I started reading the memoir Ghost of the Hardy Boys because I loved the Hardy Boys mystery books as a kid and because I knew a little of the story of how they came to be. Leslie McFarlane (1902-1977) didn’t write all of the 60 books in the series published under the name of Franklin W. Dixon, but he wrote the first third of them. McFarlane was responsible for the 22 books between The Tower Treasure in 1927 and The Phantom Freighter in 1947.
I read all 22, roughly between 1960 and 1963. I loved them. They even inspired me to write, or start to write, my own mystery. The handwritten manuscript, forever lost, was about 25 pages of a group of kids finding a secret passage from a grandfather down into a cave. I was 10 years old. Yeah, I could see the books had some old-fashioned words, like roadster and coupe for types of automobiles. But I didn’t care, even though I looked up the words in the dictionary. (If you’re interested, a coupe was a two-door car, the name borrowed from a type of horse-drawn carriage. A roadster is what we would call a convertible today.)
McFarlane published his memoir in 1975; this edition was republished this year in a format that resembles the Hardy Boys books themselves. And he tells the story of writing the book series in a highly readable and often funny way. He never thought of these books as “great literature,” but, like the Stratmeyer Syndicate’s other series, The Bobbsey Twinsand Nancy Drew, they constituted childhood reading for tens of millions of youngsters. Like me.
McFarlane’s memoir isn’t only about The Hardy Boys. He’s telling his own story, how he became a newspaperman in northern Ontario in the early 1920s and how he eventually landed in Massachusetts, at the Springfield Republican. And it was this description of (relatively) small-town journalism in 1920s that took me by surprise.
With very small changes, he could have been telling the story of small-town journalism in the 1970s. I know, because I was there for a year, my first job out of college. From 1973 to 1974, I worked as a copy editor at the Beaumont, Texas, Enterprise. I found myself in McFarlane’s memoir so easily that I had to ask why. I mean, half a century separated his experience at the Republican and my experience at the Enterprise. How could they be so similar?
I think there are at least three reasons.
First, new computer technology only just started to seep into journalism in 1973, and then it was only in the backshop, where typesetters would retype the stories on computers for printing “cold type” and then pasting the stories onto pages. Reporters and editors still typed on typewriters, and layout designers still did their work by hand. No computer sat on any reporter’s or editor’s desk, simply because they didn’t exist.
Second, just like McFarlane’s experience, our primary sources of news were reporter-written or from the Associated Press or similar wire service. The newsroom had a television set, but we only watched it when there was some huge national story that was breaking. We weren’t competing against local TV stations. And social media was three decades into the future.
Third, the people McFarlane worked with and for – his fellow reporters and editors – were eerily similar to the people I worked with. Like McFarlane’s experience, the older reporters and the middle and senior editors had not gone to journalism school (or even college) but either happened into journalism or somehow grown up in the business. And they were individual characters. They yelled a lot. They didn’t mind telling us how dumb we were – in front of our colleagues. Their heads held all kinds of esoteric knowledge and “background” information. And most of them were native Texans, which carried a whole additional set of eccentricities.
I don’t think I had a boring day at work the entire time I was there. Not to mention the fact that the Watergate scandal was unfolding, and I even wrote the huge front-page headline “Agnew Resigns.”
But to read Ghost of the Hardy Boys, a memoir by a favorite childhood writer, and to find myself and my own experiences, was a startling thing. I don’t think these newsrooms exist anymore. Everything is professionalized; reporters have degrees from journalism schools or similar backgrounds, not to mention advanced degrees in many cases. Despite the proliferation of individual bias into news stories today, journalism seems far less personal than it was 50 years ago.
Something’s missing in journalism today. But I’m glad to have been reminded by the writer of the Hardy Boys stories that he and I shared something important in common.
Related: My review of Ghost of the Hardy Boys.