Saturday, April 27, 2013

Encyclopedia Brown Turns Fifty!

I first met Encyclopedia Brown when I was in elementary school. From a young age I would read anything and everything; then as now I would frequent my library on a regular basis. It was even better when I was a kid because I had a library right there in the school building! I don't remember if my school librarian Mrs. Shenberg introduced me to the Encyclopedia Brown mystery series or not, but I do remember trying to track down each of the books in the series to match my wits against his.

Each book follows the same pattern: there are ten chapters, each with its own mystery. There are a few pages of background to set the stage and to give you the important details. Then before Encyclopedia Brown can give away the solution to whatever the problem is, the omniscient narrator would interrupt and write something like, "How did Encyclopedia know?" or "What tripped up the guilty man?" Then there would be a note to read the solution on page such-as-such at the end of the book. That chapter would then be done, and a new chapter and new mystery would start.
Encyclopedia Brown (I'm gonna call him "EB" from now on to save typing effort) was really Leroy Brown, the son of the Chief of Police of the fictional town of Idaville. Leroy is not only the smartest kid in town, he is the smartest person, period. Whenever his father has a case he can't figure out, he asks his son to help. Of course, EB solves the mystery every time. He has opened a Detective Agency in his garage during the summer and charges neighborhood kids a quarter to help them in various problems. Often these problems have something to do with neighborhood bully Bugs Meany, who tries to get the best of him in every book. On EB's side is Sally Kimball, the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the best athlete in the class. She is the junior partner of the Brown Detective Agency. She is not quite as smart as EB, but she is clever. Every-other-book or so she gets a chapter where she is able to solve the mystery before EB does.
If you have never read any EB stories, you should go to your local library or bookstore and ask for one of his books. There are atleast 25 in the series, created by Donald J. Sobol, who passed away last year. Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective was first published in 1963; this means that he is celebrating his 50th anniversary this year. I was in a bookstore recently and happened to notice His Best Cases Ever. I was so happy to see it that I literally snapped it up. "Encyclopedia Brown's greatest cases? Hell, yeah!" There is no way that I would buy all of the books, but to show my love for the character I wanted to have THIS.
Most stories were incredibly clever, based on simple observations or facts you would be expected to understand as soon as EB explained them. Sometimes they were painfully obvious, and I wondered if there was some reason why I could easily guess the culprit. Sometimes, however, the stories were simply convoluted; the mysteries based on codes and secret signals tended to be the worst of these. When I was a kid there at least ten books that I read and re-read. Let me tell you a few of my favorite solutions. 

EB meets Sally Kimball
If you don't want to know some of the solutions to these stories, skip the next paragraph.
Some plot devices that I remember to this day were: when you drive a car for several hours the hood is going to be too hot for a child to stand on; Bob, Anna, noon, radar, and level are all words that are palindromes; magicians always wear long-sleeve shirts; with your car hood up and you sitting at the wheel you cannot see if someone is doing anything to your engine; penguins are from the South Pole; a full spider-web in a doorway means nobody came through that way; and it is impossible to use your left hand to put something in your right pants' pocket. These solutions were like moments where I would say, "Eureka!" They were so dramatic to me that I have remembered them for 40-plus years after reading them.
To do research for this article I found that there are 28 different EB books; eighteen at least are back in print by Puffin with adorable painted covers by James Bernardin. He did the interior art on some of the newer books, too. The original series artist was Leonard Shortall; he was the only artist I knew until very recently. In the late Seventies he was replaced by such artists as Ib Ohlsson, Gail Owens, Eric Velasquez, Warren Chang, Robert Papp, and then James Bernardin, who was the last artist before Sobol died. For the Yearling versions, photographer Michael Frost used adorable teenage models to represent EB, Sally, and Bugs. The photographer gets a credit, but I have no idea who the models are.
Shortall's art was excellent when the series first started (that's his work at the top of the page and for the work "EB meets Sally") but by the tenth book his style had become more gritty and less refined. Bernardin is probably my next favorite; his covers are fun and his interior art is detailed but not busy. Papp is noteworthy because his EB and Sally resemble the Yearling photo models' versions!
These stories are great fun and quick ways to keep your brain "on." I don't know if they will continue now that Sobol has died; I wouldn't be surprised if they stopped, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone new stepped up and started writing them. Personally I would like to see atleast one story where EB gets a little older and maybe joined the police force. Sobol wrote in His Best Cases Ever that he had made the decision not to age EB out of the fifth grade, but it was something I would like to see, maybe for all the fans who grew up with him.
Leonard Shortall provided the covers to the earliest books' first editions,
such as these shown above and below

The Yearling versions featured these adorable models as EB, Sally, and Bugs.
Photos are by Michael Frost.


The last artist to work with Sobol was James Bernardin.
Above is another of his covers; below is some interior art.  

Here's the Brown family having dinner, as drawn
by EB artist Eric Velasquesz 
Is it just me, or does Robert Papp model his Sally and Encyclopedia
after the same models the photographer used?
EB and Sally witness an incident with Bugs in the  background.
Art by Warren Chang

If you have ever read an EB story, you'll get a kick out of this link:

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