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"He hated the Hardy Boys."
September 20, 2010 12:31 PM   Subscribe

Gene Weingarten on the the most widely-read author you've probably never heard of: Leslie McFarlane, a.k.a. "Franklin W. Dixon," was the man behind the Hardy Boys.

McFarlane wrote 19 of the first 25 Hardy Boys books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, earning a flat fee of between $85 and $125 each, under a contract that required him to relinquish all copyright and never divulge his authorship of the books.
  1. The Tower Treasure (1927) 2,209,774 copies sold
  2. The House on the Cliff (1927) 1,712,433 copies sold
  3. The Secret of the Old Mill (1927) 1,467,645 copies sold
  4. The Missing Chums (1928) 1,189,973 copies sold
  5. Hunting for Hidden Gold (1928) 1,179,533 copies sold
  6. The Shore Road Mystery (1928)
  7. The Secret of the Caves (1929)
  8. The Mystery of Cabin Island (1929)
  9. The Great Airport Mystery (1930)
  10. What Happened at Midnight (1931)
  11. While the Clock Ticked (1932)
  12. Footprints under the Window (1933)
  13. The Mark on the Door (1934)
  14. The Hidden Harbor Mystery (1935)
  15. The Sinister Signpost (1936)
  16. A Figure in Hiding (1937)
  17. The Flickering Torch Mystery (1943)
  18. The Melted Coins (1944)
  19. The Short-Wave Mystery (1945)
  20. The Secret Panel (1946)
  21. The Phantom Freighter (1947)
McFarlane's wife Amy may have written volume 26, The Phantom Freighter, in 1947, although this claim is disputed.

In 1976 McFarlane wrote an autobiography, The Ghost of the Hardy Boys. It is currently out of print.
posted by Kadin2048 (58 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was more of a Three Investigators kid at first, but then I found my much older brother's stash of Hardy Boys books and really enjoyed them. Especially the Detective's Handbook.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:33 PM on September 20, 2010


None of your links work (not that I know why it's necessary to have all his books listed and linked anyway).
posted by languagehat at 12:33 PM on September 20, 2010


I highly recommend Ghost of the Hardy Boys -- a fascinating look at that industry.
posted by JanetLand at 12:39 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Amazing - I just read this in Weingarten's book The Fiddler in the Subway last week. I fondly remember getting The Mystery of the Spiral Bridge for my 9th birthday.

It looks like all your links to wikipedia.org got changed to metafilter.com somehow. Maybe the mods can fix this.
posted by lukemeister at 12:39 PM on September 20, 2010


I can almost hear Ira Glass writing the episode now.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 12:40 PM on September 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


"And besides, I would be under no obligation to read the stuff. I would merely have to write it."
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:42 PM on September 20, 2010


Oh man - I have a huge pile of these in the corner of my living room for no good reason. They're so horrible. The best thing the Hardy Boys ever did is inspire the Venture Bros.
posted by GuyZero at 12:42 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I read "The Missing Chums" as "The Missing CHUDS," and the latter sounds like a much better book.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:43 PM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh man - I have a huge pile of these in the corner of my living room for no good reason. They're so horrible. The best thing the Hardy Boys ever did is inspire the Venture Bros.

36 year old me thinks you are right but 12 year old me thinks you are full of shit.
posted by josher71 at 12:43 PM on September 20, 2010 [16 favorites]


Oh and this: "He passed, he writes dryly, only by a process of elimination, like a tapeworm." --- man, if that were an Astro Zombie comment on metafilter it would have the shit favorited out of it.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:46 PM on September 20, 2010


I've asked the mods to fix the links.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:46 PM on September 20, 2010


Thank you, Leslie McFarlane, for teaching me the words "stocky" (as in "stocky chum") and "sleuth" (as in "custom speedboat.")
posted by Iridic at 12:47 PM on September 20, 2010


It turns out the story of the Hardy Boys -- call it their Final Chapter -- isn't about the worst writer who ever lived, not by a long shot. It is about a good writer who wrote some bad books, and if you wonder why that happened, as I did, then you are likely not very old and not very wise. Sometimes homely things are done for the best reasons in the world, and thus achieve a beauty of their own.

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."

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.

He did the book.

And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another.

posted by KokuRyu at 12:48 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I loved the Hardy Boys books when I read them while growing up. So much so, that when I was working in an elementary school, I went to the school library and checked out The Tower Treasure and sat down to read.

Never have I been so disappointed with a book in my life. It didn't contain any of the life or joy that I remembered it having. Horrible book, flat characters, terrible writing.

Only later did I learn that my disappointment wasn't simply the jaded cynicism of old age. They'd undergone significant revision away from their original text, partially to remove what were now considered racist and xenophobic descriptions of people, and partially (it seems) to dumb down the text for impatient readers.

I have a few original text books in my library. They remain a joy to read. But I LOATHE the revised texts. They're really horrible and flat.
posted by hippybear at 12:49 PM on September 20, 2010


A good rule of thumb: if there was a piece of art -- a cherished book, movie, or something similar -- that you loved as a child, never ever ever revisit it as an adult. I call this "the Short Circuit principle," and, man, was it ever a hard-learned lesson.
posted by .kobayashi. at 12:50 PM on September 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


In other words, I'm neither surprised to find nor am I happy to know that these books were actually awful. I adored them.
posted by .kobayashi. at 12:51 PM on September 20, 2010


Had a whole set as a kid and read many of them more than once. I don't remember the writing at all. I remember the adventure and, to my young mind, the suspense. Well, and it was cool how Frank and Joe always figured things out.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2010


You can get a good overview of the revision process applied to The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and The Bobsey Twins starting at the asterisked break on this page and reading forward. It's pretty fascinating.
posted by hippybear at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


What was the deal with the weird second series where Iola gets blown up?
posted by josher71 at 12:53 PM on September 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Iola got blown up? And she was still named Iola?
posted by lukemeister at 12:55 PM on September 20, 2010


But first came Enid Blyton, you philistines...
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:56 PM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, from wikipedia: In The Hardy Boys Casefiles first book, Dead on Target, she is killed by a car bomb meant for Frank and Joe. It must be pointed out, however, that Iola appears in the canon books which ran long after the Casefiles series had ended.
posted by josher71 at 12:57 PM on September 20, 2010


if there was a piece of art -- a cherished book, movie, or something similar -- that you loved as a child, never ever ever revisit it as an adult.

For me, this would be H.R. Pufnstuf. Adored that series as a child, still have the soundtrack album 45 from Kelloggs... got the DVD set, and immediately wondered WTF was wrong with me as a kid. I've never watched it again. Still love the music from it, though.

And the original text Hardy Boys books are GREAT. Yes, they aren't the most PC things in the world, but they WERE written nearly a century ago. People keep trying to rewrite Mark Twain, too.

posted by hippybear at 12:58 PM on September 20, 2010


They're so horrible.

"I believe I must disagree. They are not as bad as you are making them out to be," dersins opined to his chum's raven-haired sister.
posted by dersins at 1:00 PM on September 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


God, I devoured these things as a kid. First book report I ever wrote was about The Firebird Rocket - to this day I know an inordinate amount of random trivia about Alice Springs, Australia, because of that book. I will never, ever read it again, so that it will remain for me a ripping yarn about space travel and adventure in the Australian Outback.

Had no idea "Franklin W. Dixon" was from northern Ontario. I went to high school just a couple hours down the road from Haileybury, which I liked about as much as McFarlane liked the Hardy Boys. Can't decide whether this new bit of trivia deepens or moderates my feelings about the place. But, golly, it certain has brought me a dismayingly uncomfortable jolt to think back on it.

Just found out from Wikipedia that the Montreal Canadiens were born in Haileybury. I've got a new cocktail-party line: Yeah, I was stuck in north Ontario when I was young and ignorant, but I got wise and got out - just like the Montreal Canadiens.
posted by gompa at 1:00 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Terrible or not, receiving two Hardy Boys books for my 7th birthday was the thing that ignited my love of reading. I'm not sure if those first ones were his, but I undoubtedly read all of them and loved them. And that love of words is what lead to me reading and understanding far better things.
posted by Candleman at 1:06 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kids still read Hardy Boys novels? They were already ancient when I was a kid 30 years ago. The Hardy Boys were the kind of characters who have a gay time, who smoked fags, and investigated queer mysteries.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 1:07 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I suppose they were out on a boat trip, too. I knew it! And now they're lost. That's what happens when you let children go out in boats. They get lost. Or drowned. And now you would let these two youngsters go out in a boat, too. And I suppose in a few days some of their chums would have to go out in a boat to look for them. They'd get lost, too. And then some more little boys would go out to look for them. And they'd get lost. By the end of the summer there wouldn't be a boy left in Bayport. Not that it would be much of a loss."

That is really good.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:07 PM on September 20, 2010


I used to love going to Kmart in Sunnyvale with my mom and picking out a new Hardy Boys to read. When I got the Detective Handbook I was literally the coolest kid on my block for about ten minutes.
posted by mecran01 at 1:12 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Hardy Boys were the kind of characters who have a gay time, who smoked fags, and investigated queer mysteries.

Funny. I suddenly feel inspired to make a whole new set of revisions to the Hardy Boys series. Maybe Frank and Joe aren't brothers, but neighbors... Really really CLOSE neighbors, if you get my meaning....
posted by hippybear at 1:14 PM on September 20, 2010


Jalopy. Thanks to the Hardy Boys, I will never forget the word jalopy. Of course, learning to pronounce it was a different question.
posted by chinston at 1:17 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, and now it turns out Leslie McFarlane's son was responsible for bringing Peter Puck to Hockey Night in Canada in the 1970s. That family pretty much owned my childhood imagination.
posted by gompa at 1:17 PM on September 20, 2010


The Hardy Boys were the kind of characters who have a gay time, who smoked fags, and investigated queer mysteries.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.
posted by lukemeister at 1:17 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you want an outrageous good time, check Project Gutenberg for the original Tom Swift books -- not the mid-century rewrites or the bullshit reboot. They're absolutely outstanding in their pulpiness.

Isn't it hilarious how business models come around and around and around. Who's that modern airport novel author who hires out his writing to invisible authors? He's got nothing on Stratemeyer.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:18 PM on September 20, 2010


About five years ago I booked Leslie McFarlane's son onto a radio show I was producing. He had just come out with a compilation of his father's work called Leslie McFarlane's Hockey Stories.

Of course, an interest in hockey proceeded to run in the family. That son we had on the show was none other than Brian McFarlane, retired after 25 years as a colour commentator on Hockey Night in Canada and writer of 50 hockey books himself.
posted by evilcolonel at 1:20 PM on September 20, 2010


Dammit, Gompa, you ruined my Paul Harvey moment!
posted by evilcolonel at 1:21 PM on September 20, 2010


Dammit, Gompa, you ruined my Paul Harvey moment!

If that's the price I have to pay to sneak a Peter Puck YouTube link onto the blue, I'm only too happy to pay it.
posted by gompa at 1:22 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was in some kind of Hardy Boys* book club when I was a kid and I had tons of the books. Even then I thought the dialog was kind of funny but read them anyway. They were the kind of books parents approved of even if they hadn't read them themselves.



*I think that it might have actually been a Hardy Boys/Tom Swift club as I devoured both series.
posted by tommasz at 1:23 PM on September 20, 2010


But don't you get sick when you think about the small amounts the authors of the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift get paid, he asked illiterately.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:31 PM on September 20, 2010


Funny. I suddenly feel inspired to make a whole new set of revisions to the Hardy Boys series. Maybe Frank and Joe aren't brothers, but neighbors... Really really CLOSE neighbors, if you get my meaning....

Fanfic has got you covered there, I'm sure, though I doubt most would bother with removing the brothers aspect. See Supernatural fandom. Or Heroes fandom.
posted by kmz at 1:44 PM on September 20, 2010


I, too, was more of a three investigators fan (never, ever see the movies), but I did like The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries on TV. Especially when they crossed over into each other's shows, because, hey, intertextuality!
posted by Sparx at 1:50 PM on September 20, 2010


I remember loving the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew when I was a kid. Converted quite a lot of those into mini pizzas as Pizza Hut too, because my school had a program where if you read a certain number of books, you got a coupon for a personal pan pizza. Thinking back on it now, it was just an advertising campaign for Pizza Hut because your parents would have to pay for their own food. Back then though I thought it was super awesome. But around grade 4 or 5 I discovered Sherlock Holmes in the PCL stacks and it was goodbye Joe, Frank, and Nancy and hello Moriarty and Lestrade and Irene Adler. Never looked back.
posted by kmz at 1:53 PM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but do you know what is still awesome? Encyclopedia Brown. Been introducing them to my kids, they're still a ton of fun.
posted by jbickers at 1:55 PM on September 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


The Hardy Boys series showed me I could read. I was a slow reader in first grade, at least that is how I felt at the time. Sometime during the summer between first and second grades I found an old Hardy Boys book at my grandparents. It was one of the originals described by hippybear. After a chapter or two I did nothing else but read until it was finished. That book restored my confidence in my reading abilities and sparked a lifelong love of reading. To Mr. McFarlane I remain eternally grateful.
posted by caddis at 1:56 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The revisions that've been made to these series over the years are ridiculous—I've been reading back through Nancy Drew, bit by bit, buying 'em used on Amazon, and I really need to make more of an effort to seek out the older, unrevised copies. The revisions are just so clunky and obvious in many of the books; in one, The Message in the Hollow Oak, originally published in 1935, an entire sequence about visiting St. Louis and seeing the Gateway Arch (construction completed in 1965) was later written in. Oy, indeed.
posted by limeonaire at 2:04 PM on September 20, 2010


My guilty pleasure of this age was The Great Brain series. Something magically Norman Rockwell-y in there. I haven't been tempted to revisit them ("the Short Circuit effect", indeed), but I was pleased my 9 year-old daughter enjoyed them when she gave them a go, and look forward to her little brother's reaction as well ("Me and my Little Brain" was my favorite in the series, I recall, and is from the younger brother's point of view.)
posted by dylanjames at 2:15 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reread those a couple of years ago, Dylan... still good. He did some adult fiction too... maybe you should check those out. (Papa married a Mormon, Momma's boarding house, and Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse)
posted by Narual at 2:33 PM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was more of a Tom Swift Jr. fan (still have the first 27 or so books) but we also had the Hardy Boys. I seem to remember the Hardy Boys having a bit more variety in the stories - TS invariably had some problems due to the inevitably-swarthy Brungarians or Kranjovians, which always ruined Toms' double-dates with his 'flyboy chum' Chet Morton at Lake Carlopa.

I also really liked the Mad Scientists' Club. And anybody remember Rick Brant? That series seemed to be kind of a cross between the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift.

But back to the Hardy Boys - I still have the Detective Handbook (3rd edition), which was pretty cool...my friends and I did some investigatin' using that. Would have been neat to have a Tom Swift-branded engineering set, but those toys were already around.



...yes, I realize that hydrodynamic building set link is to a new set, but they were around in the 1960's and went away for quite a while...
posted by foonly at 3:23 PM on September 20, 2010


My ultimate favourite books from my pre-teen childhood would have to be those written by John Bellairs. I'm glad to see my local public library still hangs on to most of his books, nearly 20 years after his death.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:24 PM on September 20, 2010


Funny. Over Xmas I was at my parents' home and found my old Hardy Boys collection. Many of them were first edition copies. I read Tower Treasure, Shore Road, and a couple others over the next few days. I actually enjoyed them, though I didn't realize how quickly I'd go through them. As an 8 year old it seemed like such a big deal to read a REAL BOOK, and it took me a week or two to read just one.

Haha, I remember learning the word jalopy too from the Hardy Boys.

I also was big into Encyclopedia Brown. I found a few at a half-priced bookstore and unfortunately I remembered just about every case so I knew the solutions even after 25-30 years.

I'm sad he was only paid a pittance considering how popular his books were.
posted by WilliamMD at 5:14 PM on September 20, 2010


foonly: "I was more of a Tom Swift Jr. fan (still have the first 27 or so books) but we also had the Hardy Boys. I seem to remember the Hardy Boys having a bit more variety in the stories - TS invariably had some problems due to the inevitably-swarthy Brungarians or Kranjovians, which always ruined Toms' double-dates with his 'flyboy chum' Chet Morton at Lake Carlopa.

I also really liked the Mad Scientists' Club. And anybody remember Rick Brant? That series seemed to be kind of a cross between the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift.

But back to the Hardy Boys - I still have the Detective Handbook (3rd edition), which was pretty cool...my friends and I did some investigatin' using that. Would have been neat to have a Tom Swift-branded engineering set, but those toys were already around.



...yes, I realize that hydrodynamic building set link is to a new set, but they were around in the 1960's and went away for quite a while...
"

Awwwwwww, crikey. Estes. I had a binder full of their technical reports and spent hours working on designing the perfect low drag nose cone and carefully sanding down the top of fins.
posted by Samizdata at 7:05 PM on September 20, 2010


You will, eventually, tease me into a post about Edward Eager, whose Seven Day Magic managed to, simultaneously, instill in me a love of books and scare the daylights out of me.
posted by SPrintF at 7:56 PM on September 20, 2010


I am Leslie McFarlane's grandson. I hadn't read Weingarten's article before. I was about to say 'thanks very much for posting this' but then I remembered my grandfather's editor telling him "Don't use the word very in a sentence." So thanks, Kadin2048, for posting this.
posted by MatthewM at 8:22 PM on September 20, 2010 [11 favorites]


Oh yeah, Encyclopedia Brown was the shit. Whenever I would read one of those books I would be on the lookout for weeks afterwards trying to catch people in damning lies about stolen bicycles and elementary-school cons.
posted by No-sword at 9:54 PM on September 20, 2010


I just wanted to point out that these exist in case you didn't know. They are suprisingly readable.
posted by Peztopiary at 12:45 AM on September 21, 2010


MatthewM: Welcome! I'm very glad that you ran across the article. (I was actually going back and forth on posting it because it's from 1998. Now I'm glad I did.)

I'm curious, if you feel like sharing, any thoughts you have on the article and whether you think it's a fair characterization of your grandfather to the best of your knowledge.

I also noticed while writing up the FPP that your family donated Leslie McFarlane's diaries and other personal letters to McMaster University, and they seem to be doing good things with it, which is all kinds of awesome.

Glad you dropped in.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:34 AM on September 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed the dynamic of the article about Grandad; slowly revealing the McFarlane behind the Dixon. My Aunt Norah was accurate in describing him as literate and erudite. I spent summers with him and feel fortunate to have had so many conversations with a man who listened well, and then responded with extraordinary depth. One summer in the early sixties (I must have been about 10), I talked with him enthusiastically about Ray Bradbury. His closing remark was that I would very likely enjoy a book call An Experiment With Time, by J.W. Dunne. Somehow, as kids do, I remembered the title and author and decided to look for the book when I was in my thirties. This was when book searching was still a very slow process and it actually took months before a copy was located -- and that process (the story of which will have to wait for another time) conjured a little magic of its own. In any case, the Dunne book delighted me, in part because the intervening years had given me time to get some exposure to physics. Recently, ideas akin to Dunne's were explored (with great rigor) in Good and Real by Gary Drescher (MIT); clearly, Grandad had a keen sense of where real value was to be found.

When working, he would sit at his desk and think for a few moments, and then type like a dervish. On my birthday, I would always receive a warm, typewritten note from him, signed with the bright green ink from his fountain pen; a reminder of his Irishness. I regret never having been mature enough to talk with him about his communications with Fitzgerald or his thoughts about Joyce. Nevertheless, I was a very lucky fellow to have shared those summers with him.
posted by MatthewM at 10:22 AM on September 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


I remember back when I first discovered these (late 70s), and some books were interesting and others . . . were just flat. I finally realized (about 4th grade) that the books had been, at some point, re-written, and discovered my local library had the originals . . . didn't bother buying any more of the new ones, just read the originals. Wildly different plots, settings, and, yeah, non-PC as all get out. Probably not worth a re-read, but it was very entertaining for me at the time.
posted by Blackanvil at 11:23 AM on September 21, 2010


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