Since starting this blog, I have made the acquaintance of The Three Investigators, the Five Find-Outers, and several other juvenile sleuths, the majority of who have been an absolute delight to encounter; today, I add Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown to that list.
Yes — or, no — I had never read any of Donald J. Sobol’s stories about the pint-sized Sherlock of Idaville prior to this and, if I’m honest, I don’t even know how I came to hear of the character in the first place (something that’s also true of The Hardy Boys, who are somewhat more distant in my intentions). Nevertheless, heard of him I had but read him I had not, and so it would have remained but for the generosity of a reader of this blog — I didn’t say fan, let the record state — who very kindly offered to send me a selection of juvenile mysteries, some Encyclopedia Brown books among them. And so here we are.
The only real difficulty is how to review this, the second collection. Comprising ten stories, it should be a simple matter of running through them individually as I would for any other short story collection, but all ten stories fill a total of 66 pages and each have one full-page illustration to their name, leaving a grand total of 56 pages of large-font text. The stories are, at most a few hundred words each and notable for the efficiency with which they introduce the key ideas and players, posit a mystery, add a mere soupçon of additional interest, and then end on a Challenge to the Reader along the lines of SO, HOW’D ENCYCLOPEDIA COME TO THAT CONCLUSION, EH?? Then — Baffle Book or Nigel Morland-esque — the solution to the mystery can be found at the back for you to consult after a suitable amount of cogitation.
I have to be honest, I dearly wish I’d known about these books as a kid. Hot damn, they are so much fun. But whether they will submit to my adult reviewing process remains to be seen.
First up, ‘The Case of the Secret Pitch’ — in which Bugs Meany, who I presume will be the Skinny Norris of this series, has apparently sold the trick to an unplayable baseball pitch to a major league player and so has won a bet with Speedy Flanagan, meaning Speedy must give his baseball bat to Bugs. It’s fun, easy to drop into without any previous experience of this world or characters, contains some nice light humour…
“What do you know about Browning?”
“Nothing, I’ve never browned,” replied Encyclopedia. “But once at the beach I tanned something awful, and –“
“I mean Robert Browning,” said Speedy
“The English poet?”
…and has its key clue in plain sight even if the reasoning used when applying it is specious at best.
The change of pace represented by ‘The Case of the Balloon Man’, which sees a local character who “has an old truck and sells ice cream, candy, and soda — mostly to children” accused of kidnapping the son of a wealthy Idaville resident and demanding a $60,000 ransom (yes, you read that correctly), is marked, but the sprightly tone Sobol adopts stops it being too harrowing for younger minds. The misdirection here is almost classically GAD in its core idea, and contains some specialist ‘outside’ knowledge — in the sense that it’s not explicitly stated in the text — which must inevitably be utilised in such brief tales where full declaration would stick out like a sore thumb. The way attention is drawn to, and yet deflected away from, the key piece of evidence is as canny as anything, and I’ve read full novels predicated on the essential ingredients Sobol includes here, so the compactness of his plotting is to be wondered at.
Two linked stories next, which see the Brown family holidaying in Texas. First is ‘The Case of the Ambushed Cowboy’, which is slight and works on paper purely because it’s a written explanation of a physical phenomenon no-one would surely overlook in the real world. Second, ‘The Case of the Forgetful Sheriff’, is equally non-essential and relies on a similarly too-too-simple idea which doesn’t fit with the intelligent simplicity elsewhere…but, well, it at least has an interesting — if, again, specious as all getup — final development which is a lovely twist of sorts but, realistically, needs about another 300 words to really set up. Every short story collection has at least one duff, however, and I’m going to say that the thematic and locational linking of these two allows them to count as that one story.
There’s something of (my brief exposure to) the Sam Hawthorne tales of Ed Hoch in ‘The Case of the Hungry Hitchhiker’, despite there being no impossibility to speak of — though maybe it’s the fact that the core deception could have been used to explain a disappearing car containing bank robbers. As it is, Chief Brown and Encyclopedia spot the hitchhiker when chasing said bank robbers and, when he’s able to confirm that the car had gone past him a few minutes before, take him along with them to identify the vehicle. There’s a real narrative volte face here, too, in the moment that Encyclopedia is accepts a piece of chocolate from said hitcher and “hardly tasted it, because suddenly he was scared” — showing the combination of observations and accrued little nudges that build up to a fabulous conclusion. Best story in the collection.
‘The Case of the Two-Fisted Poet’ introduces, for the first time in this collection, Sally Kimball, “Idaville’s best fighter under twelve years old” who seems to be the Hawk to Encyclopedia’s Spenser. It also features the English-educated Percy Arbuthnot — whose “hair was too long [and] clothes were too tight”, goddamn beatnik — whose ability to conjure four-line doggerel verse is sufficient for him to qualify as the poet of the title. When it looks like Percy might have a claim on Sally’s affections, Encyclopedia is on hand to burst that particular bubble, because of what I can only surmise is a terrifyingly deep-rooted need to be correct all the time. The idea here is again a wild swing back in the direction of too-too-simple, but it’s light and fun and an easy read, though you wonder why Encyclopedia has such a problem with someone who has manners taking Sally to the movies.
I can’t really say much about ‘The Case of the Wounded Toe’. It’s alarmingly slight and, again, specious to the point of nonsense. Given how great the best of these are, this one feels like a real space-filler.
Bugs Meany himself hires out intrepid sleuth in ‘The Case of Excalibur’ and tasks him with recovering a beloved penknife. Sally’s not convinced:
“Don’t trust him, Encyclopedia! Drop the case!”
“I don’t trust Bugs and farther than I can throw a cheese cake underwater,” replied Encyclopedia…
…good grief, am I bored of typing ‘Encyclopedia’ over and over and over…
“Still, I’m in business. I take my customers as they come.”
This stands in great contrast to ‘…Wounded Toe’ because of how neatly constructed it is, with time for a late twist, a full explanation, and some unfortunate consequences for Bugs. Probably the most fun story in the collection, helped by lines like “I’ll keep it undercover. You won’t know it from the inside of your bed,” and “He’s lying like a carpet!”.
We get an impossible(ish) crime in ‘The Case of the Ginger Ale’, and blind virtuoso violinist Rafino de Verona into the bargain who has bet his Stradivarius that an acquaintance who is “especially into locked room puzzles” couldn’t pull of an apparently impossible feat…only for him to do it! Sat silently in a locked, darkened room, the violin is forfeit if Hans Braun can enter, unlock the safe, fill a glass therein with ginger beer, replace it in the safe, and leave without de Verona hearing him. When it come off, de Verona seeks Chief Brown’s help, and Encyclopedia is there to explain it away. Again, it’s not exactly complex, but as an introduction to the impossible crime it’s fairly passable — the trick is simple, sure, but it’s a great primer on how to prepare one thing and give another — and the embroidery to make the idea here up into a full story is part of the enjoyment (bringing to mind the Arthur Porges mysteries I’ve read) but, sheesh, who would scam a blind man like that?
Finally, ‘The Case of the Stomach Puncher’ gives us a stolen bike and a clever moment of word-based clewing that behooves the reader to pay close attention while a lot of other things are going on — it’s the one story where I had to go back and check a detail. Er, I don’t know what else to say, really. A nice moment sees Encyclopedia prepare, Back to the Future III-esque, against the eponymous attack only for the character in question to threaten an entirely different injury…but beyond that it’s a bit of a wheeze and difficult to say much about.
And so, what of Leroy Brown? The simplicity of Sobol’s writing is to be commended, as is the way he deals in clear actions and situations to give his readers a sporting chance at solving the mysteries. There’s a lot of fun to be derived from seeing the key clues drop into place, and the brevity of these tales is equally impressive for how much they contain and, as noted about, the range of tones they’re able to strike. if you get the chance to read ‘…Hungry Hitchhiker’, I think that would be a good litmus test: it’s the best one here, but shows the form and its possibilities off well.
If you grew up with Leroy and his cases, you’re a lucky soul indeed. I very much look forward to making his acquaintance again on a future occasion.
For a slightly more, er, impatient take on this — with full spoilers, by the way — you can check out the (unofficial, I’m guessing) Encyclopedia Brown Encyclopedia posts on this collection.