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Encyclopedia Brown: The Great Sleuth From My Youth

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 16, 2012

Donald Sobol, the creator of the beloved character Encyclopedia Brown, died last week of natural causes, his family says. He was 87. The first in the Encyclopedia Brown series book was published in 1963, and the series has never gone out of print.

Crime novelist and forensic pathologist Jonathan Hayes has this appreciation of the character Mr. Sobol gave young readers.

While other boys got hooked on books about sports legends and race car drivers, there was something about Donald Sobol’s boy detective Encyclopedia Brown that spoke to me right away.

Leroy Brown was nicknamed Encyclopedia because he was a genius — a decent, brilliant kid who earned the respect of grown-ups by using his brain to crack cases, usually by exposing an inconsistency in a perp’s statement.

For instance in one story, “The Case of the Happy Nephew,” 10-year-old Brown just knew someone couldn’t have been driving a car when they said, because the hood would still be too hot for a baby to be standing on. That the perp was an adult outwitted by a guy my age was icing on the cake.

Encylopedia’s dad was the Idaville, Fla. Chief of Police, a good man, but an earthbound plodder whose son was the better crime-fighter. Of course, much of the wrongdoing with which Encyclopedia dealt wasn’t serious enough to warrant Chief Brown’s involvement — Encylcopedia devoted much of his time to sorting out the school’s bullies, Bugs Meany and his gang of delinquents, the Tigers.

The Tigers would have loved to beat the tar out of Enyclopedia, but his best friend and assistant, Sally Kimball, was tougher than they were. That one of my first heroes had a female bodyguard was an important early lesson: I grew up believing that women could be just as smart and brave as men, and longed to have, if not an actual girlfriend, a Sally of my own by my side.

I loved these stories because they were about a kid like me, a kid who solved mysteries with logic and common sense, often exposing the hypocrisy of foolishly dismissive adults. I loved the sense of order and balance restored to the world at the end of each story — the true resolution at the heart of all good crime fiction.

And I loved them because I was good at them, because I was good at picking up on what was wrong about the broken mirror, at spotting the lie of the swindling high school dropout.

And now I’m grown up.

As things turned out, I became a forensic pathologist and a writer. It took me a while to realize Sobol’s influence on me. But one night, in the middle of the Everglades, waiting for park rangers at the scene of a shotgun killing, I finally saw the trail that led from Encyclopedia to that moment, a million years and a million miles apart.

I moved on from Encyclopedia Brown to Sherlock Holmes, and then on to the village library, where I spent hours lost in books about fingerprints, about techniques of counterfeiting. As a medical examiner, I’m expert in the evaluation of gunshot and stab wounds, but common sense and logic are very much the foundation of my work — the hunt for the wrong detail, the sustained skepticism about witness statements.

My cases now are complex and brutal, and they occur in a real world far from Idaville, far from the Browns’ dinner table. And I realize that I long for the simplicity of that world, with its clear, definitive answers, and its quick return to happy normality: the idealized world of childhood.

Jonathan Hayes’ most recent book is A Hard Death. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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