The Secret of the Hardy Boys

Charles Leslie McFarlane delighted in his Canadian heritage from his early days in Ontario until his death in 1977. This prolific writer was shaped by his childhood in the rough and tumble town of Haileybury. His resulting humor, respect for natural beauty, and sense of adventure influenced much of his collection of works. He wrote articles, stories, books, radio scripts, documentaries, and Hollywood television scripts. He is best known though for his ghostwritten Hardy Boys series.

Author Marilyn S. Greenwald explores the unique on-and-off relationship McFarlane maintained with the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a publishing empire that shaped children’s literature for more than three quarters of a century. McFarlane seemed to regard the syndicate as a source of income to fund his “real” freelance work. He agreed to write books under a pseudonym for a set fee relinquishing any rights to future royalties. Throughout their multi-decade relationship he also wrote Dave Fearless books as Roy Rockwood and The Dana Girls stories as Carolyn Keene. Yet, he didn’t seem to feel a sense of accomplishment about this body of work until later in life. Greenwald also explores the role of the Syndicate’s sometimes controversial books in shaping children’s literature and the response from educators and librarians who felt the formulaic style harmful.

Greenwald’s telling of McFarlane’s life feels disjointed at times moving forward and backward through the chronology haphazardly. However, her work is well-researched and insightful. She reveals McFarlane’s demons and his desires. She shows how the needs of his family enhanced his writing yet placed financial demands on him that sapped his creativity. The book has merit in documenting a life as well as adding to the understanding of the evolution of children’s literature in the twentieth century.