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15 Mysterious Facts About ‘The Hardy Boys’

Frank and Joe Hardy have been blowing mysteries wide open for almost 90 years, combating ghosts, thieves, monsters, and shifty characters to the delight of several generations of kids. Fans of The Hardy Boys books might have caught a lot of the action along the way, but they may not realize that the series is its own shady case file that involves changing American tastes, furious librarians, and the shadowy, corrupt business of kids’ books. 

1. THE BOYS HAVE SOLVED AROUND 500 CASES. 

Not including graphic novels and planned releases, there have been well over 450 Hardy Boys titles published since their 1927 debut. This rough sum includes 38 titles from the original series that were entirely rewritten after 1959, releases by Grossett & Dunlap and digests from Simon & Schuster publishers, and the spinoff Clues Brothers, Undercover Brothers, Casefiles, Super Mysteries, and Adventures series, among others.  

2. THE BOOKS LET KIDS ENJOY ADULT ENTERTAINMENT. 

Around the beginning of the 20th century, Edward Stratemeyer, who The New York Times called “a prolific hack with a nose for business” and “the Henry Ford of children's fiction,” had a revelation that would change children’s literature forever. Stratemeyer saw that, while most kids’ lit to date focused on moral instruction, kids themselves wanted to experience the same thrills their parents were getting from cheap series books that sold for a nickel to 10 cents a pop. When he started publishing books that delivered this excitement, he realized that children would become attached to certain authors, so it was better for them to be written using a pseudonym that he owned, than by an individual author who could leave. Thus, the high-output children’s series market was born. 

3. THEY ARE ALL GHOST-WRITTEN. 

In the decades that followed, the Stratemeyer Syndicate employed a changing stable of ghostwriters to churn out Hardy Boys titles (under the shared pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon) in as little as three weeks. These writers also filled the pages of Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Bomba the Jungle Boy, and Tom Swift books at breakneck speed, usually for a flat per-book fee of between $75 and $125 with no royalties involved.

4. STRATEMEYER NAILED THE FORMULA. 

This group of ghost writers enabled Stratemeyer to build his literary empire, and while he sometimes provided bare bones storylines for his writers to work from, his instructions to Hardy Boys writers, the Times notes, “were basic: end each chapter with a cliffhanger, and no murder, guns, or sex.” 

5. IN THE BEGINNING, THOUGH, THEY WERE SHREWD ANTI-AUTHORITARIANS ... 

Like many fiction and comic titles of the era, The Hardy Boys books coming out in the late 1920s and ‘30s showed a gritty, no-nonsense world (or the kids' version of it) where Frank, Joe, and their pals functioned as fearless private eyes, taking the pursuit of justice into their own hands because of authority’s impotence. Bumbling policemen often interfered with their investigations and even briefly jailed them as stuffy retribution for the boys’ ingenious work. In the second-ever Hardy Boys book, The House on the Cliff, Frank finds it necessary to put pressure on the local police chief in order to further real justice:

‘Of course, chief,’ said Frank smoothly, ‘if you're afraid to go up to the Polucca place just because it's supposed to be haunted, don't bother. We can tell the newspapers that we believe our father has met with foul play and that you won't bother to look into the matter [...]’

‘What's that about the newspapers?' demanded the chief, getting up from his chair so suddenly that he upset the checkerboard [...] ‘Don't let this get into the papers.’ The chief was constantly afraid of publicity unless it was of the most favorable nature.

6. ... ALL THANKS TO ONE VERY PROLIFIC CANADIAN GHOSTWRITER. 

Leslie McFarlane wrote 19 of the first 25 Hardy Boys books and, according to many, singlehandedly defined the kind of detailed, moody prose for which the original series is lauded. In his version of Bayport, the simultaneous kid-friendly hamlet/atrocious hotbed of crime the boys call home, the Hardy family isn’t as wealthy as other Syndicate heroes, the boys happily accept monetary rewards, and the town’s rich folk come across as daft and greedy. 

McFarlane clearly didn’t care much for the power structures in early 20th century U.S. culture, cops included. He wrote in his autobiography, Ghost of the Hardy Boys, "I had my own thoughts about teaching youngsters that obedience to authority is somehow sacred [...] Would civilization crumble if kids got the notion that the people who ran the world were sometimes stupid, occasionally wrong and even corrupt at times?”

7. WHILE MCFARLANE DIDN’T LOVE THE STATUS QUO, HE DID LOVE FOOD.

As the Times reflected, McFarlane “breathed originality into the Stratemeyer plots, loading on playful detail” that enthralled a young reader. He paid particular attention to his descriptions of meals, and to the sumptuousness of food from a young boy’s perspective. At the end of 1927’s The Tower Treasure, he included the following bacchanalian scene: 

''For more than half an hour, they indulged in roast chicken, crisp and brown, huge helpings of fluffy mashed potatoes, pickles, vegetable and salads, pies and puddings to suit every taste, and when the last boy sank back in his chair with a happy sigh there was still food to spare.'' 

8. BY 1959, THE SYNDICATE NEEDED TO CLEAN UP THE HARDY BOYS’ ACT. 

As a result of the 1953 United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, many publishers of children’s media worked hard throughout the '50s to get their stories in line with new legal and social standards for kid-appropriate material. Like other Stratemeyer Syndicate series, Hardy Boys books had often contained negative racial and gender stereotyping among its supporting and minor characters, many of which would shock modern audiences, but which were also considered unpalatable by readers in 1959. 

9. BECAUSE OF THIS, IT SCRUBBED THE ORIGINAL RUN OF BOOKS. 

That year, the Syndicate started rewriting 38 of its original Hardy Boys titles to remove objectionable material, including many of the books’ most violent moments. Writers also tried to give the books a more modern feel with fewer tough words, streamlined action plots, and generally updated language. Fans of the original series found the new bowdlerized versions to be downright bland, but Salon explained that some of the changes were reasonable:

“Dropped from The Missing Chums is ‘“I’ll say,’ replied Lola slangily,” as is ‘“So!’ she ejaculated, as the boys appeared.” Chet Morton’s car is referred to in The Tower Treasure as a ‘gay-looking speed-wagon.’ In the revision, the car loses this description but gains a name, ‘The Queen.’ (In this case there appears to be a wit at work, making the change something less than a total loss for literature.)” 

10. IN THE 60S AND 70S, THE BOYS’ POLITICS ALSO CHANGED.

Starting in 1959 and carrying on through today, the boys have seemingly done a 180 regarding their distaste for authority (and, some critics argue, indeed now work to defend The Man). In 1969’s The Arctic Patrol Mystery, for example, Frank appears to have evolved into the kind of conscientious young American that much media of the day promoted: 

“‘Great, Dad!’ Frank said, jumping to his feet. ‘With spring vacation coming up we won't miss any time at school!’

‘Are your passports up to date?’ his father asked.

‘Sure, we always keep them that way.’” 

11. CLEANED UP OR NOT, LIBRARIANS HAVE ALWAYS HATED THEM . 

Since the first Hardy Boys books were published, grown-ups have had trouble understanding their appeal—not just because the books contained violence and racial stereotypes, but because they were seen as literary garbage.

Even after the big cleanup in 1959, librarians continued to take issue with Syndicate works. "In our library traditionally we have never had this kind of mediocre book. Two-to-one my librarians [want to] uphold the superior selections we have," explained Virginia Tashjian, Chief Librarian for Newton, MA, to The Hour in 1978. The Spokane Daily Chronicle also noted in 1980 that the library banned Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys titles "because they 'lacked literary merit'” but still “retained Braille editions of Playboy magazine." 

12. NEVERTHELESS, STRATEMEYER WAS DOING SOMETHING RIGHT.

In 1926 and 1927, the American Library Association surveyed kids in 34 U.S. cities, found that 'series books' were being read by 98% of respondents, and that "the books of one series [presumably the Bobbsey Twins] were unanimously rated trashy by our expert librarians [but] almost unanimously liked by the 900 children who read them."

13. KIDS ARE STILL INTO THEM.

Many of the Stratemeyer Syndicate's records are incomplete or lost, but estimates suggest that by 1975 Nancy Drew book sales had topped 60 million, Hardy Boys sales were over 50 million, and the Bobbsey Twins had hit 30 million. Since then, the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series have been steadily selling around one to two million copies per year (including many older titles), putting Hardy Boys all-time sales at over 70 million.

14. IN 2005, THE BOYS BECAME SECRET AGENTS FOR THE GOVERNMENT. 

Since the introduction of the Undercover Brothers series, Frank and Joe have been top agents for American Teens Against Crime (ATAC), a secret government agency co-founded by their father to utilize kid agents when grown-ups won’t do. The agency delivers its orders via special CD-ROM that can only be played for instructions once. After the initial listen, it plays music like any other CD.

15. CRITICS STILL CAN’T QUITE EXPLAIN THE BOYS' POPULARITY.

No one can deny that The Hardy Boys series has stuck around due to popular demand, but decades later, critics still aren’t quite sure why. One idea is that the books are just fantastical, gripping, and vague enough to be relatable to any young reader. As a writer for Salon explained:

“Happily, the Hardy Boys series was unconcerned with reality [and the] boys’ characters basically broke down this way—Frank had dark hair; Joe was blond. [...] Generally, Frank was the thinker while Joe was more impulsive, and perhaps a little more athletic. I was blond, like Joe, and younger, like Joe. I liked Joe best. Franklin W. Dixon played me like a violin.”

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6 X-Rated Library Collections
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
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During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.

1. THE "PRIVATE CASE" // THE BRITISH LIBRARY

At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.

What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.

2. L’ENFER // BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE

General stacks of the Bibliotheque nationale de France
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L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.

Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.

3. TRIPLE-STAR COLLECTION // NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The New York Public Library Main Reading Room
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.

4. PHI COLLECTION // OXFORD'S BODLEIAN LIBRARY

Radcliffe Camera building, part of the Bodleian Library
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.

5. "XR" COLLECTION // HARVARD’S WIDENER LIBRARY

 Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”

6. THE ARC // CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

Trinity College Library, Cambridge University
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As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.

BONUS: "INFERNO" // THE VATICAN LIBRARY

The Sistine Hall, once part of the Vatican Library
Michal Osmenda, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.

This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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