Belated In Memorium: Donald J. Sobol AKA a Requiem for Encyclopedia Brown

We like to fancy ourself as an amateur detective.  If someone loses their keys, we’re on the case.  If someone is being evasive about whom they went to dinner with last Sunday night, we get to the bottom of it.  If there’s an email address to be found by scouring pages of Google results, we’re going to find it.  If we spend a week in Aruba, we fully believe that we’re going to solve a high-profile, lingering unsolved murder.  In many cases we’re successful, in some cases we’re not (the latter, in particular, which is still keeping us up nights).  But that inquisitive, investigator spirit stays with us, and it’s been with us since childhood.  If you asked us at eight-years-old what we wanted to be when we grew up we’d say “baseball player” or “movie writer.”  Definitely one of those two.  But “detective” would have won the bronze, which is why in 9th grade we did a future career report on “FBI Agent” and nearly began working part-time for a private investigator a few months after college (it occurs to us now that we would be especially unsuited for that role, our small bladder no doubt serving as a hinderance during long stakeouts).  It’s perhaps why we fell so in love with Veronica Mars (the show and the character), and spent so many hours as a child in our grandma’s basement using her office supplies and copy machine (or “photostat,” as she so adorably referred to it) to assemble fake case files, pretending that stamping a folder “PAID” was equivalent to “CASE CLOSED,” and  fabricating evidence out of Xerox copies of our tiny hands and face and randomly scribbling with mechanical pencils.  We were a junior Sam Spade, a soft-boiled detective, solving the case of the missing ping-pong paddle with a Bachman’s pretzel rod dangling casually from our lips instead of a lean Marlboro, a tumbler of Pepsi with crushed ice instead of a stiff whiskey on the rocks.

And to where can we attribute this interest in the investigative arts?  Certainly, the fact that our father almost exclusively reads mystery novels played a part.  Were we also inspired by Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, fashioning ourselves as gumshoes who’ve yet to be called to action?  Sure.  And we certainly spent a lot of time reading detective stories aimed at children, especially the Cam Jansen mysteries of David A. Adler (“Click”).  However, we may have been most influenced by another amateur sleuth, young Leroy Brown, AKA Encyclopedia Brown.  We recall devouring the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries each summer, going a long way towards helping us achieve the quota set forth by our local library’s Summer Reading Program (if we remember correctly, five books = a star and/or a pin and/or a Charms Blow Pop).  Certainly, they were a breeze to read, cramming a dozen or so mysteries into each tome, each individual case introduced, investigated and solved within a matter of pages.  Of course, it was a rarity that we stopped at just one.  More often it was right onto the next one, and the next one, hoping that we’d prove ourselves to be as intelligent and observant as Encyclopedia.  And more often than not, we were not, having to skip to the back with either no clue as to the solution or a completely off-base shot in the dark.  It was like a choose-your-adventure, but the adventure was always the same, and in this scenario you couldn’t go back and choose a better path.  And you didn’t want to, even if (as was nearly always the case) Encyclopedia was just too smart for you.

But the fact that Encylopedia was so smart, and that the mysteries were often impossible for an eight-year-old to solve – let alone a twenty-eight-year-old – was not discouraging (well, not entirely).  It was a challenge that was extended, and every new mystery was the one where we were going to see the pattern, notice the hidden clue, pick up on the obscure detail and solve the case.  And, for that brief moment, we were going to be as smart as Encyclopedia Brown, because that’s what we wanted in our real life.  To not just be smart, but to be some kind of super hero.  We knew we weren’t going to do it with our muscles.  And we had no interest in genetic experimentation or radioactive spiders.  So brain, not brawn, was going to be our secret weapon, what we would use to defeat the villain, save the town and get the girl.  Encyclopedia Brown made us believe that was possible, and, not only that, he made being smart cool.  Sherlock Holmes without the pretension, Sam Spade without the emotional baggage and alcoholism, the Hardy Boys without the WASPy masculinity.  We never could have solved the mysteries Encyclopedia Brown did.  But we never stopped believing that we could.

Jumped the Snark Detective Agency: now open for business.  No case too small, no mystery too big.

And in honor of Encyclopedia Brown, and the recent passing of his creator Donald J. Sobol, here’s someone else who was inspired by the young detective.

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Filed under In Memoriam, Literarally, Mars Investigations, Nostalgia Corner

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