Baddest Man in the Whole Damn Town
May 1, 2019 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Donald J. Sobol endeared himself to generations of nerdy kids with the creation of his enduring character Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, who starred in 29 books from 1963 to 2012. But this World War II veteran and father of four shunned the spotlight and preferred to remain mysterious himself.
posted by Horace Rumpole (80 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ah, Encyclopedia Brown. As entertaining and consistently reliable as the ticking of my favorite digital watch.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:09 AM on May 1 [17 favorites]


Ah, Encyclopedia Brown. A lifesaver when you had a book report due today and the bus is 20 minutes away from school.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:17 AM on May 1 [10 favorites]


I loved those books so much as a kid. It was probably the first time I read anything that messed with the standard story format. I remember the first time I got to the end of the chapter and found out that I had the chance to solve the mystery. I don't think I ever solved one myself (I mean how was I to know facts like "ladies are supposed to sit on the outside of a table so that men could admire them?"), but I loved having the opportunity to try.

Really needs a gritty TV reboot.
posted by bondcliff at 7:17 AM on May 1 [18 favorites]


I loved the books when I was a kid--they sparked a life-long mystery book addiction and my own love of writing. I don't write much fiction, but I believe the writing I do for a living is informed and shaped by all the great books I read as a child and my continued voracious reading habit.
posted by agatha_magatha at 7:17 AM on May 1


“Along about that time,” he told the Denver Business Journal, “there was a TV program out of England called The Avengers in which the heroine did all the judo work. I said, ‘Well it works for TV, it ought to work for Encyclopedia Brown.’ So I brought in a young lady named Sally Kimball, a neighbor, and she was his junior partner.”

I always appreciated that Sally was his sidekick/bodyguard, and the fact that she's based (in part) on Emma Peel is pretty rad. A great article!
posted by xingcat at 7:18 AM on May 1 [19 favorites]


I used to love those books as a kid. Great article.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:20 AM on May 1


Ah, Encyclopedia Brown, the reason I know that the First Battle of Bull Run was referred to as the Battle of Manassas by the Confederates.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:21 AM on May 1 [35 favorites]


I adored those books as a kid. Haven't thought about them in years.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:21 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I too loved those books, although even at the time I thought they were a little hokey. I always assumed Sobol was a pen name for a group like Franklin W. Dixon (The Hardy Boys). There was something very comforting about the stories and I should have guessed they were churned out by a quiet professional.

In conclusion, it wasn't me that stole Old Man Johnsons's jar of lemon drops during the storm last night. I was startled by a crash of thunder and quickly looked up, just catching Horace Rumpole reaching for the jar as the flash of lightning faded.
posted by AndrewStephens at 7:31 AM on May 1 [10 favorites]


Man, I loved Encyclopedia Brown. So fun to read! I liked The Three Investigators too, the ones introduced by Alfred Hitchcock and always thought they were based on Encyclopedia Brown.
posted by chocolatetiara at 7:34 AM on May 1 [8 favorites]




Really needs a gritty TV reboot.

If you're Canadian and of a certain age this is what Deke Wilson's Mini Mysteries effectively was.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:51 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


One of my proudest moments as a not dad was when a friend of mine asked me for book recommendations for his precocious book devouring young girl. (now a precocious book devouring robot making high schooler... sheesh time) I recommended the EB series if she liked mysteries at all. I was quite pleased when I heard back from him that she was actively devouring them faster than he could find them in the library.
posted by drewbage1847 at 7:51 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


Really needs a gritty TV reboot.

The closest I've seen is Brown Harvest, which whooshes past "gritty" and right into "sleazeball". I can't really recommend it.
posted by Mogur at 7:53 AM on May 1


You might like the slightly lighter Encyclopedia Brown Harvest, then.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:02 AM on May 1


Ah, Encyclopedia Brown. The reason, 30+ years later, that I still sometimes pull stuff out of my right pocket with my left hand, because Leroy said it was impossible.
posted by range at 8:08 AM on May 1 [16 favorites]


Ah, Encyclopedia Brown. The reason, 30+ years later, that I still sometimes pull stuff out of my right pocket with my left hand, because Leroy said it was impossible.

At a flat-out sprint though?
posted by CheeseLouise at 8:11 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


His Two Minute Mysteries books absolutely lived up to the name: a quick capsule story with few recurring characters that were perfect when you didn’t have the time or attention span for a full-out Idaville tale.
posted by dr_dank at 8:13 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


At a flat-out sprint though?

I am such a grudge-keeping jackass that I did it while running my first half-marathon a few years ago.
posted by range at 8:18 AM on May 1 [56 favorites]


Yeah, count me as another who as soon as they read that you can't pull something out of your left pocket with your right hand while running immediately went outside and attempted to do so. It wasn't even hard! And I'm left-handed! I guess Sobol wore really tight pants.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:31 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


I really appreciate your pettiness, range. I can't actually remember which EB factoid caused my ire, only that (without remembering the cause) I've carried a grudge against the series for years, enough so that I felt an absurd satisfaction at the single-atom-thick paper that could, in fact, be folded X times (8? I don't remember anymore).
posted by Cozybee at 8:36 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


The Three Investigators were the dark, gritty reboot of Encyclopedia Brown.

Furthermore, I couldn't even eat those lemon drops anyway. Everyone knows I developed an allergy to lemons when I got bitten by that fruit bat last year after I accidently disturbed her nest of eggs.
posted by AndrewStephens at 8:45 AM on May 1 [14 favorites]


I don't remember much of them but "squirrels only go down trees head first" stuck with me - it's held up so far.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:45 AM on May 1 [8 favorites]


The Three Investigators were the dark, gritty reboot of Encyclopedia Brown.

Furthermore, I couldn't even eat those lemon drops anyway. Everyone knows I developed an allergy to lemons when I got bitten by that fruit bat last year after I accidently disturbed her nest of eggs.


Yeah, of course. That makes sense, that makes sense.

Just one more thing...
posted by Navelgazer at 8:49 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


...The Three Investigators too...

OMG, squeee.... I loved those even more than EB, but as an adult had gotten them confused with EB, only to find they were not - and couldn't remember the name, thank-you-so-much...
posted by jkaczor at 8:57 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid; it is a cool coincidence that we both showed up in 1963. I love that Sally was inspired by Emma Peel, although prepubescent me would probably not have cared. The stories definitely hold less interest for adult me, as they do tend to have some holes in the plots. I remember one story where the culprit responsible for whatever the mystery was tried to get away in drag via taxi, but gave himself away by giving the address he was headed to before he got in; apparently it is an infallible law of nature that men give the destination to a cabbie before getting in, while women always wait until they are safely in the cab. The Encyclopedia Brown Encyclopedia is an entertaining look at the series.
posted by TedW at 9:04 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


It was that you can't fold a piece of paper more than 7 times, Cozybee. I still try basically every time I'm messing with a piece of scrap paper.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:10 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


Horace Rumpole, thanks for giving me that delightful trip down memory lane. In exchange, let me give you this ancient Roman coin. You can tell how old it is because the date is right there on the front: 27 BC.
posted by yankeefog at 9:11 AM on May 1 [16 favorites]


Obviously in addition to keeping several well-curated grudges for decades I absolutely loved these books and devoured every word Sobol wrote. I think every parent has a book they try too hard to give to their kids too early and these are 100% mine.
posted by range at 9:12 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


For your dark reboot loving pleasure, I worked up some lyrics related to this subject for a Mefi Music challenge back in 2014. Reprinted here for your listening reading pleasure:

Tigers in the toolshed
(the ballad of Bugs Meany)

This is my father’s song
A hard land calls for a hard man
Survival means learning all the angles
Taking what you can get

Idaville, nineteen seventy-one
Top of my class
In the School of hard knocks (upside the head)
I ain’t no police chief’s son

Tigers in the toolshed
You think we’re dumb
But I’d rather be lucky than clever
And you know that you can’t hide forever
Behind your books, your bodyguard, and daddy’s gun
We may not all be geniuses
But we learned our lessons young
Socially defectives
And smart-ass boy detectives
Eventually, we all get what’s coming

Tigers in the toolshed
Tigers in the toolshed (run, boy, run!)
Tigers in the toolshed
We are our father’s sons

Tigers in the toolshed
Tigers in the toolshed (run, boy, run!)
Tigers in the toolshed
We are our father’s sons

This is my father’s fist
Now clenching from my own damned wrist
You have no reason to trust my word
So have a look, I insist

Don’t ask me for reasons or alibis
When your fear is my only prize
If there’s one thing I hate worse than losing
It’s the pity in your eyes

Tigers in the toolshed
You think we’re dumb
But I’d rather be lucky than clever
And you know that you can’t hide forever
Behind your books, your bodyguard, and daddy’s gun
We may not all be geniuses
But we learned our lessons young
Socially defectives
And smart-ass boy detectives
Eventually, we all get what’s coming

Tigers in the toolshed
Tigers in the toolshed (run, boy, run!)
Tigers in the toolshed
We are our father’s sons

Tigers in the toolshed
Tigers in the toolshed (run, boy, run!)
Tigers in the toolshed
We are our father’s sons
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:12 AM on May 1 [22 favorites]


He's famous for Encyclopedia Brown, but my copy of his one-shot novel Secret Agents Four was damn near falling apart when I was done rereading it.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:19 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


I loved those books as a kid. Pleased to hear that Sally Kimball was based on Emma Peel.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 AM on May 1


I read and loved these as a kid and have enjoyed re-reading them with my own kid. One of my favourite aspects of the books was the use of old-timey expressions. My son & I particularly like to use the expression: "flatter than a 10 cent sandwich" which comes in surprisingly handy in many circumstances. My favourite story though, mostly because of its utterly preposterous nature, involves Encyclopedia solving some kind of international kidnapping case involving a rebel group from South America.

If you're Canadian and of a certain age this is what Deke Wilson's Mini Mysteries effectively was.

I'm not sure I'd call Deke Wilson "gritty" but I might have grown up in a rougher sort of Canada. But I'd agree with the general sentiment that the stories deserve a TV or film adaptation. The stories are always fun and could easily made with a diverse cast.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:28 AM on May 1


The biggest mystery I had while reading the EB books as a kid was how small-town Idaville was big enough to have two synagogues?!

Of course, the answer was, "because it didn't." As we learned when our kids read these books a few tears ago, "[Idaville] had clean beaches, two delicatessens, and three movie theaters. It had churches, a synagogue, four banks, and a Little League."

Oops. "TIL"

Another fan of the The Three Investigators, btw! Thanks for jogging my memory, chocolatetiara.
posted by mosk at 9:30 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


“An arrow flight away” or “A narrow flight away”.

Encyclopedia Brown has the speech patterns of Jupiter Jones.

Coincidence?
posted by lothar at 9:30 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I love how many folks are still upset about the left-hand-right-pocket thing.
posted by thecaddy at 9:47 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Cozybee: I can't actually remember which EB factoid caused my ire,

Oh, I remember mine. It was a story about a restaurant or bakery getting held up and the robber was posing as the proprietor. When asked if he had bicarbonate of soda, said that they didn’t keep it on hand, thus exposing themselves as a fake. Bicarbonate of soda, better known to my child self only as goddamn baking soda, is a staple of all kitchens.

I only read these in the 80’s Scholastic reprints, so I imagine it made more sense in the 60s.
posted by dr_dank at 9:48 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


The factoid that's stuck in my head for more than 30 years because of EB: if April Fool's Day is a Sunday, that month will have a Friday the 13th. I think the mystery had something to do with a prank with an elephant????
posted by epersonae at 9:50 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Yeah, of course. That makes sense, that makes sense. Just one more thing...
Listen, Navelgazer, it's a perfectly reasonable explanation.

I came across the bat's nest when I was lost deep in the african jungle. I had to climb that tree to hide from a passing pride of man-eating lions. Luckily the only thing that noticed my hiding place apart from the bat was a sheep that watched my climb.

What part of that do you not understand?
posted by AndrewStephens at 9:58 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


OK, I love the Encyclopedia Brown books and also the Three Investigators series (I'm still waiting to meet someone named Jupiter so I can call him "Jupe"), but I can't let this conversation go on without also calling out the Great Brain books as my third source of youthful curiosity & skepticism.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:59 AM on May 1 [16 favorites]


In conclusion, it wasn't me that stole Old Man Johnsons's jar of lemon drops during the storm last night. I was startled by a crash of thunder and quickly looked up, just catching Horace Rumpole reaching for the jar as the flash of lightning faded.

AH HA! It WAS AndrewStephens who stole the lemon drops after all!

HOW DID NABERIUS KNOW THIS? (turn to page 19)
posted by Naberius at 10:02 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


I agree with most of the The 10 Most Ridiculously Difficult Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries linked above, but this one is pretty easy:

CASE: The blind violinist Rafino de Verona has just had his prized Stradivarius swindled by the dastardly concert master Hans Braun, who bets de Verona that he can enter the room, open a locked safe, take out a glass, remove the ice, pour into the glass a bottle of ginger ale, lock the safe, leave the room, and lock the door behind him, all without de Verona hearing him. De Verona, who prides himself on his ability to pick up even the quietest of sounds, accepts the challenge, but Braun, who prides himself in the less noble field of locked room puzzles, wins the bet when de Verona innocently opens the safe an hour later and finds the glass filled with ginger ale.

Yeah it's convoluted and not realistic, but it's a standard riddle/locked door mystery trope that genre fans will recognize.
posted by subdee at 10:08 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


... I can't let this conversation go on without also calling out the Great Brain books as my third source of youthful curiosity & skepticism.

wenestvedt beat me to it. These books were also great and yet never had the popularity of EB, at least in my neck of the woods.
posted by gauche at 10:14 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


I have some weird Encyclopedia Brown artifacts in my brain. Like every time I hear cello music I'm like HO BOY I KNOW WHOEVER'S PLAYING THAT ISN'T WEARING A PENCIL SKIRT
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:16 AM on May 1 [15 favorites]


Happy baby on a car hood huh GUESS YOU DIDN'T JUST DRIVE THAT CROSS-COUNTRY!
posted by Navelgazer at 10:18 AM on May 1 [15 favorites]


Is Encyclopedia Brown responsible for the fact that whenever someone cries I think about the fact (well, “fact”) that you can tell someone is faking crying if the teardrop falls from the outside corner of their eye instead of the inside corner? Must go Google now.
posted by skycrashesdown at 10:19 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


It is! And the first Google result takes me to a previous Ask on this very subject! That was satisfying.

Here is a Tumblr post about the story I’m remembering, “The Case of Hilbert’s Song”.
posted by skycrashesdown at 10:22 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


skycrashesdown: OMG that's why I "know" that?
posted by Navelgazer at 10:25 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Add the Mad Scientists' Club to Encyclopedia Brown and The Great Brain for my favourite books when I was a kid. So far, the only one of the lot that I have managed to convince my offspring to read is Encyclopedia Brown, which my youngest boy loves.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:26 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


My Sobel-induced weird association is lobsters & hypnotism.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:49 AM on May 1


you can tell someone is faking crying if the teardrop falls from the outside corner of their eye instead of the inside corner


... Huh, I now am vaguely recalling that it may have, in fact, been the tear thing which irked me. At least, I felt a sudden wave of deja vu-like irritation when reading that sentence.
posted by Cozybee at 10:56 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


JUSTICE FOR BUGS MEANY
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:47 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


Reading from that 10 Most Ridiculous list reminds me why I found these stories both fun and aggravating at the same time. For example, Encyclopedia Brown knows that Bugs Meaney is lying about bird watching because he says he was walking east in the morning, and a bird watcher wouldn't do that? Maybe a shitty bird watcher would. Still, they had a very comforting rhythm, I remember how the first mystery in a book was always EB solving the mystery remotely, just based on his dad's description of the events.
posted by skewed at 12:21 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


These books are how I learned that men's and women's shirts have the buttons on different sides, and that lobsters aren't red until you boil them. I can't remember how old I was when I read them, but I definitely have a lingering affection for them.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:36 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


I learned that people always fall forward when they faint. The one and only time I passed out confirmed that.
posted by bondcliff at 12:45 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


The Encyclopedia Brown stories, where you get the clues as he does but don't understand their import, are called inverted or "howcatchem".

R. Austin Freeman wrote a series of novels between 1907 and 1942 featuring his detective John Thorndyke. Freeman claimed to have invented the style for a 1913 Thorndyke novel.

The Freeman novels can be read at Project Gutenberg Australia.
posted by jet_silver at 12:50 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


He's famous for Encyclopedia Brown, but my copy of his one-shot novel Secret Agents Four was damn near falling apart when I was done rereading it.

THAT WAS THE SAME GUY?? Oh man! My mom gave me her old beat-up copy of Secret Agents Four when I was a kid, and I read it over and over and over. She spent much of her childhood in Florida, where I've never been, and I always imagined that the 60s Florida of that book was just like the 60s Florida my mom grew up in.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:26 PM on May 1


I am so glad to hear that others appreciated the Great Brain books. I just posted a comment about them in a MetaTalk thread

https://metatalk.metafilter.com/25187/Metatalktail-Hour-Bookshelves#1337303
posted by AugustWest at 1:46 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


My grudge is that people for sure do clip there nails right out of the shower. It's been 30 some years and I still think about that 'solution' every week or two.

Also, any love for Cam Jansen with the photographic memory? I was obsessed with trying to remember scenes just by saying 'click' (and in fact, do vaguely remember my test occasion).
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:50 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]


Finding out that Emma Peel was a direct inspiration for Sally Kimball has just made my day.
posted by IAmDrWorm at 1:57 PM on May 1


Also, any love for Cam Jansen with the photographic memory? I was obsessed with trying to remember scenes just by saying 'click' (and in fact, do vaguely remember my test occasion).

YUUUUUUUP!
posted by Navelgazer at 2:01 PM on May 1


Ah, Encyclopedia Brown. The inspiration for the best Onion article ever.
posted by roger ackroyd at 2:41 PM on May 1 [10 favorites]


OK, I’m just going to say it—is the “ah” thing a meme of some kind? I don’t recognize it.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:06 PM on May 1


If it is, I invoked it accidentally.

Yeah, that’s the ticket.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:17 PM on May 1


I just want to add my name to the chorus of people who "know" various things (that car hoods are hot after a drive, that you can't clip your nails after a shower, that traitors call the Battle of Bull Run "Manassas") because of the stories I read when I was in single digits. My children have heard many of these retold with animal characters as bedtime stories, and are now starting to read the originals themselves. I haven't seen Soup, the Great Brain, or Einstein Anderson around in recent years though--are they still in print?
posted by sy at 5:34 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]




It's true...Encyclopedia Brown is the gateway book to Sherlock Holmes.
posted by clavdivs at 6:13 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Now I'm wondering which kid's detective series taught me to look for a car's backup lights to flash before someone drives away to tell you if it's an automatic or a manual? I think of that every time I see it and it's buried way deep in my memory.
posted by traveler_ at 6:14 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Was it the EB series that had a book involving both a sled race (our heroes offered to start behind the line, but won because they had a run-up) and people trapped behind a boulder (the trick was to dig a hole and pull the boulder forward into the hole)?

Or was that some other similar series?
posted by xiw at 7:08 PM on May 1


xiw, that sounds like a couple mysteries from the T*A*C*K series by Miller/Robinson.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:41 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


When I was a kid, I loved school. But the one thing I loved most about school wasn't a class. it was Scholastic Book Club order arrival day. The long walk up the aisle to the teacher's desk was especially thrilling when I knew that I'd be walking back with a brand new Encyclopedia Brown book that I'd never read before.
posted by NumberSix at 10:27 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


Was it the EB series that had a book involving both a sled race (our heroes offered to start behind the line, but won because they had a run-up) and people trapped behind a boulder (the trick was to dig a hole and pull the boulder forward into the hole)?

That was a different series of books from the 80s where a team of 2 teenagers solved mysteries using computers. I remember them well, everything except the titles or the author.

I remember the stories being constructed so you could solve the mystery like the characters (using a small computer program) or by deducing the solution via other clues.
posted by AndrewStephens at 5:04 AM on May 2


I liked the EB books, but I suspect I'd have liked them better if more of the 'mysteries' relied on deductive reasoning based on clues from the text rather than expecting a grade-school kid to know relatively obscure facts that aren't mentioned anywhere in the text.
posted by Aleyn at 11:18 AM on May 2


I learned that people always fall forward when they faint. The one and only time I passed out confirmed that.

Erm, this is false. Or at least the 'always' part is, anyway. I once knocked my visual cortex out when I fainted and fell backwards onto barely carpeted concrete. If I'm a medical marvel, though, that's cool to know?

Also, Encyclopedia Brown was one of my least favorite book series as a kid because the mysteries were never important enough. I wanted tween- and teenagers to be solving serious issues like bombings (so I loved the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Super Mysteries of the late '80s, which had a hint of romance and car bombings!), not who put the neighbor cat up the tree or whatever. I was a morbid and overly adult child.
posted by librarylis at 11:55 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Besides Encyclopedia Brown, Sobol also wrote a book on disasters (alternate Google books link) that I got from some school book club in the 1970s. I'd heard of the Hindenberg, of course, but thanks to him, I learned about the Black Plague, the Cocoanut Grove fire, the tragic 1955 crash at Le Mans, and the fact that a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, among others.
posted by Gelatin at 1:10 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


(I have also fallen backwards when fainting fwiw, yay heatstroke)
posted by epersonae at 1:23 PM on May 2


Now I'm wondering which kid's detective series taught me to look for a car's backup lights to flash before someone drives away to tell you if it's an automatic or a manual? I think of that every time I see it and it's buried way deep in my memory.

Traveler_: If I recall correctly, that's a question of the week from Click N Clack. Some fellows were watching cars loaded onto a ferry boat from afar. One bet the other that they could determine which were automatics even though they were far away.
posted by hydra77 at 2:26 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


And I'd guess that both Encyclopedia Brown as well as Click and Clack are responsible for a great deal of random knowledge inside my brain. You can't hate EB for using random facts to solve mysteries!
posted by hydra77 at 2:29 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


I love all this.
posted by PHINC at 4:10 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


@lefty lucky cat: thanks! That series had completely slipped my mind.
posted by xiw at 10:42 PM on May 8


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