I recently rediscovered my youth. It made me sneeze.
It lay unremembered at the top of a tall bookcase: 15 vintage Hardy Boys novels by Franklin W. Dixon. In getting them down, I took a face full of dust and beetle carapaces.
I carried the books to my favorite rocking chair, beside my favorite lamp, and reverently broke them open to revisit the literature that had inspired in me a lifelong love of language. They smelled the way old books smell, faintly perfumed, quaintly mysterious, like the lining of Great-Grandma's alligator handbag out in the steamer trunk. I began to read.
Pretty soon a new smell entered the room.
The Hardy Boys stank.
When a group of literati in July published a list of the hundred greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, lionizing "Ulysses," "The Great Gatsby" and "The Sun Also Rises," I was disappointed that "The Missing Chums" was not included. I remembered "The Missing Chums" as the pinnacle of human achievement, a meticulously crafted work of American fiction in which Frank and Joe Hardy, the sons of famed sleuth Fenton Hardy, braved choppy seas and grizzled thugs to rescue their kidnapped friends. I had first read it in a backyard hammock strung between sycamore trees during the summer of my 12th year.
Now, through my bifocals, I again confronted "The Missing Chums." Here is how it begins:
" 'You certainly ought to have a dandy trip.'
" 'I'll say we will, Frank! We sure wish you could come along!'
"Frank Hardy grinned ruefully and shook his head. . . ."
" 'Just think of it!' said Chet Morton, the other speaker. 'A whole week motorboating along the coast. We're the lucky boys, eh, Biff?'
" 'You bet we're lucky!'
" 'It won't be the same without the Hardy Boys,' returned Chet."
Dispiritedly, I leafed through other volumes. They all read the same. The dialogue is as wooden as an Eberhard Faber, the characters as thin as a sneer, the plots as forced as a laugh at the boss' joke.
Seventeen words seldom suffice when 71 will do:
"Mrs. Hardy viewed their passion for detective work with considerable apprehension, preferring that they plan to go to a university and direct their energies toward entering one of the professions; but the success of the lads had been so marked in the cases on which they had been engaged that she had by now almost resigned herself to seeing them destined for careers as private detectives when they should grow older."
Physical descriptions are so perfunctory that the characters practically disappear. In 15 volumes we learn little more than this about 16-year-old Frank: He is dark-haired. And this about 15-year-old Joe: He is blond.
These may be the worst books ever written.
I felt betrayed.
The Hardy Boys are still published--all the old titles and dozens of new ones. They sell by the millions, still troweling gluey prose into the brains of America's preadolescents.
I felt I had to do something.
So I decided to find Franklin W. Dixon. And kill him.
Drat. He's already dead.
The Man Behind the Name on the Book
In one sense, Franklin W. Dixon never existed. Franklin W. Dixon was a "house name" owned by a company called the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which created and published the original Hardy Boys mysteries. From 1927 through 1946, each Hardy Boys book was secretly written by a man named Leslie McFarlane.
I found myself, quite literally, chasing a ghost.
I caught up with him on the telephone, in the person of the ghostwriter's daughter, Norah Perez of Youngstown, N.Y. Perez is an accomplished novelist. Her father died in 1977.
Recently, Perez leafed through some old Hardy Boys books.
"I was almost shocked," she said with a laugh. "I thought, 'Omigod. They are not great.' "
So her father was a hack?
"My father," she said, "was a literate, sophisticated, erudite man."
He loved Dickens, she said. "He was a great Joycean."
"He corresponded with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had aspirations to be that kind of writer."
She seemed uncertain where to go with this. Finally:
"He hated the Hardy Boys."
It turns out that 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, Canada, 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."
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."
He got no raise.
He did the book.
And another. And another. And another. And another. And another.
Leslie McFarlane, a 5-foot-4 Irishman with mischievous eyes, grew up in a northern Ontario mining town and never got past high school. He had to write. He knew it from childhood. He served his apprenticeship at a succession of small, gritty daily newspapers. At his first, the Cobalt, Ontario, Nugget, he received his first lesson in journalism from grizzled news editor Dan Cushing:
"Spell the names right. Get the addresses right. Don't use the word 'very' in a sentence."
Thus schooled, McFarlane was off to be a reporter.
As Cushing might say, the kid had something.
But small-town newspapering seldom sees excitement like that. Mostly it sees fender benders and sewage hearings and the petty maneuverings of local politics. After a time McFarlane was bored. He dreamed of writing fiction. He began noodling at his desk, after deadline. Once he sent off a short story to the magazine Smart Set, edited by the great H.L. Mencken. It was about a young man who one day runs into his long-lost sister--in a whorehouse.
Unfortunately, McFarlane had never been to a whorehouse. He may well have been a virgin. The most gifted of writers--the giants of literature--can bring to their work a maturity of thought and an understanding of human nature that transcends their lack of experience. But Mencken rejected the manuscript, sending it back with a one-word notation:
McFarlane kept this note for 50 years.
He became desperate to hone his fiction skills, but he had no time. He was newspapering in Canada and then in Springfield, Mass., for 15 hours at a stretch.
One day he answered an ad from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a fabulously successful enterprise that issued children's books through a conveyor-belt production process. The New York syndicate made the strangest offer: Would McFarlane like to write books for youths based on plot outlines Stratemeyer would supply? He would be paid by the book and have no copyright to the material. The company shipped him samples of some books--dreadful, thickheaded novels with implausible plots and preposterous narratives.
McFarlane cheerfully agreed. Years later, in his memoirs, he would observe:
"To write a chapter of a book without having to worry about character, action or plot would call for little more than the ability to hit the keys of a typewriter. . . . They were straightforward, cheap paperbacks for a public that would neither read nor relish anything better. . . . And besides, I would be under no obligation to read the stuff. I would merely have to write it."
This was the cockiness of youth; the swagger of a young man with big plans and no horizons. He could quit his newspaper job, devote all his time to fiction.
And so he did.
The Hardy Boys were to be a brief, inconsequential meal ticket. They would take a few days apiece; he would expend no intellectual energy on them, and he would use the pay to underwrite more serious work. He would launch a family and a writing career and in time be recognized as a man of letters.
Briefly, things went swell. And then came 1929. A bad time to be a writer without a steady paycheck.
"We had no car. We had no coal. My mother always had food on the table, but sometimes it was spaghetti with tomato juice on it."
This is Brian McFarlane, Leslie McFarlane's son. Brian McFarlane would grow up to be a hockey player and later a sports broadcaster and prolific writer of books about hockey. He is a member of the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame.
In his father's diary, there is an entry from the early 1930s. He took baby Brian for a walk but had to return. Brian's only shoes had fallen apart.
Another entry: "We are hoping for some money in time to go to the dance Friday night. It is humiliating to be so hard up."
McFarlane received a letter from Stratemeyer, reminding him that he might never disclose to anyone his role as ghostwriter of the Hardy Boys. He was relieved. He had been contemplating writing a letter of his own, asking that they never disclose his identity, either.
From 1931, to 1932, to 1933. Norah was born. Now there were three children, and no coal, and precious little food.
The ghost was chained to his creation.
Finally Leaving the Juveniles Behind
McFarlane finally unchained himself from the Hardy Boys in 1946; the syndicate didn't care. It found another hungry writer to continue the series. To date, there are more than 100 Hardy Boys mysteries, and they are still going strong. In 1959, many of the old Hardy Boys books were redone, streamlined, modernized. McFarlane was never consulted, but he didn't mind. Nor did he feel ripped off by their fantastic success. A deal is a deal, he always said.
McFarlane found a new niche. Briefly, he was fiction editor of Maclean's magazine. He produced acclaimed documentary films, wrote an excellent hockey novel ("McGonigle Scores!") and TV scripts for "Bonanza" and "The U.S. Steel Hour." He never made a hell of a lot of money, but he made a living, and he did it the way he wanted.
Always, he encouraged his children to write, and Norah Perez credits her father's love and support for her successful career.
Shortly before he died in 1977 of complications from diabetes, McFarlane told his daughter he feared he would be remembered only for the accursed Hardy Boys.
Yes, the writing is pedestrian. Words are misused and overused. Teenagers speak in a dated language. Yet these idiotic coincidence-driven plots do move along nicely. The word "very" is rarely used. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger.
McFarlane made you turn the page.