The Case of the Disappearing Detectives

The Hardy Boys vanish, then reappear as the Undercover Brothers.

Hardy Boys Cover
A classic Hardy Boys book cover.

For more than seven decades the Hardy Boys were unwaveringly successful teen-aged sleuths. Frank and Joe Hardy consistently managed to outwit the most hardened criminals despite existing in a state of perpetual adolescence. But earlier this year our ageless boy wonders finally met their maker, so to speak, when their Digest book series was unceremoniously discontinued due to plummeting sales. After 78 years and 190 volumes the Hardy Boys were finally overcome by their stuffy and dated image, the youth audience no longer captivated by their unlikely exploits.

Yet, Frank and Joe have proven remarkably resilient, joining a secret government organization called ATAC (American Teens Against Crime), which, in spite of their instantly recognizable visages, somehow employs them as undercover agents. By repositioning themselves as the Undercover Brothers—not to mention making every effort to be hip—the boys landed a new book deal, one that figures to keep them fighting crime well into the twenty-first century. In fact, volumes 1-4—“Extreme Danger,” “Running on Fumes,” “Boardwalk Bust” and “Thrill Ride”—are already at bookstores, and more adventures are just around the corner. 

For many Hardy Boys enthusiasts, Frank and Joe were long overdue for a makeover, a sentiment shared by Dan Gutman, who developed story outlines for six Undercover Brothers titles. “Over the years there have been a number of attempts to update, modernize and refresh The Hardy Boys,” begins Gutman. “But in my view, they've never made the Hardy's cool. That's what we're trying to do now. They've always been teenagers who solve crimes and kick butt. They need to be cool teenagers who solve crimes and kick butt.”

A big part of the challenge is making the Hardy's compelling again without sacrificing their wholesome image. “The Hardy Boys have been around for so long that they have become an American institution. Parents feel safe allowing their children to read the time-tested adventures,” says Bob Finnan, Webmaster for the Hardy Boys Unofficial Home Page. 

Gutman believes there's no reason for the Hardy's to abandon the moral high ground. “They will always be good guys who have a natural sense of right and wrong. There's nothing uncool about that,” he insists. But Frank and Joe are now exhibiting stronger and better-differentiated personalities. In the Digest series, “Joe is a bit more impulsive and Frank is described as ‘studious,’ but the reader can’t tell them apart,” reminds Gutman. “We’re going to exaggerate their personalities. Joe will be younger, hipper, more impulsive and reckless. Frank will be more mature, grounded and perhaps a little nerdy. Think of Joe as Mel Gibson and Frank as Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon.” 

Gutman has also sanctioned the idea of introducing conflict between the brothers. “There's nothing wrong with having the boys argue and call each other ‘moron,’ ‘dweeb’ or ‘dork.’ It would make the stories more interesting if they had a little sibling rivalry,” he says. Gutman would also have no problem if Frank and Joe showed emotion every once in a while. “Up until now the boys have seemed stiff and wooden. I'd like to see one of the Hardy boys cry,” he allows. 

On the other hand, the modernization effort may be for naught if the editorial quality isn't up to par. According to Austin Johnson, 17, editor-in-chief of Hardy-Boys.com, subpar writing led directly to the demise of the Digest series. “In the mid-1990s the writing really started to go downhill. I'm a big Hardy Boys fan and I couldn't make it through any of the later volumes. The Undercover Brothers books are one-hundred percent better,” he maintains. 

Gutman agrees that the biggest problem with the later Digests was with language and writing style. While the Digests were written in the third person, the Undercover Brothers titles are all in the first person, with Joe and Frank alternately serving as narrator—Joe handling chapter one, Frank covering chapter 2, and so forth. “Kids relate to books better when they can hear the main character telling the story like he is talking to them,” he says. 

Gutman would also prefer that Frank and Joe avoid using words that might be found in an SAT prep book—words like “unobtrusively,” “ostensibly,” “magnitude,” “coerce,” “neutrality,” “concierge” and “armoire,” all of which were uttered in “The Secret of the Soldier's Gold” (2003). “How many 10-year-olds know what an armoire is? I didn't know what an armoire was until I bought a house and my wife said we needed to get one,” he quips.

Another notable change is the injection of a dose of realism. “In the past, Joe and Frank simply stumbled into trouble. Wherever they went and whatever they did, bad guys magically appeared and tried to kill them. But trouble doesn't just follow people around all the time,” says a somewhat exasperated Gutman. Enter ATAC, which in each story formally assigns the boys a mission—serving the role of “M” in James Bond, the tape recorder in Mission: Impossible, or the Chief in Get Smart. Now, when the boys are magnets for criminals the so-called attraction makes sense. 

It's also worth nothing that former girlfriends Iola Morton (Joe) and Callie Shaw (Frank) have made themselves scarce, freeing up the brothers to admire other girls—from a safe distance, of course. Whether or not the boys become chick magnets is anyone's guess, but it seems inevitable that opportunities should present themselves at the theme parks, video arcades, malls, movie theaters and sports arenas where Frank and Joe are spending all their time these days. “In the Digests a lot of the stories are set in Bayport [the Hardy Boys' seemingly crime-infested hometown],” begins Johnson, “but so far in the Undercover Brothers series none of the stories have taken place there.” For instance, in “Extreme Danger” (#1) the boys ride their new high-tech motorcycles to Philadelphia to foil a possible attack on the Big Air Games. 

In an effort to get a new generation of readers to investigate the Undercover Brothers, volume 1 is priced at a modest $1.99, copying a strategy that did wonders for the Nancy Drew Girl Detective series. “That was the first time a Nancy Drew reached the [New York Times] bestseller list. The publisher took a look at that and said, ‘We can do the same thing with the Hardy Boys’,” advises Johnson.

Ironically, although the books are aimed at pre-teens, grown-ups make up a surprisingly high percentage of the readership. Johnson estimates that 25 percent of Hardy Boys fans are either teenagers or adults. He notes that there are several sizeable Hardy Boys fan fiction sites run by adults, including hardydetectiveagency.com. Personally, Johnson would like to see the development of a Hardy Boys series for adults—one that would feature complex plots, intimate relationships and possibly even profanity. “Although the publisher doesn't see it, the adult fan base is pretty large. Something needs to be brought forth to reach that audience,” he says. 

In the meantime, the publisher will no doubt be satisfied with a thriving Undercover Brothers series. Whether or not it's possible for the Hardy Boys to ever truly be cool again remains to be seen. “The longevity of the Hardy Boys is both a blessing and a curse,” says Gutman. “The blessing is that everyone in the world has heard of the series. The curse is that kids and librarians think they're out of date. We may not be able to change that perception.” 

If nothing else, Gutman promises the new books will be “jam-packed with action, intrigue, and occasional humor,” and that the Hardy's will experience more setbacks than they did in the past. “Good does fall on its face from time to time, and evil can enjoy a momentary victory,” says Gutman. “But in the end, good still triumphs and evil is punished.”