Donald J. Sobol, the creator of Encyclopedia Brown, the clever boy detective who made bookworms of many a reluctant young reader, died on Wednesday in South Miami. He was 87.
The cause was gastric lymphoma, his son John said.Mr. Sobol’s books have been translated into 12 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide, according to his publisher, Penguin Young Readers Group. He continued to write every day until a month or so before his death, his son said. The 28th book in the series, “Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme,” is to be published in October.The first Encyclopedia Brown book came out in 1963 (after being rejected by two dozen publishers, something Mr. Sobol liked to tell aspiring writers to encourage them not to lose faith in their work).Mr. Sobol found a winning formula and stuck to it. Each book holds 10 stories, each involving a mystery that 10-year-old Leroy (Encyclopedia) Brown solves by keen observation and deduction. He notices that the culprit has his sweater on inside out, or claims to smell flowers that are fake. The rest is self-evident. The solution is not spelled out in the story; readers are challenged to figure it out for themselves — or to flip to the back for the answer, as Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie “About Schmidt” does as he lies in bed, engrossed in “Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man.”Encyclopedia never ages and never charges more than 25 cents an hour for his detective services. Mr. Sobol wanted each book to stand alone, so that children could start with any one in the series and read the books in any order. The first story in each book always explains that his father is the chief of police in their hometown, Idaville — named, unbeknown to most readers, for Mr. Sobol’s mother. (The books also included characters named for Mr. Sobol’s children and their friends, as well as another town, Glennville, named for a son, Glenn, who died in a car accident in 1983 at the age of 23.)The 28th book begins:“Idaville looked like many seaside towns on the outside. On the inside, however, Idaville was different. Very different.“No one, grown-up or child, got away with breaking the law in Idaville.”Encyclopedia is not tough, but he travels with a protector, friend and sidekick — Sally Kimball — a girl who packs a punch. Bugs Meany, another recurring character, is a frequent troublemaker. The crimes include theft, cheating and property damage but not murder or mayhem, though an occasional nose gets socked.
John Sobol said his father did not get rich from his work.
“My father was not a businessman,” he said. “His contribution was sort of inversely proportional to his financial compensation. He lived a comfortable middle-class life.”In 1979, Mr. Sobol sold the rights to his books — for movies, TV shows and video games — for $25,000 to the producer Howard Deutsch. Mr. Sobol later contested the agreement, and the case was settled out of court, with Mr. Deutsch retaining the movie rights. HBO made an “Encyclopedia Brown” series in 1989.
Donald J. Sobol (his parents gave him the middle initial, but it did not stand for anything, his son said) was born on Oct. 4, 1924, in the Bronx. His father owned gas stations, which he later sold to Standard Oil.Mr. Sobol graduated from the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan in 1942 and enrolled at Oberlin College. In the middle of his freshman year he enlisted in the Army and served during World War II as a sergeant in a combat engineer battalion in the Pacific. He returned to Oberlin in 1946 and later gave much of the credit for his career to an English professor there, John Singleton, who gave him a personal course in advanced creative writing.He worked as a copy boy and then a reporter at The New York Sun and The Long Island Daily Press. In 1955 he married Rose Tiplitz, an engineer and writer, and in 1959 he began writing a syndicated fiction column called “Two-Minute Mysteries.”In all, he wrote more than 80 books. In 1976, he won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the Encyclopedia Brown series.Besides his son John, Mr. Sobol is survived by his wife; another son, Eric; a daughter, Diane Sobol; four grandchildren; and a sister, Helen Lane.