ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Rereading ‘The Hardy Boys’

Hardy Boys

Then: It seems a little odd now to think that the bastion of my childhood reading was something as ridiculously macho as the seemingly-endless Hardy Boys series. (At least, that’s what I thought, until Paul Magrs pointed out how absurdly homoerotic the series is, and directed me to the Mabel Maney ‘Hardly Boys‘ parodies; I desperately wanted to read them in time for this post, but failed.) Nevertheless, between the ages of about 7 and 12 I amassed a dizzying collection of Hardy Boys books (in multiple formats, reprints and covers) and read them avidly. For several years, they were the template for my writing: the stories I wrote featuring my friends and I as detectives morphed from the cosier Enid Blyton model with smugglers and caves into something that could be faintly described as grittier, by which I mean there were more cars being driven (UK age restrictions be damned) and occasionally some guns (UK gun restrictions be damned too.)

The basic character dynamics of the Hardy Boys are easy to remember to this day, and if you’d asked me before I re-read for the blog, I could have told you with ease that Frank was eighteen, dark-haired and serious, and Joe was seventeen, blonde, and hot-headed. I could also have named their father, their girlfriends, and their two friends (one was athletic and had girlfriends, the other was chubby, single and had a clapped out car always referred to as a jalopy.) These basic facts are embedded deep in my reading DNA, but aside from one particular stand-out plot point (involving shoplifted paperclips being essential to construction of a terrorist bomb, which I knew was absurd even at ten) I couldn’t recall a single detail of any of their mysteries.

At some point in my early teens I was quite shaken to discover that Franklin W. Dixon, the writer of the Hardy Boys, was a nonexistent person, and that the books had been written by a series of authors. I’m not sure why I found that fact particular disheartening, but I suspect it was the first time I realised writing books was a purely commercial endeavor, and I didn’t see how that could be possible with such high art as the Hardy Boys.

Now: I’d read enough stray opinions of the series from adult readers (and also read about the series’ ghost-writer’s own hatred of the books) to not have high expectations of my re-read. I chose The Mystery of Cabin Island because I dimly remember it as a favourite, one that I re-read often at the time. The cover features a daring encounter involving an ice-yacht collision; I remember really wanting an ice-yacht, proving that on top of ignorance for UK traffic law, I also had willful disregard of my geographical location.

My previous re-reads for this blog series hadn’t fallen too short of what I remembered, so really how bad could the Hardy Boys be?

A sample of the prose:

“I’d like to get my hands on the skunk who did this!” Biff stormed angrily.

(Notes: 1. Biff is a bad guy. You can tell, because he’s called Biff. He’s actually less subtle about it than Biff in Back to the Future. 2. The skunk is not an actual skunk. 3. There were no calm storms to be found anywhere in the book.)

Further samples:

“Anyone who causes trouble – let me at him!” Biff sang out.

(Notes: 4. I guess Paul was write about that homoeroticism.)

My personal favourite:

Biff knotted his fists angrily. “I’d sure like to give those two guys a good stiff wallop.”

(Notes: 5. Maybe I should meet this Biff?)

So, yes, the prose is godawful, but it doesn’t stop there. The plot is utterly illogical, attempting to cram in a fake-ghost a-la-Scooby-Doo, some priceless-medal-thieves, illogically-angry yobs, the least-strategically-minded villain in history and a lot of squinting through bushes while nothing happens. Whilst I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, oddly motivated criminals aside, the Famous Five, the Three Investigators (review to come) and the Five Find-Outers all kinda held up, this story didn’t even try; but on the flip side, it didn’t tip so far into absurdist to be ironically enjoyable instead. No–it was just plain rubbish.

The reason I can remember the main characters’ personalities so vividly turns out to have nothing to do with characterisation and purely because those particular traits are laid out in exposition seven or eight times. Per chapter. (There’s also a third friend of the Hardy’s who turns up for literally no reason whatsoever other than to fix their window. I’m not sure whether there’s anything subtextual to be read into the fact that this character is a person-of-colour, and exists for no purpose other than services, but if you go down that route there’s plenty of uncomfortable sexism on display, and the chubby character is stupid, lazy, concerned only with food, gullible and easily frightened by ghosts. It’s probably wise not to wobble that particular house of cards.)

To make matters worse, the version I read is allegedly the revised edition, which smoothed over some of the roughness of the original plot (!) and added some subplots. I shiver to think of the original.

All this said, I’m not remotely disappointed. Some of my other reads have left me a bit disillusioned by my memories, but despite all of its many shortcomings, the Mystery of Cabin Island was amiable pulp, which was how I’d already come to think of the series by the time I gave up reading them. When I did some googling, I was swiftly appraised by aficionados of the series that I did not choose a strong title to re-read, and suggested alternatives, but nonetheless, I think I’ll be steering clear of a full re-read. Except for maybe that one with the paperclips.

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