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World Mourns Loss Of ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN Scribe Donald J. Sobol
Writer encouraged generations of nerds to stand up to bullies with brains rather than brawn.
The world of crime writing lost one of its most important and prolific voices last week with the passing of Donald J. Sobol.
For those who are unfamiliar, it was Donald J. Sobol who first brought Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown to the public eye in the early 1960′s. Brown was the son of the Idaville Chief of Police, and according to Sobol, the uncredited braintrust for the bulk of the Idaville Police Department’s investigations. Thanks to Sobol, Encyclopedia would become known for his ability, after a brief period of meditation upon the facts, to solve a case by asking a single, pointed question.
Sobol was able to circulate the tales of the young Brown’s prodigious crime-solving skills about the country without compromising the safety of Brown himself, or the reputation of the “Idaville” Police Department, by disguising the names of the family and the actual town in which they lived. There are many theories, the most controversial of which is that “Idaville” was actually a code name for metropolitan Detroit, Michigan. Along these lines it has been posited that, while Encyclopedia was indeed a brilliant young sleuth, the dependence upon an elementary school student to solve fifteen or twenty rather innocuous crimes per year may have contributed to that city’s decline into utter ruin in the ’60s and ’70s. Now the true identity of “Idaville” will go to the grave with the esteemed Mr. Sobol, and it will be left up to the pundits to debate the truth.
Of course, Sobol never let his readers forget that Brown, while adept at keeping in check the criminal elements of Idaville, had problems of his own. Of particular note were his repeated run-ins with a reputed gangster Sobol referred to as “Bugs Meany”, leader of a small band of miscreants known locally as “The Tigers.”
Sobol wrote of an incident in which young Encyclopedia Brown had foiled Meany’s efforts to rig an egg-spinning contest, by revealing to those in attendance that Meany had in fact boiled his egg, making it almost infinitely more spinnable than the eggs of the other contestants. Confronted with Brown’s unassailable knowledge of both eggs and hot water, Meany was forced to confess his crime in front of his fellow Tigers.
Meany, who was the clear intellectual inferior to Brown and subject to a number of such humiliations, frequently sought to visit retribution upon the young detective. These efforts were snuffed out by the physical spectre of a pre-teen girl to whom Sobol referred as “Sally Kimball.”
Donald J. Sobol’s reportage was sparse and minimal, and left much to the imagination of the reader. His contribution to American letters is substantial. He shed light upon the shadowy lives of American youth without ever compromising their anonymity, and more importantly, enouraged the meek to rise up and challenge their oppressors.
He was 87 years old.