#586: Minor Felonies – Encyclopedia Brown Strikes Again, a.k.a. The Case of the Secret Pitch [ss] (1965) by Donald J. Sobol

Encyclopedia Brown Strikes Again

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.

Brown 3The 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.

Brown 2‘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!”.

Brown 1We 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.

26 thoughts on “#586: Minor Felonies – Encyclopedia Brown Strikes Again, a.k.a. The Case of the Secret Pitch [ss] (1965) by Donald J. Sobol

  1. Forget Carr and Christie, at last, the true classics! Encyclopedia Brown really demanded a high level of sophistication from its readers. I am forever haunted by a case in which (spoiler alert) Encyclopedia busts a cellist’s alibi because she is wearing a tight skirt that would have made it impossible to play her instrument. There is another solution that hinges on knowing exactly how men shave, which was quite beyond my range of knowledge in grade school. You certainly can’t accuse Sobol of dumbing things down for young readers.

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    • You’re right, the lack of dumbing down in a lot of cases is very pleasing to see, and once he gets the simple variations out of the way I am hopeful that later stories will showcase this even better.

      And to see how applicable some of it is to real world experiences of the kids who would have been reading it — like, they can walk outside and probably come across instances of the very thing they’ve been reading about — is immensely powerful. What a wonderful body of work this man must have produced, on all manner of levels.

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  2. Good to see you moving on to dear old Encyclopedia Brown. I think these stories are as big a part – if not bigger – of my dedication to fair play mysteries as are The Three Investigator novels or the Enid Blyton mysteries. They are also the reason I love challenges to the reader.

    As an adult, I find the EB stories fairly easy to see through – they often hindge on just one thing, and a careful reader will generally pick up on that salient thing – but I’m not sure I was that astute when I read them as a kid.

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    • I especially enjoyed the way the challenges came after a very brief story. Most of the time I had an idea of the key point before the end, but there were a couple where I got to that challenge and was like, “Er, what now?”. Of course, I’d say that’s more because I was having such a good time reading them, and not that I’m bad at clue-spotting 🤣

      Lots of fun, I’m very thankful to the generous individual who sent them my way.

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  3. In elementary school, we used to be able to order paperback books through this catalogue. On the day the many boxes of books would arrive, our teacher would hand out the orders and then let us have the rest of the afternoon to look over our books. I always had a stack of them to savor, including the latest scientific magic book by Scott Corbett, some hard hitting dramatic novel, and an Encyclopedia Brown book. I can remember as if it were yesterday receiving this very one!

    I’d like to think you heard of Encyclopedia Brown from me because I wrote one of my very few fictional posts on here as an homage to E.B. and The Hardy Boys. But of course, your memory is as notorious as your spelling . . .

    Donald J. Sobol published several volumes of “Minute Mysteries” and “Two Minute Mysteries” for adults, and many of the E.B. adventures are juvenilized versions of these. I have a copy of “The Balloon Man” that features Inspector Fordney or someone like him. The clues are exactly the same, but the prose is a little – just a little richer. I think that proves what others are saying here in that Sobol did not dumb down his clues for kids!

    Wikipedia lists twenty-nine volumes published between 1963 and 2012. Are you planning on reviewing all of them? Sometime you will have to come to the U.S. during Halloween and we can dress up as Encyclopedia Brown and Bugs Meany . . . Maybe when I come to my next Bodies, we can do a talk on child detectives and challenge the audience for prizes!!

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    • I have four or five of the EB collections, so I’ll commit to reviewing those and see how we go from there. They seem to be moderately available, so getting more shouldn’t (at present) be hugely problematic…though the edition pictured is so lovely that part of me feels I’m going to fall in love with this version and want them all looking like this…

      I legit cannot remember where I first heard of these. I know it was before your own fictional efforts, and I know it was before I started blogging…but apart from that, I can’t reach back any farther into my memories. You’ll be surprised to learn.

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  4. I’m kind of surprised you never read these – perhaps it was more of an American thing. As a kid I read these inside and out. Growing up in the 80s, I think any American kid would be well versed in Encyclopedia Brown, whereas The Three Investigators would have been a bit more obscure vintage thing at the time.

    Your review brings back a lot of memories, in particular the character names. While I remember general themes of the series, the only story that I recall (not covered in this review) relied on knowing which region of the world certain animals live in.

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    • I only knew of The Three Investigators because there was a copy of The Mystery of the Nervous Lion on my shelves as a young ‘un. Never read it, and no idea where it came from, but that’s how I had some awareness of their existence. Brown…yeah, no idea. It’s certainly not — or certainly wasn’t, and I’d be amazed if that had changed — a widely known thing in my youth…probably the closest we came was Nancy Drew.

      This is in part why I love reading and writing about these mystery-themed books for younger readers: it’s part of an education I never got, sure, but it’s also so interesting to hear the enthusiasm of people do did know them and get all reminiscent about them. I can think of very little of my childhood reading that I’d be excited to hear about now as an adult — it was lots of Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith and others, and if people happen to be reading it now, lovely, but I don’t have that same level of enthusiasm for it. Loved them when I was younger, but nothing really clung to me in the way Jupe and others seem to have for those of you who read them at a formative age.

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    • Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigators are contemporary with each other. The first books in each series were both first published in 1963. I read both at the same time growing up an entire decade before you and the books had been in print for ten years. Neither was considered “vintage” at the time and I doubt in the 80s things would have changed. In fact for two sets of juvenile books written and published at the same time I thought the Three Investigators books were more mature and modern than Encyclopedia Brown. Sobel’s series is geared towards an elementary school age audience. I think of Three Investigators books as a slightly older audience for grades 5 – 8 (approximately ages 11 – 14), what they call “young adult” these days. I’m surprised that Encyclopedia Brown is still in print! And that there as twice as many Brown volumes as there were when I was a kid. Proving that they aren’t quaint at all to tech obsessed 21st century kids.

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      • This bears out my own impressions, namely that T3I were a bit more mature in their audience (longer books, more peril). Difficult to judge how people would have responded to them at the time, but I could easily see younger readers going from the Encyclopedia Brown stories to the Three Investigators once they felt they’d outgrown the former or were looking for a little more content in the same vein.

        I’m interested, too, to see how those later books bear up against the eaelir ones. I wonder if Sobol’s characters came into the modern era — so if the stories start relying on the likes of the internet and, er, other things that have happened since the 1960s, or whether Leroy Brown and his cohorts are forever trapped in a sort of timeless Neverwhen. Hmmm….

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  5. Glad to see Encyclopedia Brown on here; those books were practically a rite of passage for American mystery fans of a certain age. The ginger ale story made it into Adey’s bibliography, so even some adults were paying attention!

    A lot of the clues in these stories seemed to depend on unusual facts or observations about everyday things. Other commenters have mentioned cello playing, shaving, and animal habitats…I remember an especially good one about the way keys are laid out on a typewriter, and another about playing card designs. Kids would almost never have noticed these things before reading the stories, but it was really interesting to have them pointed out to us.

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    • There’s definitely something special about a book that gives you a new way to look at something familiar. My own formative experience in this came, weirdly enough, from the Jack Reacher novel Killing Floor (this was when I was still feeling my way in crime/thriller fiction — there were about four in the series at this stage). Early on, Reacher is arrested for a murder and explains why he can’t be the murderer based on the description of the crime scene and — while it’s probably specious at times, I can’t remember since I read it, er, more than a few years (and books) ago — that explanation blew my tiny mind with the sheer range of assumptions that had been made and the ease with which a new perspective could overturn them.

      From there, is it any wonder I eventually ended up a GAD nerd? 🙂

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  6. I’ve never read any of the Encyclopedia Brown stories, but, the way you describe the stories, they sound like the junior versions of the Solve ‘Em Yourself puzzles from H.A. Ripley’s How Good a Detective Are You?. So now I have to add this series to my junior wish list. Thanks a lot, JJ! ;D

    Again, it’s not exactly complex, but as an introduction to the impossible crime it’s fairly passable…

    This is, perhaps, the only drawback of the treasure trove of impossible crimes we’ve unearthed among these juvenile mysteries, but a very understandable and forgivable drawback. And you have to appreciate how these stories were probably a gateway drug for many children to the detective stories of Christie, Carr, Doyle and others.

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    • I haven’t read anything really too close to the Brown tales, but there’s enough overlap with enough sources — The Baffle Book, the ubiquitous Challenge to the Reader, the Five Find-Outers, some 2-minute mysteries I picked up — that they feel very familiar in their unfamiliarity.

      What sets them apart is the brevity and sheer pace of the stories — it’s impressive how Sobol hides so much in plain sight, so that the impatient of incautious reader could very easily fly right past the key idea without a second thought. ‘The Balloon Man’ in particular, apart from a piece of slightly odd phrasing, is a great example, because of how much detail is in those pages…you’re racing to keep up after being dropped into a world that exists in every detail (millionaires, a guy selling sweets from a van, kidnappers, the police becoming involved — it’s all in there in record time).

      They’re a salutary lesson, in many regards, of how to set a scene in as few strokes as possible. No, the setting doesn’t breathe, but given that most modern crime novels seem to stifle any setting until it suffocates. I think I know which I’d rather read 🙂

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        • If the name of the character had just been Leroy Brown, I would have hardly thought of it as a nod to Chesterton’s Father Brown. However, since he’s known as Encyclopedia Brown, you can argue that his nickname is somewhat of an honorific like the priestly Father. So… maybe?

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        • Interestingly (or not), in the Swedish translation, the youngster is called Roy Potter, for one reason or another. I suppose those names are easier to pronounce for an eight-year-old than Leroy Brown.

          And his nickname was “Snillet” – equivalent of “Brainiac” or “Genius” – so I’ve never associated the fellow either with Father Brown or a collection of books with a lot of knowledge in them…

          BTW, with your crusade against Americanisms, shouldn’t you be callling him “Encyclopaedia”? 🙂

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          • Wait, you want me to complain about Americanisms in a book by an American, set in American, featuring Americans, and published by an American publisher? Dude, I’m not that much of a zealot 😄

            “Roy Potter” is an interesting alternative name — is there something about Swedish that makes “Leroy Brown” difficult? That sounds facetious because I’m asking it, but it’s a genuine question — in the same way that “J” sounds are difficult for Germans, I mean.

            I can’t tell how serious I’m being about the Chesterton reference…it just suddenly struck me that there was another crime-solving Brown who saw what others missed. It’s a common enough English name, I just thought I’d see f anyone felt like shooting the idea down.

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            • Well, the pronunciation of “ow” in Brown is not particularly easy to figure out for a Swede who doesn’t have any English. If only it were the German “Braun”… The letters in “Potter” are pronounced more or less the same way in Swedish as in English, so it’s probably easier to pronounce for a young ‘un.

              Also, there are some Swedes who have the given name Roy, but if I’d hazard a guess there’s no one named Leroy.

              And I think it’s rather the other way around with the J sound – it’s you guys who pronounce it different from most of the world. A Swede has no problem reading out the German “Januar” or “Junge”, even if he doesn’t know what they mean. But yes, Swedes are notorious for mangling the J in English: “I yust had some yuice on a yetplane”.

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  7. I did grow up reading Encyclopedia Brown, Emil and the 3 Detectives, There Investigators, Five Find-Outers, Nancy Drew Casefiles, as well as watch the television of the Kindaichi manga… Which all prepared me to love the GA mystery novel by the time I started with Agatha Christie. 😀

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