Leslie McFarlane, the Hardy Boys, and the American Past

We don’t live there anymore: A look at journalism and fiction writing of the early 20th century.
Leslie McFarlane, the Hardy Boys, and the American Past
Alexander Elliot (L) and Rohan Campbell star as the Hardy brothers, sleuths based on a book series dating from the 1920s. The series is a current production. (Hulu)
Jeff Minick
When we set out to investigate the past, like archaeologists we dig up and examine all sorts of information. We might begin with history texts, like Wilfred McClay’s “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story,” which provide us with a barebones but broad account of people and events from another era. We then zero in on a particular incident, reading a book like David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood” if we wish further enlightenment.
Stirred by such an account, energetic truth seekers may then navigate from these secondary sources to primary ones. To explore the Johnstown flood, for example, they may look for newspaper articles or letters from eyewitnesses of that disaster.

Lives in Print

Of course, memoirs, accounts of a specific time or event in a person’s life, and autobiographies, which tell the story of a life in full, also serve as excellent firsthand records of the past. Here, we generally think of those books left to us by the great and the famous, like Winston Churchill’s memoir of his youth, “My Early Life,” or Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography.” A close reading of such works reveals as much about the times as about the person.

This same axiom holds true for memoirs and autobiographies written by less renowned figures. The ubiquitous life stories of politicians, entrepreneurs, movie stars, sports figures, and other celebrities often make the bestseller lists, later to be forgotten by the public but which are ripe pickings for historians and others interested in a particular period’s culture and values.

And one of these autobiographies was written by a ghost.

The Ghost Speaks

Even after a century, many schoolboys still recognize the name Franklin W. Dixon as the author of the Hardy Boys books, those famous fictional stories about two teenage amateur detectives, Frank and Joe Hardy. Scarcely known to these readers at all is Leslie McFarlane (1902–1977), who actually wrote 21 of these famous tales.
Original 1927 book cover for the Hardy Boys adventure "The Tower Treasure." (Public Domain)
Original 1927 book cover for the Hardy Boys adventure "The Tower Treasure." (Public Domain)
In his fascinating and witty autobiography “Ghost of the Hardy Boys: The Writer Behind the World’s Most Famous Boy Detectives,” McFarlane reveals not only how he came to write this remarkable bestselling series under a pseudonym, but also inadvertently gives us a tour of the customs and culture from the early years of the 20th century.

Employing his trademark humor, McFarlane describes his Canadian upbringing. His was a childhood blessed by loving parents, an early interest in literature and writing, and the simple adventures provided by Haileybury, Ontario, the small town of his boyhood. On graduation from high school, like most who became journalists a century ago, McFarlane set to work writing for newspapers rather than attending college.

A small paper hired him for $9 a week. “My career was under way,” McFarlane writes. “It began with a crash course in journalism conducted by Dan Cushing, the news editor. It took about three minutes and consisted of one lecture.” Cushing told him to “get the names right” and “get the addresses right.” Then he added, “Don’t use the word ’very' in a sentence. … I hate it. That’s all.”

While working as a journalist, McFarlane dreamed of writing books, especially novels. He also needed more money. Those ambitions led him to answer an ad from a certain Edward Stratemeyer, whom McFarlane for excellent reasons calls “a Henry Ford of fiction for boys and girls.”

A portrait of Edward L. Stratemeyer, creator of the "Hardy Boys" idea. The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division. (Public Domain)
A portrait of Edward L. Stratemeyer, creator of the "Hardy Boys" idea. The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division. (Public Domain)

Founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the inventive Stratemeyer had come up with two brilliant ideas: mass marketing books for the growing youth market and hiring writers to crank out those stories under pseudonyms to be published and distributed by the syndicate. Guided by plot outlines given them by Stratemeyer, these hired guns received a set fee for each submission—McFarlane for years was paid $100 per Hardy Boy story—while giving up all rights to the published book. From Stratemeyer’s assembly line of fiction flowed a multitude of stories aimed at adolescents, like the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and of course, the Hardy Boys.

Meanwhile, and for the rest of his life, McFarlane continued to write stories for magazines. Eventually he achieved success in television and the movies, working with the Canadian National Film Board and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Back in the Day

“Ghost of the Hardy Boys” offers a number of insights into what seems now a distant past. The small-town papers and journalism of McFarlane’s youth, for instance, are gone, replaced by media corporations, television, radio, and the internet. This work, however, brought him into contact with a grand host of character types who have likewise vanished, from the rough men who strode the sidewalks of Haileybury to vaudeville artists, all of whom McFarlane brings to life on these pages.
And for anyone interested in North American literature in the 1920s and ‘30s, McFarlane’s account of his adventures is an education in writing and journalism. For a time, when he leaves the newsroom to try and write his own stories—it’s then that he begins writing the Hardy Boys series—he lives in a cabin on a meager supply of food and travels by canoe to do his shopping; it’s a rural picture of the starving artist in a Paris garret. Because of his enormous output of words during this phase of his life, McFarlane serves as a fine reminder for today’s would-be authors that success depends on putting one’s posterior into a chair and hitting a keyboard.

Old-Fashioned Honor

Finally, McFarlane demonstrates two character traits embedded in him by his upbringing. The first is gratitude flavored with humility. The Hardy Boys books that he and others wrote have now sold more than 70 million copies, for which McFarlane was paid a grand total of some $5,000. In his later years, he tells us, interviewers seemed to regard him either with “sympathy as a victim of one of the great swindles of modern times” or with “contempt as the dumbest sucker of the age.”

“This maddens me,” McFarlane tells us. “It also saddens me. I was not swindled. I accepted the terms of Edward Stratemeyer and the importance of the money was related to my needs. I was free to reject any of the assignments.”

McFarlane shows similar pride when one interviewer, Bob Stall, an admirer of the Hardy Boys, tells McFarlane that publishers have not only revised and streamlined the Hardy Boys stories, but that “they’ve been gutted from beginning to end.“ He continues: ”Those old books were well written. They had words you could roll around in your mouth and taste. They had funny scenes. They had scenes you could wallow in. These new ones move faster, all right, but too fast. There’s never a place to stop and linger. That’s why the old ones were so great for a kid. They had flavor. And now the flavor is all gone.”

After comparing the older books with the new and finding Stall’s assessment accurate, McFarlane writes: “Gone was the leisurely style. Gone were the roadsters in which the Hardy Boys drove up and down the Shore Road. … Gone was the humor, such as it was. … The world had changed for the Hardy Boys as it had changed for everyone else. It was a very strange world indeed, when a ghost could be disposed by another ghost.”

When Stall asks, “Doesn’t it upset you?” McFarlane replies, “Damn it all, what do you think? Even a ghost has feelings like anyone else.”

Perhaps more than anything else, “Ghost of the Hardy Boys” reminds us that the young, and all the rest of us, do indeed need a place to linger, to go at a slower pace, and have more intimate connections; otherwise, “the flavor is all gone.”
Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected]
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.