The 10 Most Ridiculously Difficult Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries

By Rob Bricken in Daily Lists, Miscellaneous
Friday, July 10, 2009 at 7:56 am
By Bryan Hartzheim

The quiet town of Idaville seems friendly and idyllic at first glance, but underneath that suburban façade is a seedy underbelly of petty criminals: thieves, swindlers, and bullies, all compulsive liars, and all hiding behind public reputations that mask their evil intentions. If not for the crime-solving abilities of Encyclopedia Brown -- the nerdiest superhero of them all -- Idaville would have the highest crime rate in the nation and thugs like Bugs Meany, for example, would evolve into the rapists and murderers they're so naturally predisposed to becoming. Of course, Encyclopedia's ability to solve mysteries frequently borders on the absurd due to author Donald Sobol's clear disregard for his readers' self-esteem (many of whom have ended their lives prematurely from being unable to crack these "children's stories") and temporality (many of these mysteries just haven't aged well since they were written back in the '70s and '80s). These 10 cases are the best representations of Sobol's hell-bent desire to frustrate the hell out of sons and daughters and their seemingly more intelligent parents.

10) The Case of the Civil War Sword from Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective
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CASE: Young Peter has a chance to trade his bicycle for a real Civil War sword used by General Stonewall Jackson, but the owners' of said sword are none other than the dreaded Tigers' clubhouse. Peter enlists Encyclopedia's help in determining if the sword is really Gen. Jackson's. Tigers' leader Bugs Meany tells Encyclopedia that the sword is from the first Battle of Bull Run, and an inscription on the sword says as much: "Presented to [Jackson] by his men on August 21, 1861." From this, Encyclopedia knows that the sword is a fake.

SOLUTION: Only Northerners called the battle by the name "Bull Run." Jackson's men, being Southerners, would have called the battle by its Southern name, "Manassas." Of course, the sword also says, "The First Battle of Bull Run," and since the second battle was in 1862, no man living in 1861 would have known there would be a second battle the following year. But most children don't even know what the Civil War is other than media depictions in westerns or Looney Tunes where the Yankees are assholes (and still are). And even the few children who can tell the Civil War from the American Revolution certainly don't display an Apu-like knowledge of its major motives, battles, and dates.

9) The Case of the Roman Numeral Robber from Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Slippery Salamander
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CASE: Mr. von Martin's jewelry shop has been robbed by the Roman Numeral Robber, who leaves notes behind written in Roman Numerals (as opposed to Aramic). When Encyclopedia arrives, the shop is dark and musty, with a copy of the paper, an unopened can of soda, and a bag of pretzels near the cash register. His classmates Charlie Stewart and Herb Stein are there with him. There is a broken window towards the rear of the store, and near it, a note: "June XXIIII, Dear Mr. von Martin: Say good-bye forever to your precious von Martin watch. I am sure that it will bring me a small fortune when I sell it!" Not much to go by, but from these clues alone, Encyclopedia has enough to determine the identity of the thief when the police arrive.

SOLUTION: The note, which has a "IIII" as opposed to a "IV" written on it for the date, June 24. Jewelers often write "IIII" instead of "IV" when designing watches, meaning the culprit was thus Mr. von Martin. The various paraphernalia and mise-en-scene comprising the rest of the store are simply Sobol's sick red herrings. This is an impossible case for children since most have big digital watches that are waterproof. On the other hand, the adults reading this who own these nicer watches are furiously opening them up and checking for the "IIII" mark right now. And not finding them. Sobol, you're a jerk.

8) The Case of the Missing Watch Goose from Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake
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CASE: Candida Strong (in what is the first uncomfortable incorporation of a minority character into the largely Anglo-Saxon world of EB), enlists Encyclopedia's help in finding her missing goose, Chris Columbus Day, in the nearby forest. They find a few white feathers and ask a group of campers if they've seen a goose, only to be rebuffed that the feathers are from chickens. The two come up on another group of campers giggling by a campfire who offer them both platters of freshly roasted chicken and dripping dark breast meat.

SOLUTION: Chicken breast is only white, and all goose meat is dark. Therefore, the campers were eating the goose. Other than the fact that most children or adults don't eat geese - aside from their fattened and delicious livers - and thus would never know that their breast meat is any darker or lighter than a chicken's, would you really try to challenge a group of isolated strangers who have just proven that they can slaughter and cook a goose, and then lie to innocent children about it? Is that not the worst real-life Deliverance red-flag imaginable?

7) The Case of the Umpire's Error from Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Slippery Salamander
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CASE: The Idaville Indians are about to play the Pittfield Porpoises, but the umpire can't make it to the game due to car trouble. One of the Porpoise parents, a computer salesman, volunteers to ump the game after declaring he was an umpire in the majors for three years. He immediately begins to make unfavorable calls towards the Indians (it is always implied that the children of Idaville learn their lying ways through their parents). When the ump dusts off the plate, some of the parents start hurling insults. At that point, when Encyclopedia reads the back of the ump's shirt with the message, "Don't go wrong when you buy a Krumm computer," that he realizes the ump is a fraud.

SOLUTION: If you thought there was something to do with computers here, well, that's exactly what Sobol wanted you to think (he's a jerk!). Encyclopedia's "proof": umpires are trained to face the crowd when they dust off the plate in the majors, where it's considered bad manners to show your back to the crowd. But wouldn't the ump more simply just not give a shit about this crowd, especially when they've been insulting him all game?

6) The Case of the Bird Watcher from Encyclopedia Brown Saves the Day
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CASE: Someone sends the boy detective a letter enclosed with 25 cents to meet at Mr. Dunning's gas station at sunrise the next day. Encyclopedia shows up, but no one is there. Back at his garage, Chief Brown shows up with Bugs Meany, who says he saw Encyclopedia letting the air out of Mr. Dunning's truck tires. Encyclopedia confirms he was there. Bugs, on the other hand, states he was bird watching in the morning. Walking along the shore of the Dade River which runs east to the ocean, he could definitely see Mr. Dunning's truck as he claimed. He even names four different birds that come to the river at that time as proof for his alibi.

SOLUTION: Bugs, yearning to get back at Encyclopedia after years of intellectual emasculation, is trying to frame him. A real bird-watcher never walks east early in the morning; walking into the rising sun, he would only see the birds as dark shapes against the bright sky. Walking into the west, the sun's full light would come behind him and fall on the birds. Bugs had sent the letter and let the air out of the tires himself. To solve this one, a child would have to either be a bird-watcher (unlikely) or inclined to wake up before sunrise (impossible).

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