I used to think of Encyclopedia Brown mystery stories as logical, serious, and solveable. I probably also believed in a tidy universe. On re-reading, I realize that I was completely and utterly wrong. I missed the humor, I didn’t see the absurdity, and I completely mistook the tone. And, as it turns out, I was probably also wrong about the universe.
The long-running series by Donald J. Sobol followed a set formula: the reader would be introduced to an eccentric citizen of Idaville who would bring a case to our boy sleuth, Encyclopedia Brown. The victim would give a summary of what had happened, or confront a suspected villain who would protest and counter with a story of their own.
Encyclopedia might ask a question or two, and then he’d announce that he had solved the case. The reader could try to logic it out or choose to flip to the back of the book and learn about the one telling detail that had tipped Encyclopedia off.
Encyclopedia Brown stories could always be solved; that was the promise.
In Sobol’s volume Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt (1988), the young sleuth helps his dad, the chief of the Idaville police, determine whether a thief has made off with some antique screens. He helps a boy recover a pizza (or at least the money for it) from bully Bugs Meany. With the aid of his henchwoman, Sally Kimball, he finds a treasure hunt cheater, gets a stolen camera back, and helps a junior artist friend win a contest. He discovers a tree thief, a toilet paper thief, a tent saboteur, and a worm-wrangling huckster.
What I liked about the books as a fifth grader was that they contained the possibility of solving the cases oneself. They were a refreshing change from the Nancy Drew books (which I now see are adventure/suspense stories that are insistently framed as mysteries).
Instead of a presenting a capricious, dangerous universe where solving a case involved being in the right place at the right time, the world of Encyclopedia Brown seemed to posit some sort of order—an order that I could control. I was a child (just like Encyclopedia!), and I could solve a mystery by reading carefully and critically! I even had a degree of power over the narrative itself. I could turn to the end of the book and find out the solution—I could choose to see the conclusion—or I could read the next story. Because of the physical act of flipping to the end for the solution and then shuffling back for another story, it was a little bit like a choose-your-own-adventure, a kind of book that was popular when I was young. But in spirit, Sobol’s stories were the complete opposite. In choose-your-own-adventure, the narrator often ended up dead. In Encyclopedia Brown, everything turned out fine:
In police stations across the United States, the same question was asked again and again.
Why did every grown-up or child who broke the law in Idaville get caught?
Every case in Idaville was solved. Encyclopedia Brown books were not perilous, they were not fraught. No one died. Encyclopedia didn’t even get a bloody nose, thanks to his muscled henchwoman, Sally. The universe of those books seemed orderly, and thus reassuring both in subject and in tone. For years, long after I’d stopped reading the Encyclopedia Brown books, I held them in my mind as straightforward, maybe even utilitarian. My young self wasn’t there for the prose; I was there to solve some problems.
Encyclopedia’s real name is Leroy, my husband likes to note. He enjoys imagining a world where Encyclopedia grows up to become Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.
After re-reading as an adult, I find it increasingly plausible that Encyclopedia would hie off to Chicago and become a surly brawler. Because, contrary to my impression, Encyclopedia Brown books are not completely logical or straightforward. Law, order, and logic do not reign at the end of the day. They never did. Here are some of the citizens we encounter in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt:
- “The last customer Monday was Farnsworth Grant. Farnsworth, who was ten, had founded the Idaville Flat Earth Association”
- “Orson Merriweather had always wanted to be a tree…he put out The Social Directory of Big Trees.”
- “Wilford Wiggins was a high-school dropout and too lazy to walk in his sleep.”
- “When he felt up to it Encyclopedia dropped in on Lathrop McPhee. Lathrop had the largest collection of toilet paper in Idaville.”
That last quotation in particular highlights Encyclopedia’s subtle-but-insistent exasperation with his eccentric fellow citizens—“When he felt up to it”—and shows some of the absurdity that the young sleuth is dealing with. (Idaville is said to be in Florida, and this set of characters reminds me of Florida Man joke headlines.)
In another story, Encyclopedia barely keeps it together around the person he’s helping, Pablo Pizzaro, “Idaville’s greatest child artist.” Pablo’s work Bumps on a Log aapparently took fifth grade by storm:
Encyclopedia thought Bumps on a Log was small potatoes. He dared not say so, however, in front of Sally. She became fluttery whenever she was near Pablo.
While watching Pablo’s rival paint, Encyclopedia thinks, “Sailboat in Motion might be instant art, but it was the worst picture he had ever seen.” And later, “His eyes hurt from watching Sailboat in Motion take shape. He staggered off in search of relief.”
In this re-reading Encyclopedia is less kid genius, more a person striving to be levelheaded while being surrounded by illogical, somewhat ridiculous (but often lovable) people; judging by the way he behaves in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt, the pressure is starting to get to him. The title for this volume could have been Encyclopedia Brown and Life’s Rich Tapestry, or possibly, Encyclopedia Brown Is Somewhat Tired of This Shit.
I mean, he is a child solving the cases that his dad, the friggin’ Chief of Police, can’t crack. If that isn’t topsy-turvy, I don’t know what is.
Then again, remembering back to how I felt about Encyclopedia when I was myself a kid, I know that I forgave this lapse in plausibility. The idea of a young person solving mysteries was delightful.
So I go back and forth. When I was a child, I needed Encyclopedia Brown to be comforting, solid. I wanted to think that problems could be solved—and that’s what I got. As an adult, I don’t have that certainty; I’ve become someone else. But it seems on re-reading that the books have been something else all along.
Top photo: “Detective A,” flickr / Ruud van Eck