#654: Minor Felonies – Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All [ss] (1968) by Donald J. Sobol

Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All

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…

Solves Them All 1

“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…”

Solves Them All 2

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.


Encyclopedia Brown on The Invisible Event

Encyclopedia Brown Strikes Again, a.k.a. The Case of the Secret Pitch (1965)
Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All (1968)
Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace (1969)
Encyclopedia Brown Carries On (1980)

18 thoughts on “#654: Minor Felonies – Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All [ss] (1968) by Donald J. Sobol

  1. Funny how memory works – we must have had this book as part of a three-in-one yet from the descriptions I only remember Hair-Dryers, which Iiked, and Cupid’s Arrow which I had the same reservations over as you. But then the judo and Hercules pictures jump out at me and they are so familiar.

    I never had the patience to try to solve these but there was one I got which I remember fondly and one that I’ve learnt something from that I’ve never forgotten.


    • I like how it’s the ones that make you impatient that are often the cleverest. That dog shooting…man, I should’ve seen that, but I was too busy huffing at the time being taken to get to the details, unaware that we were indeed at the details.


    • Nice. I especially like “Brown’s salary, $.25 per day plus expenses, will be placed in a fund to establish a criminology scholarship in his name at Idaville University.”


        • “They called themselves the Tigers. They should have been called The Heathens. They were doomed to eternal torment in a subterranean lake of fire.”

          That was fabulous — thanks, Jack,.


          • I loved it too, Jack! It reminded me of the National Lampoon spoof of the Hardy Boys called Chums in the Dark, which I will not link here because it’s highly adult in nature. But it is available to read online and it’s hilarious.


    • That was brilliant, Scott! Thanks for sharing it. The principle of esoteric domestic and historical knowledge being the foundation for most of these cases worked for a lot of the adult versions – the Minute Mysteries, Two Minute Mysteries, Five Minute Mysteries, and so on – that I enjoyed. I matched wits with Inspector Fordney, and had to remember that only helium balloons rise and that a chocolate bar melts in a backpack on a hot day, but I discovered a lot of historical, anthropological and sociological facts, all I’ve which I’ve probably stored deep inside my head (in other words, forgotten) . . . except how women button up their coats differently from men.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That kind of clueing can be fun, except that I consider it something of second tier clueing because — unless it really is something we already knew— it does not offer us the power of being surprised by something that was “before our eyes all the time.“ There is no “of course!” attached to learning for the first time that a chef’s hat has exactly 100 pleats or that New York was briefly named New Orange. There’s edification, but no sense of inevitability, as there is in a clue such as “everything tastes foul today!” or that the emperor’s snuff box wouldn’t be recognized as such from a distance. I’m not suggesting that special knowledge clues have no place in the genre, merely pointing out why I consider them categorically inferior to such clues as behavioral discrepancies and knowledge limitation clues. Some of my favorite whodunits include specialty knowledge clues, but those that PRIMARILY consist of them (e.g. Murder on the Orient Express), I generally rate lower than those built primarily from other types of clueing (Death on the Nile, After the Funeral, Five Little Pigs)


        • Yeah, I agree with you, Scott, and I think that’s why the best of these work so well — the clues are rooted in actions and occurrences that you need to be wise to, and there’s the fun of having missed them. The “negative evidence” of the first story here is an easy one to spot, but it also roots the revelation in the best kind of reveal: it’s unlikely someone consume eat the cherry stones and stalks when eating cherries, but not so unlikely as to be rendered impossible…thus, the information of their absence is there for you to appreciate without it falling into the “over-specialised knowledge” category that does, I agree, somewhat deflate some of the answers.

          The US military knowledge required herein is a perfect example — I could guess that it had something to do with that, since that’s the only real possible root of the solution, but it relies on too much awareness beyond the scope of the story.


        • I absolutely agree. Familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet should not be a prerequisite for any story, so clues like that one should not bring about “major” revelations. Forensic knowledge should be parsed out to the reader sufficiently enough that he can make proper use of it when the time is right.


          • Forensic knowledge should be parsed out to the reader sufficiently enough that he can make proper use of it when the time is right.

            John Rhode’s 283 novels would, respectfully, like to disagree…


          • Yes, I think it’s a matter of how central to the solution a specialized clue is, or what percentage of the revelations they constitute. There are a few too many in MOTOE for my taste, especially in the adaptations, where the best behavioral discrepancy clue (taking a sleeping draught on the same night you put a gun under your pillow) has almost always been left out.

            But again, I certainly don’t think this kind of clue should be verboten, especially as a supplementary clue. I just don’t think they constitute the absolute best clues, because the “before my face the whole time” aspect is as key to the appeal of the genre as surprise.


            • To a certain extent, this is why I never got the appeal of the series House — as much as the medicine may have been correct (and I say “may” advisedly, because I have no idea one way or the other) there was rarely if ever the chance for the viewers to engage with it. Only those with a specialised medical knowledge, or who had experienced the same symptoms for the same disease themselves, need apply. And yet it was the biggest show in the universe at one point…


  2. You brought up a lot of memories with this one. I don’t recall the ins and outs of all of the stories, but each summary knocked loose the dust on a memory that I can’t believe is still kicking around back there.


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