When I look back at my childhood and evaluate what ignited the first spark of interest in writing mystery/suspense fiction, Hardy Boys books come to mind. In fact, for quite a while, those hardcover books were practically an obsession for me. They are so closely connected to the biggest joys of my childhood that I can’t even look at one without a lump forming in my throat.
During the seventies I found them at Toys “R” Us and our Hudson’s department store for $2.50 each. I’d save up my allowance from weeding the garden and study the list of books inside the back cover, wanting to buy just the right one. I was never disappointed.
I remember lying on my back at one end of our pop-up camper, engrossed in the latest caper. There I’d read for hours. Lost in another world. Trying to guess what the ending might be.
At Christmas time, my heart leaped when I found a new Hardy Boys book, The Yellow Feather Mystery, in my stocking. Can you guess how I spent part of my Christmas vacation? I was so excited; it was like getting the newest iPod.
What was magical about Hardy Boys books? Everything about books and the magic of story was new then. Fresh. Unexplored. Virgin.
Remember your first kiss? For me, Hardy Boys books represent the first time “book love” kissed me. I kissed back in a big way, and I can’t say the love has waned over the years (you should see my library). If anything, it’s stronger.
I loved everything about those books—the nostalgic artwork on the covers, the outdated hairstyles and clothes of Frank and Joe, the interesting graphics in the front pages, the twenty chapters per book, the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, the simple line drawings here and there. And don’t forget good ol’ Frank and Joe Hardy, the teen sleuths of Bayport, where more felonies must have been committed than anywhere else on the globe (LOL).
These were the first books to capture my imagination, to give me my first taste of a ripping, traditional mystery. Without body count. Without gore. Without cussing. Or global warming. Or teen love. Or vampires.
No publisher would touch these books today. They’re too dated. Too formulaic. Too predictable. Not enough character development. Out of touch with the issues facing today’s youth. Bad fiction technique by today’s ever-evolving trends.
Yet, according to Wikipedia, the books still sell more than one million copies per year.
Why? I can only share my opinion. I think the books represent a cleaner, more idealistic world we’ve lost touch with. And part of each of us wants it back.
I also believe good novels aren’t so much well written as well imagined. Almost anyone, with enough hard work and training, can learn to write well. But imagination . . . well, that’s something else.
And Hardy Boys books have no shortage of that. Creepy tunnels. Secret rooms. Hidden treasure. Ghostly sightings (always with a scientific explanation). Secret weapons. Men or women in disguise. Car chases. What’s not to love?
Are the books cliched? Old-fashioned? Formulaic? Of course. But in a way that’s what adds to their appeal. They’re consistent—we know what we’re getting. And they’re fun. Which is why we read stories in the first place.
Today I look at my Hardy Boys collection with a pang of sadness. I’ve grown up (though I sometimes wish I hadn’t). My tastes have changed just as publishing has changed. A young adult mystery doesn’t offer the magic it used to.
Certainly young adult fiction is more sophisticated now. Yet there’s something about these books that has passed the test of time. I believe it’s the power of story to capture the imagination and hold us captive for twenty chapters.
And that will never grow old.
How about you? What book or book series captured your imagination when you were a child?
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