Our book today is Donald Sobol’s 1963 classic Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, which introduced Sobol’s immortal character, 10-year-old super-sleuth Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, to legions of young people who until they read the book had no idea they liked reading at all – and then found they loved it.
Our diminutive hero – “a complete library walking around in sneakers” – is the quiet, well-behaved only child of Mr. Brown, the police chief of small-town Idaville, and his prim, open-minded wife, who used to be the town’s English teacher (before she got married and became a housewife, that is – “timeless classic” also meaning “forever dated”). The police department of Idaville has a sterling reputation for cracking cases, due in large part to the singular deductive abilities of young Leroy, to whom his father often opens cases over the dinner table – and comes away matter-of-factly astounded by his son’s uncanny ability to see through assumptions, false associations, and plain deceit.
Encyclopedia isn’t a genetic freak, however. As Sobol makes winningly clear right from the beginning, the boy was a champion reader before he was a champion anything else. As in most fictional depictions of alleged bookworms, Leroy doesn’t act particularly bookish; we hardly ever see him reading, and he seems untroubled by interruptions when he is – he hardly ever talks about books except to cite them as mystery-solving authorities (although, to be fair, who would he talk about books with, in Idaville?). Perhaps most tellingly, he completely fails to elicit that particular pitch of mindless blood-frenzy that bookish children always arouse in their savage, semi-human peers. Even his nominal enemies – including the rather pathetic little gang called the Tigers, led by Bugs Meany – never even consider meting out to Encyclopedia the treatment his real-world counterpart would instantly receive, that is, cracking his mouth against the nearest piece of concrete. Instead, Idaville’s kids – both the victims he helps and the wrongdoers he exposes – all respect him.
One perhaps less – or more – than the rest: Sally Kimball, the whip-smart tomboy who springs upon the scene in this book by intervening to stop a bullying (and punching the daylights out of the bully) – a mundane form of justice in which Encyclopedia himself, it must be said, seems uninterested. When Sally nearly beats him at a “mystery contest.” he makes her his “junior partner” in his Brown Detective Agency (25 cents a day, plus expenses) – and, interestingly, his ‘bodyguard’ (we’re never told why he needs on, or thinks he does). Apart from various outright criminals at the moment of their ruin, Sally’s the only person who ever chides our hero, telling him to “be serious” and “quit fooling around.” The fact that he doesn’t start fooling around until she shows up augurs a long, happy friendship, though there’s hardly any hint of that here.
Sobol has devised the book with fitting cleverness, to snare the unwary reluctant reader: each chapter but the first serves up the ingredients of a crime-and-solution. We see all the same clues Encyclopedia Brown sees, and we’re left with two things: his certain declaration that he’s pieced those clues into an answer, and the block-letter question/taunt HOW DID ENCYCLOPEDIA KNOW? In this as in so many other ways, the stories invoke Sherlock Holmes, who repeatedly tells Watson (and us) that he’s seen the same things Holmes has seen and should therefore be able to solve the mystery (Holmes isn’t named in this first book, but reference is made to “the great detective” who, like Leroy, closes his eyes while hearing the facts of a problem). The solutions are given at the back of the book, usually in one bland paragraph explaining what the boy genius saw that eluded everybody else.
Those solutions might be bland, but Sobol’s prose everywhere else is a quiet, low-key delight, a mixture of perfect clarity an wonderful small-town turns of phrase (“I’ll be as quiet as a cat at a dog show,” “They looked as happy as six flat tires,” or – Sally, of course, in mid-combat, “This should take the frosting off you”). It’s easy to understand why this book an all its sequels would go on to be so undyingly popular, eternally in print, each set of new covers taking a slightly different aesthetic approach to Idaville’s most famous son. The books are four-square celebrations of intelligence as a way to success: very shortly after establishing Brown Detective Agency, Encyclopedia and Sally have enough money – the princely sum of $3.50 – to open an actual bank account (when they go to do that, they interrupt a robbery – naturally), and we can assume the paying customers keep coming.
I came late to reading and so missed encountering the world of Encyclopedia Brown when I was a child. It took the solemn-faced and slightly reproving recommendation of a studious ten-year-old to send me, abashed, to the Boston Public Library to rectify my oversight. In a way, I needn’t have bothered: that ten-year-old could have recited Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective to me – he practically knew it by heart. Now I do too.