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The case of the Encyclopedia Brown mystery that makes no sense

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Screenshot: Spencer Roth-Rose (YouTube)

You may have enjoyed an Encyclopedia Brown mystery or two in your youth. The popular books by Donald J. Sobol inspired a 1989 HBO series, a comic strip, and a number of puzzles and games. The series differed from classic Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys because, if you read the text carefully enough, the clues always spelled out the answer, so you could crack the case right along with Idaville’s favorite boy detective.

Well, usually. YouTuber Spencer Roth-Rose just released a deep dive into Encyclopedia’s eighth mystery, entitled Encyclopedia Brown And The Case Of The Frightened Witness. His take? “The most insane piece of writing I’ve ever read in my life,” which has “haunted my dreams for 15 years.”

The case: $50 goes missing from the local school. EB suspects that shy classmate Luther witnessed a bully, Bruno, steal the money. But Luther is afraid to speak up, so he speaks to Encyclopedia and his friend Sally in a sort of code, emphasizing words like “legible,” “tormentor,” and “headache.” Somehow from that, Encyclopedia discerns that the money is hidden under an eraser in the school. He lets Luther know that he understands him by randomly dropping the word “onion” in a sentence.


If you don’t get it, don’t worry. Not even Sherlock Holmes could figure this out. Page 94 of the mystery explains that the common element of all of those words is that they have the same letters at the beginning and the end: “LEgibLE,” “TORmenTOR,” “HEadacHE,” and “ONiON.” A ton of leaps of logic are included in this particular case-cracking: That EB and his friend would be able to immediately recognize this commonality in conversation, for example, or that the detective would be able to go into the school and find the right eraser in the right classroom. More likely, Sobol’s publisher was so pleased by the series’ success that they just stopped giving a shit.

We can kind of understand why Roth-Rose has been stymied by this nonsensical mystery all these years, especially when the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries were primarily pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, he can’t follow up with the author himself, as Sobol died in 2012 at the age of 87. Sobol did, however, once admit that “I couldn’t solve the mysteries if I didn’t write them.”