Monday, March 14, 2016

Encyclopedia Brown

Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown had a troubled childhood.  The conceit of the series was that his dad, police chief for the town of Idaville, described his cases to his son at the dinner table every night, and Encyclopedia solved them.  Idaville, ergo, was known as the only municipality in America where criminals were always apprehended.

Chief Brown's actions raise a number of questions about his fitness as a parent. Though it seemed as if the only crimes that happened in Idaville were small-time robberies, there must've been a homicide, drug deal, child endangerment case, etc. at some point in the town's history.  I can infer that Chief Brown was sharp enough to handle some of this himself (Encyclopedia's detective instinct had to come from somewhere), but did the Chief also have a perfect batting average on the vice crimes?  Or did he rely on his son to solve these crimes too?  Did he have the coroner's report nearby, perhaps as a placemat, in case Encyclopedia needed to check the medical evidence?  Wouldn't this be rather unsuitable reading for a child (or really, anyone) at the dinner table?  "Wow Dad, based on the hooker's stomach contents, it looks like her last meal was a turkey sandwich and coffee."  "Speaking of meals, finish your goulash, son."

Idaville's status as a crime-free town had to be complete civic propaganda.  First of all, if someone jaywalked across the Idaville main street and wasn't ticketed, that's technically a crime.  That man is Idaville's greatest outlaw.  Second of all, the stories never indicated what happened after Encyclopedia solved the cases.  It's very possible that some of the culprits were found innocent in a court of law, especially given the esoteric nature of their arrests.  You'd think that a young boy's citation of the defendant's lack of knowledge about, hell, I dunno, a tropical bird might not be enough to erase any reasonable doubt in the jury's mind.  The Idaville DA must've had some tough trials, unless he came home at night and let his son (Penal Code Statutes Anderson, or something) write his closing remarks.  Maybe the entire town was full of incompetent adults propped up by their genius children working behind the scenes, a la Penny bailing out Inspector Gadget time after time.

Another problem with the Encyclopedia Brown series was the undercurrent of sexism.  Encyclopedia's partner/bodyguard in his detective agency was Sally Kimball, who was generally acknowledged as the smartest kid in town who wasn't a total shut-in to such an extent that he was actually nicknamed after an informational textbook.  While it was somewhat empowering that Sally was the muscle of the operation, her basic role was to act as the constantly befuddled Dr. Watson to Brown's Holmes.  Sally solved a case herself every once in a while, but the solution always had to do with etiquette and manners, which Encyclopedia (and, it should be noted, the male cops) were always baffled about.  The only men who seemed to know these rules of etiquette were, oddly enough, the male criminals.  So by author Donald J. Sobel's logic, real men didn't need to know manners --- it was the domain of women and lawbreakers.  

I remember the 'final' Encyclopedia Brown story very well, because it stood out as being extremely weird to my young mind.  In it, Encyclopedia and Sally basically end their friendship over the fact that Encyclopedia didn't invite Sally to a birthday sleepover because she was a girl.  This formed a bond between Encyclopedia and Bugs Meany, who had heretofore been the town bully, and suddenly it was the two of them paired up and Sally was the common foe.  It was just really bizarre.  I'm pretty sure Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote a story where Sherlock and Moriarty join forces against Dr. Watson.  This "Encyclopedia hates Sally" storyline took up the last half of the book, didn't even involve a mystery, and it was never resolved.  My theory is that Sobel was going through a divorce at the time, and used Sally as the stand-in for all of his hatred towards his ex-wife.  Maybe the real-life Sally got upset about Sobel's nights out with the boys, or she was "solving her own mystery" with another male friend.


I'd love to see an updated version of the series called Wikipedia Brown, where he's just dead wrong about all of his solutions.

Brown: I've got it! The population of African elephants has tripled in the last six months, so that proves Bugs Meany stole the sneakers!
Sally: You're an idiot.

No comments: