You may not have heard, Donald J. Sobol, author of the Encyclopedia Brown books died last week. In honor of Sobol, I am reposting this. It wasn’t written by me, it was a guest post from back in 2009. Rest In Peace, Donald Sobol – thanks to you, I know how to win an egg-spinning contest (you have to secretly boil your egg!)
Hey-o, its Dave AKA The Wordy Ninja, some of you might remember me as the writer that profiled Nikki and her blog for the site Bookish.us. Since then, I’ve been begging her for a chance to fill in and write a guest post. Thankfully, the stars have aligned and the restraining order has been lifted. So here we go:
Every generation needs a champion and every hero needs an origin story. Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective tells the humble beginnings of one such figure. In his first volume of mysteries for kids, Sobol introduces not only the premise of the character he nicknamed “Sherlock Holmes in sneakers” (I know, right?) but also the milieu in which he works cases and the regular cast of characters he comes across.
For those of you unfamiliar with the books, it works like this—each volume has ten cases, in which Encyclopedia learns the facts of a mystery and solves it in about ten pages. At the end of each case, he proclaims a suspect’s guilt or innocence and the narrative breaks the fourth wall to boldly ask if you, the reader, know how Encyclopedia figured it out. You can then flip to an answers page for the case and learn what clues you missed or were right about.
Now, some may argue an entry in this series doesn’t exactly qualify for this blog, to which I have a two-folded response: 1) I’d point to contemporary adult fiction books like O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as an example of how a collection of short fiction can be interpreted as a larger work on par with a novel. 2) What the Hell? Dude, it’s my first time writing here. Back off!!
Anyway, somewhere in America is a town called Idaville (no state given), which Sobol describes basically as an Anytown, USA , that has the “average number of crimes for a community its size.” But what’s most unusual about Idaville is that for almost a year, no one (including a single kid) has been able to get away with a crime. First off, let’s apply some health skepticism to that claim—I think the statement reads better as “no crime has gone unsolved” because if I learned anything from the time I was driving by myself along a desolate highway that summer night I ran over a hitchhiker, it’s that if you make sure there are no witnesses and no body, then there’s no crime.
So who is responsible for this impeccable serving of justice? Chief Brown, the head of the local police force? Nope, his ten-year old son, Leroy. Yeah, this guy named his kid Leroy Brown…as in the Jim Croce song (though to get technical, the character predates the song). But it’s cool, everyone who’s not his parents or teachers call him Encyclopedia—because he’s so damn smart. So smart in fact that it’s Encyclopedia who has been solving all of Idaville’s crimes every night at dinner when his dad tells him about his day. Great news, kid, you’re super smart. The bad news, your father is an incompetent public servant.
After helping his dad crack a case in which an embezzler tried to cover up his crime by claiming the money had been taken by a serial armed robber (this is pretty much the pinnacle of crime in the Encyclopedia Brown universe), the kid gumshoe decides to open up his own private detective agency—charging 25 cents per day (plus expenses), no case too small, and begins picking up clients (mainly other kids in the neighborhood).
Every great serialized hero needs an archenemy. Batman has the Joker, Sherlock Holmes has Professor Moriarty, and Encyclopedia Brown has bully/con artist Bugs Meany. Seriously, when your name is Bugs Meany, you’re pretty much predestined for a life of petty crime. Encyclopedia’s first private case brings him in direct conflict with Bugs when a client hires him to prove that Bugs and his gang, the Tigers, stole the kid’s tent, which Bugs claims the kid stole from them and they rightly took it back. Brown is able to prove that Bugs is lying and threatens to tell the cops and, astonishingly, the Tigers leave. From my personal childhood experience of dealing with bullies I expected Bugs to repeatedly punch Encyclopedia while calling him a fag, but hey, what do I know?
Meany’s more criminal side comes out in the very next case, when Brown proves that the sword he’s trying to sell to another neighborhood kid could not have belonged to Civil War General Stonewall Jackson. This is a prime example of bug’s confidence game technique. He tries to sell or trade something that he claims is incredibly valuable for well below its market price when it’s actually a fake. But he’s also selling a sword to a ten year-old boy! Why would the kid care about its historical value? IT’S A SWORD!! Just sell it for being a sword!!
In an effort to get revenge for his twice in a row humiliation, Bugs sets Encyclopedia up in a riddle contest (Does anyone remember doing this as a kid?) against Sally Kimball, the new girl in town who’s pretty, can out fight any boy under twelve, and aims to take the title of smartest kid in town. Of course Brown wins and he even takes Sally on as his bodyguard and “junior” partner (sexism, it’s really cute when it’s done by kids). From there on out, it’s pretty much a mix of cases with Encyclopedia defeating Bugs and helping out his dad.
I used to love Encyclopedia Brown when I was a kid. Hell, I wanted to be him! I even opened up my own detective agency as a kid (I didn’t get a single client). But reading this twenty years later, I realized that it wasn’t so much that Encyclopedia Brown was super smart, it’s just that everyone else is a moron. In today’s digitally interconnected world of constant information, I sincerely doubt he’s needed. What’s more, Sobol sets him up in this mythical kid’s world that’s a miniature adult world with each child acting a role equivalent to an adult counterpart and is complete bullshit. Kids don’t care about the truth or what’s a provable, they’ll justify something no matter what. It’s sad to say, but Encyclopedia Brown is probably the most completely fictional story I’ve ever read.