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Saturday, 21 July 2012

Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series proffers a world amenable to reason and knowledge—a world that people could figure out, even if most of the time we had to peek at the answers. Sobol’s death this month cued an outpouring of internet nostalgia for many readers’ “gateway detective.”

I want to praise Sobol for a less obvious, less appreciated aspect of his series: world-building. He presented Idaville as a typical American small town, but it was an unusual place, and not just because of its inexplicably low rate of unsolved crimes.

The series’s first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, shows the title character setting up his agency in the garage for the first time, and then spending a lonely and embarrassing day waiting for his first client. That book also shows our hero’s first meeting with Bugs Meany and the Tigers; despite his knowledge of African zoology and Civil War nomenclature, Encyclopedia’s unaccountably ignorant of Idaville’s gang scene. Fortunately, we also soon meet Sally Kimball, voice for female capability from the start.

After that, the books can be read in any order. Idaville stays the same. More important, Idaville is chock full of young eccentrics like Encyclopedia, and nobody sees anything wrong with that.

Encyclopedia’s good friend Charlie Stewart, for example, collects teeth. Human teeth, animal teeth. In a big jar. In one story he and Encyclopedia go tooth-hunting, and Charlie takes off his shoes so as to sense half-buried teeth more easily. Then Charlie gets shot in the foot. (Life in Idaville can be rough.) But no one tells Charlie that he’s weird. In fact, a surprising number of kids want to get their hands on his teeth.

Cicero Sturgess is “the greatest child actor in Idaville.” Of course, a small town doesn’t have many outlets for child actors, so he’s forced to produce his own plays in churches. Cicero also hates boats, having gotten sick on a submarine sandwich; he seems to be a drama queen. But everyone accepts Cicero’s interests.

Similarly, Pablo Pizzaro is an abstract artist who wears floppy clothes. Sally actually develops a crush on him. (Encyclopedia always undercuts Sally’s dates; one of these years he might even work up the courage to ask her out himself.) Despite a rocky start stealing a wheel from another kid known for having two bikes, Pablo eventually becomes integrated into the kids’ community.

Nearly every kid has some distinctive trait. Tyrone Taylor is the town’s “youngest ladies’ man,” escorting one girl after another; “He was the only boy in Idaville who got up to give a girl his seat—even when they were the only two passengers on the bus.” Benny Breslin is known for thunderous snoring; everyone likes him awake, but the boys know not to invite him on a camping trip or a sleepover. And so on.

Even the villains—Bugs the bully, Wilford Wiggins the teen-aged con artist—are basically eccentrics in their way. Their quirks just happen to infringe on other kids’ property and rights. So Encyclopedia, Sally, and the threat of adult intervention tamp them back down.

The youth of Idaville do normal things like school, baseball, clubs, and camping. But they also, say, go watch Miguel Sebastian put on a bullfighting demonstration with a dog. (Encyclopedia attends to help rescue Charlie’s tooth collection.) And none of this is presented as outlandish, just interesting. I know Sobol built that world in part to justify his mysteries, but his picture of society encourages readers to develop their individual interests to the fullest, not just to be one of the crowd.

Furthermore, the Idaville kids’ society is largely governed by the kids themselves. Encyclopedia helps his dad the police chief out on a couple of cases each volume, but Sobol wrote that he doesn’t tell his parents how he helps out the other kids. That probably reflects a now old-fashioned culture of play, unlike the way most of today’s readers are probably being raised. Encyclopedia collects his agency fees on an old gasoline can—how many of today’s American parents would even let their kids touch a gasoline can? (Not that I had one to play with.)

The New York Public Library is collecting donations in Sobol’s memory. Penguin will publish Sobol’s final collection, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme, this fall.

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