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Cracker Barrel: Tha Hardy Boys

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The little town where I grew up had no library, and, though I blush to admit it, most of the time none of my boyhood buddies felt the poorer for its absence. During the school year we had access to plenty of books, and during summer vacation we spent almost all of our time outdoors. But there were occasional rainy days when playing outside was impossible, and we had to resort to reading.

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Luckily, our gang was enthralled by the Hardy Boys, and among us possessed a sizeable number of volumes. We’d trade them back and forth, along with heartfelt reviews on their appeal or lack thereof. Such comments were generally brief, and by no means literary, ranging from, “It’s great!” to “Not bad!” to “Kinda hard to follow, but it’s still OK.”

In truth, I can’t remember a Hardy Boys book I didn’t like, and the other guys all felt the same way.

There was something about Frank and Joe and their chubby chum Chet that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go. Half a page into a book you were hooked, and you stayed with it to the end. Part of the appeal derived from the fact that they were older than us, and consequently able to drive cars, ride motorcycles, pilot speed boats and do things that were still denied us. Their characters certainly weren’t drawn with great subtlety or detail, the only real difference between the brothers being Joe’s lesser patience and greater athleticism. But none of that impeded our willingness to suspend disbelief and enter wholeheartedly into each new adventure, imagining ourselves right there beside them, helping them make sense of the clues and unravel the latest mystery.

Had a poll been taken of the young male inhabitants of our town asking them to name their favorite author, Franklin W. Dixon would have won by a landslide. Given our youthful allegiance to the man, it came as something of a shock to find in later years that he was nonexistent, a mere nom de plume for the efforts of a whole raft of real writers, starting with the Canadian Leslie MacFarlane and including John Button, Andrew E. Svenson and several others, all working under contract to the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which was later sold to Simon and Schuster.

Edward Stratemeyer, it turned out, not only created the Hardy Boys but also the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift, along with dozens of other series. His daughters, Edna and Harriet, provided detailed outlines for each of the books and edited the final submissions.

Writers were paid $125 per book, and relinquished all rights to further recompense. The series started in 1927 and was an immediate hit.

Looking back, I’ve often pondered the source of our relentless fascination with the Hardy brothers. I think much of it derived from the fact that their father, Fenton, a professional detective and the pride of Bayport, was forever getting in trouble from which only his sons could rescue him. This understated but persistent note of Oedipal competition, coupled with his willingness to give the boys access to some of his cases and thereby treat them as equals, proved enormously alluring to young whippersnappers like us.

That, and the certain knowledge that good would triumph over evil, made the stories irresistible. Half a century later, to this reader at least, they remain a high point of remembered satisfaction.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at www.CraigNagelBooks.com.

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