The Hardy Boys and the Secret of the Ghost Writer

Throughout our formative years, we are confronted with information that shatters our perception of the world as we know it. Whether it’s the truth about Santa Claus, finding out that pro-wrestling is fake or learning that Ricky and Lucy divorced in real life, we are constantly learning facts that cause us to lose our faith in humanity. For me, one such instance occurred in my 20’s when it was revealed to me that my favorite childhood author was not actually a real person. That’s right, Franklin W. Dixon, the man who I thought wrote all of those great Hardy Boys books, was in reality, just a pen name used in place of the several different writers who worked on the series at various times over many years.

I’m guessing many of you are familiar with the Hardy Boys. Created in 1927 by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Frank and Joe Hardy are a pair of fictional teenage brothers who, as amateur detectives, work together in solving the many crimes and mysteries that occurred in several dozen adventure books geared toward young readers. The Hardys were first introduced in a 216 page publication titled “The Tower Treasure” (1927), which established the boys as fearless, resourceful sleuths, always game to either help their father, Detective Fenton Hardy on one of his cases, or to use their vast boy brain power to solve any mystery that came their way. Frank Hardy and his younger brother Joe lived in the city of Bayport, located somewhere on the Eastern seaboard, a town that, apparently, was the crime capital of the world. Over the next 50 years, 58 Hardy Boys books would be published, all written, or so I thought, by the very talented Franklin W. Dixon.

I first became aware of the Hardys, not through the books, but from the Walt Disney adaptation of “The Tower Treasure” that was presented in serial form on the “Mickey Mouse Club.” Starring Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk as Frank and Joe Hardy, “The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure” ran in 19 installments, and included a memorable theme song, sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, who is better known as the voice of Tony the Tiger. Later on, I came across a few Hardy Boy books in my home, which had originally belonged to my older sisters. After reading “The Sinister Signpost” and “The Secret of Pirate Hill,” I became hooked on the Hardy Boys. The plots were fairly uncomplicated, and the stories were easy to follow despite containing only a few illustrations per book. I was also quite envious of the Hardy Boys’ world of adventure, particularly when I realized that my hometown of Millbrae did not contain any of the hidden caves, secret tunnels, abandoned warehouses or old mills that were so common in Bayport. Nor did Millbrae attract many counterfeiters, jewel thieves, diamond smugglers or gun runners, unlike the city where the Hardys lived. One of the great things about the Hardy Boys books was that they did not need to be read in any particular order, as the each book’s opening chapter would include a brief bio of the boys, putting any new readers up to speed. Not only did I find the Hardy Boys great recreational reading, but also very useful whenever I needed to put together a quick book report for school. I probably handed in the same “Tower Treasure” review a dozen or so times over a five year period. Surely, I felt, Franklin W. Dixon was the premier author of young reader books of the 20th century…until I discovered that he didn’t exist.

In the 1970’s, I came across a book called “Rascals at Large” by Arthur Prager, which was an overview of children’s adventure books going back to the early 1910’s. When discussing the Hardy Boys series, “Rascals at Large” explained how the books were actually written. Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of the Hardys, and later his daughters, would put together an outline for a story, and would pay a free lance writer $100 to write a 200 page book based on the original idea. It was Stratemeyer who made the decision to withhold credit for the Hardy Boys books, either for himself or any ghostwriter, preferring to invent the pseudonym, “Franklin W. Dixon.” Leslie McFarlane, a Canadian, is credited for writing 19 of the first 25 Hardy Boys stories. Eventually, a dozen different scribes had their turn being Franklin W. Dixon.

In 1959, the first 38 Hardy Boy mysteries went through an extensive revision process, as many of the early books contained outdated language as well as some negative portrayals of African Americans. After more than 80 years since their literary debut, The Hardy Boys are still going strong, selling over 1 million books a year. A few years ago, several of the early Hardy Boys mysteries were re-released in their original form, including the late 1920’s covers. I guess the one good thing about Franklin W. Dixon having never lived is that he never had to die.

Note: I guess it’s only fair to point out the fact that the Nancy Drew books were also a creation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and were written in the same fashion that the Hardy Boys books were. Nancy made her debut in 1930, in a mystery entitled “The Secret Old Clock,” written by a ghost writer…there was no Carolyn Keene.