If you are a red-blooded male who came of age sometime in the last 90 years, chances are you grew up with two action-loving, adventure-seeking, mystery-solving literary companions: Frank and Joe Hardy. The Hardy Boys books in which these young detectives star have never been out of print since first coming onto the scene in 1927, have been translated into 25 different languages, and continue to sell over a million copies annually.
The famous Hardy boys were created by the American publisher Edward Stratemeyer and subsequently brought to life by a series of ghostwriters under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. (Pro tip: The best volumes in the series are 1-16 and 22-24, which were all written by Leslie McFarlane.) While there have been numerous spin-offs and iterations of the series, enthusiasts consider the first 59 volumes to be the true Hardy Boys “canon.”
A few years back, I bought half the canon for my children to one day enjoy, and I’ve sometimes looked at the old Hardy Boys volumes sitting on the shelf in my office and thought about what exactly has made these books so popular and enduring; why do they continue to line the shelves of libraries and bookstores, engage generation after generation, and remain indelibly printed on our cultural consciousness?
To answer this question, I recently re-read half a dozen of the early Hardy Boys books. What I discovered is that much of their appeal has to do with the way these teenage sleuths embody many of the ideals of masculinity. So much so, that they actually have a lot to teach grown men:
9 Things a Grown Man Can Learn From the Hardy Boys
1. Develop a Wide Variety of Skills
The Hardy boys are strong, athletic, brave, clever, and resourceful. By developing a wide variety of skills and becoming mentally, morally, and physically fit, they’re ready to come to the aid of friends and strangers, handle any exigency they find themselves in, and solve mysteries involving ever varied contexts and circumstances.
Frank and Joe know how to fix cars and bikes, camp, canoe, navigate the woods, scuba dive, talk in sign language, speak Spanish, track animals and humans, hold their breath for longer than a minute, and sneak around stealthily. Their father also taught them how to properly handle firearms and both boys are excellent marksmen (though they rarely use guns on the job).
Many of their skills allow them to be eminently mobile, and follow a mystery wherever it leads; they know how to deftly operate cars, motorboats, and motorcycles, and can pilot single-engine aircraft.
In addition to cultivating a wide breadth of manual competence, Frank and Joe Hardy develop their athleticism. They keep in shape through playing sports like baseball and track and work out in a barn behind their parents’ house that they converted to a gymnasium. Here they and their friends hang out, work the punching bag, engage in friendly boxing matches, and use the parallel bars to practice their gymnastic skills. The Hardy boys also often round up their friends for day hikes through the woods and countryside.
As the brothers never know when they might need to tackle a crook, hang off the ledge of a cliff, or swim a far distance, they keep their bodies nimble, tuned up, and ready for action.
2. Be Perennially Curious
The Hardy boys’ skills aren’t just of the physical variety, but extend to the mental realm as well. The detectives are often able to make logical deductions and find connections between various incidents and pieces of evidence. This ability comes in large part from the fact that they have a robust treasury of mental models to draw from, and they construct this rich cognitive scaffolding by being perennially curious about the world.
Frank and Joe are interested in a wide variety of subjects, and while working their cases, they often take the time to learn about the context and background that form the setting of their investigations. For example, when a case takes them up to Alaska in The Mystery at Devil’s Paw, they pay a visit to a local museum to learn about the state’s indigenous culture and take an interest in the archeological work being done in the state. In The Secret Panel, the boys are supposed to be searching through a peculiar house, but after finding a book on locks and keys in the library, one of the brothers settles into a chair to read it and finds himself lost in the text for hours. In The Flickering Torch Mystery, Frank and Joe decide to go work on an experimental farm, and while a case ends up impinging on their stay and proves to be a major distraction, they still have the inclination to learn about the agricultural tests being conducted there.
The Hardy boys investment in gaining a wider knowledge while working a case consistently ends up helping them make the connections necessary to solving it. But their curiosity often aids them in discovering new cases in the first place. When they see a spooky or abandoned house, the boys can’t help but go explore it, and their gumption and interest in the unknown invariably leads them into uncovering yet another mystery.
3. Strengthen Your Powers of Observation
One of the most important components of the Hardy boys’ arsenal of cognitive abilities is their keen power of observation. From a young age, their father taught them that most “people walk around in a trance” and that one’s situational awareness was a skill that had to be intentionally trained. That training took the form of the kinds of games and exercises we shared in this article.
In The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, in which the brothers explain how real-life detectives do their work, Joe notes that “There’s a lot of difference between seeing and observing. The primary rule of observation is not to permit your eyes to pass over anything, but instead to make conscious mental images of the objects you wish to remember.”
The boys’ sharp eyes allow them to spot things that are unusual in their environment and find clues like footprints, tire tracks, fresh scratches on a rusty lock, and wilted plants that are no longer rooted in the earth and are instead being used to camouflage a secreted vehicle. Another tip they learned from their father is “always to note the exact time any unusual circumstance occurred.”
Frank and Joe not only practice observing as much detail in the environment as possible, they train themselves to take these mental snapshots as quickly as they can; they’re thus able to catch identifying details of a car that speeds past them, or notice an odd detail about a stranger they meet only briefly. For example, after speaking with a man for only a few minutes in The Secret Panel, the first thing the brothers say to each other is “Did you notice the odd signet ring Mr. Mead was wearing?” The Hardy boys’ attention to detail and close observation of others gives them “great ingenuity in judging character” and a heightened discernment in judging the bad guys from the good.
While Frank and Joe rely on their sight for much of their clue-finding, they also use their other senses at their full capacity. They are quick to notice unusual noises in their environment, and will put their ear to the ground or to a door to home in on and track faint sounds. Catching the scent of a certain flower wafting through a small hole in a prison where they’re being held is enough for them to figure out their location. And patting down a backpack allows them to detect an extra layer of material and discover the bag’s secret compartment.
4. Carry a Robust EDC
The Hardy boys were masters of everyday carry before that was even a term. They always have the tools and gear they need to escape danger, find clues, and solve their cases right on hand. Here’s what they carry:
- Pocketknife — for cutting through the ropes they so often get tied up with, and a host of other things
- Flashlight — for exploring dark tunnels, caves, attics, and basements
- Handkerchief — for bandages or wrapping up a piece of evidence
- Small magnifying glass — for examining clues more closely
- Pocket notebook — for writing down license plate numbers and sketching suspects and clues
- Pen/pencil — for writing in their notebook
- Strike anywhere matches — for starting fires and giving light in dark cellars when their flashlight is lost or broken
When engaged in outdoor adventures, the Hardy boys carry a first aid kit. And their father brings along “concentrated food tablets” wherever he goes in case he gets stuck in a place without access to needed sustenance.
5. Father by Example and Be a Mentor to Your Children
When I read the Hardy Boys as a kid, I mostly identified with Frank and Joe, and really didn’t notice the adult characters in the story. Re-reading them as a grown man, and a father, however, I was really struck by what a warm and supportive home Fenton and Laura — the boys’ parents — create for their sons, and particularly what an exemplary dad they have. Manly, athletic, intelligent, thoughtful, and full of unwavering integrity, Fenton reminds me of another upstanding literary father: Atticus Finch.
Mr. Hardy once served as a detective for the New York City police force, and did so well in that capacity that he struck out on his own and became a P.I. whose prowess is known from coast to coast. Yet though his services are greatly sought and his schedule is always busy, he’s described as “an intensely considerate man,” whose “first thought was always for his wife and boys.”
Fenton often has to leave town to work on a case, but when he’s home he’s “never too busy to talk to his sons.” He patiently teaches them the tricks of the trade, from the skill of observation to the practice of surveillance and fingerprinting. Their father’s willingness to openly share the ins and outs of his career is what gets Joe and Frank interested in becoming amateur detectives themselves, and creates their desire to one day become professionals in the field (to the chagrin of their mother, who wishes they’d pursue a safer line of work).
Fenton not only mentors his sons’ professional ambitions, he also sets an example of sterling character. He doesn’t just offer gentle counsel on always doing the right thing — he demonstrates such ethics in his own life. For example, in The House on the Cliff, a gang of smugglers kidnaps Fenton and then offers to let him go as long as he signs a document promising not to tell the authorities what he’s discovered about their criminal activity. If he doesn’t sign, they’ll leave him to starve. Fenton of course refuses to keep quiet, declaring, “I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I agreed to any scheme that would protect you.”
“How about your family,” the ringleader taunts. “Are you doing your duty to them by being so obstinate?”
To which Fenton replies: “They would rather know that I died doing my duty than have me come back to them as a protector of smugglers and criminals.”
6. Have Confidence in Your Children and Be a “Free-Range Parent”
Another admirable quality of Fenton’s parenting approach is how much freedom he gives to his teenage sons. He lets them shoot guns, get motorcycles, learn how to fly planes, and travel by themselves to places like Alaska, Mexico, and Scotland. And despite the fact that the boys repeatedly get knocked over the head and kidnapped, are attacked by bears, fall through trap doors, and are almost run over numerous times, he still allows them to act as amateur detectives and pursue cases against smugglers, forgers, spies, murderers, drug dealers, thieves, and other assorted baddies (a disproportionate amount of crime occurs in their hometown of Bayport; seemingly sleepy, idyllic towns on the Atlantic coast are actually hotbeds of criminal activity — just ask Jessica Fletcher).
Fenton not only allows his boys to pursue their own cases, he also lets them help on his cases. When a colleague wants to talk to him, he consistently asks that Frank and Joe be allowed to stay and listen, assuring the speaker that the young men can be trusted to hear whatever he or she wants to say.
The permissive and trusting attitude of the Hardy boys’ parents (their mother was more cautious, but also willing to let the boys adventure) is contrasted with that of their Aunt Gertrude. Though secretly proud of her nephews, she’s always chastising them for doing dangerous things, and issuing admonitions like: “Don’t go swimming. Don’t get run over. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t be late.” Aunt Gertrude, the narrator observes, “could never quite cure herself of the habit of treating her nephews as if they were a pair of feeble-minded infants unfit to be allowed out without a guardian.”
Fenton gives his sons such a long leash because he has confidence in their maturity and aptitude, and this confidence helps grow those very qualities; instead of coddling them and treating them like fragile children, which would encourage them to sink to that level, he lets them make their own mistakes and rise to the standard of his high opinion and trust.
7. Every Man Needs a Gang
In contrast to Nancy Drew, who typically solves her cases alone (and is almost always featured alone on the covers of her books), the Hardy boys rarely single-handedly solve their mysteries. Instead, the brothers team up not only with each other, but with their father and their friends, operating in what has been the basic unit of male sociality since time immemorial: the all-male gang.
“Ever since the brothers had been old enough to engage in sleuthing,” the narrator observes in The Secret Caves, “there had been a great camaraderie among the Hardy ‘men folk.'” This camaraderie extends to the Hardy boys’ high school pals: Chet Morton, Allen “Biff” Hooper, Jerry Gilroy, Phil Cohen, and Tony Prito. Many a case finds Frank or Joe picking up the telephone “to put in one call after another to ‘the gang.’” The young men assemble as a posse, and tear out on their motorcycles to search for clues or investigate some suspicious happenings.
The Hardy boys’ crime-solving team operates like all-male gangs — through a dynamic of both cooperation and intra/inter-group competition. Sometimes the boys and their father are both working on the same case, with each party wanting to be the first to solve it. And the brothers’ friends, especially Chet, seek the glory and pride that comes from being the first to find a clue. But competing with each other to solve the mystery keeps their team sharp, and thus better prepared to take on the criminal gangs they’re up against.
By collaborating and pushing each other to be better, the boys are able to pool their skills and resources, and become a safer and more effective crime-solving force. Alone, each young man is vulnerable and can only search a small area, but together they can cover more ground and watch each other’s backs. Indeed, the Hardy boys’ gang sometimes saves Frank’s and Joe’s lives outright. The brothers can’t always solve the cases they tackle on their own, and the gang is not only their secret to success and physical survival, but simply makes their operations more enjoyable — the boys do plenty of teasing and joking around and have a lot of fun on their way to nabbing the crook.
Frank and Joe are grateful for the valuable help and support provided by their father and their friends, and share in the rewards that come from solving their cases. For example, in The House on the Cliff, the boys use part of the reward they earn for breaking up a smuggling ring to throw a gentleman’s dinner for their buddies in their backyard barn.
8. Be Persistent
At the heart of the Hardy boys’ M.O. is their dogged persistence and determination; once they get on a case, no amount of obstacles or dangers can deter them from solving it. When they notice something suspicious or strange going on, their curiosity spurs them to say: “I’m going to find out why.” And once a “Hardy said that, one could be certain he would let nothing stop him from carrying out his purpose.”
Fenton had taught his sons that “A good detective never sighs with discouragement nor becomes impatient.” Frank and Joe thus do the painstaking work of detectives without complaint, and are unable to rest until every rock has been overturned and they get to the bottom of things. It doesn’t matter if they are cold or scared, whether it is dark, or they’re dead tired, they keep on the trail. When their friends’ spirits or courage flag, the boys rally the troops with calls to “Brace up!” and lead the team on by example.
9. Approach Life Like a Detective
The word “detect” has its origins in the Latin for “uncover, expose, discover, reveal,” and later to “expose the real or hidden nature of something or someone.” To detect is thus to look for the truth of things, and a detective is one who has made truth seeking his central purpose and identity.
Detectives don’t accept the pat stories they hear, but try to get to the bottom of things; they’re always looking to go deeper and find the reality beneath of the surface. Their environment is alive with possibilities — everything they see, smell, touch, taste, and hear may be a potential clue to the larger meaning of things.
A detective must at times be selfless, risking his life to aid others. In fact, the Hardy boys not only help others by trying to solve a case, they often stumble upon the case in the first place while trying to help friends and even strangers. In service we encounter more of the problems of life, but also gain access to its deeper interests and complexities.
A detective strives to track down and expose those who disrupt the scales of justice; he struggles for good against the forces of evil, and seeks to right wrongs. Yet though he works to restore order, he often does so outside established channels of authority and operates as something of a rogue. The Hardy boys, for example, though they are clean, morally square, upright lads, frequently come into conflict with Bayport’s police force, who, at least in the early books, are described as sometimes bumbling, arrogant, and not fully on the level. Frank and Joe show great poise and a complete lack of intimidation when they confront officers for their ineptitude, and are not afraid to stand their ground.
While the later books gave the boys a greater respect for the law, McFarlane had a purpose in painting the young sleuths as sometime iconoclasts; as the author explained in his autobiography, Ghost of the Hardy Boys:
“I had my own thoughts about teaching youngsters that obedience to authority is somehow sacred…Would civilization crumble if kids got the notion that the people who ran the world were sometimes stupid, occasionally wrong and even corrupt at times?”
In looking at the qualities of detectives generally, and the Hardy boys, specifically, I’ve come to conclude that what drew me and millions of others to the Hardy boys growing up, was a desire to take their approach to sleuthing and apply it to all of life. To always be up for action and adventure; to be both a doer and thinker; to strive to expose evil and corruption; and to center one’s life on the pursuit of truth — ever examining witnesses, sifting through evidence, looking for clues, making connections, and reaching conclusions as to the deeper meaning of it all. To maintain the Hardy boys’ spirit as a grown man is to ultimately not give up on the idea that for the perennially curious, there are always mysteries out there waiting to be discovered and explored.
Let what the literary scholar Michael G. Cornelius said of the Hardy boys, ever be said of us:
“These sleuths always long for mystery and adventure; when one ends, they consciously cannot wait for another to begin. In many ways, boy sleuths are sleuths first and boys second; they live to detect, and the act of detection, in turn, is what has given them life.”
The Hardy Boys Canon. If you’re looking for the originals, be sure to buy those published before 1959, the year in which the publisher began editing the early installments to excise potentially offensive racial stereotypes, but also to make the already accessible books even easier reads — length was lopped off, descriptive language streamlined, and old slang and vocabulary words judged too meaty were removed. Overall, the project dumbed the books down and the result was almost universally panned; McFarlane felt the books had been “gutted,” while one modern critic opined: “The quality of the revised stories is generally so far below that of the originals that it can only be considered as an act of literary vandalism.” Look for originals on eBay.
Last updated: April 7, 2016