Let me tell you about the most popular mystery author you’ve probably never heard of.
He sold 50 million of copies of his books worldwide. His work was translated into a dozen languages. The Mystery Writers of America gave him a special Edgar. The character he created became a cultural icon—spoofed by The Onion, the star of a short-lived television series, and the subject of a nasty lawsuit over the movie rights.
His name was Donald J. Sobol. He was World War II veteran and New York City native who moved to Florida in 1961. Two years later he created his “Sherlock in sneakers,” boy detective Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown.
Smarter than the Hardy Boys and wittier than Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown solved mysteries for nearly 50 years and never charged more than a quarter. Although “born” in 1963, young Brown remains forever 10.
His beat is an idealized Florida beach town named Idaville. It exists in the era before cellphones, video games, and Arianna Grande, when kids went fishing or rode bikes for fun. He runs his cut-rate detective agency out of his family’s garage on Rover Avenue.
Sobol’s sleuth has a keen eye and a prodigious memory for arcane facts—hence his nickname. (These days he’d have to be Wikipedia Brown, which just doesn’t sound as authoritative.) He solves small mysteries for his friends and sometimes helps out on big cases that baffle his police chief dad, exposing robbers and con men by spotting the clue everyone else missed.
I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid, not just because I loved the idea that a kid could be smarter than the adults. I also loved it because of a clever gimmick that Sobol used.
Each book contained ten stories. In each story, someone would present Encyclopedia with a puzzle. He would carefully examine the clues, listen to what the witnesses said, then compare that with his vast store of knowledge gleaned from reading as well as his own common sense. Then he would indicate he had the solution—but he wouldn’t explain it, not right then.
Instead, the reader would have a chance to figure out what it was. If you couldn’t – and usually I couldn’t, but that didn’t stop me from trying – then you could flip to the back of the book, where Sobol explained how his pint-size private eye had solved the puzzle.
But the real mystery wasn’t inside the books. The real mystery was: Who’s Donald J. Sobol?
* * *
Most authors would love to be a big name—a Stephen King, a James Patterson, a John Grisham. People buy their books not for the title or cover image or first page, but because it’s the new King, the new Patterson, the new Grisham.
Not Sobol. He preferred nobody know who produced all those books.
“What I really wanted, and couldn’t achieve—it was just a pipe dream—was to remain anonymous,” Sobol once told his college alumni magazine. “That never worked.”
He came close, though. He never gave a single television interview. When he talked with newspaper and magazine reporters, he did so by telephone. That way they couldn’t take his picture or even describe what he looked like. A photo of the author only appeared in one book, and he said that was by mistake.
“I am very content with staying in the background and letting the books do the talking,” he told the Oberlin Alumni Magazine in 2011.
Most of his personal appearances were among people who couldn’t care less about his name. They only cared about his character.
“He would go into the elementary schools and talk to the children,” his daughter Diane told me. She tagged along once. “He presented a case and he let the elementary school children attempt to solve it. He loved working with and talking to children.”
He was the most unlikely of authors, joking once that “I am totally unqualified to be a writer. My childhood was unimpoverished and joyful. Even worse, I loved and admired my parents.”
Donald J. Sobol—the J was just that, no middle name, just an initial—was born and raised in New York City, where his father owned gas stations. As a child, he was more like Brown’s frequent nemesis, inept gang leader Bugs Meany, than his hero, “but only in that I thought up devilish pranks. I never had the courage to act out on them.”
He didn’t read mystery stories. Instead, he was attracted to tales of adventure. As a kid he wanted to be a police officer, or a firefighter, or a shortstop for the Yankees. In high school he tried his hand at sculpting.
In World War II, he was part of a combat engineer battalion, then attended Oberlin College on the GI Bill. He took the college’s only creative writing course, and was hooked. After the last class, he asked the professor if he could take an advanced writing course. The professor explained that there wasn’t one. Sobol said later he just stared at the professor “like a dim-witted penguin watching water freeze.”
Then the professor asked he’d seen action during the war. They talked about that a bit, and finally the professor agreed to teach an advanced writing course for just one student.
“Without his help, I probably never could have had a career as a freelance writer. I owe him so much,” Sobol told the alumni magazine. Not only did the professor help him become a better writer “but he instilled faith in me, in myself. I will always be grateful.”
Two of the stories Sobol wrote for his advanced class wound up selling to the pulps, and he was on his way. He worked as a copy boy for New York Sun, and then worked his way up to reporter there and at the Long Island Daily News. He married Rose Tiplitz, who had earned degrees in math and physics at Brandeis University. She worked in computers at IBM in the 1950s.
Sobol’s first foray into the dark genre started when he began writing a syndicated column called “Two-Minute Mysteries.” Those flash fiction columns helped him hone his ability to sprinkle clues through a very short story.
Once they had three children, the Sobols decided to raise their kids someplace warmer than New York. They picked Miami, which then had a population of 291,688 (it’s now 463,347). There they stayed, all through South Florida’s evolution — first as a refuge for Cuban exiles, then as a shooting gallery for cocaine cowboys, then as a haven for South American strongmen and Russian gangsters. (It delights me to imagine 1980s Sobol perusing his morning Miami Herald and reading headlines like “Drug Dealers Masquerading as Cops Arrested By Cops Masquerading as Drug Dealers,” then going off to write another story where his hero solves a bank robbery thanks to his knowledge of Civil War trivia.)
* * *
Upon arriving in Florida, Sobol decided to devote himself full-time to writing. In addition to his “Two-Minute Mysteries” column, which ran for 10 years, he cranked out more than 60 books, including non-fiction books for kids on the American Revolution, the Wright Brothers and the Knights of the Round Table. He and his wife co-wrote a book for children explaining stocks and bonds, too.
None of them proved to be as popular as Encyclopedia Brown.
Sobol cranked out the first book in the series, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, in just two weeks. That first book contained all the elements that would show up in all the other books: the idyllic setting, the 25-cent fee, the roster of regular baddies like dimwitted Bugs Meany, leader of the Tigers gang.
In inventing his hero, Sobol started with Brown’s nickname, then fleshed out the character from there. “I wanted a name that would appear on the cover and tell readers that this was a book about a smart youngster,” he told an interviewer in 1984.
The author made it clear right from the start that Encyclopedia wasn’t just smart but was socially adept, too.
“Old ladies who did crossword puzzles were always stopping him on the street to ask him questions,” Sobol wrote. When one asks him to name a three-letter word for a Swiss river that begins with A, he pauses a moment and then says, “Aar.”
“He always waited a moment,” Sobol wrote. “He wanted to be helpful. But he was afraid that people might not like him if he answered their questions too quickly and sounded too smart.”
Sobol wanted kids to identify with Encyclopedia, describing him as looking like any other fifth-grader. He also decided that his detective needed a flaw, so he made him brainy but not brave. He’d shy away from physical confrontations.
That meant he needed a tough sidekick, a Hawk to his Spenser. Sobol first tried including a big brother character, but that didn’t feel right. Then he tried making his sidekick a reformed bully. That didn’t work either. At last, inspiration struck in the form of a cat-suited Diana Rigg, playing TV secret agent Emma Peel.
“Along about that time,” he told the Denver Business Journal, “there was a TV program out of England called The Avengers in which the heroine did all the judo work. I said, ‘Well it works for TV, it ought to work for Encyclopedia Brown.’ So I brought in a young lady named Sally Kimball, a neighbor, and she was his junior partner.”
Sobol’s daughter Diane said her father also drew on personal experience in creating Sally. When he was young, she said, “his big sister really looked out for him…He did tell me that when he was growing up, his sister really stood up to some bullies on his behalf. His mother was a very strong woman, too. If you look at his whole body of work, you’ll see he included a lot of strong women.”
Sally was “the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the best athlete,” Sobol wrote. She had also punched out Bugs Meany, who wasn’t eager for a rematch. Encyclopedia regarded her as more than just muscle. She was his best friend and a full partner in his detective agency.
While doing research, he asked a librarian to bring him four books. Three of the ones she brought were ones he’d requested, but not the fourth. That one was a puzzle book.
As for his back-of-the-book solutions gimmick, Sobol got the idea for that from a library mix-up. While doing research, he asked a librarian to bring him four books. Three of the ones she brought were ones he’d requested, but not the fourth. That one was a puzzle book. In glancing at it, Sobol realized it had the solution for each puzzle in the back. It dawned on him that he could use the same idea in writing mystery stories.
Once Sobol was done with that first Encyclopedia Brown story collection, he was sure he had a winner. Yet the manuscript was rejected by more than two dozen publishers. Once it finally found a home, though, it took off with young readers. The Encyclopedia Brown mysteries have never been out of print.
They have been around long enough that their original audience has passed them along to their own children and grandchildren. When my kids were old enough, I started reading them the Encyclopedia Brown stories at bedtime. They ate them up just like I had when I was their age.
Some of his fans have gone on to write their own mysteries. For instance, Laura Lippman (The Lady in the Lake) told Topic magazine recently: “What I really liked (as a child) were the Encyclopedia Brown stories, where the reader was asked to solve the mystery. I really loved the fact that Encyclopedia was the brain and his friend Sally was the muscle—she was the one who had to beat people up when they were threatening Encyclopedia Brown.”
* * *
Sobol wrote every day, taking about six months to produce each of the Encyclopedia Brown books. The title always included the detective’s name: Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All, Encyclopedia Brown Sets the Pace, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Mysterious Hand Prints.
He’d start writing each morning before his kids woke up and still be tap-tap-tapping away when they went to bed. The one time of day they saw him was at dinner, when he would entertain his family with all sorts of tales.
“He usually had a funny story to tell,” Diane told me. “We used to love to listen to him tell stories. He always knew just where to pause.”
He frequently tested out mystery ideas on his children. “We would talk about it sitting around dinner,” his son John said. “My mom also helped inject humor into the stories.”
And there were so many stories. By the time he died in 2012, he had written 29 books, each one with 10 stories. That’s 290 mysteries over 49 years—an astonishing output, especially when you recall he wrote other books too.
Although the puzzles Sobol concocted were always eminently fair, the clever writing is what kept his readers coming back.
“Sobol turns out to be a deft storyteller,” Kevin Burton Smith wrote in a profile on his “Thrilling Detective” website. “Each story is a little gem, rich in atmosphere, with plots that are often quite inventive, full of jokes and metaphors.”
What helped keep the books popular is that they showed how kids could be smarter and more observant than adults.
What helped keep the books popular is that they showed how kids could be smarter and more observant than adults. Sobol himself learned that lesson anew in 1990 when second-graders in Philadelphia found an error in one of his stories and wrote to him to point it out. He had to change the story.
But here’s the question I put to his daughter: In those pre-Internet days, when you couldn’t just Google any arcane fact, how did he manage to fill his main character’s brain with all that important trivia? Was he the real Encyclopedia?
“He had a lot of reference books,” she explained. With his background in reporting, he knew how to track down the facts he needed. Meanwhile the non-fiction books he wrote often supplied him with fodder for his clever detective to use in foiling a criminal, she said.
“That was his gift,” she said. “He knew how to put that together in a way that was unique to him.”
She said there had been talk about someone else in the family taking over the series after he died, but so far nothing has come of that. Unless and until that happens, Donald J. Sobol will remain the sole proprietor behind the Encyclopedia Brown Detective Agency.
“Readers constantly ask me if Encyclopedia is a real boy,” Sobol said once. “He is, perhaps, the boy I wanted to be—doing the things I wanted to read about but could not find in any book when I was 10.”