Than I did when I was a kid
By Jeff Salter
Before I launch into my review of this particular title – The House on the Cliff… volume 2 of the venerable Hardy Boys ORIGINAL series – let me say a word about the Stratemeyer Syndicate and their stable of ghost writers.
You may recall my blog a few months ago about Mildred Wirt Benson — not only the first ghost writer of the Nancy Drew series, but the individual who truly breathed life into the outlines supplied by Edward Stratemeyer and (later) his daughters. Without Benson’s development of Nancy (plus her father, friends, and community) over 23 of those first 30 ND volumes, readers would have been exposed to a very different Nancy Drew (and, I believe, a far inferior incarnation).
While the Stratemeyer syndicate was entertaining young girls (primarily) with Nancy – among other series – there was another stable of ghost writers producing exciting detective tales featuring two teen-aged brothers… Frank and Joe Hardy.
Frank and Joe had both parents still living, unlike Nancy. And their father was an “internationally known” detective who’d formerly worked with the New York Police — whereas Nancy’s dad was a mere newspaper publisher.
So Frank and Joe were destined to become detectives in their own right — and that’s what they did (over the course of some 59 volumes produced during the years 1927-1979) thereby winning the praise and respect of their school-mates, community leaders, and citizenry.
Leslie McFarlane – a Canadian journalist who’d already worked with Stratemeyer on a different series – was selected to kick off the new series. In all, McFarlane wrote 19 of the first 25 volumes and most fans consider his titles to be the best of the entire original series. [Note: at least one persuasive fan-researcher claims McFarlane did NOT write volumes 12, 13, & 14 — which would lower his total to 16 of the first 25 volumes.]
In 1959 – about the time I was old enough to be interested in the Hardy Boys – the Syndicate began a 15-year project to overhaul the first 38 titles (the earliest of which were, by then, some 32 years old). As with the ND series, in some cases, the volumes were merely trimmed by a few chapters (typically some 30 pages or so). The other focus was to simplify the vocabulary, clean up those earlier, occasional racial / ethnic stereotypes, and also to update their books’ depiction of society and culture in general [not to mention automobiles, aircraft, and other technology]. But for many of the titles, the plots themselves were heavily altered — some to the point of “literary vandalism” in the words of one fan-researcher.
During my childhood, I was first exposed to the Hardy Boys because of my older brother, who owned at least one – Secret Panel, as I recall, which was not one of Mc Farlane’s – which I probably read when I was old enough. [He probably had at least two others, but we can’t recall which titles]. Additionally, I owned at least one HB title – The Mystery at Devil’s Paw – which was set (of all places) in Alaska, which became an American state in the same year that book was published.
Notice that I’m basically stating: of the 59 original HB volumes, it’s possible – as a kid – I read only three or perhaps four!
So why would the most popular boys-targeted fiction series of my generation not be higher on my interest scale? Because I was reading biographies! Starting in fourth grade and covering the prime period in which the Hardy Boys would normally have held my attention, I got hooked on Bobbs-Merrill’s 250-volume Childhood of Famous Americans series. I read every title I could find in my school library and our local public library. For more about that series, read the first third of this blog:
And by the time (in junior high) that I outgrew that biography series, I had also outgrown interest in the Hardy Boys. By that age, I was reading other non-fiction, e.g., the collected articles by Frank Edwards (about aliens, UFOs, spooks, and other phenomena).
All that is leading up to the fact that about the time I first read any of the Nancy Drew books – when I (as an adult) first learned about Mildred Wirt Benson – I finally also became aware of Leslie McFarlane’s similar contributions to the Hardy Boys series. So I began hunting down copies of the original HB stories by that ground-breaking author. I no longer remember which ones I read – in my fifties, when I acquired about a half dozen – but I recently read (or re-read) one of those.
You might think that reading a Hardy Boys detective tale at nearly age 70 would be a let down… but it wasn’t! If anything, I possibly enjoyed it more now… than I would have as a kid.
As with the ND series, one of the big appeals of the HB stories is that Frank and Joe – both still high school students – have no homework, or exams, or bad report cards, or any other academic burdens. No household chores to speak of, but plenty of spending money, access to transportation, and freedom to roam all over creation, with hardly a whisper of parental “interference.” What’s not to like?
The novel I’m featuring today is the second of that series and is thought by many fans to be either the best or second best of all the McFarlane titles. This was written in 1927 from Edward Stratemeyer’s outline.
Frank and Joe Hardy are investigating a mysterious old house high on the cliffs above Barmet Bay when they are frightened off by a scream. The boys return to the apparently haunted house when they make a connection between the place and a smuggling case their father is working on. When their father goes missing, they have to investigate the caves beneath the house and confront the smugglers.
McFarlane is terrific at his descriptions of the settings and activity. Frank and Joe are likeable and modest — despite their developing fame as amateur detectives. They are considerate of their classmates and respectful of their elders (except the lazy police chief). I found the story interesting, fast-paced, and full of adventure — even though “adventure” of the sort faced by boys aged 16 and 15 was extremely dangerous. It truly strained belief that their mother would allow them this much freedom to place themselves in harm’s way with few details about their intentions and no appreciable back-up plan.
This volume had a huge plot hole. Their dad disappears without telling his wife or his sons what he’s up to. The reader only knows that the circumspect Mr. Hardy was interested in the possibility of some smuggling perhaps taking place in the vicinity of the house on the cliff. When Mr. Hardy has been gone for some THREE DAYS, the wife and sons are worried, but merely moping about instead of taking any real action. Their feeble contact with the local police strained belief… and the wife’s bland assumption that “Fenton can take care of himself” fell flat. Knowing they were venturing into almost certain danger – and that their father was quite likely a kidnap victim – the boys bring no weapons and alert no authorities. But at least they do ask their buddy, Tony, to notify the police when he gets back to town in his motorboat. I cannot list more complaints without spoiling too much of the ending, but suffice it to say, “don’t bring a flashlight to a gunfight.”
The edition I read was from about 1956, some 29 years and innumerable printings down the road. And yet I found 4 or 5 typographical errors. I was thinking: “you mean with all those millions sold, not one reader has reported those glitches?” And it wasn’t strictly a matter of cost-benefit, because it was clear that several pages had been printed from NEWER plates, which did not have all the burrs and blurs of those original plates from 1927. If they could replace those pages, they could’ve fixed the typos I found and replaced those pages as well. I mean, they had 29 years to deal with it.
Despite my critique, I really did enjoy the story. And I realize I’m some 55-60 years past the target audience age. McFarlane does spin a good yarn, and Stratemeyer evidently provided a nice outline.
Something I noted when I discussed Ms. Benson and her ND stories also holds true here. Imagine the frustration of penning books that were sold by the millions and wildly popular, yet you were paid a flat fee [between $75-$125] for your efforts and required to sign a non-disclosure agreement that you’d never reveal that you were the actual author… rather than the fictional Franklin W. Dixon.
When revised in 1959, this title lost some 32 pages but most of the basic plot remained intact.
Did YOU read Hardy Boys books as a kid? How about Nancy Drew? Did you ever question whether Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene were real people? Could your wildest imagination have handled knowing that ND was written by some 28 different ghost-writers… and HB by nine or more ghosters?
For information about the ghost writers, the various editions, and other details, check out this cool site: https://hardyboys.us/hbos.htm
[JLS # 506]