At the same time, the Americana of the Hardy Boys is lily-white, and various racial stereotypes permeate the series’ earlier volumes. I noticed these more racist elements in the versions I read as a kid—even though my copies reflected the substantial changes made by the books’ packager starting in 1959, partly to address some of the more offensive language and story lines. Yet I still cherish the stories; it’s a thrill for me to revisit the books now, 60 years after their big makeover. Rereading the Hardy Boys series has been an opportunity to untangle my nostalgia around the sleuths, who inadvertently helped me understand my identity through a fictional world not exactly built with boys like me in mind.
Fittingly, the origin of the Hardy Boys franchise was veiled in its own kind of mystery for decades. In particular, there was never a Franklin W. Dixon. That’s the collective pseudonym of the stable of ghostwriters assembled by the publishing tycoon Edward Stratemeyer to crank out Hardy Boys books for his Stratemeyer Syndicate, as his book-packaging empire was called; he expected these writers not to divulge their real identities publicly. (The company also launched other popular children’s series, including Nancy Drew.)
Of the Dixon writers, the most influential is the first one, Leslie McFarlane, who wrote many of the series’ earlier volumes, beginning with the 1927 release and continuing into the ’40s. As the Ohio University journalism professor Marilyn S. Greenwald writes in her 2004 book, The Secret of the Hardy Boys: Leslie McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the indefatigable attachment that many people have to the books arises from McFarlane’s “mastery of narrative” and “the ability of the books to engage the senses, and the quirks that made the characters sympathetic and not wooden.”
Read: The mystery of the Hardy Boys and the invisible authors
That world-building is crucial. Take Frank and Joe’s friend, Chet Morton. One of the books’ most memorable characters, Chet has several distinguishing qualities: his skittishness, his where-does-it-all-go appetite, his playfulness, his sensitivity. These quirks—some of which American society tends to view as “effeminate”—offer up a more expansive vision of boyhood, one at odds with the traditional masculine ideal that prizes traits such as athleticism, unfeelingness, hard-nosed machismo, and, generally, being a man’s man (all to the detriment of boys as they grow up). “There was humor, there was friendship,” Greenwald told me in an interview, referring to the affable Chet. And in that way, she added, “there was a very minor subversive aspect to the books.” Think of it like this: While the franchise is named after the Hardys, it’s Chet who gives the books heart—and who gave my scrawny, closeted adolescent self a different boyishness to embrace. For instance, though I couldn’t put my finger on it when I was younger, there was always something delightfully transgressive about the fact that Chet’s car, depicted in the books as the “pride” of his life, is named The Queen. These days, I like to imagine that detail as a winking inside joke with the observant queer reader.