Friday, May 29, 2015

Of Time and the Hardy Boys

In the early books of the Hardy Boys canon, from The Tower Treasure (#1) to The Great Airport Mystery (#9), ghost writer Leslie McFarlane and / or the Stratemeyer Syndicate made an effort to create a coherent chronology. Those first nine books follow the brothers and their chums over three years — essentially from late in their sophomore years in high school to graduation. The books cover three springs (#1, #6, and #9, all of them late spring), two winters (#5 and #8) and a lot of summer (#2, 3, 4, and 7).

After that, the Hardys stopped aging, went back to high school, and never worried about time making sense again. Seriously: time was more linear in a season of Doctor Who than in any five consecutive hardcover Hardy Boys books after that. But that was OK, really; the books were released once per year, and it didn’t matter that readers couldn’t fit together consecutive stories in a coherent timeline. After waiting all year for another book, who cared if they didn’t match up exactly? And as for the back catalog of books — well, who had access to all 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 of them? Those who could read all of them were overjoyed to experience the wealth of Hardy Boys stories.

When the Hardy Boys books came out in paperback, though, Simon & Schuster started releasing several books per year. The only way that would work, as a publishing strategy, is if they expected readers to actually buy more than one book per year — consecutive books, most likely. And in that case, skipping around the calendar becomes more distracting. It’s harder to believe in a fictional world when Frank and Joe Hardy have come unstuck in time.

After finishing Crusade of the Flaming Sword, I’ve read #130 through #141, which coincidentally covers all of the digests released in 1995 (#130-5) and 1996 (#136-41), so I decided to see if the Hardys obeyed the calendar.

Surprisingly, the 1995 books did! Sidetracked to Danger (#130) is set in February, probably about the time the book was released. Although Crusade (#131) has no specific chronological setting, Frank and Joe spend several days without going to school — so it’s set during spring break or summer. They’re back in school in Maximum Challenge (#132), which means it could be set between spring break and the end of the school year; they’re out of school again in Crime in the Kennel (#133), presumably during the summer. Cross-Country Crime (#134) occurs during Thanksgiving vacation, and The Hypersonic Secret (#135) is set only a couple of weeks later, in the run-up to Christmas. So not only can these books fit in a single calendar year, they were mostly published at the same time they were set.

I admit, I was impressed.

The next year’s releases aren’t so well coordinated. The action in The Cold Cash Caper (#136) falls during the February Winter Festival — again, the book take place roughly the same time of year it was released. Unfortunately, it’s not clear when the next book, High-Speed Showdown (#137), occurs, but it’s warm enough for boat racing on Barmet Bay, so it can’t be fit between Caper and The Alaskan Adventure (#138), which ends just before the beginning of the Iditarod in early March. Chet begins a summer job at the zoo in The Search for the Snow Leopard (#139), but Slam Dunk Sabotage (#140) jumps ahead to February (or perhaps early March) for the end of the high school basketball season. The Desert Thieves (#141) is set in early January — probably close to the book’s publication, although on the wrong side of the New Year.

That’s a freakishly small number of summer books — somewhere between two and four out of the twelve books. More than two-thirds of the first 85 books are set during the summer, so that’s quite a change.

1995’s releases show the books could create a sense of time; why couldn’t Simon & Schuster have spread their 1996 releases throughout the year? Of the six, four books were set in the first 80 or so days of the year, with none of them occurring in August or later. Would it kill someone to have a fall mystery? (Maybe it would; there must be a reason why Hardy Boys books are so rarely set in the fall.) I’m sure such things were not a major concern of Simon & Schuster, which had many more pressing concerns — writing outlines, wrangling freelancers, editing manuscripts, marketing, selling — but I suppose I’m saying I would have appreciated it.

Of course, I wasn’t buying the books back then and was well out of the series’ target age range. I also didn’t read the books until more than a decade after they were written. But why wouldn’t Simon & Schuster decide to cater to me?