Boys Will Be Boys

by Vince Keenan

[Editor's note: Today we have a guest post from Vince Keenan, whom I met many years ago in Seattle and with whom I  have been talking noir, Mack Sennett, the Mets and other matters ever since. A renaissance man married to a renaissance woman, the lovely Rosemarie, Vince is a screenwriter,  journalist, video game designer and cocktail enthusiast. His blog has its seven-year anniversary this week. --MA]

Megan was kind enough to ask me to represent a male perspective on young adult fiction. Because boys do read. Not openly and not often, but they do.

I could start with a sepia-toned reminiscence of the mail order Scholastic Book Club, which sounds so archaic now I might as well say that in my youth I was a regular user of the Pony Express. Amazon before there was Amazon, it was the best way to feed my reading habit in a section of New York identified on maps as Darkest Queens, where bookstores were thin on the ground. I could then follow up with some signature titles fished out of the packages delivered to Sister Maureen’s office every six to eight weeks. Like Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, about a silversmith’s apprentice crippled in an accident who winds up at the center of the American Revolution. (Bart Simpson said it should be called Johnny Deformed. He has a point.) Or A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith, in which a young boy dies as a result of an allergy to a bee sting and his best friend spends the rest of the summer learning to grieve for him. It seemed so adult, a book about death, and I read it more than once in the hope of growing up faster.

But that wouldn’t be accurate. I’d be projecting my current neuroses onto my youthful reading habits. Yes, I did enjoy those books, but I’d be pointing them out to make me seem interesting and well-rounded, the way I’ll casually mention that I’ve recently finished some award-winner.

The truth is that then as now, I consumed heroic quantities of crime fiction. And that meant The Hardy Boys. It’s fashionable to mock the series in all its gee-whiz, asexual glory. But I refuse to do that. I come here to praise Frank and Joe Hardy, not to bury them with scorn. The boys put me on a glide path that led to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, to Lawrence Block and James Ellroy. For good and ill, they made me the reader that I am today.

The series is a remarkable American narrative in itself. Created by Edward Stratemeyer, the pioneer of book packaging. Cranked out by countless ghostwriters. (I never believed in Santa Claus, but it crushed me to learn that Franklin W. Dixon wasn’t real.) The first 38 entries were substantially revised beginning in 1959 to simplify them in the face of television’s popularity and to eliminate racial stereotyping. As a result, two completely different novels with the same title could be in simultaneous circulation, a lesson I learned the hard way. Buying the “wrong” version of The Missing Chums (#4 in the series) prompted a crash course in typefaces. I soon discovered that the original editions had denser text in every sense.

Yes, the novels are deeply square, replete with outdated technology (#24 is called The Short-Wave Mystery, for crying out loud) and cardboard characters. Joe was only differentiated from older brother Frank in that he was dark of hair and hot of temper. Their friends were designated by ethnicity (Jewish, Italian) and weight (Chet Morton, forever branded “chubby” and my surrogate). I read the books over and over anyway. Screw Middle Earth and Narnia. I wanted to be in what I thought of as the real world, solving real problems.

That sense of engagement fuels every Hardy Boys story. The brothers hero-worship their famous shamus father Fenton Hardy, a remote figure who represents the dark and separate adult universe they agitate to be a part of. OK, sex was a mystery neither bright boy would ever solve; while Frank and Joe have girlfriends, their idea of a date is taking them out in a jalopy for hamburgers. But in the best of the books, sturdily constructed mysteries studded with local color, knowledge is power and the globe there to be trotted. High school familiarity with German explains The Clue of the Screeching Owl (#41). I still remember how to say thank you in Greek thanks to The Shattered Helmet (#52) – it’s efharisto, pronounced “F. Harry Stowe,” not “Harry F. Stowe” as poor hapless Chet mangles it – and learned that residents of the French section of Marrakesh roll pieces of bread into tiny balls as they eat in The Mysterious Caravan (#54). Some day that factoid will come in handy.

Even better are the spinoffs. My copy of The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook, consisting of short stories illustrating authentic police techniques, eventually fell apart from overuse. The Handbook had to be extensively revised by an FBI agent when the original consultant was indicted on corruption charges while an official with the Newark Police Department, the kind of case the brothers somehow never investigated. Repeated readings of their Seven Stories of Survival taught me how to produce water in the desert with nothing more than a hubcap, a rock and a dry cleaning bag. That tidbit has so far proven as useful as the Marrakesh bread balls, but it’s there when I need it.

Eventually I abandoned Frank and Joe for more sophisticated pre-teen crimefighters. The Three Investigators featured better writing (Edgar Award winner Dennis Lynds penned several series entries under the name William Arden), a team member I could emulate in that his sole skill was research, and a show business angle; Alfred Hitchcock introduced the first 30 or so books and appeared in the closing chapter as Jupiter, Pete and Bob wrapped up each case. Their adventures were in every way more sophisticated than the Hardy Boys’, but looking back I can’t recall the name of a single villain or any plot turn as memorable as Frank and Joe’s solution to The Disappearing Floor (#19). (The Three Investigators have proven hugely popular internationally, with a particularly fervent following in Germany. There are even Austrian movies. Here’s a trailer.)

There was no subtext to speak of in the books of my youth, which is a subtext in itself. My friend George’s father pressed a copy of Clifford B. HicksAlvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day on me by saying, “At least you’ll learn about politics while you’re reading it.” A boy couldn’t waste time with a book. He had to get something out of it. That relentless pragmatism is the entire point of another strain of YA fiction, about making, building, doing. The Danny Dunn series strove to make technology interesting, even positing the notion of a computer that could help you with your homework. The Mad Scientists’ Club stories, written by Lockheed systems analyst turned career army man Bertrand R. Brinley, had a troop of boys with names out of Damon Runyon (Freddy Muldoon, Mortimer Dalrymple) meeting every challenge with soldering irons.

Reading the posts at the Medicine Show this week has been eye-opening. The boy books of my 1980s childhood didn’t have much in the way of angst and existential dread. They seem almost quaint, offering a steady drumbeat of advice that could come from a disinterested guidance counselor. Learn a trade, son. Get out there and be productive. It’s shocking to compare them to contemporary variants like Frank Portman’s King Dork, packed with references to sex, drugs and, mirabile dictu, popular music. Would it have killed Frank Hardy to pick up Callie Shaw, crank up some Queen and get his freak on? But perhaps that’s the ultimate form of escapism as well as a critical life lesson: planting the seed that someday you’ll live in a world where there are no bullies or bad lunch tables, and the biggest problem is facing down a gang of smugglers.

11 Comments to “Boys Will Be Boys”

  1. Vince pretty much nails all the series I read when younger, in all their whitebread glory. Except he left out Tom Swift (I learned years later that this was actually Tom Swift, Jr.).

  2. I gave Tom Swift (Jr.) a shot, but it didn’t take. One thing I recently discovered: there was a Tom Swift/Hardy Boys crossover! Two books in the early ’90s, by which point I’d long since stopped reading either series. I’m tempted to track them down just to see how they made the timelines work.

  3. I can’t get over the reminder of Johnny Tremain–it was the big “grownup” assigned reading in my fourth grade class and I want to say it was the first real, chapter book with a male protagonist I’d read (Judy Blume’s books aside). And I remember the fifth graders, including my brother, warning us all about the violent hand-moltenizing scene!

  4. Johnny Tremain is a great book that never condescends to kids, as the hand-moltenizing scene proves. I’m convinced that’s why teachers pushed it on kids. “You think dodgeball is rough? How would you like your hand fused into a claw?” There’s a heart-rending scene in A Taste of Blackberries from which I have never recovered. The narrator visits the mother of his dead friend and offers, in essence, to be her surrogate son, doing little boy things to ease her pain. It stirred up emotions I wasn’t prepared to deal with at age eight. And possibly even now.

    • Vince – I loved reading your piece. It amazes me how A Taste of Blackberries touches people so that years after reading the book, it still resonates. After Blackberries, many of my mother’s other books did not grab me, and I never finished reading all of them during her lifetime. Now, all of them except Blackberries is out of print. I’m reading them now, and it is a gift to have them. I never read Johnny Tremain either, but I’m totally psyched, and can’t wait to read it. Randy Smith, 53 years young.

  5. Our fifth grade student teacher decided to read to us from JOHNNY TREMAIN after lunch each day. We were ten and eleven years old and highly insulted at first by being read to “like babies.” After two days of Miss Greenberg reading we quit feeling insulted. By the time the week was up, you could not find the two copies of TREMAIN in the school library because they’d been checked out, and the boys were as equally absorbed in the story as the girls.

  6. The Three Investigators has to remain my favorite series as a kid. I read (and owned) all the Hardy Boys books and a few years ago handed themover to me nephew who devored them as well. I mean these were the yellow backed hardcover editions, but I also owned some of the older, much older, solid brown copies as well picked up at yard sales.I do not, however, use the word ‘chum’ in everyday language. Any Hardy Boys fan needs to check out Adult Swim’s Venture Bros. which spoofs the entire Hardy Boys/Johnny Quest genre.

    But the Three Investigators… I can see in my mind the exact location the library kept them. All the way in the back, second shelf on the right.

    But my favorite book of that time period was the Mad Scientist Club, of which I still own my original copy. I used to buy copies at used books stores to hand out to kids of the right age.

    Roll on Scholastic Book Club!

  7. My mother had *all* of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books so I read a few growing up, but the ones I really liked were from the “Hardy Boys Casefiles” series, which were a little more adult-themed and had a ton of action. In the opening book of the series, Joe’s girlfriend Lola gets killed when Joe’s car blows up from a bomb planted under the hood. Joe was the target, and spent the rest of the series, or maybe just that episode, trying to find her killer, but I think that mystery was finally solved in a later book. There was also a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew crossover I enjoyed that took place on a cruise ship. I cannot remember any titles, but I remember those books very well, and enjoyed them a lot.

  8. I have the HARDY BOYS DETECTIVE HANDBOOK, but I did not know that sin-filled backstory! Funny that they kept the books so clean but couldn’t keep the filth of real life from encroaching nonetheless–I guess filth always wins!

  9. Loved your piece. Isn’t Joe the blonde and Frank the brunette?

  10. Good night! You’re right! I double-checked the boys’ respective hair colors and still managed to transpose them in the post. Just another indication of how indistinguishable the brothers are.

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