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Writing the Hardy Boys

September 17, 2010

Crime and detective fiction for children and young readers is a neglected sub-genre that nevertheless includes some of the best known, most popular, and most ridiculed of all crime and detective stories. In the United States the Stratemeyer syndicate dominated the market for children’s mystery stories for several decades from the 1920s. Edward Stratemeyer’s careful market research, and his skill in creating formulaic plots his writers could flesh out into stories, made him rich. What happened to the hundreds of ghost writers who worked for him, though, is less uplifting. The commoditisation of writers on the Web seems in many ways to be a new story, but writers, and writing, have always come cheap.

A piece in the Washington Post by Gene Weingarten, uncovers the life of Leslie McFarlane, a writer of Hardy Boys books for Stratemeyer, who paid him, in the 1930s, the miserable sum of $85 for 45,000 words. McFarlane, whose pseudonym was Franklin W. Dixon, was, as the article points out, one of the most widely published writers of his time, but had greater aspirations than this anonymous hack work. He struggled for years to feed his family and keep a roof over their heads, always hanging on to the idea that one day he would write something other than “juveniles.” But in the end the Hardy Boys consumed him. From the article:

One day he answered an ad from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a fabulously successful enterprise that wrote children’s books through a conveyor-belt production process. The New York syndicate made the strangest offer: Would McFarlane like to write books for youths based on plot outlines Stratemeyer would supply? He would be paid by the book, and have no copyright to the material. In fact, he could never reveal his authorship, under penalty of returning his payments. The company shipped him samples of some books about a character named Dave Fearless — dreadful, thickheaded novels with implausible plots and preposterous narrative.

McFarlane finally unchained himself from the Hardy Boys in 1946; the syndicate didn’t care. It found another hungry writer to continue the series. To date, there are more than 100 Hardy Boys mysteries, and they are still going strong. In 1959, many of the old Hardy Boy books were redone, streamlined, modernized, sterilized. McFarlane was never consulted, but he didn’t mind. Nor did he feel ripped off by their fantastic success. A deal is a deal, he always said. He agreed to it, so he couldn’t complain.

More.

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