Encyclopedia Brown’s Idaville sure has a lot of crime

The kid’s book series involving boy detective Encyclopedia Brown includes this description of the town of Idaville, the setting for the stories and home to Leroy Brown and his family:

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Idaville was like most seaside towns. It had lovely beaches, three movie theaters, and two delicatessens. It had churches, a synagogue, and four banks

But, read enough of these cases and it all adds up to something: Idaville is not like most seaside towns as it has a lot of crime. Enough crime to fill 29 books with numerous cases in each. Crimes ranging from small violations to larger issues. Lots of different kinds of criminals.

This is not an unusual perspective on crime. Television shows often have a similar message, particularly if they are long-running: crime is happening all of the time. This has the potential to change how viewers understand crime and locations. If you see a particular place associated with criminal activity over and over, how much of an impact does this have?

Some of the other phrases in the intro to the cases provide further clues at how crime is perceived in Idaville and in these cases: “the forces of law and order were in control” and “the town’s war on crime.” Is this the normal experience of small towns or just how we often present mysteries and the work of police?

The suburbs as a “Great Wrong Place”

In a review of mysteries written by women, one critic explains why suburbs are a common setting:

In the books I’ve been reading, the Great Wrong Place is sometimes suburbia, sometimes social media, sometimes high school, sometimes the marriage bed—everywhere something feels missing in contemporary life.

There is not much explanation here. However, this taps into a familiar suburban critique: the suburbs are a darker place than they appear. Even though they might be the image of the American Dream, many disturbing situations are underneath the surface. The key is the contrast between the displayed success of the single-family home and happy family and the tension that threatens to bubble to the surface.

What then exactly is missing from suburbs? Authentic displays of human difficulty and anguish (residents don’t talk about this stuff, perhaps because being vulnerable in the suburbs leads to social problems)? A lack of diversity in who lives there (the typical suburb is white and middle-class and shuts out other experiences)? Public spaces where residents can regularly mingle without having to have strong interpersonal relationships (everyone is cooped up inside their private spaces)? Whatever the reason, the suburbs provide rich spaces for today’s mystery (such as Gone Girl) and horror stories.

Quick Review: the Sherlock Holmes stories

One of my reading projects this summer was to read all of the Sherlock Holmes short stories (56) and novels (4). I enjoyed reading these classics and here are a few thoughts about the well-known detective and his sidekick Watson:

1. I don’t read a lot of mysteries but I can see that more recent detectives (books, TV, movies) have hints of Holmes. Holmes is the classic scientific detective, reasoning his way through tough cases. There has to be a line from Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Adrian Monk. Of course, Holmes’ emphasis on science also emerges as the larger society moves more toward a belief of science and progress.

2. I’m not sure that I like Sherlock Holmes in the end and I’m not sure Doyle wanted people to like him but rather wanted people to be impressed by him. Holmes certainly has a sharp mind but he is given to mood swings, using opium, and rarely shows a non-scientific side. For example, there are a few points in the later stories where Watson seems thrilled that Holmes reveals some warm feelings for his companion. Holmes is a sort of modern renaissance man but is a limited person.

3. Even with the presence of Professor Moriarty, there was one big difference with recent stories: there is a lack of a major villain. Indeed, Holmes does a lot of one-off cases and there are a few recurring characters.

4. After reading all of these stories, I’m not sure I could remember the details of many of them. I liked the four novels the most as there was room to develop the cases and have more twists and turns.

5. I had the opportunity to read most of these stories in the Oxford annotated editions (see an example here). At first, I thought this would be a hindrance (that long introduction, the extensive footnotes) but I really grew to enjoy this. This particularly came in handy with the novels The Gang of Four and A Study in Scarlet as the footnotes described how Doyle built the stories around interesting true events. I didn’t read all of the footnotes (and they truly seemed to be extensive – and occasionally esoteric) but the introductions were helpful.

6. I wish I had read these all in chronological order.

7. I suspect it would have been very different to read these all in the serial form in which they were released.