The mystery of the dejected Hardy Boys author

Through Patrix’s blog, I discovered a fascinating article in the Washington Post on the author behind the Hardy Boys series.  Franklin W. Dixon (or at least the first Franklin W. Dixon), it turns out, was really someone named Leslie McFarlane.  The first few dozen Hardy Boys books were churned out by Leslie, and later the baton got passed on to other ghostwriters masquerading as Franklin W. Dixon.

More importantly, the article tells us that Leslie McFarlane hated the Hardy Boys, hated writing the books, and only did it because this was the only work he could get as a writer.

Leslie McFarlane, the author of the article tells us, was a fine writer, and could write really well.  The syndicate who paid him to write the Hardy Boys novels, though, wanted formulaic stories and poor Leslie felt completely demeaned writing the stuff they wanted.  He knew he was above this garbage, he could write much better, he admired F. Scott Fitzgerald and he was as fine a writer as Fitzgerald was.   In his diaries he complains about writing the Hardy Boys books – “the ghastly job appalls me” and refers to the first book as “accursed”.  Clearly, he hated the books.

He also wrote other short stories on the side, works where he was free to write as he chose. Unfortunately, though, no one else seemed to appreciate his better works, and poor Leslie, in order to put food on the table during the great Depression, had to continue writing the Hardy Boys books.

If this was really Leslie McFarlane’s attitude (and his diaries do seem to indicate that it was), I have three problems with it :

First, what about the legions of teenagers (and precocious pre-teens) who read the Hardy Boys books?  They hadn’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald, and they didn’t know what “good writing” was supposed to be.  The Hardy Boys, pedestrian writing and all, were among the first books these kids read, and what led them to a lifetime of reading.   As the author himself mentions, it wasn’t until he went back and read the Hardy Boys books as an adult that he realized how bad they were – as a teenager, he was oblivious.

Second, while I can see that the syndicate must have had rigid strictures on story lines and what characters can and cannot do, I am not sure how they can actually make anyone write badly.  As the WaPo article author himself mentions, there are portions of text where McFarlane really comes alive (like when he describes Aunt Gertrude).  So what prevented Leslie from showing his writing skills in the rest of the book ?

Third, the Hardy Boys’ books’ storylines may have been intellectually undemanding, and none of the works will ever be compared to  Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.  But if it is being remembered as a good writer that one cares about, writing serious, intellectually demanding fiction is not essential.   There will always be two kinds of authors – those whose books sell in the mass market, and those who achieve critical acclaim but sell much fewer books.  To say that critical acclaim is more important than mass appeal does indicate a certain level of snobbery.  I love my P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett as much as I love those Nobel winning authors, and sometimes the Nobel winning authors turn out to be sad disappointments.  Critical acclaim is not everything.

The sad fact is, Leslie McFarlane as Franklin W. Dixon made more of an impact of millions of lives than F. Scott Fitzgerald did, but he never realized the true worth of what he was writing.

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20 Comments

  1. Wow!!! never knew this, brings back memories of trying to sneak into the school library during class hours to read those extra few pages of hardy boys.This was 13 years ago and I was such a huge fan of hardy boys then ( I guess I moved on now and can’t clearly remember anymore). This also reminds me of J.d. Salinger and his catcher in the rye days.. As a small writer myself, I think I can see where his disappointment lies. Writing, when forced upon you can be the most demanding and challenging job in the world. The agony that a genuine writer goes through when he is forced to write for food could be terrible!! Cheers

    • I admire J.K. Rowling, she wrote what she wanted to, even though she was unemployed and had a baby to care for.. (let’s hope it doesn’t come out soon that she hated Harry Potter too…)

  2. -is looking for the like button :P

    You are spot on. The Hardy boys and Nancy drew were my first forays into fiction (along with Enid Blyton) and one fine morning after years of collecting volumes numerically I discovered I couldn’t read them anymore. But I enjoyed every bit I read for all those years.

    • Oh yes, Enid Blyton. I remember sneaking in Enid Blytons and hiding them everywhere so my Mom wouldn’t know I was reading them rather than my school books!

  3. Interesting! He has company in feeling this way though – so many series’ authors had the same issue – Georgette Heyer, Conan Doyle…..

    • Did Georgette Heyer really hate writing her Regency romances? I know she kept trying to write detective novels which were nowhere near as popular.. but I didn’t know she hated her romantic novels.
      Conan Doyle did attempt to bump off Sherlock Holmes, something which wasn’t an option for poor Leslie…

  4. As a kid, I loved Hardy Boys. I wasn’t looking for great literature and could easily chomp through a mystery in couple of hours. Access to bookshops that sold them wasn’t easy in our town so I would rummage through book sales just to see if I got get one more to add to my collection. I’m sure they are still around in some dusty old cupboard back in India.

    • Yes, it was the perfect book to read in a couple of hours. No doubt we all increased our reading speed that way, which came in handy much later in the GE/ GMAT reading comprehension section :D

  5. There will always be two kinds of authors – those whose books sell in the mass market, and those who achieve critical acclaim but sell much fewer books.

    If only the ghost of Dostoevsky could be persuaded to write a Hardy Boys’ novel.

  6. I used to LOVE the Hardy Boys :) Tried really hard to get my dad to buy me the entire series, but he somehow wasn’t convinced of their literary merit even after reading *gasp* one on my insistence! I liked the Hardy Boys more than Nancy Drew, if only because the Perfect Boyfriend Ned Nickerson or Mr Drew often ended up having to rescue Nancy, which was annoying.

    I do hear what you’re saying about popularity/readibility being more important to most readers than snobbery/literariness. I’d take P G Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett and their unique brand of humour ANY DAY over say, for eg, Murakami or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If that’s seen as lowbrow-ness, then I’m happy to be lowbrow. As a lowbrow I’m definitely giggling over my books! :)

    • Your Dad actually read through an entire Hardy Boys book? I admire his stoicism :) I found Ned Nickerson annoying at all times, even if he wasn’t saving Nancy Drew (and besides, I found it strange that she needed a boyfriend at 17 or 18, but then, I was probably ten and we were unused to the idea of boyfriends and such).

      I suppose we need both types of books – the ones we can giggle over and the ones that are serious reading for non-giggly moods. From a reader’s point of view, neither one is superior to the other, they just satisfy different needs.

  7. Well, he SAID he’d read it… :)

    I have the same argument about “high-brow” and “low-brow” music. I had a co-worker whose knowledge of classical Carnatic music was immense – both theoretical and practical, because he also sang beautifully. But he kind of sneered at me for admitting that I also really enjoyed semi-classical carnatic songs. I think he was the loser there, really, because I liked both purely classical as well as the less pure kinds!

    • Yes, I too have come across this condescending attitude towards “light music” and film songs. (What, btw, is “light music” – some kind of laser show? :) ) Ironically enough, many of these so-called connoisseurs of Carnatic music are so focused on the technical aspects of the song that they don’t even bother to pronounce the lyrics properly. Somebody should tell them that at the end of the day, a song is about the lyrics – especially if it’s a devotional song and you are butchering the meaning. It’s a bigger question as to why people don’t bother to understand the meaning of what they are singing – whether it’s in Tamil or Kannada or Telugu, learning the meaning shouldn’t be hard, no?

      Atleast in film music, everyone understands the lyrics they are singing, and the singers also enunciate properly (well, unless it’s Udit Narayan trying to speak Tamil..)

    • Oh, did he? I didn’t know that. I looked up Mills & Boon’s website, and it turns out you are right that PG Wodehouse’s books were published by Mills & Boon during its first years as a general publisher (before they switched exclusively to romance).

      So what I am not clear is – was a Wodehouse book (like say, Code of the Woosters) published by M&B, or did Wodehouse write specifically for the Mills & Boon audience ?

  8. How sad really! I know at that age when we read we don’t really think much of a great of writing right?..I started reading these books when I was 10 or 11 yrs and have the entire collection..used to enjoy all of them, Nancy Drew, Secret Seven, oh yeah all of them!..I collected so many hoping my kids will enjoy them..My daughter has just started with Enid Blyton, I am hoping she will move on the next. Else I will end up reading all of them myself all over again..LOL..

  9. I have grown up reading those Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton’s food & fun-filled books. I guess when we want to get the kids to develop their reading habit, these books do just fine. May not be great literature, but these books help them to get interested in reading and to sustain that habit. That is the value I see in these type of books. How many kids of 9-2 years age would ‘enjoy’ reading serious stuff! I personally feel all these authors should feel proud of themselves for shaping many kids futures. These books make for great light reads, just what the doctor ordered for lazy afternoons during summer vacations, with snacks to munch.

  10. Neat article. Loved all the Hardy Boys novels I’ve read… at least then. May not like them as much today but what the heck, at that age, they had all the thrills and spills that young readers need much like Blyton’s work! It’s sad that Leslie Nielsen wrote them out of financial desperation, not out of joy but RIP Mr. Nielsen because it did achieve the most primary aim of a book, transporting the reader into its world.

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