Perky fellows in a gay-looking speedwagon: The Hardy Boys return

At last, a revival of unexpurgated Frank and Joe.

Published October 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Canadians have made notable contributions to the field of medicine. Fredrick Banting and Charles Best shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin; Wilder Penfield helped map the human brain. Hens Selye discovered that mental stress affects physical health. Leslie McFarlane wrote the Hardy Boys books.

Scoff, if you dare. This man's prodigious work has brought comfort to millions of children confined to their beds with illness (or fake illness) through the years. Under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon, McFarlane wrote a series of assembly-line mysteries -- the first six of which have just been reissued by Penguin Putnam -- that became standard gifts for any boy laid up with measles (in the olden days of the '40s and '50s) or the flu (in the here and now). In fact, a backlash take on McFarlane might point out that Hardy Boys books, passed from sick to healthy young hands over and over, probably did more to transmit disease than any shipment of smallpox-infested blankets. Harmless youth entertainment or hazardous medical waste? They may be the most sneezed-upon novels in literary history.

"Literary" is perhaps too grandiose a term here. No one ever said the Hardy Boys stories were art, least of all McFarlane. He was hired in 1926 by Edward L. Stratemeyer, whose New Jersey-based Stratemeyer Syndicate specialized in juvenile tomes about Bomba the Jungle Boy and Tom Swift, the Boy Inventor. McFarlane was 23 years old and looking for ways to subsidize a serious writing career. He jumped at the chance to earn $100 per book (despite having summed up two sample Stratemeyer books as having "less content than a football bladder and no more style than a drunken camel").

At first, McFarlane worked from outlines provided by Stratemeyer on early franchises like Dave Fearless and then, in 1927, on a new series about two sons of a famous detective named Fenton Hardy from the little town of Bayport on Barmet Bay. "The Tower Treasure" was the first volume in a collection that would go on to sell more than 70 million copies (and eventually launch the brief but unforgettable career of Shaun Cassidy).

This avalanche of sales brought Leslie McFarlane approximately $4,000. In his autobiography, "The Ghost of the Hardy Boys," (Methuen/Two Continents), McFarlane wrote, "I never did learn what the W (in Franklin W. Dixon) represented. Certainly not Wealthy." Stratemeyer (who died just four years after hiring McFarlane and turned the business over to his daughters) was a true visionary -- both for hanging onto the rights to the books and for hiring a ghostwriter from a famously unlitigious nation.

"I was not swindled," the Canadian ghostwriter later insisted. "I accepted the terms of Edward Stratemeyer, and the importance of the money was related to my needs."

For years, McFarlane wasn't even aware of his status as the Hemingway of the schoolyard set. The autobiography recounts how, "sometime in the '40s," McFarlane's son, Brian, discovered his dad's secret identity. "Did you read these books as a kid?" Brian asked, seeing them on a dusty shelf. "Read them? I wrote them," McFarlane replied. He was astonished by Brian's awe-struck reaction. "Other boys read them?" McFarlane asked his son.

"Dad, where have you been? Everybody reads them."

McFarlane had created a surprisingly potent bit of magic. After receiving the first of Stratemeyer's sketchy plot summaries for the new series, he rejected the hack approach he'd applied to the Dave Fearless books. "I decided against the course of common sense," he wrote. "I opted for quality."

They weren't Dostoevsky, but if you were the right age they were great literature. The first eight books in the series -- including the six rereleased by Penguin Putnam -- were intended to be read in order, with the seasons changing to indicate the passing of time. The boys' characters basically broke down this way -- Frank had dark hair; Joe was blond. McFarlane, writing as Dixon, described them thusly: "While Frank was dark, with straight black hair and brown eyes, his brother was pink-cheeked, with fair, curly hair and blue eyes. Frank was a year older than his brother Joe, and usually took the lead in their exploits, although Joe was not a whit behind his brother in shrewdness and in deductive ability."

Generally, Frank was the thinker while Joe was more impulsive, and perhaps a little more athletic. I was blond, like Joe, and younger, like Joe. I liked Joe best. Franklin W. Dixon played me like a violin.

Happily, the Hardy Boys series was unconcerned with reality. Bayport was an exciting, illogical playground -- wholesome as Walton's Mountain, crime-ridden as Capone's Chicago. As authors Carole Kismaric and Melvin Heiferman wrote in "The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys," "They're never trapped by petty chores, curfews, or the short leash of meager allowances. Frank and Joe don't feel even a twinge of sibling rivalry." The stories were always packed with slightly implausible tight squeezes, colorful scene changes and danger leavened with a bit of juvenile humor.

The Hardy Boys were an immediate hit -- two years after they first appeared, 116,000 Hardy Boys mysteries had been sold. (Their popularity inspired the creation of Nancy Drew, which promptly began outselling the Hardys two to one.) But while the money issue didn't faze McFarlane, something else did -- his discovery that the early books were being systematically revised and shortened, beginning with "The Tower Treasure" in 1959. Other chopped-down editions of McFarlane-penned titles appeared throughout the '60s in those compact blue hardcover editions familiar to anyone who was just starting to read when the Beatles landed.

Earlier readers who recalled McFarlane's unexpurgated texts bemoaned their loss. Canadian journalist Bob Stall, the man who first informed McFarlane of the wanton editing, warned him, "The old books were written for a literate generation. But not these new ones. And they'll engender an even less literate generation."

McFarlane's originals are still available, however, thanks to Applewood Books. (Although the new Grossett and Dunlap rereleases are being promoted as the return of the "original" Hardy Boys books, they are actually the '60s-era eviscerated versions.) At $14.95, Applewood's editions are pricier than the $5.99 Grossett and Dunlaps, but the difference is obvious in both look and content. The Applewood books feature beautiful dust jackets bearing the original cover illustrations. Most important, each of the six Applewood volumes is five chapters longer and substantially different in tone and pace that the Grossett and Dunlaps.

In the originals, McFarlane had taken it upon himself to educate the wee heathens in his audience by dropping in references to Shakespeare and Dickens, and using multisyllabic words like "ostensible," "presaged," and "inelegantly." Anticipating the craze for sensuous food writing, McFarlane made a point of detailing his characters' meals -- they would habitually celebrate the solving of a case by throwing themselves a sumptuous feast. The revised edition got rid of it -- snooty reference and foodie fun all consigned to early Hardy history.

Chet Morton's practical jokes were a regular feature of the original books but much rarer occurrences in the faster-paced successors, which tended to skip straight to the action. Colorful aspects of McFarlane's villains were often processed out. A fierce gang led by one Baldy Turk in the 1928 version of "The Missing Chums" is mysteriously denatured -- Baldy disappears and the gang, circa 1962, becomes a generic bunch of bank robbers. A payoff for Turkey's helpful role in the Cuban missile crisis? Or an attempt to placate the chrome-domed Khrushchev?

The character of Aunt Gertrude was a major casualty of the editor's pen. In "The Missing Chums" she is introduced as "One of the pepperiest and most dictatorial old women who ever visited a quiet household. She was a raw-boned female of 65, tall and commanding, with a determined jaw, an acid tongue, and an eye that could quell a traffic cop. She was as authoritative as a prison guard, bossed everything and everybody within reach, and had a lofty contempt for men in general and boys in particular." The rewritten "Missing Chums" -- No. 4 in the rereleased series -- lacks not only that description of her character, but also most examples of it. Aunt Gertrude is reduced to making occasional remarks, almost invariably described as "tart."

Some deletions were clearly necessary due to the inevitable changes in language over the course of 30 years. Dropped from "The Missing Chums" is "'I'll say,' replied Iola slangily," as is "'So!' she ejaculated, as the boys appeared." Chet Morton's car is referred to in "The Tower Treasure" as a "gay-looking speed-wagon." In the revision, the car loses this description but gains a name, "The Queen." (In this case there appears to be a wit at work, making the change something less than a total loss for literature.)

But whatever else might have dropped out of the original books, it wasn't the sex scenes. Clever lads though they were, the Hardy Boys were certainly not unlocking the mysteries of life. "Wholesome American boys never got a hard-on," McFarlane noted sarcastically in his autobiography. After trying his hand at another Stratemeyer series, "The Dana Girls" (for which he temporarily took the identity of Nancy Drew "author" Carolyn Keene), McFarlane found himself contemplating plot lines that would have taken the syndicate in new directions. "I was tempted," he wrote, "to turn them loose in one of Bayport's abandoned buildings with the Hardy Boys just to see what would happen. It might have done the four of them no end of good."

Naw. The lads were busy learning other lessons, like the importance of bravery, ingenuity and using fat people as comic relief. "I'm hungry," says chubby jokester Chet Morton, whose appearances in the mysteries invariably coincide with the mention of food and veiled references to obesity.

McFarlane insisted that the books were written "swiftly, but not carelessly." Still, at 10,000 words per day there's only so much care you can take. Strapped for cash one month, McFarlane hammered out "The Secret of the Caves" in five days.

After the first 11 Hardy Boys titles, other ghostwriters began to contribute to the series, and not to the betterment of the Franklin W. Dixon name. "Footprints Under the Window," published in 1933, was the first Hardy Boys adventure not written by McFarlane. This was immediately apparent in the book's ugly tone as it told a tale of Chinese smugglers. "A swift pattering of slippers on the floor heralded the approach of the most villainous-looking Oriental the boys had ever seen," this new Dixon wrote. "His head was pointed and almost bald, while a cruel mouth was partly concealed by a drooping wisp of mustache. His eyes were as cold and glittering as those of a snake." The Jar-Jar Binks in this tale is the grumpy, comical "Chinaman" Tom Wat. "'No talkee,' grunted Tom in his secretive manner. 'No likee. Plenty tlouble,'" etc.

Even McFarlane's own originals were works of their time. For a hilarious primer on xenophobia at its vaguest, check out his 1936 series entry, "The Sinister Signpost" (No. 15 in the series and not included in either the rereleased Grossett and Dunlap or Applewood sets). The villain is Vilnoff. He's "swarthy" and "a foreigner." We sense his untrustworthy nature immediately when he sits down beside the boys at a football game and doesn't understand it, despite the boys' best efforts to explain. When he does grasp something, you know it. "I onnerstand pairfectly," he says. Later he adds genially, "I haf you vhere I vant you now!"

Can't quite place the accent? It's foreign. Twenty-five chapters are not enough to solve the mystery of his nationality. He identifies his homeland variously as "my country" and "my native land." Maybe he's Canadian. Anyway, he's not from around Bayport -- that's the important thing.

All the same, the Hardy Boys' gang was a model of diversity for its day. In addition to best pal Chet Morton (or as he's sometimes referred to in the original books, "the fat youth"), there was strongman Biff Hooper and two bona fide ethnics -- Phil Cohen, a brainy Jewish kid; and Tony Prito, who is so darned ethnic that his poor Italian-accented English is the subject of good-natured mirth in the 1927 version of "The Tower Treasure. " (In the 1959 rewrite, the melting pot has done its work and only the ethnic names remain. Tony Prito becomes "a lively boy with a good sense of humor." Phil Cohen is "a quiet, intelligent boy."

There are now more than 150 Hardy Boys adventure stories, newer ones boasting titles like "Danger in the Fourth Dimension" and "Bad Rap" (with a cover illustration of the Hardys as white-boy MCs, rockin' the mike). Followers of the series were scandalized when one 1980s installment revolved around the death of Joe's best gal Iola, killed by a terrorist bomb.

Now, however, the modern Hardy Boys' adventures must compete once again with "The Tower Treasure," "Hunting for Hidden Gold" and the other early volumes. Today's boys are presumably eager to read about characters named Biff and Smuff, ladies prone to fainting spells remedied with smelling salts and clean-cut boys who drive jalopies and frequently refer to other males as "fellows" -- unless, of course, the true target audience for these reissues is the grown men whose ranks have been depleted only slightly by all those childhood diseases that once spurred book sales.

Sadly, I had no idea in my ignorant youth that my medicine was being watered down. Having now seen the original Hardy Boys books, I am casting about for someone to sue. It wasn't just Aunt Gertrude who suffered through revision -- even the plots were inexplicably changed for the worse. Whoever rewrote "The Missing Chums" inserted a helpful kidnapper who keeps leaving behind bottles of an obscure soda brand like a trail of breadcrumbs. Apparently the latter-day Hardys needed their clues in neon.

McFarlane's original accomplishment was simple but considerable: He created nifty, likable thrillers that often started kids on a lifetime of literary exploration. True, the condensed versions were still entertaining and, unaware of what I was missing, I thought they were pretty cool. But as with my blithe consumption of white bread, Velveeta and massive overdoses of dental X-rays, it's hard not to wonder how my formative years were affected by my exposure to inferior Hardy Boys mysteries. I can only start cramming with the originals and hope it's not too late.

"Gosh!" Joe exclaimed. "We were cut off at the knees, Frank -- and it's all perfectly legal!"

"That's right, Joe," Frank replied grimly. "There's nothing we can do."

"Hell with it, bro. Let's get drunk."

"I can't wait to see Aunt Gertrude's face," said Frank. And the boys laughed heartily.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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