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Encyclopedia Brown author Donald Sobol dies in Florida at 87

Smarter than the Hardy Boys and wittier than Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown solved mysteries for nearly 50 years and never charged more than a quarter. Although born in 1963, Brown remains forever 10.

His creator, Donald J. Sobol, arguably the most successful unknown author in Florida, has died at age 87.

Mr. Sobol, a former New York newspaper reporter and a onetime buyer for Macy's, moved to Miami in 1961 and two years later created one of the most enduring characters in children's literature with Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective.

His sleuth has a keen eye and a prodigious memory for arcane facts — hence his nickname. He solves small mysteries for his friends and sometimes helps out on big cases that baffle his police chief dad, exposing robbers and con men by spotting the clue everyone else missed.

Mr. Sobol, who gave few interviews and rarely posed for photos, never became a big name like Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, but his creation did. Encyclopedia Brown became such a mainstay of kid-lit that he's been spoofed in The Onion, Cracked and the second Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.

The first book in the series, cranked out in just two weeks, was rejected by more than two dozen publishers before it finally found a home. Since then the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries have never been out of print, and have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Mr. Sobol wrote every day, and his output proves it. His 28th mystery, Encyclopedia Brown and the Carnival Crime, was published last fall. One last one, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme, will be published in October.

A 2005 New York Times story reported that the Encyclopedia Brown books had sold 50 million copies worldwide. The books have been around long enough that their original audience has passed them along to their own children and grandchildren.

"Thanks to Donald, generations of children have learned to read and solve mysteries alongside Encyclopedia Brown, one of the most iconic characters in children's literature," Don Weisberg of Penguin, his publisher, said in a statement.

Mr. Sobol was born and raised in New York City. As a child, Mr. Sobol said, he was more like Brown's frequent nemesis, inept gang leader Bugs Meany, than his hero, "but only in that I thought up devilish pranks. I never had the courage to act out on them."

He graduated from Oberlin College, served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in World War II, then became a reporter for the New York Sun and the Long Island Daily News. After marrying and moving to Miami, he decided to try his hand at books. While he penned more than 80 of them, mostly nonfiction ones about the stock market or King Arthur, it was his fictional Sherlock in sneakers who made the biggest splash.

In inventing his hero, Mr. Sobol started with Brown's nickname, then fleshed out the character from there. "I wanted a name that would appear on the cover and tell readers that this was a book about a smart youngster," he told an interviewer in 1984.

Each book follows the same pattern: 10 stories, each with a separate mystery for Brown and his sidekick and sometime bodyguard Sally Kimball to crack. The clues are laid out for the reader to follow, but most have to flip to the "Solutions" section in the back to find out how he did it.

John Sobol said his father frequently tested out ideas on his own children. "We would talk about it sitting around dinner," he said. "My mom also helped inject humor into the stories."

Although the puzzles Mr. Sobol concocted were always eminently fair, the clever writing is what kept readers coming back. "Sobol turns out to be a deft storyteller," Kevin Burton Smith wrote in a profile on the Thrilling Detective website. "Each story is a little gem, rich in atmosphere, with plots that are often quite inventive, full of jokes and metaphors."

The stories take place in an idyllic beach town called Idaville that is clearly in Florida. Idaville exists in the era before cellphones, video games and Justin Bieber, when kids went fishing or rode bikes for fun.

What helped keep the books popular is that they showed how kids could be smarter and more observant than adults. Mr. Sobol himself learned that lesson anew in 1990 when second-graders in Philadelphia found an error in one of his stories and wrote to him to point it out. He had to change the story.

In 1976, the Mystery Writers of America honored him with a special Edgar Award. His young detective starred in a comic strip and an HBO series. Over the years, a number of Hollywood titans such as Ridley Scott wanted to make an Encyclopedia Brown movie, but a dispute over the rights to the character stymied them.

Mr. Sobol died July 11 of natural causes, according to his son. His death was first announced Monday by a method unheard of in Idaville: via a tweet from Publishers Weekly. He is survived by his wife, Rose, who is also an author, their three adult children and four grandchildren.

"Readers constantly ask me if Encyclopedia is a real boy," Mr. Sobol said once. "He is, perhaps, the boy I wanted to be — doing the things I wanted to read about but could not find in any book when I was 10."

Information from the New York Times, the (Lakeland) Ledger, Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Encyclopedia Brown author Donald Sobol dies in Florida at 87 07/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 16, 2012 10:13pm]
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