Ten more cases for America’s Sherlock Holmes in Sneakers, Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown — how many do you think he’ll solve? What’s that? Oh, I suppose the title is something of a giveaway, hey? Well, moving on, then…
First, ‘The Case of the Missing Clues’ is an alibi problem as classic as anything from the Golden Age: Bugs Meany — this universe’s Skinny Norris, head of a gang of older boys who call themselves The Tigers but “should have called themselves the Berries [because] they were always getting into one jam after another” — can’t possibly have stolen Abner Nelson’s bag of cherries, can he? Sure, there’s a bag of cherries right there in his clubhouse, but they’ve been right there along with Bugs all afternoon, and he’s been nowhere near Abner nor his fruit stand.
“You two guys better not walk too close to a candy factory. They’re looking for nuts like you.”
Of course, as the title implies, it’s a matter of negative evidence — the dog that didn’t bark in the night-time — and as such is a pretty simple matter, though very nicely played.
I had no chance of solving ‘The Case of the Super-Secret Hold’ because I did not know of the principle at its core, but this meant that I learned something pretty cool. Clearly Bugs is buggin’ when he claims to have been taught a super-secret Judo hold by “a famous professor in Japan”, and despite several demonstrations on fellows Tigers we know he’s up to shenanigans…but will Sally Kimball be fooled? Having previously been outfought by this mere girl Bugs clearly wants to save some face, but how can Sally be so certain that the fabled hold is the nonsense Encyclopedia claims? I thought this relied on a different clue to that which it does, and can’t deny that it’s nice to be taught something by these books. Nice one, Donald.
‘The Case of the Wagon Master’ sees Encyclopedia set out to ruin the reputation of a 19th century frontiersman who, according to his client, “led the Fourth Cavalry into so many ambushes the troopers figured he was half redskin and half blind”. It’s not, er, the most PC of stories, and relies on a more esoteric piece of knowledge that I was only able to guess at, and which surely others would know about — the joy of the best of these stories is in Leroy catching a small detail others would overlook, but here I can’t quite buy that no-one else associated with the story of Buck Calhoun’s ‘heroics’ at Fort Hope wouldn’t also glom onto that key detail. Maybe it’s a commentary on the general public’s laissez-faire attitude regarding matters of history…or maybe it’s just a nice idea that doesn’t hold water when you think about it in any depth; you decide…!
Two tickets to the circus via Lionel Fisk’s Uncle Barney — who “had old used cars…sold houses, and…had gone to prison for two years”, man I love how casually Sobol tosses this kind of thing in — brings Leroy and Sally to ‘The Case of Sir Biscuit-Shooter’. I dunno if the evidence that sees guilt fastened on the criminal who steals lion tamer’s Princess Marta’s money is necessarily that solid, but I’m more intrigued by the description that “when the circus started, Encyclopedia scratched himself a few times” — apparently a result of their seats being so far from the ring that “the elephants looked like trained fleas” but I don’t see the link. Am…am I missing something? And why does this bother me so much? Surely Quarantine Madness can’t be setting in already, there’s still months of this to go…
“Idaville’s leading playboy” — implying a density of previously-unconsidered wealth in the town — calls Chief Brown fearing for his life (again…) in ‘The Case of the Frightened Playboy’ and it’s decided that the Chief and Leroy will visit him together so that young Encyclopedia can see what it’s like when you “let [your] money run [your] life”. Leroy’s there to foil an attempt on the millionaire that feels more than a little desultory, and, anyway, wouldn’t the fact that Mr. Mackey is only going out very late at night be a better clue? And what kind of millionaire interviews household staff in such a cavalier manner? I know they’re in demand, what with every third person in Idavile being a playboy, but surely this implies the creation of jobs for playboys’ secretaries…I’m over-thinking it, yes.
‘The Case of the Hair Dryers’ starts with a theatre burning down…and then sees the owner of a beauty parlour conked on the noggin and robbed, but who’d’ve known to lie in wait? I don’t know if the conclusion here is terribly valid in the way the solution seems to think — “Like most XXXX she could XXXX!” — but it’s interesting to note that this is a precise inversion of an Edmumd Crispin story (no, I don’t remember the title — it’s the one that does what this does does but, like, inverted-ly). Also, since we learn here that “Encyclopedia had never seen a theatre burn”, does anyone else get an image of the young man sat placidly in front of various burning buildings, tuning out the rising screams as the glittering firelight reaching ever upwards is reflected in his unblinking eyes? Just…just me?
The multiplicity of ideas in ‘The Case of Cupid’s Arrow’ is lovely when you remember how short each of these stories are. Tyrone Taylor, day-dreaming about his latest girlfriend, finds an arrow shot at him…an arrow with a hugely valuable diamond tied to the end! The progression of ideas from here is weird and all manner of fun, as is the linguistic trap laid for the guilty party, but I don’t believe it’d work — surely you can just claim to have misheard the Chief when he spoke, right? Mabe there’s a lower standard for proof in Idaville. Some poor, exhausted judge just hammering through this queue of criminals that Leroy has fitted up as coverage for his own one-boy crime-wave. “Brown says yer guilty? Five years hard labor! Send in the next one, bailiff…”
The Cleverest Story in the Collection Award goes to….‘The Case of the Wounded Dog’, which sees a neighbour claim to have accidentally shoot the dog that belongs to the family next door when scaring off a burglar. The details are good and clean, the misdirection nifty, and I didn’t see it coming at all and had to kick myself as a result. I still can’t get used to how casually everyone just owns a gun like it’s no big thing, but that’s more a reflection on the culture in which I was raised than any comment on these stories. I also can’t believe anyone would actually try this method to solve this problem, but then I’ve never grown roses so what do I know?
Charlie Stewart’s collection of teeth — one presumes from other people and animals — comes under threat in ‘The Case of the Earthenware Pig’. Bugs claims Charlie has stolen the ‘prized’ teapot of the title, having earlier failed to convince Charlie to trade it for the gnashers. I like this, I like the false probity of Bugs’ obviously bogus claim about not jaywalking and his gibes at the Brown Detective Agency being “just a cover for a den of crooks” — there’s something about that sort of behaviour by antagonists who are clearly about to get their comeuppance that appeals to me. The story itself has a nice line in not over-reaching yourself in criminal schemes, too, and shows the benefit of paying attention to the stories you’re told.
Finally, ‘The Case of the Muscle-Maker’ sees Encyclopedia help Cadmus Turner “more [as] an act of mercy than a business deal” following that young man’s rash purchase of four bottles of Hercules’s Strength Tonic from a street corner. I’d reasoned this one out slightly differently, but Sobol’s answer is much better (and makes more sense). Again, a nice little clue hiding inside a showy story to distract you when you obviously know what the questions are going to be. No mean feat, and a great note on which to finish this somewhat variable collection.
The stories remain charming, and Sobol has done a great job in imagining new and inventive ways for Encyclopedia to show off the benefit of a little knowledge and careful attention, even if at times this does expose the limitations of such short, simple tales. Leonard Shortall’s illustrations, my terrible photos of which are used to illustrate the above, are also a perfect match for Sobol’s mix of whimsy and seriousness, showing great detail while also appearing deceptively simple — a better meeting of artist and author you could not hope to find. No wonder these remain classic stories that will have been so influential for so many people.