#823: Minor Felonies – Encyclopedia Brown Carries On [ss] (1980) by Donald J. Sobol

Another ten cases for Idaville’s “Sherlock Holmes in sneakers”, Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown.

First ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap’, in which “unemployed inventor and artist” Salvatore Custer creates a monstrosity of a motorised mousetrap, parks it on the lawn outside City Hall when no-one wishes to accept it, and then loses the key so that no-one is able to move it. Encyclopedia’s conviction that the key can indeed be found relies on a reversed logical necessity that I’m not sure passes muster, however — an equivalent might be that a Keep Off the Grass sign implies the presence of grass, but the presence of grass does not automatically mean there will be a sign there telling you to keep off — and so the reasoning does not work for me here. Man, I am hard to please.

[Salvatore] lived in Idaville six months of the year. The rest of the time he spent hanging his paintings in museums. Authorities removed them the instant they were discovered.

‘The Case of Bugs Meany, Thinker’ indicates from the off that something is amiss. Having taken payment of a valuable lamp to enrol Winslow Brant on his Doctor of Philosphy diploma course, Bugs denies that he ever had the lamp and refuses Winslow’s demand for a refund. Again this one feels a little thin, like Sobol is running out of ideas to stretch into stories with simple, observable principles — this is the fourteenth collection in the series, so it’s perfectly understandable — and while the eventual answer is undeniably correct and spottable, we’re a long way from the exemplary work done elsewhere in the series.

Bugs had told him to start slowly — say, one thought a day. After six weeks, a student should be having two-and-a-half thoughts a day. Even if they were always the same thoughts, they would be enough to earn a Diploma as a Doctor of Philosophy.

We’re onto better things with ‘The Case of the Grape Catcher’, with Sally Kimball employed by Edsel Wagonbottom to throw grapes that he catches in his mouth: “I figure to set an American record for boys — two hundred feet, hand to mouth”. The problem, when it emerges, is a clever one, well-framed by the weirdness of the setup, and interesting because there are solidly three or four ways to solve the difficulty as presented…how often does that happen in an Encyclopedia Brown story? Sobol’s answer is fine, but there’s fun to be hand in devising your own alternatives.

[Bugs Meany] longed to knock [Encyclopedia’s teeth] so far that people a mile away would start dressing Christmas trees, thinking it was snowing.

Probably the shadiest answer yet encountered is to be found in ‘The Case of the Left-Handers Club’ (yes, there should be an apostrophe in that). Trying to establish which of three men is actually a right-handed interloper intent on disrupting the establishment of the eponymous club’s “Bill of Rights…er, Lefts” could actually be achieved by simpler, cooler means…but, no. This story reveals how little I know about golf, too, which isn’t exactly going to keep me awake at night but was interesting for purely personal reasons. So there’s that.

Members fought for equal opportunities in jobs and in dealing with a right-handed world of pencil sharpeners, auto gear shifts, TV controls, and telephone booths.

‘The Case of the Diving Partner’ finds Helga Smith muscling in on Otis Dibbs’ lucrative business of diving into water traps on golf courses to retrieve balls that he sells back to the golfers. When Otis challenges Helga’s claim that she has recovered items that morning which he in fact salvaged, it’s up to Encyclopedia to prove her wrong so she will bow out of the affair. I over-thought this, though I still think my solution is pretty good, and so missed the simplicity of Sobol’s answer. It’s another example of how the everyday informs these stories, and proves once again how the best of these cases are so damn enjoyable because of how accessible they are.

The work had its dangers. Golfers sometimes mistook him for an alligator. They waited to bop him on the head with a club when he came up for air.

I can imagine the fun Sobol had coming up with ‘The Case of the Upside Down Witness’: Elton Fisk, standing on his head to raise money for Idaville General Hospital and looking in a mirror to guard against sneak attacked from Bugs Meany and the Tigers, sees bank robbers arrive back at their hideout but forgets which property they entered (“I did handstands in dozens of places”). This is one to get you twisting the book around and trying to think backwards, but while you’re doing that you’re overlooking the fact that Slattery’s Fish Market is selling dolphin meat. Goddamn, the 1980s were a savage, lawless time.

Elton Fisk hurried into the Brown Detective Agency. He had his feet on the ground.

‘The Case of the Marvellous Egg’ — in which Wilford Wiggins offers the children of Idaville the opportunity to buy into his scheme for making “square” eggs (grrr, eggs are three-dimensional objects and a square is a 2D plane figure…) — is just terrible. It’s like enduring a passenger on a long-haul flight who delights in pointing out all the misused plurals that have crept into everyday usage (“And people are wrong when they call it a panini, you know…”), only to reach your destination and find out they’re not only staying at the same hotel as you, they’re in the room next door. So many problems, so much looseness, bad telling, bad reasoning, and general badness. The nadir of my Encyclopedia Brown reading to date.

Chester carried food to one place only — his mouth. He was well known as a fork on foot.

That hollow sound you hear is the barrel bottom being scraped dry by ‘The Case of the Overfed Pigs’. I have no problem with stories relying on principles that will pass into obsolescence, that’s the very nature of time and progress, but this one is also convenient, pat, and poorly resolved. Who is fattening Lucy Fibbs’ swimming pigs? A great question, and another left of centre setup of the type Sobol invents so easily. The rest of it? Meh. I’m not even going to bother trying to examine it more than that. Even “meh” is praising it too highly.

“Breatstroke or crawl?” asked Encyclopedia.

“Piggypaddle,” answered Lucy

The principle behind ‘The Case of the Ball of String’ is interesting — and, as it happens, uniquely American — but said principle does not necessarily lead to the conclusion Encyclopedia reaches. Indeed, on account of that uniqueness, it could apply to anyone…and, given that the giant ball of string is stolen from a competition in which all entries cannot be “worth trading or selling”, the person found responsible is arguably the one person it shouldn’t be. But this is what happens when you place unopposed power into the hands of a minority. Who watches the watchmen, eh? Who watches the watchmen?

“My ball is true string through and through,” insisted Cosimo. “Oh, it has a little bit of wrapper twine and some binder twine. And maybe a few acorns…”

FInally, ‘The Case of the Thermos Bottle’. Don’t be distracted by the chicken flying contest, the real puzzle here is how a blindfolded Duke Kelly could pull his friend’s number out of a tombola to win a prized baseball glove. This is a clever update of an old trick, and a good note on which to end the collection — the puzzle is slight, and the events surrounding it little more than window-dressing that at least raise a chuckle or two — not least because it’s the precise sort of idea you could see someone coming up with in this situation. A shame about the number chosen, since that raises other possibilities, but that’s only a small point. The best story in this particular book? Probably.

“Duke is so crooked he has to screw on his hat.”

~

The collection is something of a curate’s egg, then, with solutions that feel forced and come out of odd little points of obscurity that don’t feel real, but also some that show the acuity that best of Sobol’s work has in my previous reading. Sobol writes charmingly, and the man’s invention is to be marvelled at, but the format feels a little tired after 140+ stories — I could believe both that this is the beginning of the end and that he managed to produce some classic after this…it feels so rote most of the time, and he could easily fall either way from this blandness.

Amusing to note, too, that much as the horror writer Garth Marenghi once boasted about having written more books than he’d read, it’s taken me far longer to write about this collection than it did to read it. If the lack of impression left by this lot didn’t put me off returning to the world of Leroy Brown, the imbalance in work differential just might…

~

Encyclopedia Brown on The Invisible Event:

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