#742: Minor Felonies – Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace [ss] (1969) by Donald J. Sobol

You may find yourself helplessly mired in the post-Christmas, pre-New Year hinterland of nothingness; I am here to help. Firstly, if it’s not Tuesday where you are, it will be soon. We shall get through this together. Here are some quick thoughts on Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace (1969) to get you functional again.

First up in this collection is ‘The Case of the Silver Fruit Bowl’, wherein a robbery at the town’s silver shop is thrown into doubt by the owner’s debts and testimony. The solution is neat, as Sobol’s tend to be, but I don’t know if the terminal point in the answer is quite as fatal as it’s made out to be. However, the writing is so charming that I’m going to give it a pass. And, what the hell, I’ll include my favourite line from each story after these brief reviews, like this:

You might say [Encyclopedia] was the only library in American that could play second base.

The most amusing thing about ‘The Case of the Dwarf’s Beard’ is the idea that Bugs Meany, once caught in a logical fallacy, would simply turn turtle and seek to correct his wrongdoing. There’s a philosophical commitment there which I don’t feel is quite consistent with his character, but maybe I do him a disservice. Still some nice obscure use of language (“The hole is for air. Bugs Meany made it before he stuck the can over my dwarf.”) is playful enough to let this minor tale pass.

Bugs was the leader of a gang of tough older boys who called themselves the Tigers. They should have called themselves the Tea Bags. They were always getting into hot water.

‘The Case of Bugs Meany’s Revenge’ sees Leroy gulled away by a trick telephone call at a time when Sally Kimball saw one of the Tigers sniffing around the detective agency’s headquarters…only for Bugs to arrive with Officer Friedman and accuse Encyclopedia of stealing his watch. This highlights the smoothness of Sobol’s skill in hiding key information in plain sight, as well as proving once and for all that criminal s should shut the hell up if they want to get away with things.

“Boy, if I couldn’t think of a better alibi, I’d eat my head!”

“Your mouth is big enough,” snapped Sally.

The familiarity of received wisdom powers the mystery in ‘The Case of the Cave Drawings’, with Wilford Wiggins finding cave paintings which could be exploited as a tourist attraction and urging the children of Idaville to give him $5 each to help buy the land and secure a share of the profits. Not all the stories can be classics, and this one isn’t, but the framing with “champion breath-holder” Elmer Evans is charming in the best possible way,

Elmer Evans came into the Brown Detective Agency. He was breathing.

Again, the lovely joy of childhood simplicity powers ‘The Case of the Wanted Man’, with six year-old Bryan Horton’s confusion about beards driving the discovery of an armed robber. To get the solution of this one you’ll need either very specific knowledge or be able to make an informed guess…and since I didn’t have the former I’m going to claim I did the latter (it helps that I’m a fan of a particular Wim Wenders movie from my youth). A good idea, shown well, but not as fair as the best of these can be.

Bryan looked surprised. “Does it hurt to pull off your beard?”

“Only around the face,” answered Encyclopedia.

When I read the answer to ‘The Case of the Angry Cook’ in the back of the book, I initially didn’t buy it. That may, of course, have simply been sour grapes because I failed to spot the key point — who knows? The manner in which Cicero Sturgess “Idaville’s greatest child actor” ends up accused of complicity in an armed hold-up is again just so damn charming that I can understand why these stories remain so popular and had such an impact on so many people down the years. How lucky many of you were, to have this wonderful man writing these stories so wonderfully.

After getting seasick on a submarine sandwich last year, Cicero had thrown a curse upon the ships of the world.

There is a great idea at the heart of ‘The Case of the Missing Ring’, and it really requires more space to explore. Two masked men break into James Bevan’s house one evening and, demanding to know the location of a valuable ring, knock him unconscious. When he awakes, he has no memory of ensuing events, but the ring is missing and he had written a note to his wife that appears to make no sense. I’ve seen this idea updated, but I didn’t realise it until the key word is dropped in fairly late. Deserves to be better explored, because it’s a doozy of a concept.

“I suppose a cat must have got into the house somehow and the thieves took no chances.”

‘The Case of the Money-Changer’ is genius. A shame it was lost on me due my lack of awareness of U.S. currency — I can never remember which are nickels and which are dimes — but it’s a wonderfully complex-yet-simple idea, the sort of absurdity G.K. Chesterton would have delighted in. For all I know, the idea here is as common as most of the others and it’s nothing special to 98% of those who read it, but being in that other 2% was a delight and that’s all you’ll get out of me.

Hector Conklin pushed a wheelbarrow full of old socks into the Brown Detective Agency. The socks clinked.

The principle involved in ‘The Case of the Falling Woman’ is both familiar and tricky, and so Sobol again does well to introduce it early on and then let it pay off in the closing stages. The fact that the answer raises a fairly key question — which could be expressed as simply “How…?!” — is a little disappointing, but that’s fine. We’re working with the small incidents that younger minds might otherwise overlook, and this is definitely one of those.

“The best I can do is the lady’s folding umbrella.”

Finally, ‘The Case of the Red Boat’ wherein Encyclopedia’s father brings a gun on a fishing trip and it’s just casually dropped into the fourth line of this kids’ story like it’s nothing. And, yes, the Second Amendment, but to this Brit it still seems pretty screwed up. I’ve never considered the idea used to reveal the solution here, but it’s obscure enough to be beyond the experience of most people. However, it does raise the question “None? Really? Like, none at all?!” for purely biological reasons.

“Oh…,” said Chief Brown. “You saw it? Well, I don’t expect we’ll meet trouble. I brought it along just in case.”

~

Drink some water, be sure to get a little fresh air; you can do this, I believe in you.

~

Encyclopedia Brown on The Invisible Event:

11 thoughts on “#742: Minor Felonies – Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace [ss] (1969) by Donald J. Sobol

  1. At one time guns were nothing much. They were mostly used for hunting deer, squirrels, rabbits, to eat. Or to shoot poisonous snakes in areas where innocent children lived. Children first, snakes way down the line!
    The boys I grew up with often had gun racks in their pickups to hold their hunting rifles.
    Before drug user thefts. When pickups often weren’t locked. Can you imagine?

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    • The ridiculous thing is, I know that there was a point where guns were treated so lightly — see To Kill a Mockingbird, for one — but my buttoned-up, English brain still recoils at such a casual inclusion in such a light-hearted collection of stories. Weird, innit? Maybe it’s because — unlike with the deplorable racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc sometimes encountered in the books from the era in which I read — it feels like we’ve made no progress on guns. They’ve always been treated casually, and time has not accentuated the idiocy of this.

      But such concerns are well beyond the purview of this blog, so let’s just put it own to my continued displeasure at losing the War of Independence, eh?

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  2. I’ve not tried any of the Encyclopedia Brown stories, but based on your review, it seems like they include quite amusing lines, which is always a plus. The teabag one has to be my favourite I think. The sort of line you wish you had enough panache to say in everyday conversation.

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    • There’s pretty much always a witty line or a great idea in them somewhere. Sobol didn’t write at great length, but the quality of what he put down is undeniable.

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  3. Encyclopedia Brown is the best. I’m just waiting for the right moment to introduce the stories to my six year old niece.

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    • Which rises a good question — what is the best age to first encounter these? I can attest to thoroughly enjoying them in my late 30s, but I’d’ve loved them if I read them when about 12, I think — or maybe their homespun wisdom and minor problems would’ve left me disinterested.

      Anyone else? When did you first read EB and what age does you think is the best age to meet him?

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      • Yes, that is something I’d like to know as well. I know that I was younger than 12 when I read them, but I really can’t say exactly how old I was.

        One doesn’t want to introduce them too early and put the victim… er, prospective reader… off from reading them later.

        In my niece’s case, she enjoys reading Disney criminal puzzles, you know, those one page puzzles with visual or verbal clues that are quite reminiscent of the Encyclopedia Brown ones, though her patience levels are only good for two or three of those in a row.

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  4. I still remember that missing ring story and the creepy-sounding note (“split open the cat”). One of the best setups AND solutions in the series, IMO.

    Apparently many of the early EB stories were rewritten versions of “Two-Minute Mysteries,” a newspaper column by Sobol which featured an adult detective and had more violent crimes. He would use the same clues and gimmicks, but replace a murder with a stolen bicycle or something along those lines. Other times, he would use an almost identical plot but tone down the disturbing aspects; the note in the newspaper version of “Missing Ring” was a dying message, so it was replaced with the less realistic but more appropriate for kids amnesia thing.

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    • I love the idea that the clues and setup for a gruesome murder can be mildly tweaked and thus apply to a stolen bicycle. I’m tempted to try and write something where exactly that happens…

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  5. I must have started reading these at the age of 8 because I would get them through a Scholastic book ordering service at school. We would be handed out catalogues every few months and then check which books we wanted. Then, after what seemed like a wait of YEARS, all these boxes would arrive. Our teacher would torment us with those boxes to get us to work, and then she would reserve the last hour or so of the day to distribute the books and let us savor our haul.

    It seems to me that I always got a half dozen or so titles, and they always included the latest Encyclopedia Brown collection (and the latest Scott Corbett magical science book – anyone ever read The Lemonade Trick??) More than The Hardy Boys, these were my gateway into GAD fiction, I’m sure of it! And years later, I picked up Sobol’s Two-Minute Mysteries and made the connection. I have to say that his style is so much more delightful in his childrens’ books. I had forgotten how much fun these were to read!

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  6. I think these were handed down from older siblings when I was around ten—and that seems to be the age my daughter started to read them as well. Due to Sobol’s light touch and simple, strong solutions, they do really hold up. Pretty much the definition of classics, I would say!

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