Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Hardy Boys Mysteries, 1927-1979

The Hardy Boys Mysteries, 1927-1979: A Cultural and Literary History
By Mark Connelly
McFarland & Co., Inc., $49.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0-7864-3386-5 1-800-253-2187

Ever since Sonia Sotomayor’s name surfaced as a U.S. Supreme Court candidate, another name has floated up as well: Nancy Drew. To millions of young readers in the twentieth century, Nancy Drew (for girls) and the Hardy Boys (for males) and their adventures were required reading. These three were teen sleuths who, in a most sanitized and innocuous fashion, tracked down criminals, smugglers, miscreants, and evil-doers in and around their sleepy hamlets. Evidently, Nancy Drew was a particular favorite heroine for Ms. Sotomayor.

Well, the Hardy Boys were favorites for me as well. Beginning in third grade, I read the books voraciously and religiously, copying down the entire list of titles in my binder, in chronological order, and then reading each one and checking it off the list. I can still visualize the old Grosset & Dunlap covers with titles like The Missing Chums, The House on the Cliff, and Footprints Under the Window.

I was probably the only reader who wondered who was Franklin W. Dixon, the author listed on each and every cover. What a brilliant writer he must be, I thought. But after reading the entire canon of mystery and suspense featuring Frank and Joe Hardy, I began to feel sorry for old Dixon. I wondered if the guy had written anything else, or was he hopelessly typecast as the Hardy Boys author? Much later in life, I read an article that revealed that Dixon was a pseudonym for a number of writers who pounded out these mysteries for a nominal fee and no claim to the copyright.

Mark Connelly presents an exhaustively researched back history of the development of the Hardy Boys series, as well as a number of others like Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Rover Boys, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. The books were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, who founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1905. A homegrown Jersey boy, Stratemeyer was a publishing genius almost from birth. He published stories for his friends beginning at fourteen, along with a newspaper, Our Friend, and later, a second version entitled The Young American. He went on to write many pulp novels for young people, utilizing a variety of pen names and interesting characters.

His real innovation was not in his writing, although he was prolific and dedicated to his pen. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was born with a new kind of book: “the fifty-center.” These were cheaply produced series novels that Stratemeyer thought would make a lot of money if he focused on volume, rather than traditional pricing. By cutting the cost of the books by as much as half, and selling them in huge numbers, even books that made only a few pennies each would add up to millions. And he was right.

Even though the writer Stratemeyer was prolific, he could not write books fast enough to keep a new one on the shelf every forty days. So he hired dozens of writers over the years to flesh out his creations for him. He would outline the story and the basic idea of the series; writers would churn out full albeit formulaic novels from his outlines for a flat fee. In this fashion, the man made millions. “By 1926,” Connelly writes, “the firm had thirty-one series in production…The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Rover Boys became household names around the world…”

The first Hardy Boys mystery debuted in 1927—The Tower Treasure. Eighty years later, the boys are still solving mysteries, and still in high school. That first volume continues to sell “more than 100,000 copies a year,” according to Connelly’s research. “The original fifty-eight volume series published by Grosset & Dunlap (1927-1979) remains in print and [has] sold more than 50 million copies...” Simon & Schuster took over the series in 1979, publishing 132 more novels, releasing a new title every few months.

Over time, the series has been rewritten, sharpened, refocused, and repackaged for each new generations of readers. Language, slang, styles, and mores have all changed, but the mysteries are simply re-edited to meet the shifting landscape of American society and the tastes of the young reader.

Connelly takes a “just the facts” approach to his subject, and his prose is often flat and statistics-heavy, reading more like a corporate annual report than a literary effort. His scope is ambitious—he includes a chronology of the series, a list and summary of each title, twenty opening lines, something called “Hardyisms,” a generous section of notes, and a bibliography.

What I did find a mystery was the price: almost fifty dollars for what appears to be an ordinary book. There is some grayscale cover art and illustrations from the series included, but nothing to justify such an expensive list price. Paper quality, packaging, even the information, is not equal to such expense. Is this a price gouge in the name of nostalgia? Maybe Frank and Joe Hardy should investigate the mystery of the costly-yet-ordinary book.

All in all, series books have long been the staple of childhood literature. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew have influenced generations of readers, including at least one news-making judge who might be the first Hispanic woman ever named to the highest court of the land. It is another mystery why we had to wait so long to see this happen. I am certain there are many more young Sonia Sotomayors out there, reading Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, Twilight, and maybe still the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, that we will be hearing about in the years to come. We can only hope.


  1. Do you think Hardy Boys are still relevent to new readers. Should I encourage my child to read them?

    Or are thier newer series that are just as good and are more easily relatable for new audiences?

  2. If you can get your child to read the Harry Potter series or The Chronicles of Narnia, those are the hot series books now. There is also the Twilight series (more for older kids), and The Series of Unfortunate Events (mostly for younger kids).

    Hardy Boys are a bit dated, but if your child likes them--maybe try one from the library and see the reaction--go for it. I definitely think a book or series is relevant if the reader enjoys it.

    Thanks for reading,
    Paul L. Martin

  3. As a kid, there was nothing more important to me than reading the Hardy Boys. As I dimly recall, I received them by mail. I'm guessing my parents or probably grandparents or aunt gave me a subscription. Could this have been possible? I certainly don't remember going to to a bookstore to get them.

  4. I do not know if there was some kind of subscription service for these books. I do remember checking them out of the library and their distinctive covers. I also remember that they were very popular among the students in my third and fourth grade classes.

    Thanks for reading,
    Paul L. Martin

  5. I read all the Hardy Boys as a kid, always getting chewed out by my brother for taking his book and hiding it so I could read it when he wasn't around! I think they're still relevant, even if the language is a bit out of date. It's actually sort of funny to read some of the expressions... at any rate, my younger siblings still read them voraciously :) Funny the titles you mentioned here that you remember those covers -- they are the exact ones I remember...
    Also, thanks for vindicating me after all these years! I remember one of my favorite pieces of trivia/superior knowledge as a kid was a "did you know that the Hardy Boys and Nacy Drew were written by the same person..." No one believed me! Of course, I was a bit off the mark, but I knew I was right! I wonder where I first read that, because I never could back it up. Finally! haha!

  6. Like some of the best serial books, I was glued to these mysteries. My parents were not fond readers and even though they allowed me access to the local public library, many Saturdays my mother would yell at me for not doing chores around the house and instead, burying myself in the latest adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy. Still, from my experience with kids today, I believe there are worse things to be obsessed with than the Hardy Boys. Those were the days.

    Thanks for reading and commenting,
    Paul L. Martin

  7. I have an MD degree but attribute my love of reading to the Hardy Boys. I was an average grammer school student until I started to read them and couldn't stop. The early ones I agree are dated today but still wonderful and I would encourage any child internist to read them all. I still have the original series in my house and my grandchildren are interested.


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