Childhood Classics: The Hardy Boys Mystery Novels

When Halloween approaches, our thoughts turn to children and their love of role playing. For generations, boys have imagined themselves as Frank or Joe Hardy, the famous boy sleuths. The first Hardy Boys mystery was published in 1927; The Tower Treasure still sells more than 100,000 copies a year. The original 58 books in the series have been translated into 25 languages and sell a million copies a year in the U.S. (Connelly 2008, 3, 6). The books were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate (see my blog); roughly half the sales from the Syndicate’s 125 children’s series and 200 million individual titles are Hardy Boys books (Johnson 1993, 142).

Certainly the two most famous children’s mystery series of the twentieth century are the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, both Syndicate creations. While Gothic settings and themes dominate the Nancy Drew mysteries, liberal use of adventure and outdoor landscapes characterize the Hardy Boys books. The adventure/mystery combination popularized in the Hardy Boys novel has become a winning genre blend with male readers (Johnson 1993, 143).

Hardy Boys novels introduce children to the features of typical adult mysteries. “The essential ingredients of a Hardys title,” Billman points out, “are fast-paced investigative action and a large dollop of the conventional gimmickry of pulp magazine detection: . . . disguises, ciphers to be puzzled out, rude thugs to be put in their places, crime kits, secret messages, and passwords” (1986, 82-83). But these books also differ from their more violent adult counterparts of the same time period. As O’Rourke points out:
If the Hardy Boys emerged at roughly the same time as hardboiled detective fiction, they were also a distinct counterpoint to it. Where private dicks like Sam Spade were wise, urban, cynical, hard-drinking, and suspicious of “dames,” Frank and Joe Hardy were innocent, suburban, fresh-faced, and clean-living.
The Hardys’ detective methods are particularly suited to children. Search/chase rather than deduction is their “modus operandi” (Billman 1986, 89). The Hardy trademark is “mobility via fast, modern transportation (Johnson 1993, 142); motorcycles, hot cars, speedboats, and airplanes dominate the action.

Who wrote the Hardy books? No single person is the short answer. Franklin L. Dixon – the author whose name appears on the books – is a mythical construct. Edward Stratemeyer conceived the idea for the series, wrote outlines for many of the early books, hired ghost writers to complete the books, and then edited the manuscripts. A series of ghost writers including Leslie McFarlane, Harriet Adams (Stratemeyer’s daughter), Andrew Svenson, George Walker Jr., Richard Dougherty, and James Duncan Lawrence wrote various volumes.

If one single name stands out though, it is Leslie McFarlane – ghost writer of volumes 1-16 and 21-24. Author of short stories, books, documentaries, radio scripts, poems, novellas, and adult mysteries; award-winning writer for magazines; newspaper journalist; and pioneering director for the national Film Board of Canada, Leslie McFarlane is remembered today as the author of the initial Hardy Boys novels.

“Les’s mastery of narrative,” claims Greenwald, “combined with a flair for developing sympathetic and likeable characters is what gave the Hardy Boys book a distinctive personality” (2004, 126). Refusing to write down to his young readers, McFarlane elevated the books from “hack fiction to memorable works of children’s fiction” (Connelly 2008, 47).

When Simon & Schuster bought the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1985, they introduced variations on the traditional Hardy Boys series with the introduction of The Hardy Boys Casefiles (1987-1998) and The Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers (2005 -). Connelly argues that “the enduring popularity of the Hardy Boys lies in their ability to grow and change with the times, always keeping up with the latest trends, fashions, and technologies while remaining the same age as their readers” (2008, 11). Certainly the Hardy Boys have captured the imaginations of young readers for over 80 years, a feat unequalled in children’s fiction.

Baxter, Kent. “Teen Reading at the Turn of the Century (Part II): Edward Stratemeyer.” In The Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008, 136-54.

Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Factory. New York: Ungar, 1986.

Connelly, Mark. The Hardy Boys Mysteries, 1927-1979: A Cultural and Literary History. Jefferson, NC: McFarlane, 2008.

Greenwald, S. Marilyn. The Secret of the Hardy Boys: Leslie McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.

Johnson, Deidre. Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. New York: Twayne, 1993.