Encyclopedia Brown

When I was in the second grade, our teacher offered us special credit if we could learn to spell "encyclopedia."  We all did:  e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a, or -p-e-a-d-i-a.  I think at this point the old form is no longer taught even as an option.

One of my favorite series of books as a boy were the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.  I read that the author died today, at the age of 85.  The neat thing about them, for an aspiring boy detective, was that they presented all the facts but none of the solutions.  The solutions were collected in a separate section in the back, for you to check once you had sorted out what you thought the proper answer might be.

In this the author -- his name was Donald Sobol -- answered the complaint raised by no less than Raymond Chandler in his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder."
 The poor writer is dishonest without knowing it, and the fairly good one can be dishonest because he doesn’t know what to be honest about. He thinks a complicated murder scheme which baffles the lazy reader, who won’t be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details. The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off.
Donald Sobol didn't do that:  he gave you the cute answer, but he assumed you would figure out the missing piece.  Learning to do that was the point of reading his stories; it is why they are still worth reading, for boys of a certain disposition.

But if I am going to quote from the Chandler essay, I ought to quote the parts everyone ought to know.  Here they are.
[Hammett] wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street...
It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
If you have that, you have enough to write a good mystery; you may even have a great deal more.


Sig said...

I still clearly remember one of them in which he "cheated." The key detail that Encyclopedia Brown picked up on was that the girl's crying was fake because the tear was coming out of the outside of her eye, instead of the inside--ergo, it was an eyedrop or something not a real tear.

This detail was not actually in the story; you couldn't pick it out. At least, I couldn't twenty years ago, even when I looked.

Another one which was fair but required knowledge I didn't have was that towels that are air-dried (i.e. on a line) are going to be not nearly so soft as those machine-dried. I lived in Bremerton; the very idea of hanging something OUTSIDE to dry was preposterous.

Loved those books as a kid.

Eric Blair said...

I read several of those when I was a child. I even got some of them before the ending.

I think Glen Cook read Chandler's essay and took it to heart; You should read his "Garrett, P.I." series.

douglas said...

Maybe I need to read some Chandler. I had always been a bit dismissive of it- perhaps too hastily.