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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Joe, Frank and Alex: the Hardy Boys vs. the Rider Adventures

There was a period when I was obsessed — were you? — with the Hardy Boys.

I look at my local library’s shelf-and-a-half that's crammed with the classic books, with their cheesy thin type on royal-blue spines, and everything comes back. The Hardy Boys was the first series I wanted to live in and never come out — just keep on sleuthing those mysteries that kept entangling Joe, Frank and their chums back in old Bayport, which for a classically friendly American town had a really amazing number of criminals and conspiracies.

In spite of their creaky age and awkward language — “‘Oh, boy!’ Joe whispered. ‘Looks as if we hit pay dirt!’” — the original Hardy mysteries, dating from 1927-1959, continue to sell in bookstores, where you'll see them set up in stacks, and to be checked out of libraries. Today of course there are many young-adult book series, most of them variations on fantasy. But is there a Hardy Boys — jammed with semi-realistic intrigue, mystery and danger — of now?

I decided to read one book from Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider Adventures, which is a series that middle-school boys, who are the main target audience here, often recommend to me. Then I started thinking about a comparison — so alongside Scorpia, a 2004 installment that’s number five in the British author’s bestselling series, I reread The Melted Coins of 1944, number 23 in the Hardy Boys.

Here are some off-the-cuff comparisons:

1. Both are, okay, written to a formula — but an exciting formula! Tom and Joe generally have a new mystery land in their lap inside the first chapter. In The Melted Coins it’s on the first page, when their “internationally famous detective” dad Fenton Hardy asks the boys to do “some sleuthing for me” involving a mysterious missing idol on a Seneca Indian reservation. By the time that chapter ends, the boys will have narrowly escaped death on the highway, met a couple who’ll just happen to be key figures in their mystery, and seen the plot thicken when a college their friend Chet wants to visit turns out to be a possible fraud. (It’ll all connect.) Oh, and Joe plunges toward near-certain death from a girder, high up on a skyscraper construction site. That’s chapter one.

In Scorpia, reluctant international secret agent Alex Rider, who is 14, is on vacation from boarding school in Venice, where a global criminal conspiracy both advances a plan to destroy American and British power while killing thousands of children, and knocks off a longtime ally with a gift box full of deadly scorpions. Meanwhile Alex, who will soon be drawn deeply into this conspiracy, first foils a high-speed theft of an elegantly dressed woman’s purse by two criminals on a 200cc Vespa Granturismo motorscooter, by ... flinging birdseed. All this does not happen in the first chapter. It’s in the first two.

2. Alex Rider has an actual writer. The Hardy Boys’ author didn’t exist. Those old detective stories were credited to Franklin W. Dixon, whose name was concocted by the publishing syndicate that conceived the series, created its formula, and contracted with writers who were paid, at first, $125 per book. They never got credit, nor royalties. The Rider series is the work of Anthony Horowitz, who also wrote my very favorite British detective series, “Foyle’s War,” which is brilliantly written. To be honest, Alex Ryder — and I was disappointed in this — not so much. The cladding gets worn bare pretty quickly on its formula, which is: constant action, incessant danger, evil conspiracy, this kid at the center of everything, and always weaponry, vehicles and other Bondish gadgetry, each one identified by model name and/or number like the Vespa. After a while, you get a little tired.

3. There’s death-defying action everywhere. Everywhere.

Joe and Frank get into tight spots and tough scrapes, and before long there'll be fisticuffs — “With a supreme effort Joe dealt his foe a sharp karate chop” — but with Alex it gets ridiculous. The kid has no sense. In Scorpio he base-jumps, at night, alone, from a cliff above, into a ferociously guarded chemicals plant just because he’s suspicious of what's going on inside. Which of course he happens upon immediately, by creeping along a corridor.

4. Joe and Frank have friends, a family and a community. Alex is exploited and alone. His parents are gone, and he can't confide in anyone. He’s coldly exploited by the British Secret Service. He battles a global evil and is, in the end and basically throughout, quite isolated. I wonder what this says about the stories that adolescent boys are looking for, about how they see themselves and the world they seek to find their power within.

5. Joe and Frank solve their mysteries. Alex is up against a multinational malignancy that can never truly be defeated. This is the most interesting contrast. In The Melted Coins, the strange secret trouble that bedevils the Seneca tribe is a puzzle the boys unravel, as is the role of the college that really isn’t one. Along the way they fall through rotten floorboards, almost get shoved off a cliff, see their car trunk explode, stalk mysterious figures, and ... well, more. But in the end the pieces all fit, the puzzle is laid plain. And the bad guys are, of course, in custody.

With Alex it’s so different. Sure, he saves the world — an eighth grade boy told me the other day that I don’t need to read more Rider books; Alex does pretty much the same thing in each one — but the criminal/terrorist enemy that he struggles against (except when he joins it for a while) is a multinational corporation. In the end it’s too well-organized, too evil, and too globalized to be contained.

I guess I’m glad I grew up with Joe and Frank. And I can see why readers still want to go on sleuthing alongside them in good old crime-ridden Bayport. The criminals are right there. In our globalized age, it’s hard even to know where "there" is any more. And the real, true bad guys hardly ever seem to get hauled off in handcuffs.

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