May 8, 2019

“Two Persons” Read the Hardy Boys On the Eve of the Friends of the Library Book Sale

By Stuart Mitchner

“No two persons ever read the same book.”
—Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)

This observation by the eminent American man of letters and Princeton graduate (Class of 1916) Edmund Wilson, born May 8, 1895, in Red Bank, N.J., also applies to my recent return at an advanced age to a Hardy Boys adventure I first read as a ten-year-old. While the fourth grader who devoured a ghostwritten mystery may or may not be the same person who comes to it after a lifetime of “serious reading,” I like to think the adult reader’s DNA was already there, hidden in the consciousness of the ten-year-old with nothing under his belt but five years of Classic Comics, Freddy the Pig, Captain Marvel, Donald Duck, and Little Lulu.

A Title to Reckon With

My excuse for going back to A Figure in Hiding (1937) is Friday’s Friends of the Library Book Sale, which features rare first editions of two later volumes in the Hardy Boys series, The Short Wave Mystery (1945) and The Secret of Skull Mountain (1949). Compared to those standard boy’s mystery titles, the one I found instantly mesmerizing the day I saw it on the shelves of a gloomy Fourth Avenue bookshop sounds more like Henry James (think “The Figure in the Carpet”) than Franklin W. Dixon. A Figure in Hiding lends itself to any medium. It could refer to the title figure in the 1949 film The Third Man, which will be shown at New York’s Film Forum next week, or it could caption the moment Harry Lime, the man of mystery played by Orson Welles, is seen hiding in a dark Viennese doorway; it’s no less expressive of the presence of the unseen and unseeable in the work of painters from DaVinci to Picasso and of the veiled meanings tricked out by poets dating back to and beyond the ambiguous figure conspiracy theorists suspect of lurking behind Shakespeare. Or how about the undiscovered second assassin in Dallas, or Watergate’s figure in hiding, Deep Throat? And don’t forget special counsel Robert Mueller, the figure the enemies of justice hope to keep in hiding as they attempt to bury evidence of Russian interference and presidential obstruction.

Found on Fourth Avenue

It was the day before Christmas. I’d just turned ten and was visiting New York for the first time. My father had taken me to one of the secondhand book stores that once lined the stretch of Fourth Avenue due south of 14th Street. There was a sense of impending danger in the dingy, crowded, ramshackle space not unlike the mixture of fear and awe aroused in me by the scarily exciting heights and depths of the city. I even saw a semblance of the metropolis in the book-lined tenement towering over me, the titled spines like windows, the shelves like floors, with A Figure in Hiding, the title tempting me, standing out as if it occupied the only open lighted window. Slowly, carefully taking down the book (the tower of shelves seemed none too steady), I saw a cover the color of khaki with the title in dark brown letters above an image of two silhouetted forms recoiling from some dread force suggested by jagged bolts of lightning.

As I flipped through the pages wondering why the simple ordinary word figure could suggest such menace, I heard a sudden confusion of sounds on the street outside: breaking glass, a shout, running footsteps, a policeman’s whistle, New York being New York. I went to the front of the store, where my father and the owner were looking out the window and commenting on what had just happened. The owner said something about a hold-up (“happens all the time around here”), no doubt for the benefit of the wide-eyed kid with the book in his hand.

I read A Figure in Hiding the same night, with the street sounds of flight and pursuit replaying in the back of my mind. I was alone in our room in the upper stories of the Biltmore Hotel, so absorbed, so fascinated, so blissfully held and harrowed that I was still reading when my parents came back from midnight mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral.

The Hidden Author

What I know now that I didn’t then is that the most significant figure in hiding was the author himself. For years I believed in a living breathing person named Franklin W. Dixon, someone I imagined resembling Frank and Joe Hardy’s detective father, Fenton, the “tall man with the shrewd face” introduced in the opening chapter. Now I find that a Canadian named Leslie McFarlane authored the mystery I was so wrapped up in that memorable Christmas Eve. As the older “second person” revisiting A Figure in Hiding, my attitude of skeptical adult detachment was softened when I learned online that McFarlane labored on the book  for a publishing syndicate during the Depression along with some 20 others in the series, for which he was paid as little as $85 for each volume he turned out. Although he considered the Hardy Boys assignment a “nuisance,” he had a growing family and, according to his son, was writing “to buy coal for the furnace.”

Reading Then and Now

From the first page to the last, A Figure in Hiding is a benign minefield of dated, stilted phrasing, classic cliches, and  coincidences that would make Dickens blush. The kid reading all alone in the Biltmore could care less, while his senior alter ego was more often amused than irritated as he adapted to an environment where the father called his sons “chaps” and a great aunt’s “bark was a good deal worse than her bite.” Soon I didn’t care how often people were “crestfallen,” nor how often the fat, comic relief sidekick Chet was referred to as “the stout lad.” I didn’t make a face every time a character was “trembling with fright,” not when I remembered the frightened ten-year-old and not when I thought of the man slaving away to keep the family furnace burning. Even when reading that a thief “had vanished as completely as if the earth had opened up and swallowed him,” I took it in stride, imagining how it would be at ten, running headlong into a cliche of that magnitude; no reason to roll your eyes or tiptoe around the unsightly hand-me-down, you go with the metaphor, feel it, believe it, live it, fall right into it.

The Girl in the Title

Some things never change. Regardless of how young or old a person I may be, I perk up whenever an interesting female enters the scene, whether it’s in a film or a book. While the ten-year-old falls head over heels for Tom Sawyer’s Becky and Judy Garland’s Dorothy, it’s love at first sight for the aging adult, whether it’s fascinating Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov, book and film, or Kitty in Anna Karenina.

As it happens, a movie is where the story begins, with Frank and Joe on their way to a “mystery film” called A Figure in Hiding. Since the Bayport Rialto is crowded that night, the brothers have to make do with seats next to two girls they know: Callie, who is “especially admired by Frank,” and Iola, who Joe (“no ladies’ man”) admits is “all right” for a girl. Although neither Callie nor Iola plays a part in the narrative, their presence hints at the approach of the character who will run away with the book. 

After witnessing the theft at gunpoint of $900 from the cashier at the Rialto, Frank and Joe are asked by their detective father to help with a case that leads to Frank peeking through a key hole into the hotel room occupied by two criminals named Rip Sinder and Spotty Lemuel. A sudden knock at the door and before they can hide the incriminating papers they’ve been working on, a girl rushes in crying “Father, you must come home!” What Callie’s admirer Frank sees is “a pretty young woman about seventeen years of age,” who turns out to be Virginia, Sinders’s feisty adopted daughter, and as soon as she sees what he and Lemuel are up to, she lets them have it: “You cheats! You’re schemers, both of you!” Hoping to shut her up, Lemuel reveals that Sinder is not her real father. Stunned, she bolts from the room, jumps in a car, and drives off with the Hardy Boys and two readers in pursuit.

The appeal of Virginia isn’t simply that she’s pretty and headstrong, she’s also spectacularly untrustworthy and unpredictable. After driving her car into the river and being rescued by the Hardys, who clean up the car and get it running again, she hurls herself behind the wheel and drives wildly off without a word of thanks. Over and over again, she’s the wild card, the elusive darling, the phony damsel in distress who at one time is suspected of absconding with the thief’s $900 and stealing his car, which she plans to drive to Miami disguised as a boy. Even so, you know that she’s a good girl at heart and will end up living with her loving grandmother. Still, she’s the best thing in the book, the main reason you keep reading, however old you may be, and when she settles down at the end, she actually claims to be the title character, promising Frank and Joe that she will no longer be “a figure in hiding.”

The Last Word

Virginia Sinder sent me back to Edmund Wilson, who once wrote, “She was one of those women whose features are not perfect and who in their moments of dimness may not seem even pretty, but who, excited by the blood or the spirit, become almost supernaturally beautiful.” Wilson was describing the charismatic poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who turned down marriage proposals from Wilson, among others, one of whom called her “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine.”

A Signed “Song of Solomon”

Among the special items at this year’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale is a signed copy of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, mistakenly described as a first edition in last week’s page 14 article. The sale will take place Friday, May 10, through Sunday, May 12, in the library’s Community Room, beginning with a Preview on Friday, May 10, from 10 a.m. to noon. The $15 Preview is free for Friends of the Library.