The Hardy Boys: Creating Generations of Mystery Readers
Profle and Essay by Charles L. P. Silet
In his introduction to Applewood Books' re-issue of Frank and Joe Hardy's third adventure, The Secret of the Old Mill, the contemporary crime writer William Tapply remarks that for him and for the boys of his generation, "the Hardy Boys books were our introduction to the mystery/suspense genre." For over 70 years the adventures of the detective brothers have provided the same introduction for new generations of readers in much the same ways they did for Tapply and his friends.
Launched in 1927 the Hardy Boys books became one of the most popular of the Stratemeyer Syndicate's many juvenile series which included such other long-running stalwarts as the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew. The idea of producing such series was the brain child of Edward Stratemeyer, who himself had been the author of adolescent literature including several of the Horatio Alger books. Using a stable of anonymous authors writing under house names like Franklin W. Dixon--the writers were abjured by contract from revealing their real identities--the syndicate farmed out plot outlines and character ideas and then Stratemeyer edited the final manuscripts and sent them out to various publishers.
Following this simple formula Stratemeyer built an empire of juvenile fiction which in a more modest form exits even today. His plan was to introduce heroes and heroines of exceptional moral virtue and healthy American character in exciting adventure stories for young readers at an affordable price. Although his books were often vilified for their formulaic plots, lack of style, or stereotyped characterizations, no other juvenile fiction factory was as financially successful or as important in forming the reading tastes of America's youth than was the Stratemeyer syndicate.
The original thirty years of the Hardy Boys' series, like the Nancy Drew books of the same period, were revised in the 1960s to remove many of their more objectionable references to race and ethnicity and to bring them up to date. In the process of rewriting the books lost much of their period flavor and a great deal of their character. The revisions also deprived readers of a valuable bit of literary history. Since then the original books have been obtainable largely at garage sales and in used book shops and thereby have been available only to energetic memorabilia collectors. In his autobiography, Ghost of the Hardy Boys (1976), Leslie McFarland breaks the silence about his authorship of the initial dozen or so of the series and admits that he was the first Franklin W. Dixon. In describing his relationship with the syndicate and Edward Stratemeyer, he clarifies the anonymous process of authorship, even to revealing how and when he was able to introduce innovations in the house formula.
At first McFarland regarded his contribution to the series as simply work for hire over which he felt he had right no subsequent control. For him writing the Hardy Boys books was simply a way of making a living. However, recalling an interview near the end of his career with a local journalist, McFarland admits that his laissez faire attitude toward the books changed. The young interviewer pointed out the ways the revised books lost the style and humor and leisurely pacing of the originals, and he noted that fathers were buying the books to give to their children not knowing how different they were. By the end of the interview McFarland began to feel a sense of disinheritance, and he admits that the books had lost much in their revisions.
Tapply concludes his introduction by listing the reasons for re-reading the original Hardy Boys today: "Their adventures can be read, if you choose, as quaint reminders of an America that no longer exists, a time before television and video games and computers, a time before international terrorists and environmental time bombs and nuclear nightmare, a time, if we were to take the books literally, before premarital sex and dysfunctional families and racial strife and alcohol and pornography."
Thanks to the re-release by Applewood Books of the original versions of the first five Hardy Boys books with their bright red bindings, colorful dust jackets, and black and white frontispiece illustration, readers can now re-capture something of that lost moment of our youth and in the process discover afresh a little about our literary heritage, warts and all.
An Annotated The Hardy Boys Reading List
The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys by Marvin Heiferman, Carole Kismaric (1998)
Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate
(Twayne's United States Authors Series, No 627) by Deidre Johnson, (1993)
Applewood Reissues of the Original Hardy Boys Adventures
The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon; With an Introduction by Leslie McFarland Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1991. (Originally published in 1927)
The House on the Cliff by Franklin W. Dixon; With an Introduction by Leslie McFarland Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1991. (Originally published in 1927)
The Secret of the Old Mill by Franklin W. Dixon; With an Introduction by William G. Tapply Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1991. (Originally published in 1927)
The Missing Chums by Franklin W. Dixon. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1996. (Originally published in 1928)
Hunting for Hidden Gold by Franklin W. Dixon. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1996. (Originally published in 1928)
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. His collection Talking Murder: Interviews with 20 Mystery Writers will be published by Persea Books in October, 1999.