There is a moment in every young man’s life when he realizes that the world of imagination he grew up in is not how the real world works. For some it’s when they realize Santa isn’t real, or when the pro athlete they idolized growing up is revealed to be a scumbag. The example that always seems to be in the movies is when a teenager beats his dad in basketball for the first time. For Gene Weingarten one of those moments came when he realized that the Hardy Boys books were, in fact, pretty lame.
It seems overly cynical and almost blasphemous to blast the Hardy Boys in anyway. The still-in-print books about a pair of brothers who always seemed to stumble across new mysteries turned countless kids on to reading by introducing them to situations that they could imagine themselves in. I had (and probably still do have) a dozen or so of the hardcover books with the royal blue spine in my bedroom as a kid. I loved the plot twists and shady characters and especially the Hardy Boys’ best friend and sometimes sidekick, Chet Morton.
Re-investigating mysteries like The Missing Chums and The Secret of Skull Mountain today, though, would certainly ruin my childhood adoration of Frank and Joe. Luckily, I am not alone.
In 1998 Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor writer for the Washington Post, was looking through his old collection and found the old mysteries full of formal, corny dialogue and wooden characters without any of the personality Weingarten remembered. So the journalist tried to reach out to Frankin W. Dixon (the prolific author who penned the classic series) only to find out that Dixon never existed and was in fact an umbrella name used by a group of authors who wrote the books.
A Canadian freelance writer named Leslie McFarlane was the true author of many of the early books. From his home in Springfield, Massachusetts McFarlane wrote 19 of the 25 books between 1927 and 1946, then another two after that period.
Trained as a newspaper reporter, McFarlane never made it past high school and by the time he had a family, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. He viewed himself as a writer with a vast untapped potential, and one who had no choice but to fulfill a contract he signed with the Stratemeyer Syndicate (the first publisher to market books specifically to kids).
Weingarten wrote about the true author’s experience in the Post:
In the early volumes, McFarlane gamely tried invention. As a foil for the ingenious Hardy Boys, he created two stumblebum local police officers, Chief Collig and Deputy Smuff, who dithered and blundered and misinterpreted clue after clue. It was a technique used by detective writers from Conan Doyle to Christie. But the Stratemeyer Syndicate was not amused. This was fostering a disrespect for authority, it said. McFarlane was ordered, in subsequent volumes, to give the cops a brain.
The message was clear. These were not McFarlane’s books. They belonged to men named Edward Stratemeyer, who wanted bilge, and Franklin W. Dixon, who did not exist.
McFarlane seemed to have no trouble writing the books, which were based on an outline by the publishers. (You can find a full list of who wrote the books and the outlines here.) He simply followed a formula, no matter how dumb it was. But that expectation eventuallyu did a number on his pride.
Leslie McFarlane kept voluminous diaries. His family has them. He wrote in fountain pen, in elegant strokes that squirreled up a little when he was touched by despair or drink. In these diaries, “The Hardy Boys” is seldom mentioned by name, 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.”
“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.”
Even that frustration eventually faded, in no small part because of the everyday trials created by the Depression. Most people couldn’t work at all, McFarlane reasoned, so who was he to complain about his own opportunity. Here he is in his own words, followed by Weingarten again:
“There was so much that was demeaning about the Depression, such wreckage of hopes, plans, careers and human pride . . . if a family became penniless, there was merely relief’ in dribs and drabs of food and fuel, grudgingly dispensed by a municipality that couldn’t collect its taxes. And there was an old stigma attached to these bounties, the stigma of failure. Proud people would starve before they would let their plight become known.”
A writer can be the most selfish person on Earth — demanding silence, expecting adulation, shamelessly mining the privacy of those around him for literary material. McFarlane did all that. He was no hero. But at his center lay something heroically unselfish. It showed up in the Hardy Boys — not on the pages themselves, but in the simple fact that he was writing them at all. McFarlane was willing to demean himself and, as he saw it, to betray his craft, in order to put food on the table.
For all of McFarlane’s misgivings, his books still sell more than a million copies each year, an astounding figure when you consider that one third of Americans admit they didn’t read a single book last year. At some point over the past few generations, the boy detective stories stopped being seen as cheesy kid’s books and turned into a cultural touchstone. Their white-bread town of Bayport, New York has been adapted a number of times, perhaps most famously in the short-lived 1970s TV series, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. Here are Frank and Joe studiously researching how to identify fingerprints before they’re called on to solve a mystery.