Reading Diary: Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol
During the summer, Encyclopedia ran a detective agency for children of the neighbourhood. He opened his office every morning after his father left for work.
Encyclopedia always waited till his father drove off. He had no choice. His office was in the garage.
The series has a simple premise: a fifth-grade boy is the best amateur sleuth in town and he will solve any case for a fee of twenty-five cents (plus expenses)--except those he solves for his father, the Chief of Police, for free. Each chapter (ten per book) is a "five minute mystery" that challenges the reader to try solving the case as well. The solutions are at the back of every book.
Promising, right? Indeed, I had really hoped my brothers would take to these stories. After all, Encyclopedia is about their age and is both exceptionally smart and completely generic. So even if they don't identify with him (at best), at least they won't hate him (at worst). Right? =P
Well, it took them some time to get the hang of picking up clues and solving cases--and they were initially resistant. But now that we're almost done with the first three books, I think that they are both happy they got to read them and happy that we can now move on.
Danny Landis hurried into the Brown Detective Agency. He laid a quarter on the can beside Encyclopedia.
"I want you to find my pillow," said Danny. "It's missing."
"I've seen a matchbox and a boardwalk, but I've never had to solve a pillowcase," said Encyclopedia thoughtfully.
This isn't the first time I've used this series for some educational purpose. About two years ago, when I was an ESL teacher, I introduced my more advanced students to Encyclopedia Brown and made them solve his cases as homework. I assigned those mysteries in which someone makes up a bogus story and is caught in the lie, to test comprehension rather than (or at least as much as) common sense. My students really seemed to like it (except for the fellow who was older than I was and wondered why he was wasting his time on stories for children--Sheesh!)--and I heard that some of their friends had started to look forward to helping them with their homework.
And that is the nicest thing about Encyclopedia Brown mysteries: they're fun to solve with others. I think my brothers got more from these stories because we read them together--because they got to race themselves to the solution, and got to beg me for clues when they were really stumped, instead of giving up and looking at the answers.
But as soon as the mystery is solved, well, that's it. All the characters, including the hero, are as two-dimensional as they come. Nobody ever changes: Encyclopedia is always perfect and his arch-nemesis Bugs Meany never learns. The setting is as static as it is idyllic: Idaville is an idealised American town straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting--except that Rockwell has more edge. The stories are like Looney Tunes shorts: lots of fun at first, but predictable and boring after you've seen enough.
Now, if you like "five minute mysteries," this isn't a problem. (In fact, it might even be a plus!) In that case, you'll get what you read for, so to speak. For although there isn't any point in rereading these stories when you're done, they are always a delight to read for the first time . . . especially with children. =)
Image Sources: a) Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective, b) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch, c) Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues