Hardy Boys: Like Nancy Drew, but they’re brothers
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I was 12 years old when I read my first Hardy Boys mystery. It was “The Crisscross Shadow,” #32 in the Flashlight series (so-called due to the flashlight in the title logo). I’d been reading Nancy Drew exclusively until the library ran out of titles I could borrow. Before that, I’d already exhausted my friends’ pool of Nancy Drew books. I was about to succumb to the Sweet Dreams teen romance craze when a classmate offered to lend me her Hardy Boys.
“But isn’t Hardy Boys for boys?” I thought I was asking the obvious.
“Oh, not at all,” my classmate corrected. “Girls can read them, too. They’re like Nancy Drew, but they’re brothers.”
And if that didn’t sell the Hardy Boys to me, nothing would.
In “The Crisscross Shadow.” the Hardy Boys help a Native American chief recover the stolen deed of his tribe’s ancestral land. Three chapters in, I started to see the similarities. As did the Nancy Drew books, the Hardy Boys referenced earlier mysteries by their actual titles when describing the young detectives. I’d always found the shameless plug in Nancy Drew books amusing but thought it uncanny to see the same kind of self-promotion in the Hardy Boys.
Like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys are as wholesome – and American – as homemade apple pie, able to freely travel to exotic lands to solve mysteries that have confounded the adults, and manage to extricate themselves out of dangerous situations unscathed. The tone and style are remarkably similar, too, that if the books didn’t refer to Frank and Joe Hardy by the names and pronouns, you’d feel as if you were reading a Nancy Drew.
It turned out my classmate was right, in ways that neither of us were aware of at the time. The series are similar because they were written by the same syndicate of ghostwriters paid to churn out detective stories that followed a pre-defined formula to ensure consistent style and tone. Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon were pseudonyms for the authors who wrote manuscripts for the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
Established in 1905 by juvenile literature writer Edward Stratemeyer, the Stratemeyer Syndicate hired writers to produce manuscripts that followed pre-established plot outlines and character sketches. The writers were paid a flat fee of $100-200 per manuscript, and in return, relinquished their authorship rights to the books and received no royalties. If that sounds like exploitation, it probably is. Hiring ghostwriters continues to be lucrative and worthwhile for many, from celebrities to web marketers. For the writers, the checks pay the bills, but surrendering their rights to their creative outputs can feel like a punch in the gut.
The success of the Stratemeyer series underscores the founder’s sharp business acumen. He knew that in Depression-era America, people wanted escapist fare, which Stratemeyer was only too happy to provide. He mass-produced adventures stories aimed at young readers, who grew up believing that people could overcome socio-economic difficulties if they only applied themselves.
After finishing The Crisscross Shadow, I read a few more books from the series, until one day, I lucked out and was able to borrow my first Agatha Christie (they were in high circulation at the library). I never looked back after that, not even when another classmate said I could borrow her Bobbsey Twins.
When I had my son, I vowed to introduce him to the same books I’d read when I was growing up. Plucky, quick-thinking teenagers from a bygone era seemed like the perfect role models. I picked up several used Hardy Boys from Booksale and waited until he was old enough to appreciate them.
When he was finished reading his first Hardy Boys, I asked him what he felt of the teenage sleuths from Bayport. He said he could see why kids from my time would enjoy them, but he found them a bit dated. Ouch!
So, it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. Part of the reason might be because I’d waited too long to start him on the Hardy Boys. He was already 13 by then, weaned on a regular diet of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. Kids who relate to the complex and fleshed out characters of J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan might find Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys unbelievably two-dimensional and goody-two-shoes. Teenagers devoid of flaws and insecurities leading perfect lives? How preposterous!
Another reason could be because he read the 1950s-era Hardy Boys, instead of the newer series that are set more recently. Re-reading a hardbound Nancy Drew mystery recently, I must admit my middle-aged eyes rolled a few times. Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew have been rebooted for modern times with newer additions to the series. Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers came out in early 2005, while Nancy Drew: Girl Detective paperback series were published in 2014. My son has read and tremendously enjoyed the graphic novel adaptations of Undercover Brothers. Euro Books India used to publish the Hardy Boys Undercover Brothers 7-in-1 graphic book compilations. It’s a pity they’re now out of print.
Although I missed the age window for introducing my son to the original Stratemeyer detective stories, I still recommend them the pre-teen reader. Their “gee-whiz” wholesomeness may feel old, but the adolescent sense of boundless adventure that they inspire remains timeless.
[…] Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries were a big part of my childhood, so I couldn’t resist getting the comic books, not for myself but for my son, who was beginning to outgrow his Geronimo Stiltons. […]