On July 11, the world lost a beloved writer of children’s books in Donald Sobol, creator of one of the most beloved sleuths to ever grace fiction. Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown may have been a boy, and the crimes he investigated were more on the level of the theft of a tent or the outcome of a school baseball game, but for many young people, Encyclopedia Brown was their entry into the world of mysteries.
Encyclopedia Brown was named for his encyclopedic knowledge, a stunning assembly of facts that he had gleaned from books. He used this knowledge to not only solve mysteries for the kids of Idaville, but occasionally to help out his father, Idaville’s chief of police. In many ways, Encyclopedia Brown was like a young Sherlock Holmes, gifted with incredible powers of observation.
Only Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown stories differed in that they put the reader in the place of the young detective. In Holmes stories, he’s usually the smartest character around, and few others can match his genius. In the Encyclopedia Brown stories, while he always solves the mystery, the reader is invited to guess the solution, prompted by a question at the end of each story. The answers are then given in the back of the book to show how well you guessed.
Some of the solutions were a bit obtuse, or the detail fleeting or not obvious to the young reader. Some were muddied by time (the earliest books being written in the 60s). But there were moments when one could, through their own critical thinking and powers of observation, solve the crime the same way that the genius Encyclopedia Brown did, thus inducting the reader into the ranks of amateur sleuths everywhere.
Sobol actually began using this idea in a series called Two-Minute Mysteries (a series I only discovered after exhausting all the Encyclopedia Brown books I could get my hands on). Two Minute Mysteries featured Dr. Haledjian, an adult protagonist in the vein of Encyclopedia Brown, incredibly observant and sharp. And though Haledjian solved more adult crimes, like murder, Encyclopedia Brown was by far the more influential character. Encyclopedia Brown taught kids that they could be powerful, merely by using their minds.
Sobol also gave us a strong female protagonist in the form of Sally Kimball. Sally was Encyclopedia Brown’s best friend, an athlete, and a girl who would defend Encyclopedia Brown against the neighborhood bullies (chief of which was Bugs Meany). Sally even solved some of the mysteries herself, using insight that wasn’t obvious to Encyclopedia.
I eventually graduated on to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and the world of adult mystery fiction, but it all began with Encyclopedia Brown. The series inspired dreams of being a child detective myself. I often thought of creating my own little detective “office,” putting up flyers around the neighborhood to help find lost dogs or cats, or to solve other household problems. Together with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books, I believed that kids could solve mysteries. That in one of the most powerless times of our lives, we could have an effect on the greater world.
Sobol went on to write 28 Encyclopedia Brown books, the last of which, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Carnival Crime, was published last year. The series has never been out of print, showing its popularity over the years. He even was honored with a special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He leaves behind that legacy, and plenty of fun mysteries for children to solve. For me personally, he inspired the novel I’m currently writing, and a lifelong love of the genre. Sobol may be gone, but Encyclopedia Brown remains to be an inspiration for children everywhere.
For those interested, Sobol’s family has asked that donations in his memory be made to The New York Public Library via the following link: http://www.nypl.org/donaldsobol.
Rajan Khanna still holds out hopes of being a detective, even if it’s just finding out where a lost earring got to, or where the remote currently is. His current work-in-progress was indeed inspired by Encyclopedia Brown. Watch for news of it, some day, on www.rajankhanna.com.