F.W. Dixon unmasked
You know about the million-selling kids' adventure novels. But did you know their author was from Northern Ontario?
Before J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, there was F. W. Dixon and the Hardy Boys. One of the bestselling series in the world, with more than 90 million copies sold worldwide, the books follow the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy—all-American sleuths solving mysteries in their all-American hometown of Bayport. “F. W. Dixon,” however, as his fans were eventually surprised to learn, was a Canadian. And the town of Bayport bears a remarkable similarity to the author’s hometown of Haileybury, Northeastern Ontario.
To learn the truth about the man behind the Hardy Boys series, fans are making the pilgrimage to the City of Temiskaming Shores, which includes the former township of Haileybury, where 21 of the first Hardy Boys books were written in secret by a local man named Charles Leslie McFarlane. The story of how this came to be is one of the more unlikely tales in the history of Canadian literature.
An Impressive Resume
Charles Leslie McFarland, born in 1902 in Carleton Place, was a successful journalist, playwright, and accomplished film director. Raised in Haileybury, he worked for the Cobalt Daily Nugget, the Sudbury Star, the Toronto Star, and the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts, before eventually returning to his hometown to raise his family. He wrote and directed documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada.
In 1953 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his film Herring Hunt. He wrote for the CBC and was a script writer for the television show Bonanza. A school in Whitby was named after him (although it was demolished in 2010). He wrote for Maclean’s, Vanity Fair, and Field and Stream. He was a speechwriter for the Minister of Munitions and Supply during the Second World War. He even corresponded with F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1938. (“I rather think I am done as a writer—maybe not, of course,” wrote Fitzgerald.)
An impressive resume for a Canadian writer raised in a small Northeastern Ontario town—but were it not for McFarlane’s unlikely secret, his accomplishments as a journalist and writer would likely be long forgotten.
A Lasting Legacy: Meet f.W. Dixon
McFarlane—as the world would eventually discover—was an international bestselling writer, his books read by millions. The well-educated, sophisticated Haileybury resident was in fact the reluctant author of what he called “the juveniles.” He was Franklin W. Dixon. Sole author of the first 21 Hardy Boys books. When he finally publicly revealed his role as the ghostwriter for the series in his 1976 autobiography Ghost of the Hardy Boys, fans of the series were fascinated to learn the secrets behind their favorite childhood sleuths.
The story begins when McFarlane answered a magazine ad placed by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: “Experienced fiction writer wanted.” The businessman was looking for writers to help him grow his burgeoning publishing company. Unlike more traditional publishers, Stratemeyer was a book packager who created a profitable method for publishing children’s books—essentially, an assembly line.
The formula went like this: hire a freelance writer. Give them a template for the book (chapters must end on a cliffhanger, the characters can never get married, dialogue must be snappy). Pay the writer a flat fee of $75 or $100 or $125, with no royalties. Make them promise to never reveal they’re a ghostwriter. And churn out as many books as possible.
This was how Leslie McFarlane became the author of 21 Hardy Boys books, beginning with the first three titles released in 1927. (The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew were also products of the massively successful Stratemeyer Syndicate.) McFarlane laboured in secret, so only his closest friends and family knew he was F. W. Dixon. In fact, as a serious journalist, he detested his job as a ghostwriter of children’s books, as his diary entries make clear:
As his notes also show, however, the job was a financial necessity.
While in today’s money $100 for a novel doesn’t seem like a lot of money, it was enough to keep McFarlane and his family afloat, as he explained in an interview with Peter Gzowski in 1972. “If it took a week to write, it was $100 a week,” he said. “That was pretty good during the Depression, you know.”
Honouring a Hometown Hero
While McFarlane’s revealed his role in one of the world’s most successful series later in his life, the town of Haileybury has moved quickly to honour its hometown hero and provide visitors and fans of the series a satisfying pilgrimage. The best place to start is the Ghosts of the Hardy Boys Tour that begins at the Haileybury Heritage Museum, which has tons of McFarlane memorabilia including his old typewriter. Pick up a pamphlet at the museum and begin a leisurely self-guided tour that takes you past McFarlane’s homes, his high school, and other points of interest.
Also be sure to check out the granite lectern on the town’s waterfront honouring McFarlane. There’s also a Ghosts of the Hardy Boys annual short story contest open to area residents ages 8-19. There was even a Hardy Boys reunion in 1998 where fans from all over the world converged on the town to celebrate the series. For interested readers, there’s also a book that explores the author’s local connections.
True fans of the series might even be able to spot familiar scenes from their favorite books—beautiful Devil’s Rock (which is thought to be the inspiration for the descriptions in The House on the Cliff), Lakeshore Road which is similar to the fictional “Shore Road” where Bayport’s wealthy citizens lived, and the town’s sawmill on Mill Creek likely appears in The Secret of the Old Mill. There’s much to see and explore in the area so visitors should plan to spend a few days enjoying the sights. Located about a five-hour drive from Toronto, it’s easily accessible and full of local history (even beyond the Hardy Boys!).
Where to Stay
For accommodation, check out Les Suites des Presidents which offers visitors the chance to stay in beautiful historic homes and apartments throughout the area (a 1907 lumber baron’s mansion, anyone?).
Or opt for the family owned Leisure Inn—with bright, modern rooms it’s located steps from the beach and rates includes a free breakfast.
For more information on visiting Temiskaming Shores and the Haileybury area, visit: http://www.temiskamingshores.ca