- The Secret of the Hardy Boys: Leslie McFarland and the Stratemeyer Syndicate
Surely the Hardy Boys series of adolescent mystery novels is one of the most widely read series in twentieth-century American history. This book, written by a professor of journalism at Ohio University, tells the story of Charles Leslie "Les" McFarlane, the Canadian ghostwriter behind more than twenty of the books; it also explores the other "secret" behind the series, the businessman Edward Stratemeyer who developed the strategy for such serial works.
Stratemeyer's business plan was simple: he hired freelance authors, such as McFarlane, to turn short plot summaries into books, paid them only a flat fee per book (usually less than $100), published them under false names ("Franklin W. Dixon" in the case of the Hardy Boys), while he maintained all copyrights. Then, he sold the books to a mass publisher, and marketed the books as inexpensive entertainment for children. As Greenwald put it, "Stratemeyer's success stemmed from the fact that he took the formula of the dime novel and altered it to fit the changing cultural milieu," specifically the increase in the middle-class market (18-19). In this, Stratemeyer took the entrepreneurial attitude to literature—or as Fortune magazine put it in 1934, "Oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer" (134). After the first such series (the Rover Boys, created in 1899 and written by Stratemeyer himself), Stratemeyer created several lines of fiction—each with its distinctive "author"—the most common of which were, in addition the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. In addition to appealing to this newly important market, and in addition to including contemporary cultural themes and concepts—especially the use of technology—Stratemeyer's books also made use of modern production techniques by applying mass production and exchangeable parts not only to the physical production of the books, but also to the intellectual production as well (135). McFarlane, besides writing many of the Hardy Boys series, also wrote installments in other Stratemeyer lines as well; for him, as Greenwald illustrates, writing the Hardy Boys was much like any other contract work.
The bulk of the book, however, tells the story of McFarlane himself, who outlived Stratemeyer by many decades. Born in rural Canada, McFarlane worked hard at becoming a writer, and had at least moderate success in an amazing number of media, from his first job as a newspaper reporter and freelance author, to government filmmaker and radio and television writer. For most of his life, McFarlane struggled to make ends meet, as he barely eked out a living for himself and his family. Especially in the 1920s and 30s, the Hardy Boys represented a much needed, if not always enjoyed, lifeline. In many ways, McFarlane's various types of writing jobs illustrate the changing nature of the author in the 20th century. [End Page 589]
Greenwald's work is based not only a reading of the Hardy Boys books themselves, but the use of Stratemeyer's papers at the New York Public Library and McFarlane's own compulsively-kept diaries. The result is very illuminating in its depiction of the largely unknown ghostwriter behind one of the most successful series in American fiction. By focusing on McFarlane's life—his wife's depression, his own drinking problems, his worries about making ends meet—Greenwald shows that, just as in industrial manufacturing, an intellectual commodity embodies the sweat and toil of its creator. For many readers—like this reviewer—who read these books as youths, this is a compelling story. However, despite Greenwald's repeated assertions that "it would be hard to overstate the impact culture and society had on Stratemeyer's ideas and his methods of business" (20) or that Stratemeyer's "true genius" was his ability "to capitalize so fully on the rapidly growing technology of the era" (35) the book leaves much of the cultural and social context unexplored. The result is a rather abstract biography, rarely connected to the changes...