Timothy O’Leary is the author of the 2017 short-story collection Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face: And Other Tales of Men in Pain and the nonfiction book Warriors, Workers, Whiners, and Weasels (based on his business career). His stories and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He has been a finalist for the Mark Twain Award for Humor Writing, won the 2015 Aestas Award, and is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. His story “Made Men,” his first for EQMM, is coming up in our July/August issue, on sale June 19. It was childhood reading that set this author on the road to his literary career, and in this post he talks about a series of books that surely played a role in the making of many a contemporary mystery writer.—Janet Hutchings
I began my literary adventure as a Hardy Boy. My parents weren’t big readers, but believed their children should be, and sought out the easiest point of entry into world of books. My mother—probably responding to an ad in Ladies Home Journal—signed me up for a “Hardy Boys Book of the Month Club.”
It was thrilling to receive that package every few weeks. In the late 1960s, Hardy Boys books were hardback, and always featured Frank and Joe on the cover: teenage voyeurs, often crouching behind a tree, at the mouth of a cave, or outside a window. Often the boys wore identical crewneck sweaters, one in red and one in blue. On one of my favorite covers, The Secret of Skull Mountain, the boys are joined by a third character in a white sweater, delivering the full red/white/blue Americana—except for the fact that Frank (or perhaps Joe—I could never tell them apart), is holding a skull. With their Aryan features, clear skin, and all-American haircuts, they could have been young singers on one of the most popular and mind-numbing television programs of the 1960’s, The Lawrence Welk Show.
The spine and detailing of the books were a distinctive robin’s egg blue. To this day, when a Hardy fan spies my old collection on a shelf from twenty feet away, they will first notice that color. “Are those . . . ?” they gravitate towards the blue, then pick one up to discover the boys and exclaim, “It is. I love The Hardy Boys.”
In fact, The Hardy Boys were my gateway not only into the world of mysteries, but also into a lifelong obsession with literature and writing. I’m convinced that if you want to inspire a young person to read (and perhaps write), you need to entice them with “sticky literature”; books that excite and continue to draw you back. Reading needs to become habit, and it takes practice. There is no genre that accomplishes that better than a good mystery series. If I hadn’t started reading The Hardy Boys at age seven or eight, I might not have started reading Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, and Toni Morrison a decade later.
As I grew a too old for the brothers, I gravitated to Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and all the other building blocks of the format—delivered courtesy of the great innovation of my generation, the Bookmobile.
By the time I reached high school, a young new writer named Stephen King became an obsession, and I’d graduated to literary characters that possessed the suave intelligence, sensuality, and confidence with violence that every teenage boy craved, spending many late nights with James Bond, and the wonderful characters created by Trevanian, Jack Higgens, and Frederick Forsyth. I was particularly enthralled with funny, well-turned dialogue, with Elmore Leonard topping the list. And The Hardy Boys remained a pillar in the mystery world, as the series endeavored to stay relevant for over eighty years.
The boys were birthed by Edward Stratemeyer in 1927. Stratemeyer, one of the most prolific authors and publishers in history, released over 1,300 books that sold in excess of 500 million copies, while creating many best-selling characters aimed at the juvenile demographic, including Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and The Bobbsey Twins.
Multiple authors created the series under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon, writing to a strict outline provided by the publisher. In 1959—in an example of the now very familiar politically-correct adjustment—several books were revised to address what many considered racist passages. In 1987 a new series, The Hardy Boys Casefiles, was introduced that featured more complex plots and violence. That series was replaced in 2005 by Undercover Brothers, (not to be confused with the 2002 Eddie Griffin / Chris Kattan film, or the Ugandan music duo) which in turn was replaced by The Hardy Boys Adventures in 2013.
The boys also had a long run as television characters, with five different adaptations, beginning in the late 1950s, when Walt Disney introduced the characters during The Mickey Mouse Show. In 1967, NBC introduced their version of the Hardy Boys, with Tim Matheson (yes—the guy that played Otter in Animal House) playing Frank Hardy. ABC followed that with a Saturday-morning cartoon in 1969. People my age probably remember the 1977-79 version, with Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy playing freshly coiffed brothers—the “Hardy Boys as teen idols” attempt to refresh the series.
There have been Hardy Boys video games, coloring and comic books, lunch boxes, charm bracelets, albums, wristwatches, jeans, and even guitars. South Park did a special Hardy Boys Episode, “Mystery of the Urinal Deuce,” in which the boys investigate a 9/11 conspiracy theory.
So it’s probably not surprising that a significant percentage of the population were Hardy Boys. Virtually every American man I know over the age of thirty has fond memories of reading the books, a literary rite of passage that ranks as high Catcher in the Rye for generations of men.