Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Short stories with logical solutions to make you think
Cons: Shows its age at times
The Bottom Line:
Solve these mysteries
With Encyclopedia
If you’re smart enough

Meeting Old Friends for the First Time

It was recently pointed out to me that Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, the first volume in the long running middle grade mystery series by Donald Sobol was celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  That inspired me to pull my copy out of the garage and give it a reread.  It’s still worth reading or rereading.

For those unfamiliar with the series, each book contains 10 short stories (here they are around 8 pages each).  Encyclopedia, a fifth grader, is presented with a crime or a crime in progress, and he must use his smarts (he gets his nickname since he knows as much as an encyclopedia) to catch the criminal in a lie.  In this book, he helps his dad, the chief of police, about as much as he helps the kids in the neighborhood deal with bullies.

So what kind of cases does Encyclopedia solve?  There’s a thief who was on a cross country road trip when the crime took place.  A bank robbery takes place in town, and Encyclopedia fingers the robbers.  And for the kids in the neighborhood, he proves who really owns a tent, determines if a sword is really from the Civil War, and steps in at an egg spinning contest.

The normal format is a story is presented with all the clues you need to solve it along with Encyclopedia.  He then makes a pronouncement but doesn’t reveal the clue.  For the solution, you have to flip to the back of the book and read it there.  That gives you a chance to solve the case yourself.

I read this book 25+ years ago, and a couple of the stories stuck with me.  In addition to that, I figured out a couple others I didn’t remember.  The rest?  I usually had some clue what was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then I felt stupid for missing the clue.  Yep, I’m still not smarter than a fifth grader.

This being the first book, it’s fun to watch Encyclopedia meet long time nemesis Bugs Meany, head of the neighborhood thugs the Tigers, as well as his partner Sally.  And the very first story is the only one I am aware of in the entire series where the solution is given right in the story and not in the back.  I guess that was to show us the kind of clues we should be looking for to solve the story along with Encyclopedia.  As an interesting note, Wilford Wiggins, who would be a regular antagonist in later books, doesn’t appear here.

Having said that, the characters are rather thin.  This is especially true for the friends Encyclopedia helps who are pretty much interchangeable.  That never bothered me as a kid, and it’s really worth noting only in passing now.

Being 50 years old, some references will definitely be dated, like rubbers or Encyclopedia charging 25 cents a day for his services.  And he opens a savings account when he gets a whopping $3.50.  Still, I don’t think that should matter too much since the heart of the stories is timeless, and the mysteries and clues are as relevant today as ever.

The writing is made up mostly of short sentences.  While I found it a little boring as an adult, it would make a great book for reluctant readers in the target age group.  Again, the writing style never bothered me as a kid.  As an adult, I flew through the book, polishing off the reread in about half an hour.

And I enjoyed revisiting these old friends.  I may still get frustrated for missing the obvious clues, but I have a blast trying to outwit Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective.

This review is part of this week's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.  Check out Shannon Messenger's blog for what others are talking about.


  1. Hi Mark, thanks for the review. I have a few of the Encyclopedia Brown books I've gotten at thrift stores and yard sales. I write MG and I love reading them. Guess I'm still a kid at heart.

    1. You and me both. I still get a kick out of reading MG books, both those I grew up with and those being published today.

  2. Happy Birthday to Encyclopedia Brown! I'm 48 and I still remember reading them as a kid. :)


    1. They are books that have stood the test of time, that's for sure.

  3. I always loved trying to solve the cases with Encyclopedia Brown when I was growing up. I should reread them. :)