While reading the many Donald J. Sobol obituaries last month, I was reminded of how much I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid. A kid solving mysteries? Sign me up! Of course the conceit of the series is that you’re supposed to try and solve the mystery along side of Encyclopedia but I almost never did. Now I was a smart kid, not Doogie Howser smart, but I could usually hold my own. But I always seemed to miss some obscure clue that would’ve broken the whole thing wide open. I started wondering if I, some (mumble-mumble) years older, would be able to solve the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries today. Yes, I’ve accrued a bit more knowledge since then but I’m also a great deal lazier than I once was. And thus, a blog post was born.
So just to set things up, here’s what I remember about the series. Leroy Brown, the son of the local Chief of Police, is so freakishly smart that he’s been given the nickname “Encyclopedia.” Do kids reading this today even know what an encyclopedia is? Would he be called “Wikipedia Brown” today? That’s depressing. Anyway, whenever Police Chief dad couldn’t solve a case, which seemed to happen with alarming regularity, he would tell the story over dinner and Encyclopedia would instantly figure out who did it. Of course the crimes never included any grisly murders or vicious assaults, so it’s not like Idaville was some hotbed of criminal activity. Encyclopedia is soooo good at solving crimes, that he decides to open his own detective agency to help the neighborhood kids from Bugs Meany, the local bully (and with that name, what else could he be but the local bully), and various other would-be hoodlums.
I’m starting my series re-read with the first in the series, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (Dutton, 1963).
The Case of Natty Nat
The case: Mr. Dillon, the owner of a local men’s store, claims that his store has been robbed by the notorious Natty Nat, a thief who has robbed a string of stores in the state and who’s only trademark is that he wears a grey coat with a buckle on the back. Was Mr. Dillon really robbed by Natty Nat?
My verdict: NO! Mr. Dillon’s statement indicates that he only saw the alleged robber from the FRONT, but Natty Nat is famous for wearing a coat with a buckle in the BACK. Clearly he made up this robbery nonsense in order to embezzle money from his own business.
Was I right?: Yes! Ok FINE. This happens to be one of the few Encyclopedia Brown cases I remember from when I was a kid. I’m not sure why. Possibly because it includes the word natty, which I had never heard before due to the fact that it was not exactly common 80s slang. In fact, I always think of Encyclopedia Brown on the rare occasions I read the word now.
Other observations: The Chief Brown is an idiot theme pops up pretty early. He’s like, “why would any one make up a fake robbery?” I know why and my only experience comes from watching a lot of cop shows. I know you have to explain it to the kids, but you could do it without making the police look like morons. Also, a belt buckle is hardly conclusive evidence. Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable and Mr. Dillon could just claim that he was confused or whatever. Although maybe Chief Brown is an expert at getting confessions, like Brenda Leigh Johnson but without the tacky lipstick and crappy southern accent. It would explain how he got the Chief job in the first place despite his complete lack of investigative skills.
The Case of the Scattered Cards
The case: Encyclopedia sets up his detective agency and waits all day in the rain for his first client to walk in. Finally a boy named Clarence arrives claiming that Bugs Meany and the Tigers have occupied his tent and won’t leave. When they find the Tigers hanging out in the tent, Bugs says that it’s actually their tent and Clarence had stolen it out of their clubhouse that morning. Why you would want a tent if you already have a clubhouse, I don’t know, but there you go. Using a dry, scattered pack of playing cards as evidence, Encyclopedia calls Bugs on his BS and threatens to narc on them to the cops. How did Encyclopedia know that Bugs was lying?
My verdict: It had been raining all day but the playing cards on the ground were still dry. The tent had to have been set up before it started raining, NOT that morning like Bugs claimed.
Was I right?: Yes! I’m an observational genius!
From the “weren’t the early 60s adorable” file: Encyclopedia only charges $.25 per day and created fliers for his new business using a toy printing press that he’d gotten for Christmas. What do you think a kid genius detective would charge in 2012? I don’t think you can even buy gumballs anymore for $.25. I thought this was ridiculous even in the 80s. And were toy printing presses actually a thing?
The Case of the Civil War Sword
The case: Bugs Meany is offering to trade Peter a sword from the Civil War that he says belonged to General Stonewall Jackson for Peter’s bike. Bugs’s “proof” that the sword is real is an inscription stating that the sword was a gift to General Jackson on August 21st, 1961 from his men for his bravery during the first Battle of Bull Run. Did the sword really once belong to General Jackson?
My verdict: No. In 1961 the soldiers would have had no idea that there would be a second battle of Bull Run a year later in 1962, therefore they would never had called it the FIRST Battle of Bull Run.
Was I right? Yes! Though this is the other case I remember from when I was a kid. Possibly because I was so mad that I didn’t figure it out the first time.
Other observations: Are kids really that into Civil War memorabilia? Also, this scam really took some planning on Bugs’ part. I mean, the tent thing was really a crime of opportunity but this time he had to find a sword that was old enough to look like it had come from the Civil War era and then have it engraved. Dude, there have to be easier ways to get a bike. Oh, and when Peter comes to hire him, Encyclopedia is reading a book called, How to Build a Nuclear Reactor. Clearly the first sign that Encyclopedia is going to grow up to be some kind of James Bond super villain.
The Case of Merko’s Grandson
The case: It’s the introduction of Sally Kimball! Sally makes quite the impression on the youth of Idaville. First she organizes a girls softball team that beats the Tigers’ team. Then she beats the crap out of Bugs when she catches him bullying a young boy. But she’s not satisfied with her physical accomplishments. She wants to prove that she’s smarter than the boys too, so she challenges Encyclopedia to a battle of wits. Sadly no iocane powder is involved. Sally is to give the clues to a mystery and Encyclopedia has five minutes to solve it. This is Sally’s mystery: The Great Merko was a famous trapeze artist that died at the height of popularity. A will was found that stated after 40 years, the fortune should be given to the Merko’s oldest grandson (which is awfully sexist), but if there is no grandson, then the money should go to the next closest relative, male or female. After 40 years, a man named Fred Gibson claims to be the only grandson, but a woman bursts into court stating that the Merko couldn’t possibly be Fred’s grandfather and that she should get the money. After hearing her out, the Judge agrees that the Merko couldn’t be Fred’s grandfather, so who should get the money? Encyclopedia thinks about it for awhile and then answers that the rightful heir is Fred Gibson. Why is Encyclopedia right?
My verdict: I actually caught onto the fact that the Great Merko was a woman due to Sally’s conspicuous lack of pronouns while telling the story. However, I completely glossed over the fact that even if the Merko was a woman, Fred could still be her grandson and was all ready to guess that the woman was the rightful heir. Once Encyclopedia gave his answer, I figured it out pretty quickly, but I would have gotten it wrong if the question had simply been “who gets the money?”
Was I right?: Eventually. I got a little too cocky on that one.
Other observations: I love Sally, even if she’s a little obnoxious at first. I’d imagine that a girl who was pretty AND capable of beating up the neighborhood bully was pretty radical at the time.
The Case of the Bank Robber
The case: Encyclopedia and Sally, his new junior partner/bodyguard, are taking their hard-earned detective fortune (a whole $3.50!) to the bank to start a savings account. Just as they get there, they witness a man with his face covered fleeing the bank with a gun and a yellow bag of money who tumbles with a blind beggar before fleeing the scene. However, when the police catch up with the robber, they discover that he’s holding a yellow bag full of white bread, not money, so they can’t prove he’s the robber because no one ever saw his face. Encyclopedia is stumped, so he and Sally go to the blind beggar’s shady, run-down hotel (that’s safe!) to see if he could identify the robber’s face by touch. Nobody answers the door, so they push it open (hey that’s breaking and entering SON OF THE CHIEF OF POLICE) to discover a room that’s empty except for a used newspaper on the bed. Blind Tom catches them and invites them in saying that he hasn’t had visitors in a long time, but they quickly leave realizing that the beggar must have been in on the robbery. How does Encyclopedia know this?
My verdict: I have apparently watched too many con and heist shows because I knew that the robber and beggar had switched the money bags as soon as they tumbled over each other. Why else would some random beggar be there? These mysteries are only like 5 pages long, there’s no room for insignificant bystanders. But I imagine that Encyclopedia figured it out when he saw the newspaper on the bed. Why would a BLIND guy need a newspaper?
Was I right?: Oh yeah. And before Encyclopedia too! I knew watching all that Leverage would pay off one day.
Other observations: Mrs. Brown is disappointed that Encyclopedia didn’t solve the crime before dessert like usual. Jeez, he’s just kid. Clearly this is the kind of pressure at home that will eventually cause his career in super villainy.
The Case of the Happy Nephew
The case: The Princess Bake Shop was robbed and an eyewitness saw ex-con John Abbott fleeing the scene. When Chief Brown goes to question him (with Encyclopedia tagging along because he’s NOSY), he finds Abbott outside carrying his barefoot 1 year-old nephew. After placing his nephew on the hood of his car, Abbott claims that he had been driving all day and had only arrived 5 minutes prior. Encyclopedia tells his dad to arrest the suspect because he can prove that Abbot’s lying. What is Encyclopedia’s proof?
My verdict: Well I know it has something to do with the nephew because that’s in the title and I know how this works. And the car hood thing was pretty much the only thing that the nephew did, so I’m guessing it has something to do with that. Perhaps the car hood would have been too hot for the nephew to stand on if Abbot had truly only arrived 5 minutes before Chief Brown showed up.
Was I right?: Yes, although solving mysteries due to story trope knowledge instead of sheer observation is just not as satisfying.
From the “weren’t the early 60s adorable” file: When the police call Chief Brown about the robbery, Mrs. Brown announces that it must be important if they’re calling during dinner time. Clearly this was before the proliferation of telemarketers because they stopped respecting the sanctity of dinner time a long time ago. Also Mrs. Brown, your husband is the Chief of Police, I imagine that calling at ANY time might be important.
Other observations: Chief Brown at first tells Encyclopedia that he can’t arrest Abbot because the eyewitness might be wrong and he can’t yet prove that the alibi is false. It’s nice he’s learned some police skills since the Natty Nat case.
The Case of the Diamond Necklace
The case: Chief Brown is bummed because a diamond necklace was stolen right from under his nose. As he should be. The necklace was supposed to be auctioned off at a charity event. The owner’s friend, Mrs. Stark, had been wearing the necklace in order to entice bidders, but she went upstairs for a bit because she wasn’t feeling well (which is not at all suspicious). The Chief was guarding her door when he heard Mrs. Stark scream followed by two gunshots. Chief Brown breaks down the door to find her unconcious and the necklace gone. Mrs. Stark claims that she heard nothing and had fainted before seeing the thief. After determining that Mrs. Stark hadn’t been left alone, Encyclopedia announces that she faked the whole thing and that the police need to search the room for the necklace because there was no thief. How did Encyclopedia know Mrs. Stark was lying?
My verdict: Mrs. Stark claimed that she heard nothing, and yet there were gunshots. Yeah, I know it’s flimsy, but I’m not sure with this one.
Was I right?: I was on the right track, but no. Mrs. Stark claimed that she heard nothing and yet screamed BEFORE the gunshots. Idiot.
Other observations: Shouldn’t thoroughly searching the scene of a crime be standard operating procedure? They shouldn’t have to be told by a ten year-old boy that this is a good idea. Man, the Idaville police are the worst. I mean, this is Sunnydale police level of incompetence.
The Case of the Knife in the Watermelon
The case: Man, from diamond necklaces to watermelons. What a downgrade. Anyway, Encyclopedia’s first grown-up client, grocery store owner Mr. Patch, walks in with, you guessed it, a watermelon with a knife in it. Apparently someone tried to break into his store but fled when he was caught in that act, leaving his knife behind in said watermelon. So Mr. Patch and Encyclopedia determine that the would-be thief is a member of the Lions, yet another one of Idaville’s “boys clubs,” and go to their clubhouse to try and trick a confession out of them. They all start making excuses about why it couldn’t possibly them but Corky specifically states that the blade on his knife is longer than the one in the watermelon. Ah, j’accuse! How did Encyclopedia know that Corky was lying?
My verdict: The blade of the knife was buried in the watermelon, so how would Corky know that his was longer? And that sounds vaguely dirty, but still, he’s a lying liar who lies.
Was I right?: Of course. I’m back, baby!
Other observations: So when someone tries to rob his store, Mr. Patch decides to go to the 10 year-old detective instead of THE POLICE. He deserves to get robbed. Although considering the Idaville police department’s general incompetence, perhaps it was a good call. Also, I miss Sally.
The Case of the Missing Roller Skates
The case: Encyclopedia is getting his tooth pulled when someone steals Sally’s roller skates from the dentist’s waiting room where he left them unattended (way to go, boy genius.) Encyclopedia decides that no adult would want kid roller skates, so he sets out to discover how many children had visited the various medical and dental offices in the building that day. Instead of giving Encyclopedia an extensive lesson in the nature of doctor-patient confidentiality, they not only answer his questions, but give him the name AND address of the one kid who was in the building that day. I hope they get sued. So Encyclopedia and Sally go to ask the kid if he’d ever been to Dr. Vivian Wilson’s office, but the kid denies having ever been to his office. Encyclopedia calls bullshit and demands the skates. How did he know the kid was lying?
My verdict: The kid claimed that he’d never been to HIS office, but how did he know Dr. Wilson was a man since Vivian is traditionally a woman’s name? Way to enforce traditional gender norms, Sobel.
Was I right?: Yes, although I missed the part where the thief knew that Dr. Wilson is a dentist instead of a doctor without being told. Or I had already solved the case by then so I didn’t care.
Other observations: I was just wishing for Sally and then she appeared! I have magical powers! Also, Encyclopedia mentions that he’s going to give his pulled tooth to his friend, Charlie Stewart, who collects teeth and keeps them in a flowered cookie jar. How is no one concerned about the budding sociopath in their midst?
The Case of the Champion Egg Spinner
The case: Really? This is a thing? So Encyclopedia is at the local drugstore soda fountain when another boy shows up and starts spinning an egg on the counter while waiting for his soda. He’s practicing for a match the next day, but he’s not too concerned when his egg smashes to the floor and the soda guy has to sweep up the mess with his broom. When Encyclopedia gets home he discovers Sally and a group of neighborhood boys at his house. Apparently they’ve all been participating in a sordid egg spinning gambling ring and all their prized possessions have been taken by an egg spinning shark named Eddie. If you’ve guessed that Eddie is the kid from the drug store, then you obviously live in the world. Anyway, the boys think Eddie is cheating, but can’t prove it and now the bastard is after Charlie Stewart’s jar of teeth. Seriously, why is this an attractive prize? Idaville is clearly some sort of psycho breeding ground. How does Encyclopedia know that Eddie is cheating?
My verdict: Well obviously Eddie has been hard-boiling his eggs. Aside from the fact that this is the obvious solution, the drugstore worker SWEPT up the egg when it broke. If it had been an uncooked egg he would have had to wipe or mop it up.
Was I right?: Hell yes!
From the “weren’t the early 60s adorable” file: You saw the part about the drugstore soda fountain, right?
Other observations: There was no way I could have guessed this as a kid. I don’t think I knew what a hard-boiled egg was, much less that it would spin faster or be less fragile than a regular egg. We just didn’t eat them in my family.
Well 9 out of 10 is not bad. It’s certainly better than I did as a kid, which is as it should be.