19 February 2021

The Day I Hung Up My Fedora Forever

I was about 10 years old when I got my first business cards. I “printed” them up myself, laboriously writing them in longhand with pen on index cards I swiped from my Dad.

D’AGNESE DETECTIVE AGENCY, the first line read. After that came our home address in Jersey. There ended my originality. The rest of the copy is tattooed in the brain of anyone who loved mysteries as a kid: 25 cents per case, plus expenses. No case too small.

I don’t know how many of these cards I wrote up. But it was a lot, because I remember discarding a few of my Dad’s pens along the way. Some cards started in black or blue ink, but finished in red. Then I pressed my younger brothers into service. We dropped those cards into every home mailbox or mail slot in the neighborhood.

I set up my office in the garage. We always had some folding chairs tucked away in a closet; I appropriated a couple for myself and my operatives. My Dad had a very large metal gasoline can in the garage—also perfect, also fortuitous—which became my desk of sorts.

I don’t know how long I had to wait for my first case, but when it materialized, it came in the form of two big kids. I can’t be precise about their ages, or mine, because childhood memories are forever and ageless. One of the kids was the friend of our older, big-kid neighbor, Clint.

Big kids suck.

“Someone stole my bike,” he told me. “I need you to find it.”

As soon as his lips closed, a shocking thought passed through my head: What the hell was I doing? I had no freaking idea how to be a detective. How does one even begin to track a stolen bike?

“Do you have any suspects?” I said.

My client didn’t get a chance to respond, because at this point one of my brothers insisted on seeing the color of the fellow’s money. “It’s 25 cents!”

“Yeah, I know,” the big kid said. “I read those books too.”

Book #1 in the Series. Note the gas can!

The books in question, as you’ve no doubt guessed, were the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries that were written so wonderfully by a man named Donald J. Sobol over the course of 49 years.

Sobol wrote other books in his lifetime, but the Brown mysteries—about Leroy Brown, a kid sleuth who solved cases out of his garage in a small fictional town in Florida—will always be his claim to fame. The Brown books each contained about 10 short mysteries.

I hate dreaming up clues for the stories I write today. I’m terrible at it. Sobol’s genius was boiling every single case down to some abstruse factoid that revealed which person in the story was a liar. Things like which way water flowed in the Amazon basin, or the fact that dogs can’t see color, or the fact that fire never burns downward, only up. (I just made these up. They are not Sobol-approved.) No one in the stories, not even grown-ups, knew this kind of trivia, but Encyclopedia always did. That’s how he always nabbed the perp.

I never did read all the Brown books. My childhood ended before Sobol finished crafting them. But many years later, I had the chance to read the first volume of his Two-Minute Mysteries series, which were wickedly short newspaper puzzlers not unlike the ones in Woman’s World magazine today. Sobol published three books culled from this one syndicated mystery column, which he began writing for newspapers in 1959.

But here’s what blew my mind: In the same way that Raymond Chandler “cannibalized” his short stories and their plots in later novels, or the way Ellery Queen repurposed their old radio scripts for later books, Sobol clearly tapped some of his old Dr. Haledjian newspaper shorts for later Encyclopedia Brown material.

Because clues are just that precious.

None of this helped me, by the way, back in the 1970s. The Case of the Purloined Bike didn’t have a single critical clue to guide me. (I wouldn’t have spotted it if it had.) As I recall, the case fell apart when the client threatened to steal our bikes, mine and my brothers. Isn’t that just like a big kid?!

Terrified, I fled my newly hatched office for the safety of my upstairs bedroom, bolting the door. If the world was not going to challenge my ratiocinative abilities, I would not be a party to its madness.

Book #29 —the last in the series.

My younger brother, who has always been physically bigger than me, fought off the big kids with a stick and locked the garage door. He’s the only hero of this story.

I never had another case. But some months later, a commuter on the bus to the big city plopped down next to my father one morning and innocently asked, “Are you a detective?”

My father spluttered that he was no such thing.

The woman showed him my business card.

“That’s gotta be one of my idiot kids!” he told her.

“I thought so,” she said. “But I thought I would ask. I need someone to find my sweater. I can’t find it anywhere.”

Where was this paragon of clienthood when I needed her?

By rights my story ends there. But many years later, when I was working at the children’s publishing company, Scholastic, I had the chance to interview Sobol, who lived in Florida, by phone.

I found him to be incredibly down to earth. He chuckled when I told him about my detective agency. I was not the only grown-up who’d shared such an anecdote with him over the years. Pulling some questions from old bios of him, I asked if he still fished or golfed. He laughed. He said most days he was lucky if he got up from his desk and made it to the refrigerator.

At the end of the interview, I mentioned in passing that our children’s magazine would be reprinting one of the Brown mysteries to accompany the Q&A I was writing.

In a line that sort of presaged my own future, Sobol replied, “Am I getting paid for this? I mean, if it’s just a few bucks, no big deal. But if it’s $25, send me the check.”

His last Brown title was published a few months after he died in the summer of 2012, at age 87. The best estimate I’ve found says the Brown books have sold more than 50 million copies—and counting. That should keep us in budding detectives until the end of this century, at least.

Count me out.

* * * 

See you in three weeks!


  1. A charming blog! Of course, if your detective career had gotten off to a great start you might never have become a writer.

    1. Whether I'm a writer is still a matter of debate, but at least I definitely know I'm not a detective. Thanks, Janice!

  2. Ah, the dreams of childhood - I was going to be an international spy, based on my ability to pass myself off as a man, which in turn was based on the fact that I was always cast as a man in the school musicals because I had (and still have) a baritone singing voice. (And no, I didn't think I was gay or anything else. We were all more innocent then.)

    1. Interestingly, or not, to this day I never have read HARRIET THE SPY!

  3. Fun blog, Joseph. And educational, too. Good job.

    I recognized the name Donald J. Sobol, but didn't know why because I never read any of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries (deprived childhood, I guess). But I did read the Haledjian stories because my parents subscribed to the Detroit Free Press while I was growing up in Michigan. Those appeared about the same time I discovered the Hardy Boys, so there was no going back.

    As for the cannibalizing, I suspect we all do it to some degree. I know I recycle stuff occasionally. In fact, I'm currently working on a novella that uses settings and minor characters from a standalone novel I published ten years ago.

    1. I would say that at least three of the novels I've written in adulthood were recycled from stories/books I wrote as a kid. It seems to be my current working process to mine old ideas. Nothing wrong with it.

  4. I loved this, just like I loved the Encyclopedia Brown stories. And Lord love a duck do I hate thinking up clues. Thanks.

    1. Dreaming up clues certainly does not get easier, and I think some writers have a marvelous knack for spotting them in real life.

  5. Wow, we had the same childhood! When I was ten I also had a detective agency, completely with a desk, filing cabinet and coffee maker. I didn't have business cards, but I did get my mother to put a cheap ad on the radio for me. As I recall, I was offered a few patronizing cases (lost cats, that sort of thing) but turned them all down. If it wasn't an indictable offence, I wasn't interested. I gave up the business when my own bike was stolen and I was too inept to track it down.

    1. That is absolutely hilarious. I like that you had the foresight to install a coffee maker for those long nights...

  6. Great column, Joe. I too loved the Encyclopedia Brown books. I've cooked up more than a hundred of those kinds of plots for Woman's World, and they're always fun to write. And I like Sobol's reply, to the reprint request.

    Glad you wound up being an author instead of a detective.

    1. Of course I was thinking of you when I wrote that sentence.

  7. I've never read any of the Encyclopedia Brown books, but I think I will send some to my grandnephew when he gets old enough. Thanks for the column about them.

    In the meanwhile, three things: (1) I loved the sweater-lady story; (2) I've learned a new word: ratiocinative; thanks!; and (3) You're lucky the mailman didn't come to your house to scold you. When I was thirteen, I think, I put babysitting flyers in the mailbox of every house in a four-block radius and lifted all their flags so they'd know they had mail and would come get it. Later that day, the mailman came to visit our house to inform me that it was a crime to put mail in someone else's mailbox if you're not the mailman. Who knew? Thank goodness I got away with a warning.

    1. Barb: I learned this late in life, and it terrified me! When I think back, that is exactly the point I keep landing on. How did I not get scolded by someone from the local post office? From what I've heard, it's equally illegal to slip mail into a mail slot on someone's door if it's not official USPS mail.

  8. I read & enjoyed some of the Encyclopedia Brown stories, probably in the school library. I like thinking up clues, or keeping track of the clues I find. I have a file on my puter called clues2use.txt ... it keeps getting fatter all the time because I'm a very slow writer & probably will never get to use most of what is in the file.

    1. My problem is that I always come up with the characters and the settings first, and then struggle to figure out a clue that matches them, and the time period. If am excited at the thought of creating a computer file like yours, but I'm afraid it would remain empty for a good long time.

  9. What a great article, Joe. I love it.

    A century ago, the once famed Booth Tarkington wrote the Penrod & Sam trilogy. You might enjoy it. Penrod was a cross between Tom Sawyer and Dennis the Menace. In the 3rd book (published considerably after the first two), Penrod starts an ill-fated detective agency. I need to read this series again.

    1. I just looked it up. It reminds me of another children's series about a kid inventor/detective. I have;t thought of those books in years -- and will do a post on them too, one of these days.

  10. I loved Encyclopedia Brown as a kid. Sadly, what I discovered is, even as an adult, I'm not as smart as Encyclopedia Brown. I'm lucky if I can figure out one or two of the 10 in a book.

    I also read Angie's First Case, one of his non-Encyclopedia Brown books. It was really a lot of fun. Much more like a traditional middle grade mystery (one story, not solution at the end gimmick).

  11. I'm not as clever as Brown was either! That's the trouble with books. You identify with the characters so much, and think you're just as clever. But you're not--just breathlessly reading and going along for the ride.

  12. Great piece. Like others here, I fashioned myself a detective, but I was more in the vein of The Three Investigators. I even made an outside fort accessible only from underneath. Over the weekend, as my boy and I were consolidating some of the stuff in the garage attic, I ran across the first Encyclopedia Brown book. I didn't pick it up, but I think I'm going back into the garage and fetch it. Thanks for this.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>