FRANKLIN W. DIXON AND CAROLYN KEENE ROCKED MY WORLD
This is going to date me, especially for those under thirty, but I need to give credit where credit is due. Many writers like to spout the classics, especially the “snooty” classics like Hemmingway and Twain and the authors we were forced to read in school. The funny thing (to me) is that I still find most of those classic authors (with the exception of some Twain) a chore and a bore (hey, that rhymes!). They not only didn’t influence me in any way, but I have no desire to emulate them because they’re too literary, and that’s just not my thing.
What really got me into reading for pleasure, instead of work, started when we moved into our house on Prune Street in Lompoc, Calee’fornia back in the late 50’s. We rented the house from people that had a teenage kid with a lot of leftover toys. I inherited some half-made models, other items and a library of first-edition Hardy Boys books. I wish I still had them as they’re going on e-bay for a pretty penny.
Several things grabbed in those volumes. For one, I loved the font. It was large enough to make for easy reading. Then there was the occasional illustration. The real payoff came because the stories were a lot of fun! Though the books were old, they were spooky and intriguing mysteries that kept me glued to the pages. As a little kid of six to my early teens, I struggled at first but became more proficient as I read The Tower Treasure, then The House On The Cliff, The Secret Of The Old Mill, etc. I became obsessed. Over a few years I ran out of titles as I a more proficient reader. I also discovered the companion girls series, Nancy Drew. Though they were almost too “girly,” I soon discovered they had the same elements of mystery and adventure, plus they tided me over until the next Hardy Boys came out. The Hardy Boys were a standard birthday and Christmas gift for years.
Several things came out of these adventures. My reading skills improved immensely. I formed a basic understanding of plot and mystery. I also developed a sense of adventure and working as a team. Of course, it would be forty plus years before I could actually put any of it into words, but this was the foundation for my future writing passion.
As for the two authors, both were pseudonyms. Franklin W Dixon was a pen name used for the Hardy boys. Most of the stories, the most successful and original titles were written by Canadian journalist Leslie McFarlaine. He wrote twenty-one total and did most of them during the depression just to pay bills. He never really liked writing them and only later in life accepted praises for what he accomplished. Other ghost writers took over for the later books which now total in the fifties of the original series, not counting numerous offshoots.
As for Carolyn Keene, there are so many ghost writers, it’s hard to keep track. However, the first one was Mildred Wirt, who became Mildred Wirt Benson. She wrote them for a while before other authors took over.
What is common about both original series is that they followed a pattern. Kids played pseudo-adult roles, got themselves in peril and solved a mystery by banding together. Though there were definitive main characters, there were sidekicks aplenty and they didn’t forge their paths alone. The mystery always started with something that at first seemed almost freakishly bizarre then became more realistic as they heroes solved the case. The titles alone give clues like that. Modern day Scooby Doo does it will far less finesse in basic fifteen minute blocks on the Cartoon Network.
This repeatable pattern, though simple in context, is still the plot of every mystery and thriller novel ever written. The only difference is the complexity, the language and the adultness. It works for kids as well as adults. It grabbed me as a six year old and even as a younger adult when I was stationed in Spain. By younger adult, I mean in my twenties when I was single and working cleaning detail in the headquarters building away from my regular job. I was on a nostalgia kick and decided to go for the good old days away from the Andre Norton, Doc Savage and Ron Goulart stories I’d been reading. I still enjoyed the Hardy Boys, even then!
I was planning on waiting a few weeks to do this tribute, but this morning, my kids had just come back from the wyberry (that’s my word for library for those of you uninitiated into my world) and I mentioned a good series for my grandson. Even though kids nowadays are inundated with hundreds if not thousands of kids books, the original Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series are still being published. Maybe he’ll get inspired if he gives them half a chance.
One disturbing note I learned while doing research for this article. Over the years, the original stories have been, sometimes radically updated, not only to modernize them, but to make them more “politically correct.” I can understand that to a point. However, in some cases, the publishers went off the rails making complete changes in plot and personalities of the characters that had little to do with political correctness, or they went off the deep end in ways that may have more to do with actual political leanings of the powers that be rather than any racial stereotypes of the era when they were originally written. I haven’t read any of the most recent revisions but I’ve heard a few of the mid-period stories are completely different. I only hope these new versions keep the mystery and adventure that influenced me so much. I’m almost afraid to reread the latest versions. Maybe that’s one reason the originals sell for such high prices.
They may have had their faults, but for the times, they inspired this writer. Who inspired you?