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The Hardy Boys and the Glum Ghostwriter

Call it the case of the man with no choice. To feed his family during the Depression, Leslie McFarlane set aside artistic ambitions and wrote mysteries--pseudonymously--starring the beloved teen detectives he despised.

September 08, 1998|GENE WEINGARTEN | WASHINGTON POST

I recently rediscovered my youth. It made me sneeze.

It lay unremembered at the top of a tall bookcase: 15 vintage Hardy Boys novels by Franklin W. Dixon. In getting them down, I took a face full of dust and beetle carapaces.

I carried the books to my favorite rocking chair, beside my favorite lamp, and reverently broke them open to revisit the literature that had inspired in me a lifelong love of language. They smelled the way old books smell, faintly perfumed, quaintly mysterious, like the lining of Great-Grandma's alligator handbag out in the steamer trunk. I began to read.

Pretty soon a new smell entered the room.

The Hardy Boys stank.

When a group of literati in July published a list of the hundred greatest English-language novels of the 20th century, lionizing "Ulysses," "The Great Gatsby" and "The Sun Also Rises," I was disappointed that "The Missing Chums" was not included. I remembered "The Missing Chums" as the pinnacle of human achievement, a meticulously crafted work of American fiction in which Frank and Joe Hardy, the sons of famed sleuth Fenton Hardy, braved choppy seas and grizzled thugs to rescue their kidnapped friends. I had first read it in a backyard hammock strung between sycamore trees during the summer of my 12th year.

Now, through my bifocals, I again confronted "The Missing Chums." Here is how it begins:

" 'You certainly ought to have a dandy trip.'

" 'I'll say we will, Frank! We sure wish you could come along!'

"Frank Hardy grinned ruefully and shook his head. . . ."

" 'Just think of it!' said Chet Morton, the other speaker. 'A whole week motorboating along the coast. We're the lucky boys, eh, Biff?'

" 'You bet we're lucky!'

" 'It won't be the same without the Hardy Boys,' returned Chet."

Dispiritedly, I leafed through other volumes. They all read the same. The dialogue is as wooden as an Eberhard Faber, the characters as thin as a sneer, the plots as forced as a laugh at the boss' joke.

Seventeen words seldom suffice when 71 will do:

"Mrs. Hardy viewed their passion for detective work with considerable apprehension, preferring that they plan to go to a university and direct their energies toward entering one of the professions; but the success of the lads had been so marked in the cases on which they had been engaged that she had by now almost resigned herself to seeing them destined for careers as private detectives when they should grow older."

Physical descriptions are so perfunctory that the characters practically disappear. In 15 volumes we learn little more than this about 16-year-old Frank: He is dark-haired. And this about 15-year-old Joe: He is blond.

These may be the worst books ever written.

I felt betrayed.

The Hardy Boys are still published--all the old titles and dozens of new ones. They sell by the millions, still troweling gluey prose into the brains of America's preadolescents.

I felt I had to do something.

So I decided to find Franklin W. Dixon. And kill him.

Drat. He's already dead.

The Man Behind the Name on the Book

In one sense, Franklin W. Dixon never existed. Franklin W. Dixon was a "house name" owned by a company called the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which created and published the original Hardy Boys mysteries. From 1927 through 1946, each Hardy Boys book was secretly written by a man named Leslie McFarlane.

I found myself, quite literally, chasing a ghost.

I caught up with him on the telephone, in the person of the ghostwriter's daughter, Norah Perez of Youngstown, N.Y. Perez is an accomplished novelist. Her father died in 1977.

Recently, Perez leafed through some old Hardy Boys books.

"I was almost shocked," she said with a laugh. "I thought, 'Omigod. They are not great.' "

So her father was a hack?

"My father," she said, "was a literate, sophisticated, erudite man."

He was?

He loved Dickens, she said. "He was a great Joycean."

He was?

"He corresponded with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had aspirations to be that kind of writer."

She seemed uncertain where to go with this. Finally:

"He hated the Hardy Boys."

It turns out that the story of the Hardy Boys--call it their Final Chapter--isn't about the worst writer who ever lived, not by a long shot. It is about a good writer who wrote some bad books, and if you wonder why that happened, as I did, then you are likely not very old and not very wise. Sometimes homely things are done for the best reasons in the world and, thus, achieve a beauty of their own.

Leslie McFarlane kept voluminous diaries. His family has them. He wrote in fountain pen, in elegant strokes that squirreled up a little when he was touched by despair or drink. In these diaries, "The Hardy Boys" is seldom mentioned by name, as though he cannot bear to speak it aloud. He calls the books "the juveniles." At the time, McFarlane was living in northern Ontario, Canada, with a wife and infant children, attempting to make a living as a freelance fiction writer.

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