2 November 2004

The Secret of the Secret Syndicate

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:00 am

hardy.jpgI must have read about half of the Hardy Boys books (there were about 60 by the time I got to them) before I realised they were all exactly the same, and I do remember wondering how this Franklin W Dixon could write so many bloody books but never figured out that he couldn’t possibly have. This article in the New Yorker finally set me straight—of course there was no mythical FWD; there was a guy called Edward Stratemeyer who had a syndicate that churned them all out, together with a range of other series from The Bobbsey Twins to Nancy Drew, all under different unifying pseudonyms.

Stratemeyer used to come up with an outline for each book and send it off to some contract hack to fill it out—which you’d have to suspect a lot of these airport-blockbuster writers now do secretly, and which some (like Tom Clancy, and like Virginia Andrews, who is now dead but keeps churning out sequels to Flowers in the Attic) do more-or-less openly. Then he fixed up the draft according to his own formula:

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

Stratemeyer’s inability to leave a “said” alone gave rise to the infamous “Tom Swifty&#8221, named after another of his series. These are truly awful puns that abuse (strictly) verbs and (by extension) adverbs deplorably, like these:

“This is my second best baseball glove,” Tom submitted.
“The crook went down the stairs,” Tom said condescendingly.
Hamlet completely sucks,” Tom said disdainfully.

God, that’s enough. Anyway, I dropped the Hardys when I discovered their far superior knock-off, the Adventure series by Willard Price, who I think actually existed and was a naturalist. Frank and Joe Hardy’s father may have owned a detective agency, but Hal and Roger Hunt’s father owned some kind of wildlife reserve, and they were always getting into scrapes that involved a lot of detailed information about various animal species. In South Sea Adventure—or it could have been Underwater Adventure—one of them gets bitten by a sea snake; Whale Adventure is pretty gruesome and involves a flogging and a mutiny; and Safari Adventure, African Adventure, Lion Adventure and Elephant Adventure were all, come to think of it, pretty similar. But they were all very exciting and informative, and when I was about 10 I decided to write one for myself, called (obviously) Australian Adventure. It went something like:

Hal and Roger Hunt were swimming out of their depth at the beach when they saw a frightening Great White Shark. “Quick, hit it on the nose!” Hal cried. “The nose is the most sensitive area of the Great White Shark!”

That’s as far as I got, but I think I just about nailed it.

2 Responses to “The Secret of the Secret Syndicate”

  1. Randy Says:

    I was searching for Hardy Boys screen wallpaper when I came across your article. Interesting about Stratemeyer. I knew about “Tom Swiftys” but not their origin. Those HB books were fun to read and in their umpteenth printing when I was a young lad in the early-mid 1980’s.

  2. Randy Says:

    Just posting again with my correct e-mail in the form.

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