Thursday, September 12, 2019

Encyclopedia Brown is trapped in the past

The new children’s show  The InBestigstors has made me decide to revisit the Encyclopedia Brown books. Encyclopedia Brown didn’t invent the kid detective genre (that happened at least fifty years before that and probably much older than that) but it did promote a new level of ‘fair play puzzle’ to the genre.

Everyone already knows the Encyclopedia Brown formula works but here’s how it goes: Every story is actually a puzzle where there’s one or two clues that contradict the criminal’s explanation and show that they are guilty. Sometimes it’s an honest to goodness logic puzzle and other times it’s just someone contradicting themselves. The answers are in the back so the reader has a chance to figure it out before looking. 

(And, no, Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t the first time that was used but it sure helped popularize it)

My memories of the stories were that the characterization was very flat and that most of the explanations worked as the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. (Of course, Encyclopedia Brown had the winning card of his dad being the police chief so he had that backing him up)

What I forgot was how corny the books were. Everyone, including the narrator, is constantly making groan-worthy jokes. And all of the local kids have one quirk or odd hobby that makes them stand out. Mind you, which each case being only a few pages long, that’s only way to make the kids stand out.

As literature, Encyclopedia Brown is really nothing. As I already mentioned, the stories aren’t actually stories. They are really just puzzles. Theme, character, even plot are minimal. But they’ve encouraged generations of kids to read and maybe even think so that’s a good thing.

What I found interesting, though, is that the books are like a time capsule. The first book was written in 1963. So, of course it’s dated. If it wasn’t dated, something would be disturbing and wrong. And I don’t think the books are an accurate picture of childhood in the 1960s any more than Norman Rockwell is an accurate picture of America in the 1940s. But it does give me an idea what an idealized, sanitized image of childhood was like.

After rereading the first three books (published in 1963, 1965 and 1966), I decided to read the last book which was published in 2012. I wanted to see if the author included cell phones or at least personal computers and microwave ovens.

The title story of Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme did feature, well, soccer, which is a sport I don’t think would be discussed in 1963. So Donald Sobol at least managed to get to the 1980’s. Beyond that, time seemed to be frozen and Encyclopedia Brown was still charging a quarter per day (plus expenses)

Looking at Encyclopedia Brown as an adult in 2019, part of me wonders how and why I read so much the stuff when I was little. But, if it makes my son read more and think about puzzles, I won’t mind if he reads it too.

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