Let me tell you about the most popular mystery author you’ve probably never heard of.
He sold 50 million of copies of his books worldwide. His work was translated into a dozen languages. The Mystery Writers of America gave him a special Edgar. The character he created became a cultural icon—spoofed by The Onion, the star of a short-lived television series, and the subject of a nasty lawsuit over the movie rights.
His name was Donald J. Sobol. He was World War II veteran and New York City native who moved to Florida in 1961. Two years later he created his “Sherlock in sneakers,” boy detective Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown.
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, young Brown remains forever 10.
His beat is an idealized Florida beach town named Idaville. It exists in the era before cellphones, video games, and Arianna Grande, when kids went fishing or rode bikes for fun. He runs his cut-rate detective agency out of his family’s garage on Rover Avenue.
Sobol’s sleuth has a keen eye and a prodigious memory for arcane facts—hence his nickname. (These days he’d have to be Wikipedia Brown, which just doesn’t sound as authoritative.) 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.
. . . .
But the real mystery wasn’t inside the books. The real mystery was: Who’s Donald J. Sobol?
Most authors would love to be a big name—a Stephen King, a James Patterson, a John Grisham. People buy their books not for the title or cover image or first page, but because it’s the new King, the new Patterson, the new Grisham.
Not Sobol. He preferred nobody know who produced all those books.
“What I really wanted, and couldn’t achieve—it was just a pipe dream—was to remain anonymous,” Sobol once told his college alumni magazine. “That never worked.”
He came close, though. He never gave a single television interview. When he talked with newspaper and magazine reporters, he did so by telephone. That way they couldn’t take his picture or even describe what he looked like. A photo of the author only appeared in one book, and he said that was by mistake.
“I am very content with staying in the background and letting the books do the talking,” he told the Oberlin Alumni Magazine in 2011.
. . . .
He was the most unlikely of authors, joking once that “I am totally unqualified to be a writer. My childhood was unimpoverished and joyful. Even worse, I loved and admired my parents.”
Donald J. Sobol—the J was just that, no middle name, just an initial—was born and raised in New York City, where his father owned gas stations. As a child, 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 didn’t read mystery stories. Instead, he was attracted to tales of adventure. As a kid he wanted to be a police officer, or a firefighter, or a shortstop for the Yankees. In high school he tried his hand at sculpting.
In World War II, he was part of a combat engineer battalion, then attended Oberlin College on the GI Bill. He took the college’s only creative writing course, and was hooked. After the last class, he asked the professor if he could take an advanced writing course. The professor explained that there wasn’t one. Sobol said later he just stared at the professor “like a dim-witted penguin watching water freeze.”
Then the professor asked he’d seen action during the war. They talked about that a bit, and finally the professor agreed to teach an advanced writing course for just one student.
“Without his help, I probably never could have had a career as a freelance writer. I owe him so much,” Sobol told the alumni magazine. Not only did the professor help him become a better writer “but he instilled faith in me, in myself. I will always be grateful.”
Two of the stories Sobol wrote for his advanced class wound up selling to the pulps, and he was on his way.
. . . .
Sobol cranked out the first book in the series, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, in just two weeks. That first book contained all the elements that would show up in all the other books: the idyllic setting, the 25-cent fee, the roster of regular baddies like dimwitted Bugs Meany, leader of the Tigers gang.
In inventing his hero, 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.