Matthew Berry on 'Encyclopedia Brown'

July, 19, 2012
7/19/12
2:00
PM ET
When the phone rang the other night, it was my mom, calling with some bad news.

The Talented Mr. Roto
"Donald J. Sobol passed away last night," she told me.

If the name doesn't immediately grab you, that's OK. It took me a second as well. He wasn't a household name.

But as the author of the "Encyclopedia Brown" child detective series, Donald J. Sobol was a huge part of my childhood. I read the first book when it was first released and, like millions of others, was instantly hooked. I read that first book and the subsequent ones many, many times over the course of my childhood.

I read a lot as a kid. I read and reread all of "The Great Brain" series. I wore out "The Westing Game." And I must have read "The Horse That Played Centerfield" a thousand times. Any nonfiction sports book I could get my hand on, like "Greatest Running Backs of All-Time!" (complete with a profile about how great a guy O.J. Simpson was!), I instantly read and remember to this day.

Donald J. Sobol
Courtesy Penguin PublishingDonald J. Sobol, the mastermind behind the genius of Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown.
But first and foremost for me was always young Leroy Brown, "Encyclopedia" to the world at large and, specifically, to the seedy underbelly of Idaville. No one ever got away with a crime in Idaville, you see. No one, ever.

Sure, Chief Brown was a great police chief, brave and honest. But the secret to Idaville's spotless record was Chief Brown's 10-year-old son, who had "read more books than anyone and he never forgot a thing."

Whether it was listening to a case his dad couldn't solve at the dinner table or being hired by one of his fellow schoolmates (at the very reasonable price of 25 cents per day, plus expenses), the sneaker-wearing Encyclopedia Brown solved his cases by paying attention to details others had overlooked.

Long, long before Harry Potter ever showed up, Sobol gave a nerdy kid powers over those who were bigger, stronger and more nefarious than him. But never smarter. And never beaten up, either, thanks to his best friend and sidekick, Sally Kimball, "the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the best athlete." Sally was the only one who could beat up Encyclopedia's frequent nemesis, Bugs Meany, leader of the local gang of toughs, "The Tigers."

Sobol created a world that was both simple and intricate. The crimes were never that serious, but the attention to detail was. And while Encyclopedia never ages, Sobol was ahead of his time in creating a strong female character. As Donald's son, John Sobol, told The Associated Press for their obituary of his father, "That was groundbreaking back in 1963, when the series was first published."

To read the rest, check it out at Matthew Berry's site here.
• Senior Fantasy analyst for ESPN
• Member, FSWA and FSTA Halls of Fame
• Best-selling author of "Fantasy Life"

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