The Corner

Culture

You’re a Good Man, Encyclopedia Brown

(Ammar Awad/Reuters)

If only the town of Idaville were real, then Charlie Cooke would be completely correct about the superiority of the state of Florida.

I’m sure there are many delightful towns in Florida complete with three movie theaters, two delicatessens, rich and poor families, lovely beaches, churches, a synagogue, and a Little League. But alas, none of them have Encyclopedia Brown, also known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes in sneakers.”

Encyclopedia’s creator, Donald J. Sobol, had trouble finding a publisher for the first book about the boy detective, but once it was finally released in 1963, the stories have never been out of print and have been translated into twelve languages.

While Leroy Brown (cue the 1973 Jim Croce hit) is our hero’s given name, only the adults in his life call him that. His peers just call it like they see it, and the boy who has read more books than the town librarian can’t shake his nickname. For him, there is no such thing as a trivial fact.

Sobol’s light, jovial style is quick to capture the imagination, but his mysteries are not to be underestimated. Hidden in plain sight, surrounded by alibis, bullies, and clever wisecracks are all the clues needed — but can you get to the answer before Encyclopedia?

His police-chief father often relies on his son’s quick eye and keen intellect to solve crimes around town, but he never spills the secret about Encyclopedia’s skills. Encyclopedia doesn’t say anything either, but in the summer, he uses his abilities to help the kids of the neighborhood.

It’s a fine thing for Encyclopedia to solve grown-up problems, but what we’re really there for is the amusing cast of neighborhood characters Sobol pits against the ten-year-old genius. Sobol wrote nearly 30 books starring Encyclopedia, each of which hold around ten different self-contained mysteries. Many of the characters are recurring, but their hilarious antics ensure they never become boring.

Bugs Meany, leader of the self-titled gang the Tigers (“They should have called themselves the weathermen. They never stole anything till the coast was clear.”) and an expert in the art of shaking down little kids, is continually outwitted by Encyclopedia. Bugs wants nothing less than sweet revenge on Encyclopedia, but how can he get it when the boy’s junior partner is Sally Kimball? The best athlete in the fifth grade, Sally took Bugs down a few pegs for bullying a little kid. In fact, she left him in the dust. Sally has a quick arm but a kind heart, and she’s always ready to help Encyclopedia solve a case. Besides Sally, other recurring characters include Wilford Wiggins, high-school dropout and con artist extraordinaire (“He was so lazy he got dizzy spells thinking about getting out of bed in the morning.”), and the lovable but snoring-prone Benny Breslin.

Though the books all follow a similar story pattern, this is part of their enduring charm. The reliability and flow of the books gives young readers a chance to match wits with the criminals, as well as to learn interesting facts about the world in which they live. These largely timeless books encourage critical thinking and attention to detail even in the midst of hilarious banter and swaggering bullies. Most importantly, though: Encyclopedia Brown is a friend no child should grow up without.

So if you have a moment, introduce yourself to the boy detective. I’m sure he’d love to have you along on his next case.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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