When I was about nine years old, I discovered the pleasure and excitement of reading The Hardy Boys mysteries. Ostensibly by an author named Franklin W. Dixon, these fast-paced mysteries filled with adventure were usually set in or near the fictional town of Bayport, likely somewhere near New York City. The books began to be published in the late 1920s and continued for decades. When I began reading them, there were somewhere about 50 Hardy Boys different mysteries.
Frank and Joe Hardy were 17 and 16 and dark-haired and blond, respectively. Frank, as the older brother, was the more serious of the pair, while Joe was more the “shoot-first-ask questions-later” character. They rode motorcycles. They could drive a car. Their father was the nationally known private detective Fenton Hardy, while their mother generally stayed at home and worried. Frank and Joe would often get themselves involved in the fringes of their father’s cases, often landing right in the middle of the action. And they ingeniously caught crooks and villains.
Who wouldn’t want to be Frank and Joe Hardy?
The series was created by a writer, Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930), who organized the Stratemeyer Syndicate to write and publish The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, The Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew, among others. While the books carried one author’s name (like Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, and Victor Appleton), they were churned out by a host of writers under contract to the syndicate.
I recently reread the first two books in The Hardy Boys series, The Tower Treasure and The House on the Cliff. We had given a set of the first 10 in the series to my oldest grandson for Christmas, and I wanted to see if they could still hold my interest today.
They could and they did.
The first thing I discovered (or rediscovered) was the astonishing use of exclamation points. Stratemeyer must have mandated a certain minimum use of that punctuation in writing contracts, because the books are loaded with them. The exclamation points underscore action, fast pace, tension, unexpected events and people, and more.
Second, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger (and usually an exclamation point). It’s like a roller coaster ride of successive hills and valleys, with the chapters ending at the top of each hill. And like a roller coaster ride, you want to keep going and read on.
Third, each chapter has a title – and the titles are designed to attract interest and add to the building tension of the story. So, you find “An Unexpected Find,” “Captured,” “The Hidden Trail,” “The Holdup,” and “The Threat.”
The main characters have simple names, one syllable for teenagers and two for adults. So we have Frank and Joe (it’s never Joseph) with their good friends and partners in detection Chet and Biff. Adults have names like Fenton and Oscar. Important secondary characters have colorful names, like “Pretzel Pete,” while the villains have names like villains – Felix Snattman, for example, is a smuggler in The House on the Cliff.
Fifth, the language is simple. The only words that may send you to the dictionary are the period, old-fashioned ones, like “sleuth” and “roadster.”
What all of these style tactics do is talk to, not at, the reader. The books never talk down to their audience. They meet their readers right where their readers are. They want to engage you, and they want to put you in the characters’ places. The teens are all recognizable – the serious ones, the geeky ones, the one who eats too much, the fun-loving and daring one.
Many of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books have been updated for more contemporary sensibilities. Those are not the ones to read. Instead, you have to search for the ones originally published in the 1920s to 1940s and then reprinted through roughly the 1960s.
I like the original Frank and Joe Hardys. Yes, they seem a bit old-fashioned (no laptops or smart phones, no political issues) but they’re all about telling an entertaining story.