We are speaking of the summer of 1976, when I was a seven-year-old hidden from myself, a summer I remember for being the Bicentennial, for being sunny every single day, and for the work of Leslie McFarlane, who around that time had published a book revealing he was the author of my favorite books. That book landed with a thud that did not reverberate into my world: as far as I was concerned, “Franklin W. Dixon” and not Leslie McFarlane was my favorite writer, and The Hardy Boys were the older brothers I did not have.
Books 1 through 22 of The Hardy Boys series were written between 1927 and 1947 by a Canadian writer who was desperate for income, Leslie McFarlane, and even though Grosset & Dunlap only paid him $85 per book with no royalties, he discovered that this was $85 per book that he could count on as long as he kept typing. He wrote the first eight in just over two years, just as the Great Depression was consuming all it could.
Those were the eight that I knew well, because I had discovered or been given a complete set of the matching blue hardcover books, a complete set up to about number 20, a complete set that someone older than me had assembled when he was my age in the 1930s and ’40s. Blue was my favorite color when I was seven, and when one is that age, “The cover is blue” is sometimes a complete book review.
McFarlane wrote anything for anyone who would pay promptly. He was a young father during the Great Depression and money was tight. He was also a journalist, wrote movie screenplays, directed films, wrote other children’s mysteries—including the first books credited to “Carolyn Keene,” which was the name Grosset & Dunlap later gave to the “author” of the Nancy Drew books. It was a struggle, and according to accounts published by his children, he hated writing the Hardy Boys books, but $85 was sometimes exactly what was needed for a coal delivery. He was also the only Hardy Boys ghostwriter considered so reliable that he was given advances for some of his titles.
Frank and Joe Hardy were the boys. One was older and thus one was younger, and even Mr. McFarlane probably needed to remind himself with each book which was which; younger and older were sometimes their only difference, but for a seven-year-old with a five-year-old sister, younger and older could sometimes feel like the only distinguishing thing worth noticing. Neither Frank nor Joe had any singular or noteworthy characteristic like “Joe is quick with his fists” or “Oh, that Frank and his puns.” They were smarter than the adults in their world, Dad was sometimes in trouble, they were brave in unintentional ways, they often found themselves in the wrong place at the right time which made them heroic. I do not remember having to fold a top corner of a page to mark where I’d left off reading, probably because I read the things in single gulps.
From that summer on, I signed my school papers “Mark S. Aldrich” (Steven is my middle name), because “Franklin W. Dixon” was exactly the kind of name one ought to have on the blue-covered books one ought to someday write.
Grosset & Dunlap sent him plot outlines and McFarlance did the rest, including invent character names and different details that at least kept him interested whether or not Franklin W. Dixon’s young readers noticed the creativity, and then he sent his work off to his editor with hardly a second look at the manuscript. The books were more closely read by readers than they were by the creators, and that may not be saying much.
The next year, 1977, ABC produced a TV show with Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy and I hated it. It was set in the 1970s and not in the past and thus was not as inventive as Franklin W. Dixon’s (Leslie McFarlane’s) books. By 1977, I had moved on to Agatha Christie, anyway, and any book or movie that had the word “mystery” anywhere near the title. Those blue-covered books went down into the basement. That fall, Leslie McFarlane died, aged 74, a piece of news unnoticed by a loyal Hardy Boys reader in Poughkeepsie, New York, or even the ABC television network.
The Hardy Boys books: born of a publishers’ need to publish, a writer’s need for income, and read five decades later by a young boy in need of older brothers.
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