Danger on Vampire Trail. This was the first Hardy Boys book I ever read. I believe I was in second grade when my next-door neighbor and I each decided to read one of the blue-spined mysteries that sat on his older brother’s shelf. The books were remnants of the older brother’s grade-school reading, I suppose, which he had never bothered to remove from his walls and pile into boxes in the basement (or sell for a dime apiece at a garage sale, or foist off on Goodwill, or trade in for Tom Clancy novels at the used book store), being altogether too engrossed in programming his Atari 800 computer, and other important high school things that would certainly never involve the brothers Hardy. He had apparently never become terribly interested in Frank and Joe, even in his pre-Atari days; he had only five or six Hardy Boys books and—embarrassingly—a few assorted Bobbsey Twins adventures. I could never understand why he had these facile, yellow-spined things with unarresting titles like “Mystery at the Seaside” or “The Missing Pony.” In fact, I could not fathom who would be at all interested in the series, which seemed to be merely the Hardy Boys, Jr., a concept which had no place in the cosmos occupied by both the Hardy brothers and Nancy Drew. The Hardys were for boys, Nancy for girls; for whom were the Bobbseys meant? Preschoolers? Maybe. But unsurprisingly, the name of the “author” of this doomed series escapes my memory, while the names Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene come promptly to mind.
These authors’ names relate to an important benchmark in any Hardy or Drew fan’s reading life. It took me four years or so before I finally admitted to myself that neither Mr. Dixon nor Ms. Keene were real people, that in fact the eighty or so adventures of Bayport’s finest (eighty death-defying adventures crammed impossibly into Frank and Joe’s high school years) were not all written by the same person. The single-author theory seemed entirely plausible at first, when my experience with the Boys encompassed only a few books which, though somewhat dated, still contained copyright dates in the 1960s. Mr. Dixon, then, was an aging but still prolific man, who perhaps got up early every morning at his home on the east coast (yes, that seemed right—he should be able to look out at the ocean while orchestrating Frank and Joe’s escape from an elaborate death trap in Egypt, a locked magician’s box in Scotland, a tiger in India) to write five chapters or so. My faith began to crumble, however, as I checked out older editions of the books from my grade school resource room, editions with yellowing paper, which lacked the familiar blue spines and were bound instead in beige covers with brown lettering and, on the front cover, an iconic silhouette of two Hardy Boy-ish figures crouching with flashlights, a sad substitute for the exciting, customized illustrations that graced the newer editions. These editions contained even more outdated language than the blue-spines, using passé terms for African Americans that seemed to place the stories in the 1930s. Indeed, a glance at the copyright page confirmed this estimation.
The single-F. W. Dixon theory was seeming less likely. Even if he had begun writing the mysteries at the age of 20, the secretive (there was never an “about the author” at the end of the books) Dixon would still be in his seventies, much too old to be writing at the rate at which the Hardy novels were churned out. Finally, I came to the uneasy conclusion that there may have once been a real Dixon in the ’20s or ’30s, but he had since passed away, and his series had been edited, updated, and continued by a panel of ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster (I threw out theories which included a single ghostwriter or a Franklin Jr. carrying on his father’s tradition) who used the pseudonym for any number of reasons: to preserve the continuity of the series for youngsters who would be wary of a Hardy Boys tale told by Brian Reynolds or Suresh Desai, or to ensure that all Hardy Boys books would be shelved together in both library and bookstore, rather than scattered about by zealous alphabetizers.
With this decision (this all took place long before the current era in which one can merely Google Dixon’s name and learn that he was never anything but a pseudonym) I passed into a more mature appreciation of the series. I recognized that I was in some way being deceived, but I accepted the deception, as the theater-goer accepts the deception that what he or she sees on stage is real; I knew that there was no wizened Hardy patriarch writing the books somewhere on a misty coast; I knew they were most likely written by some guy in a suit and tie in a cubicle in a glass office tower, or maybe by a team of such people, brainstorming about where the next book should be set, about what should be stolen or who should be kidnapped. I knew this, but it didn’t really matter, and I didn’t think about it too often, aside from the occasional reverie about what it would be like to write Hardy Boys novels myself (and never getting credit for it). It might not be that bad as a career. Though creativity would be somewhat stifled by the formulas that must be employed in writing the books, it would still be rewarding to see my own episodes sitting in a line with all of the others (I could look at a shelf in the bookstore and say, “I wrote numbers 27, 45, and 78”) and think that maybe at least one of them was the personal favorite of some avid young Hardy reader.
I must say, however, that Danger on Vampire Trail would not be included in my list of personal favorites. I remember nearly nothing of the book, except that it involved vampire bats (though these were not central to the plot; in fact, I think I remember feeling vaguely exploited by Mr. Dixon, who obviously chose an exotic title to invite readership of a book which was in actuality not at all fantastic) and a camping area full of recreational vehicles. This seemed to be the trend among the first set of Hardy Boys novels: exciting titles, intriguing cover art, the promise of an exotic location and the threat of death (clearly an idle threat: I do not recall anyone dying in those blue-spined Hardy adventures, not even villains; though the Hardys may be locked in a trunk in the basement of a burning building, their survival is never in doubt, no matter how many chapters end with “We’re trapped!”)—all designed to lure readers to rather boring, outdated stories probably written several decades earlier (though with this disclaimer on the copyright page: “In this new story, based on the original of the same title, Mr. Dixon has incorporated the most up-to-date methods used by police and private detectives.” But what did that mean? Perhaps a few glaring anachronisms eliminated, or an added chapter in which Frank and Joe dust for fingerprints or reconstruct a suspect’s face using their very own police sketch kit).
To be fair, the trend does not really start until around the tenth installment of the first set of Hardy books. Witness some titles from those first ten: The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff, The Shore Road Mystery, The Secret of the Caves. Nothing to falsely arouse a youngster here. These early titles matter-of-factly relate what the story is about; they are not advertisements.
This matter-of-factness disappears with the tenth Hardy mystery. It assails the potential purchaser with the irresistible question of What Happened at Midnight. Like a science fiction novel that propels the reader through 600 closely-printed pages by the promise of a spectacular revelation at the end, #10 impels the reader to purchase or borrow the book to find out what indeed happened at the witching hour. And thus began the titillating tease of the blue-spines. I myself was taken in by #11, While the Clock Ticked, and by its terrifying cover, which depicted the teenaged detectives bound and gagged in a dimly-lit room, straining frantically, sweaty-faced, looking wide-eyed at an insane, white-haired man—presumably their captor—emerging from a secret room behind a grandfather clock. The book was not carried in my local B. Dalton; I ordered it, and my anticipation was almost unbearable the day the store called to tell me it had arrived. Though I finished the book in two days, the normal period required to polish off those unfailingly 170-page-long volumes, it left me disappointed. The details of the story escape me, but the routine was all too familiar: the brothers track down a criminal in Bayport, are placed by the criminal in an unnecessarily elaborate death-trap, but they manage to escape in Chapter XX, just in time for an amusing epilogue and a look ahead to their next case, conveniently plugged like so: “The boys laughed, and gazed up at the huge clock. Silently, they wondered when another case might come their way. Sooner than they expected, they were to find out, when Frank and Joe spotted strange footprints under the window.”
Though I must have read 30 or 40 of the original blue-spined books, not one retains a bright spot in my memory. F. W. Dixon tried his best to innovate and add new elements to the tales. He sent his protagonists to exotic ports-of-call—war-torn Central America in The Mark on the Door, Scotland in The Secret Agent on Flight 101, India in The Bombay Boomerang, Africa in The Mysterious Caravan, and the depths of the Yucatan in The Jungle Pyramid. But no matter where the Hardy siblings traveled, I found their adventures invariably lackluster. Though they may have engaged a pre-teenage boy in the late 1960s or early ’70s, they were hopelessly insufficient to leave me any permanent pleasant memories. I would never stay up until one in the morning reading The Mysterious Caravan.
Happily, however, the executives at Simon & Schuster must have realized the dwindling audience for F. W. Dixon’s original series, and with #59 the Hardy Boys entered a new era. The last of the fifties—Night of the Werewolf—launched the brothers onto a more exciting trajectory. The post-58 bunch, written in the late 1970s and early ’80s, satisfied my desire for a more contemporary thrill, and I soon devoured the entire set. The covers presented Frank and Joe in modern coiffure and wardrobe, though they continued to change their features after each adventure (perhaps to avoid recognition by paroled crooks from past episodes): in #63 the boys appear as trim, intellectual sweater-wearers, while in #64 they wear tight short-sleeved shirts, are shaggy-headed with a hint of hair on their slightly exposed chests; still stranger, in #77 they seem to be neat yuppies out on a company picnic (though an out-of-place tiger growls menacingly from a rock behind them). Perhaps Simon & Schuster hoped to appeal to a wide range of white males and changed the Hardys’ appearances to approximate those of their readers. (I myself had a more definite resemblance: the first name of the elder Hardy sibling.)
Despite the variability of the boys’ appearance, their adventures became consistently entertaining. I still fondly recall such gems as Mystery of Smugglers Cove (#64), which took the Hardys into the backwaters of the Everglades after being wrongly accused of stealing a valuable painting. In the seventy-third Hardy adventure, strange happenings at a local Bayport theater combine with a plot to hold the president of the United States for a Billion Dollar Ransom. Who could forget the snowy intrigue and danger of #78, plainly entitled Cave-In, with a cover depicting the brothers hanging perilously from a cable over a snowy Lake Tahoe slope, a Sno-Cat creeping menacingly towards them? The Four-Headed Dragon actually did keep me up until one in the morning, with its gripping tale of a mysterious mansion in the woods surrounding Bayport, of criminals bent on using a newly-developed laser gun to sever the Alaskan pipeline.
Unlike their predecessors, these new adventures always lived up to the thrills promised by their titles. The Demon’s Den delivered a devilish plot hidden in the placid Canadian timberlands—a diabolical scientist (see the terrifying illustration on page 190) bent on creating a race of supermen to compete in the Olympics for an unnamed eastern European country. These ubermensch, named “Alpha,” “Beta,” and “Omega,” allude to history and literature both: the eugenic schemes of Hitler and the fancies of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Clearly the ghostwriters at Simon & Schuster were getting more ambitious. Even titles like The Roaring River Mystery concealed, behind their bland covers, compelling tales of bank robberies and foul play on the white-water rapids of Maine.
But the zenith of the Hardy middle period (for we have not yet come to the final incarnation of the adventures, the sexy “Hardy Boys Casefiles”) came in my favorite of the books: Revenge of the Desert Phantom. Though abnormally brief—only 157 pages and 15 chapters—this book packed in all of the elements which later made the Casefiles so appealing: foreign countries (France, along with a fictional African nation called Zebwa), beautiful foreign heroines (Niki—the daughter of the assassinated leader of Zebwa), villains who had committed murder and were prepared to do it again (previous bad guys, though always vowing, “I’ll get you, Hardys,” never seemed quite serious about it), technology (the book puts the Hardys at the helm of an armored car, called the Rhino, which can also float), and Agatha Christie-like plot twists and surprises (the real assassin turns out to be Akutu, the leader of the loyalist forces). However, at the end of this book we can see the ridiculous direction in which the series is headed; from Chief Collig of the Bayport police the boys receive a van which they will soon equip with surveillance equipment and other gadgetry inappropriate even for the far-fetched Hardy series. The Hardys could never be the Scooby-Doo gang with its Mystery Machine, nor have a Hardymobile in which to pursue criminals. These developments surely offended other Hardy purists as much as they offended me; as the old series wandered off into outer space (literally; in #85, The Skyfire Puzzle, Frank and Joe man a space shuttle flight), a new beginning was clearly needed; the slate needed to be wiped clean.
Before revealing (to those unfamiliar with the first of the Hardy Boys Casefiles: Dead on Target) exactly whose slate was wiped clean, a brief note about the supporting cast of the Hardy adventures. First, the Hardy family: famous father Fenton, the brilliant but frequently absent detective-dad; slender and attractive Laura Hardy (whom one can imagine as an older but no less perky and vivacious Laura Petry from The Dick Van Dyke Show), hardy, hearty Hardy mom, undaunted by the many nights of sleeping alone while Fenton solves crimes in New York City; and lovable Aunt Gertrude, “a stern, angular woman,” Fenton’s spinster sister who often stays at the Hardy home. No matter what dangers the Hardys may encounter, they always have this warm trio to support and love them.
But the Hardys are no homebodies; they have plenty of chums. Perhaps their best friend is stout Chet Morton, a “roly-poly youth who preferred eating to danger,” but who often joins in their adventures and provides comic relief by dropping a bowl of batter on his head, sitting on a pin, or merely driving by in his memorable yellow jalopy. Frank and Joe are friends with the jocks as well (and find time between their many cases to play for Bayport High’s baseball team): lanky, rangy Biff Hooper, tackle on the Bayport High football team, whose heavy fists can always be counted on to assist the Hardys should their adversaries get physical. The Hardys’ diverse group of friends has room for “olive-skinned” Tony Prito, whose father owns a construction company and who himself owns a motorboat called the Napoli, and even for Phil Cohen, a quiet Jew, “dark-haired and slender,” who “enjoyed reading as much as sports.”
Finally, no discussion of the Hardys’ social lives can omit their steadies (though it must be difficult to have a maturing relationship when one’s age remains fixed at seventeen or eighteen, as do Joe and Frank’s, respectively). Fortunately, their girlfriends remain similarly stuck in time. Frank’s favorite date is the blonde, brown-eyed Callie Shaw, and Joe finds himself hopelessly devoted to the “vivacious, dark-haired” Iola Morton, slimmer sister of Chet. These girls appear in the early stages of an occasional Hardy adventure, just long enough to participate in a beach party or barbecue, perhaps make an insightful comment or two (blushing as they do so), but infrequently enough to imply anything more than chaste, healthy relationships with the opposite sex.
Nevertheless, powerful emotions are shared between the Hardys and their wholesomely attractive gals. The degree of that power is demonstrated, tragically, in the inaugural volume of the new, sleeker Hardy series. “Get out of my way, Frank!” Joe screams at his brother in the first line of Dead on Target as he hopelessly lunges towards the flaming wreckage of the Hardys’ yellow sedan, the explosion of which the brothers have just witnessed in the parking garage of their local mall. His suicidal struggle towards the burning car is a desperate attempt to save the life of Iola, with whom he had recently quarreled, and who had, with horrendous misfortune, retired to the sedan a few minutes before the explosion. As Callie notes later in the book: “I guess he really did love Iola, in spite of his wandering eye.” In any case, what a beginning for the new series! The violent death of a main character—in the first chapter no less—signaled a dramatic change of direction for Simon & Schuster’s teenage gumshoes. I remember the day after I purchased Dead on Target and Evil, Inc. (the second in the new series). It was April Fool’s Day, so when I told one of my fellow fifth-grade fans that the Hardys had been reincarnated, he refused to believe me and was put out that I would so cruelly toy with his emotions. He soon acknowledged the veracity of my claim, however, and came to love, as I did, the stylishly designed, compact Casefiles, with their titillating titles—Deathgame and Edge of Destruction were later examples—and stories that always made good on the titles’ promises. Under each title was an added bonus: an epigraph which wittily hinted at the thrills to come. “Revenge is always a personal matter,” noted the cover of Dead on Target. Other standouts: “A murder contract is always binding”; “Terror has many faces—all deadly”; “In the cult of the Rajah, death is a way of life.”
The Hardys had modernized, inside and out. Whereas a beach party was the hippest thing the Hardys and their friends could think to do in the past, they now listened to Led Zeppelin, hung out at diners until well past midnight, and traveled to locales more exotic and exciting than ever before. In trying to avenge Iola’s death, the brothers become involved with a secret government agency called the Network and end up battling international terrorism, represented by an Arab assassin named Al-Rousasa. In Evil, Inc. the brothers go undercover to bust an organized crime ring in France. After reading this pair of adventures, I feverishly anticipated the next installment—Cult of Crime—a excerpt from which had been included at the end of Casefile No. 2.
Cult of Crime. The very title spooked me, calling to mind images of Jonestown, of Satanists who kidnapped children and engaged in midnight acts of bestiality in storm drains. Even the cover of the book exceeded my expectations. Frank and Joe flee from a pack of torch-bearing cultists, one of whom fires a gun in their direction. I was so taken with the image that I even considered getting my hair cut like Joe’s.
The new Franklin W. Dixons (I imagine top management at Simon & Schuster laying off the old stale Dixon crew and bringing in a fresh batch of Franklins, recent graduates of Ivy League schools who were ready to pour their intelligence and energy into making the Casefiles the Hardy books they themselves never had as adolescents. However, S&S must have given the stale Franklin W.’s some severance work, because the middle series perpetuated into further idiocy; clearly all of the publisher’s real energy was thrown into the Casefiles.) were not taking their job that seriously, however. The relative realism of the third installment contrasts sharply with the science fiction of The Lazarus Plot (No. 4), in which the Hardys get their first hope that, impossibly, Iola Morton may still be alive. As it turns out, the Iola the brothers see is only a clone created by a laboratory staffed by “the most diabolical team of scientists ever assembled.” The book was good, though, and the college grads went on to turn out a series of classics, from Edge of Destruction, in which the Hardys traipse through the sewers of New York City to thwart an organized crime boss who threatens to unleash a deadly virus upon the Big Apple, to Hostages of Hate, in which a group of terrorists takes hostages, Callie Shaw among them, on an airplane in Washington, DC. Callie performs admirably under this immense strain and, while on television delivering the terrorists’ demands, sends Frank a secret message using the personal sign language the two have developed to talk to each other during class. Thus Frank, by watching Callie’s blinking patterns, receives messages like “Only two on plane,” and “Bomb real.” Apparently Callie is not the airhead she appeared to be at all those beach parties.
Sadly, the creativity of the new series did not last. After the unexpected dullness of The Borgia Dagger and its successor, No. 14, Too Many Traitors, I lost interest in the series. It is hard to say whether I simply outgrew it or the Ivy League Dixons had burned out. My parting with Frank and Joe was neither bitter nor regretful; we had been tight pals for several years; indeed, I was at least as faithful as Biff, Tony, Phil, or Chet—but we had now grown apart, and I was beginning to move in different circles, spending late nights with the Stephen King-Dean Koontz crowd. The Hardys, as always, moved to the beat of their own drum, however repetitive a pounding it may have been. Inertia kept the long line of Hardy adventures on the top level of my bookshelf until I finally packed them all in a box and packed the box down in the basement, exhumed only when I decided to eulogize the brothers here.
In truth, though, the Hardys need no eulogy; in a used book store I came across Casefile No. 101. I forget the title (it looked unsurprisingly banal), but even the cover was a bore: instead of a drawing which re-imagined Frank and Joe’s appearance and fashion sense, this one featured only a photograph of two 90210-looking males, supposedly the legendary boy-gumshoes, and an enthusiastic note encouraging us all to catch the new Hardy Boys television show. The Hardys and I have clearly parted ways, and while I’m tempted to re-read a few of the old Casefiles for nostalgic value, such a reunion would not be quite valuable enough to spend the time on, so our paths continue to diverge.
My path and that of my neighbor, I believe, first began to diverge as I read Danger on Vampire Trail. While I devoured Danger in a day or two, my reading partner and friend plodded along with his installment, and I don’t think Dave ever finished The Secret of the Lost Tunnel. As I moved ahead, purchasing some of the books, borrowing others from the library, above all reading them, Dave confided to me that he simply didn’t like reading. While I ordered Night of the Werewolf from the Scholastic book order form we were offered at school, Dave stuck to Choose Your Own Adventure books, Hot Dog and Dynamite magazines, and posters of action figures and cute pets. When I moved on to King, Koontz, and Co., Dave concentrated on computer games, reading only what was required for school. Whereas for Dave the Hardys were a passing, boring diversion, for me they became a habit. The Hardys were like training wheels, easy and enjoyable exercises that helped me develop the balance necessary for a lifetime of reading books. Though I probably would have been better off practicing on more classic childhood favorites—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on—I turn to the third-to-last paragraph of Too Many Traitors, the last Hardy book I ever read, for reassurance:
“It’s okay,” Joe replied. “We met girls, we went swimming, we went boating, we saw a lot of scenery and sights. I’ve had enough vacationing for a lifetime.”