The entire Hardy Boys series therefore owes a lot to the foundation provided by McFarlane in those first twenty-two installments.  But according to his daughter Norah Perez, McFarlane’s reaction to the series, and to his own efforts in helping to create it,was quite simple: “He hated the Hardy Boys.” 

       McFarlane, like all subsequent Hardy Boys authors, toiled in secrecy in return for a pittance. He was required to sign a confidentiality agreement obligating him never to divulge his authorship of Franklin W. Dixon books. In return he, and the later writers, were paid “princely” sums ranging from $75.00 to $100 per book in the early years to produce new installments in the series, each rigidly premised on outlines supplied by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift series were all written under the same arrangements.   Attempts by McFarlane and subsequent authors to vary from the script, or to breathe life into the characters reportedly were dealt with quickly and ruthlessly by the editorial pens of the syndicate.

       Did all of this grate on McFarlane? You bet. Gene Weingarten’s article collects and analyzes entries from the detailed diaries that McFarlane kept over the years. 
“The Hardy Boys" [series] is seldom mentioned by name [in McFarlane’s diaries], as though he cannot bear to speak it aloud. He calls the books "the juveniles." At the time McFarlane was living in northern Ontario with a wife and infant children, attempting to make a living as a freelance fiction writer.
Nov. 12, 1932: "Not a nickel in the world and nothing in sight. Am simply desperate with anxiety. . . . What's to become of us this winter? I don't know. It looks black."
Jan. 23, 1933: "Worked at the juvenile book. The plot is so ridiculous that I am constantly held up trying to work a little logic into it. Even fairy tales should be logical."
Jan. 26, 1933: "Whacked away at the accursed book."
June 9, 1933: "Tried to get at the juvenile again today but the ghastly job appalls me."
Jan. 26, 1934: "Stratemeyer sent along the advance so I was able to pay part of the grocery bill and get a load of dry wood."
Finally: "Stratemeyer wants me to do another book. . . . I always said I would never do another of the cursed things but the offer always comes when we need cash. I said I would do it but asked for more than $85, a disgraceful price for 45,000 words."
He got no raise. 
       McFarlane eventually gritted his teeth and abandoned the series when he realized that the pressures of grinding out new installments had driven him to alcoholism. After shaking that addiction at a treatment center McFarlane never wrote another Hardy Boys book and instead went on to a relatively successful career as a novelist and screenwriter. But the ghosts of Frank and Joe continued to haunt him. Reportedly when McFarlane was near death in 1977 he would awaken from a diabetic coma screaming, having hallucinated that upon his death he would only be remembered for writing the Hardy Boys. 

       So, what's the take away here?  Were we all just wrong as kids?  And what about the fact that after reading the Hardy Boys, or the "sister" Nancy Drew series, most of us went on, and graduated to better books, doing so with an instilled love of reading, and of mysteries?

     A funny thing about trying to re-live parts of one’s childhood. Through an adult’s eyes things just don’t look the same.  Returning to our earliest literary loves can be as unpalatable as returning to Gerber's baby food.  If you try this anyway (the literature, not the baby food), be prepared for some disappointment, or worse. But at the same time remember that what we saw, and did, as children, and what inspired and molded us, made us what we are today. No matter how bad those Hardy Boy books may be when viewed through adult eyes -- our own now, or that aghast librarian’s I encountered in 1956 -- Frank and Joe (and Nancy Drew) for many of us provided that initial flame, the catalyst that ignited a lifelong interest in mystery fiction.

       So, well done, Franklin W. Dixon (and everyone behind his curtain). Poorly written, but still, in the end, well done!

16 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Fun piece. I never cared for the Boys, preferring the Three Iinvestigators, which i have been wise enough to never reread.

Here is a piece i wrote sbout an earlier and even worse series. http://criminalbrief.com/?p=5300

Terence Faherty said...

I didn't buy too many Hardy Boys. The boys in my grammar school class organized an informal lending library that would circulate copies. They were the same size as our English textbooks, so we would slip them inside our book covers and read them during class. (Image a kid getting detention today for reading a book during class.) That may explain my ongoing troubles with the subjunctive mood.

Thanks for the nostalgia, Dale.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wonderful post, Dale. Writing and storytelling are two different, um, kettles of fish. It would be interesting to analyze how these books managed to be good storytelling in spite of lame plots. They must have been, because they kept an awful lot of kids turning the pages. And I guess a reading audience that can't tell good writing from bad and doesn't care is one of those things that keeps coming around again, like bell-bottom pants.

Janice Law said...

Anyone who has ever taught middle school/ junior high English has read a thousand and one book reports on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. talk about a love/ hate relationship!

Nice job!

David Edgerley Gates said...

I remember the sense of awe (and enormous satisfaction) of figuring out the mystery in the first book just before it was given away on the page, a good lesson in how to tell a story. Yes, they were crap, but they introduced a lot of us to reading, as did Nancy Drew and the other series in the syndicate's line, so you have to cut them some slack. (I wouldn't go back and re-read any of them, though.)

Anonymous said...

Who knew? And how interesting and somewhat disappointing. But then I loved them too.

Eve Fisher said...

There are books that only children like, books that only adults like, and books that both children and adults like, and there's nothing wrong with that. Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, Sherlock Holmes, a lot of Kipling can be enjoyed by both. But it doesn't hurt to start off with the Hardy boys or Nancy Drew or even (God help us!) the Bobbsey Twins. Whatever gets you reading is worth it!

John Floyd said...

What an interesting column, Dale. I loved those books back then, and didn't even notice the shortcomings. Sure would now, though. Fascinating!

R.T. Lawton said...

In elementary school, the class always hushed when the teacher was about to read another chapter from the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. We never thought about the authors, only about the daring adventure of the protagonist(s). It beat trying to memorize our multiplication tables.

Leigh Lundin said...

What an intriguing article, Dale.

I saw only a few Hardy Boys episodes when I visited my cousin after school, but I was hooked. Our library was more tolerant although they led with Nancy Drew and filled in the Hardy Boys later on.

You got me wondering why I loved classics like The Moonstone, The Thinking Machine stories, Treasure Island, and of course Sherlock Holmes and yet didn’t choked on bad writing in Stratemeyer’s books. I think part of the answer is the flexibility of kids’ brains, that they are not only more tolerant, but they don’t know the writing’s bad. Best of all, their imagination fills in the huge gaps in characterization, scene, and perhaps plot.

A reviewer of Twilight marveled the main character had virtually no physical description, but concluded its very absence led to the book’s popularity. Without a description to lock on to, teen girls could easily picture themselves in the title character’s rĂ´le. Perhaps it is so with children.

Without television, my father used to read to us, which we loved. I think my favorites were H. Rider Haggard’s Alan Quatermain series and I still remember the evil witch Gagool. Twenty years later, I tried rereading one or two of the books. Usually I get along fine with Victorian writing, but I found Haggard’s writing stiff and harder to read than many of his contemporaries. As you suggest, perhaps it’s better to remember fondly than revisit.

Herschel Cozine said...

Fascinating stuff. My first grade teacher would read a chapter a day from the Bobbsey Twins. I hated it, although I am not sure why. I never read a Hardy book, but I might try one just to see how bad it really is. My first reading experience was "Smoky" by Will James. I loved it. But I don't think I will reread if for fear I would find it poorly written, and dash a childhood memory.

Kids read for the adventure and activities that interest them, not knowing or caring that the writing is atrocious. That, fortunately, comes later. Anything that gets them reading can't be all bad. So in that sense, Dixon performed a valuable service. He should have earned more than $75 for his efforts.

David Edgerley Gates said...

As a footnote, a woman named Mildred Benson wrote the first couple of dozen Nancy Drews, which probably explains their cohesion as a series.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mildred_Benson

Jan Appleton said...

Inneresting how often apple pops in Stratemeyer books: Applewood books, Appleton author, Applegate treasure.

Dale Andrews said...

Interesting collection of comments! The interest in the topic just goes to show the reach of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series -- despite their obvious shortcomings!

porfle said...

I'm a lifelong Hardy Boys fan and still enjoy reading them, especially since replicas of the originals started being reprinted. I make it a point not to "outgrow" things like this. Why stop enjoying something?

Anonymous said...

Hi am from Bangalore, India. Thanks dale for reviving nostalgic memories. Off course baby food tastes awful now. Satyananda