R.I.P. Donald J. Sobol, Encyclopedia Brown Author, 1924-2012


Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown and his gal pal Sally Kimball.Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown and his gal pal Sally Kimball.

Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown and his gal pal bodyguard Sally Kimball.

We at GeekDad are sorry to hear of the death of author Donald J. Sobol who, according to Reuters, passed away on July 11 at age 87, of natural causes.

Sobol was best known for his Encyclopedia Brown series, featuring a boy detective named Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown (so nicknamed because he was a genius). The boy Sherlock Holmes appeared in some 30 books from 1963 to 2011. Each Encyclopedia Brown book contained around 10 mysteries that Encyclopedia would solve — either a kid-centered minor crime (often involving local bully Bugs Meany, the leader of a local gang called the Tigers), or a real case that vexed his father, the police chief of the fictional town of Idaville, Florida.

Encyclopedia set up his detective agency’s office in the Brown family garage on Rover Avenue. His slogan was: “25 cents per day plus expenses: No case too small.”

At the end of each case, Sobol showed “Encyclopedia” Brown in the process of solving the case.

But before the boy detective would give the answer, Sobol cleverly gave the reader a chance to also solve the case. (See image.) You could flip to the end of the book to see if you, too, solved the crime correctly, which often involved catching a petty criminal in a lie.

The ending of a typical "case" that let the reader also try to solve the crime.The ending of a typical "case" that let the reader also try to solve the crime.

The ending of a typical “case” that let the reader also try to solve the crime.

That was a smart move by Sobol — to let youthful, aspiring detectives participate in solving each crime story. Those same bookish types who might have otherwise felt disempowered, ostracized or bullied.

For me, these books taught me to be curious, to investigate, to be entrepreneurial — and to fight the bullies like Bugs Meany, real or metaphorical, in my young life. The series suggested to me that a kid could have real power. He could defeat injustice and outsmart the brawny brutes of the world using his brains. A classic “revenge of the nerds” scenario.

I wasn’t actually all that great at solving the mysteries. No matter. I lived vicariously through Encyclopedia Brown. And I came up with a hundred schemes a summer to make money, trick the bully, or otherwise engineer a scenario to be the smart one who would sweep in to save the day.

But Encyclopedia’s success wasn’t only due to his problem-solving prowess. Credit his best pal (and girl Friday) Sally Kimball: older, stronger and sometimes smarter. She also could stand up to Bugs, and was Encyclopedia’s bodyguard. That was a novel premise, to give that role of “the muscle” to a girl.

Hearing about Sobol’s death, I was reminded of other books about boy or girl protagonists solving mysteries and scheming to do cool things. One that came to mind is the wonderful Great Brain series, about a mischievous older brother named “The Great Brain,” who exploits in small Utah town at the turn of the century are told by his younger brother. Another series I loved was Bertrand R. Brinley’s Mad Scientists’ Club. Can you think of any others?

The Encyclopedia Brown series was translated into 12 languages, and has sold millions of copies worldwide, according to Penguin. It was adapted as a newspaper comic strip and a TV series. Sobol also wrote a series called Two-Minute Mysteries. The latest (and last Sobol-written) installment, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme, will be released in October. In 1976, The Mystery Writers of America gave Sobol a special Edgar Award.

According to Reuters, Sobol was born in New York City and began his career as a reporter for the New York Sun newspaper — another good training ground for being a detective.

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