I was taking my son to his animation class (I love New York) all the way downtown today. Joe was looking at the AM New York, something about Charlie Sheen giving 1% of his $100 MILLION salary (is that possible?) to the USO (Winning!), and I decided to try to keep his brain from sliding completely off his skull.
“Hey, did you hear that Donald J Sobol died?” He was nonplussed.
“You mean the guy from Encyclopedia Brown?”
“Yes, he was 87. Isn’t that a shame.”
“He shouldn’t have named the villain “Bugs Meany.” It was too obvious.”
“That wasn’t really the point, was it?”
“I know. But I have a confession to make.”
“Yes Joe.” He leaned in, as if the other commuters would judge him.
“I didn’t really try to guess all the time. I just would read it and then turn to the end and see how he did it.”
“He,” of course, was Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, son of Chief Brown and the hero of many, many books of short mysteries. When I was a kid, and staying at my grandparents’ in Miami Beach (what then?), I used to walk half a mile (uphill both ways in the snow, which was unusual for Miami), and take out as many Encyclopedia Brown books as possible. And they all had three one-syllable names: Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man…Saves The Day…Solves Them All etc. They were amazing. Predictable yet not easy. Wholesome, but you got the feeling that Encyclopedia was going to be a Player in college. He managed to be a know-it-all without being a pain. It was a remarkable tightrope that Donald J Sobol walked.
And for the last I don’t know how many years, I assumed that, like Carolyn Keene, Donald J Sobol was a made-up name; an Author by Committee writing this large (27 books!) and thoroughly beloved series. But no, he actually did all of them, and a number of adult versions as well (the Two-minute mysteries, which were recycled Encyclopedia Brown stories with adults instead of kids solving the very g-rated crimes).
On a very fundamental level, my love of crime fiction comes from these books, and explains why my first mystery passion centered around the Agatha Christies and Ngaio Marshes—the writers who were more concerned with the puzzle than the characters. It’s why I love Masterpiece Mysteries and police procedurals—because when I was nine, and looking for a respite from adult conversations that were either boring or upsetting, I could go back to Idaville, to Encyclopedia and Bugs and Sally Kimball and Chief Brown and the rest, and try to solve a puzzle. In two minutes.
Rest in Peace, Donald J Sobol