I get asked sometimes why I chose to write mysteries. Surely, there are other genres out there. Some may say that so-called “literary fiction” is better and more impressive. So, why choose genre fiction? Why mysteries?
After some thinking, I’ve traced my interest in mysteries all the way back to when I was a kid in grade school. My mom would take my brother and I to the library in the summer so we could get books. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we’d go to a bookstore and be able to actually buy books, to keep. It was during this period that I discovered a series that first got me into mysteries, and I’d like to pay tribute to those stories here. No, it’s not The Hardy Boys, and not Nancy Drew–it all started when I discovered a kid from Idaville.
Does anyone remember Sally Kimball, an 11-year-old girl that all the boys in town were afraid of? Does anyone remember Bugs Meany, the leader of the Tigers and a boy so afraid of Sally that he dares not get in her way? That was good news for Sally’s best friend, because Bugs hated him and Sally was also the business partner and bodyguard for her best friend, Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown.
For those that don’t remember (although I can’t imagine anyone growing up in the 70’s or 80’s not remembering), Encyclopedia Brown’s dad was the police chief in the small town of Idaville. Many times, he would come home from work with a case on his mind that he couldn’t solve and talk about it at the dinner table. Encyclopedia would ask one question and solve the case for his dad before dinner was over. He also had his own detective agency (run out of his garage) where he would charge neighborhood kids twenty-five cents a day, plus expenses, to solve their cases. In each story (there were usually several stories per book), Encyclopedia would solve the case by noticing a clue, or an inconsistency in someone’s story. Sometimes, even Sally would help solve the case, noticing something that Encyclopedia overlooked because, as she would tell Encyclopedia, “You’re a boy.” In all the stories, you had to turn to the back of the book to get the solution after you made your own guess.
These stories, which I started reading when I was eight or nine, were the first things I read that made you think while reading. You weren’t just reading for entertainment, following along, you were there with Encyclopedia and Sally, seeing what they saw, hearing what they heard. At the end of each story, they would have the solution, and then it was your turn to figure it out. Sure, you could turn to the back of the book right away and read how the case was solved, but what was the fun in that? You wanted to think about it, take your time, process what you had read, and see if you could figure it out like Encyclopedia did. You wanted to be as good as him.
Inspired by Encyclopedia Brown, I had my own detective agency when I was in the fourth and fifth grades. It was run out of my basement, rather than the garage, but we charged the same as Brown: twenty-five cents per day, plus expenses (I say “we” because one of my friends and my brother were my associates in this crime fighting venture). I think we only had one client, a neighbor kid that wanted to find his baseball glove before his dad got home from work (and I don’t remember if we actually found it), but for those two summers we were diligently available, if needed, just like Encyclopedia Brown.
Donald J. Sobol, the author of the Encyclopedia Brown books, died in 2012, so we won’t have any more Encyclopedia Brown stories (at least I hope not-I hate when other writers pick up characters brought to life by other writers), but for thousands of kids, Encyclopedia Brown was their first foray into observation and critical thinking. And, they probably launched the careers of more than a few mystery writers–I know they did for me.
So, I raise a symbolic glass and toast Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. Thank you for making me want to be a detective, and eventually creating my own private detective to write about. Based on the publication date of the first book, you’re about sixty-three years old now; I hope you and Sally have many grandchildren together.