Writing the Hardy Boys series was “hack work”

By ZJ Czupor

After he graduated from high school in Haileybury, Ontario, Leslie McFarlane (1902 – 1977), spent the next fifty years as a writer. He produced hundreds of short stories for pulp magazines, novellas and novels, radio plays, as well as ghost-written books.

He was a newspaper reporter, editor for Maclean’s magazine, and produced and directed for the National Film Board of Canada. One of his documentaries was nominated for an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. In the 1960s, he wrote for the hit television series Bonanza at the suggestion of his actor/friend Lorne Greene.

He wrote two autobiographies, eight stand-alone mystery novels, four Dana Girls Mystery Books, and under the pen name, Franklin W. Dixon, wrote more than twenty Hardy Boys novels. The novels, which debuted in 1927, (Grosset & Dunlap), are considered one of the most popular juvenile book series of all time, spawning numerous spin-offs, nonfiction books, board games, TV shows, and internet sites. It featured teenage sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy, where the young brothers solved mysteries in the fictional town of Bayport.

Franklin W. Dixon was the collective pseudonym of a stable of ghostwriters who wrote the Hardy Boys series. The writers were assembled by Edward Stratemeyer(1862-1930), a publishing tycoon, who also launched Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. But it was McFarlane who is widely credited for creating the literary style and character’s personalities that made the books successful.

The original Hardy Boys “canon” included 58 volumes. By mid-1929, over 115,000 books had been sold and as of 2008, more than a million copies a year were sold. Worldwide, over 70 million copies have been sold and translated into 50 languages.

Sadly, McFarlane earned no royalties. He was paid a flat fee of $100 per book but during the Great Depression that fee was reduced to $85. He considered writing the Hardy Boys, as “hack work.” He cursed having to write another of those books, in order to earn another $100 to buy coal for the furnace. He once told his son, Brian, “Don’t tell your friends that I write that nonsense.”

Writing the Hardy Boys was a means to an end for McFarlane, but his legacy is that he hooked millions of kids, including me, on reading.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.