Some sad news today. Donald J. Sobol, author of the “Encyclopedia Brown” books, passed away July 11 at the age of 87.
I was reminiscing with some friends on Facebook about how much we used to love those books, and one friend of mine in his 20s had no idea what we were talking about. Encyclopedia Brown was a 10-year-old detective who sometimes solved crimes for the other kids. Other times, the police would bring him in for his expertise, because … hey … why the hell not?
And the gimmick was that Sobol would reveal a clue at some point in the story that would incriminate the culprit. Like — OK, I’m just making this up here — there’d be a stolen ring. And the police would be interviewing the suspect, who says she couldn’t POSSIBLY have stolen the ring because she was inside doing the dishes for the past hour when the theft occurred. And she’d show off her smooth hands to demonstrate she wasn’t wearing the ring. Then Encylopedia Brown would say she’s lying.
The story would end with: HOW DOES ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN KNOW SHE’S LYING? You could figure it out for yourself, or cheat and turn immediately to the answer section in the back. (What would I do? Ain’t tellin.) And it would be something like: “Her hands were smooth. Encyclopedia Brown knew that if she’d REALLY been washing dishes for the past hour, her fingers would have been wrinkled from the water.”
Sometimes I think the real hero of those stories wasn’t Encyclopedia Brown, but whatever prosecutor had to eventually get a conviction based on the evidence. “How do we know she was the thief? Well, a 10-year-old boy noticed that her fingers weren’t wrinkled. Therefore, she COULDN’T have been inside washing dishes when the theft occurred as she claimed and … uh … yeah. That’s basically all I got. Hey! Your Honor! Did you get the Superbowl tickets I sent you?”
OK, so it wasn’t exactly “The Wire.” You don’t read boy detective stories for their gritty realism. And Sobol inspired countless kids over the years to read. That’s an honorable legacy if I ever heard one.
By the way — Encyclopedia Brown’s nickname derived from the fact that he was so smart and well-read, he was like a walking encyclopedia. How about that? The smart, well-read kid was the hero in Sobol’s books. Another point in his favor.
These days, the kid would probably be named Wikipedia Brown, and he’d solve the mysteries with unfounded assertions about Ron Paul. What can I say? It’s a different world.