The Hardy Boys

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The Hardy Boys

The Hardy Boys Mystery Stories debuted in 1927 as the first series of mysteries written for children, and eventually became the longest-enduring series of boys' fiction in American history. The Hardys' influence on juvenile fiction and television has been pervasive, while their unequaled longevity has made them icons of nostalgia A product of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the company that produced Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys first took shape when Edward Stratemeyer pitched the series to his publishers at Grosset & Dunlap in 1926. Expressing the belief that "detective stories are as interesting to boys as grown folks," he outlined a series of adventures that would center on two teenage brothers, whose "work as amateur detectives would furnish plenty of incident, exciting but clean." With those few words, Stratemeyer set the tone that would propel the Hardy Boys from a humble idea to a national phenomenon, encompassing multiple forms of popular media.

Stratemeyer tapped one of his ghostwriters, Leslie McFarlane, to launch the series. As McFarlane later explained in his autobiography, Ghost of the Hardy Boys, he welcomed the opportunity to originate a series, rather than merely add to a pre-existing one. "It seemed to me that the Hardy boys deserved something better than the slapdash treatment [prior assignments] had been getting. It was still hack work, no doubt, but did the new series have to be all that hack? There was, after all, the chance to contribute a little style… I opted for Quality." Under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon, McFarlane continued as the Hardys' primary ghost for twenty years before retiring. By then the series was well established and well loved, and easily survived the transition to different (and often less able) writers.

Educators, however, were not fans of the books, and mounted a strong opposition. Even before the birth of the Hardys, products of the Stratemeyer Syndicate were shunned by librarians and teachers for their sensationalism, flatly formulaic structure and minimal literary value. Despite the truth of these observations, children embraced the books and made them bestsellers.

The popular Hardy formula drew much inspiration from preceding series. Like Stratemeyer's earlier brother-protagonists, the Rover Boys, Joe and Frank Hardy traveled in a pack of three, with their chum Chet Morton (other friends appeared frequently, too) and enjoyed unfettered mobility. On motorcycles, in their boat the Sleuth, in planes, trains and automobiles, the Hardys could go anywhere their cases led them. Early volumes mostly kept them in or near their hometown of Bayport, a fictional city on the Eastern seaboard, but as the years passed their travels increasingly took them to foreign countries. The books also offered their readers the vicarious thrill of gadgetry; the Hardys had a laboratory where they used microscopes, fingerprinting kits and other tools of the trade to analyze clues. They could fix anything, could pilot any type of vehicle, and kept abreast of whatever technological innovations were available at the time—from short-wave radios in the 1940s to voice-printing techniques in the 1970s.

The major factor in the Hardy Boys' success, however, was the ingredient that Stratemeyer had believed would make the series unique: its adaptation of the mystery genre for a pre-teen audience. Scholar Carol Billman, calling the Hardys "soft-boiled" detectives, notes that they were launched in the same period that saw the increasing growth of adult detective fiction. What Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler did for mature audiences, "Franklin W. Dixon" did for children. The Hardy Boys, as Billman observed, provided "the novel lure of the detective mystery [fused] with the earlier adventure tale tradition," a combination that accounted for their wide appeal both at home and abroad. (The books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.)

Unlike Chandler's sinister Los Angeles, the Hardys' milieu had to be "exciting but clean," as dictated by Stratemeyer. Bayport is full of criminals, yet remains a fundamentally safe community. The crimes committed are wicked but not gruesome; Frank and Joe can fight the villains with their fists, they never shoot or stab them. The heroes never smoke, drink, or discover the joys of sex. Although Stratemeyer provided the brothers with "girlfriends," the relationships were kept innocent and superficial; indeed, the action is decidedly gender-exclusive, with women and girls barely registering but for the more substantial character of the bossy but lovable Aunt Gertrude. The Hardys live in a male-oriented, protected and self-referential world, rich in preposterous adventure yet devoid of any real threats to a child's peace of mind. The narrowly observed gender distinctions of the Hardy Boys' universe insulate its young readers from insecurity.

Inevitably, the Hardy Boys' steadfast purity over the decades gradually reduced them to objects of ridicule as the century grew more knowing and sophisticated, and its youth precocious. After the 1960s, parodies in print and on stage showed the boys in narcotic and sexual situations, including homosexual spoofs that called them the "Hardly Boys." But the books' spirit of eternal youth and innocence, so absurd to cynical adults, has been a crucial element of their success with children. Their existence outside social anxieties make them especially appealing to the age group most wracked by those problems. Indeed, the Hardys' innocence surpasses even that of other Stratemeyer characters. Noting that early Syndicate blockbusters the Rover Boys and Tom Swift lost their popularity after marrying and having children, Stratemeyer's heir, Harriet Adams, decreed that the Hardy Boys would not suffer the tragedy of maturing. They aged early on in the series, from their mid-teens to their late teens, but thereafter dwelled in a state of arrested development.

Two significant events altered the tone and direction of the Hardy Boys Mysteries. A massive revision project was begun in 1959 to modernize the books and erase the most egregious racial stereotyping. Ranging from simple "cut-downs" to completely rewritten stories, the revisions scrubbed away the original narrative flavor, along with the automats, running boards, and ghastly depictions of non-WASPs. The second significant change accompanied Simon & Schuster's acquisition of the title after Harriet Adams' death. The publishers revitalized the series, adding new dimensions to plots, locales, and characterizations. The changes influenced the age group the publisher targeted. Between the 1920s and 1950s, Grosset and Dunlap had targeted the series to 10 to 15 year-olds. Simon and Schuster pitched the series to 8 through 11 year-olds. They also extended the franchise, introducing several spin-off series. The Hardy Boys Case Files, conceived in 1987 for older readers, increased the levels of danger and violence. The boys' cases now included murders, while they demonstrated a heightened awareness of the opposite sex (but still no sexual activity). The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Supermysteries, begun in 1988, featured collaborations between Frank and Joe, and their popular girl-detective counterpart, and another collaboration was attempted in 1992 when the publishers briefly paired the Hardys with Tom Swift. The Clues Brothers, starring grammar-school versions of Frank and Joe, debuted in 1997 for younger children. While these ancillary series were appearing, the core Hardy Boys continued to expand.

Television has adapted the Hardys many times, with varying degrees of success. In 1956 they appeared under the auspices of the Disney juggernaut, starring in two serials on The Mickey Mouse Club. The boys, played by Tommy Kirk and Tim Considine, were portrayed as roughly 12 and 13 years old, far younger than their book-ages of 17 and 18. A decade later, Twentieth Century-Fox produced a pilot for an hour-long series starring a young Tim Matheson as Joe and newcomer Rick Gates as Frank. Though slightly older than Kirk and Considine, these actors were still only about 15, proving that America's popular imagination definitely saw the Hardys as "boys," not as young men, no matter what the books implied. In 1969 the Hardys re-emerged as the stars of a Saturday morning cartoon on ABC, characterized as leaders of a "rock" group that solves mysteries between gigs. Reflecting the social inclusivity of the era, the show added a girl and an African-American boy to the Hardys' band, along with old friend Chet Morton (renamed "Chubby"). Perhaps because the tone of the books had been too compromised, the animated Hardy Boys were a failure, lasting only one season. Among the surprising amount of merchandise inspired by this short-lived program were two record albums of the group's sugary pop music.

Not until 1977 did the Hardys truly succeed in a television market. Universal Studios' The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries was a prime-time series that alternated episodes of the Hardys' adventures with those of Nancy Drew in an hour-long format. Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, clearly young men rather than boys, achieved fame as teen-idols for their roles as Joe and Frank. The series lasted nearly three seasons, each of which took the Hardys progressively further away from the insularity of the books. By the end of its run, The Hardy Boys Mysteries (renamed after the cancellation of the Nancy Drew episodes) had the brothers working for the U.S. Justice Department, and routinely involved in romance as well as mystery. In 1995, Nelvana/New Line television produced a half-hour series which aired in syndication, again with a companion Nancy Drew series. After a search that included casting calls over the Internet, Paul Popowich and Colin Gray were chosen to play the brothers. The series received lukewarm reviews, and its popularity was further hindered by its floating status in syndication. Without a prime-time slot or heavy promotion, the show died quickly.

At the same time, the success of the Hardy Boys books began to wane as young readers increasingly turned to more sensational fare.R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, and other series flavored with science fiction or horror, routinely outperformed the classic Stratemeyer Syndicate books. That the Hardy Boys were eclipsed in popularity could be put down to their success in revolutionizing their field—a success largely responsible for the continuing tradition of serial adventures for children, featuring numerous imitators. Ironically, just as the Hardys began to falter with their primary audience, they became increasingly popular with adults. The outpouring of merchandise (toys, puzzles, games), from the multiple television series, as well as the ever-evolving changes in the books' formats, created a healthy market of adult collectors. The Hardy Boys retains a formidable status as the best-loved American series of boys' books of the twentieth century.

—Ilana Nash

Further Reading:

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

Kismaric, Carole, and Marvin Heiferman. The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

McFarlane, Leslie. Ghost of the Hardy Boys. Toronto, Methuen/Two Continents, 1976.

Prager, Arthur. Rascals at Large, or, the Clue in the Old Nostalgia. Garden City, New Jersey, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.