The Case of the Missing 'Encyclopedia Brown' Movie

Puffin Books via Penguin Random House

A lot of numbers came up repeatedly in the life of Donald J. Sobol. The author’s most famous creation, amateur sleuth Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, was forever 10 years old, with each of his books containing 10 short mystery stories. Brown charged only 25 cents for his detective services; Sobol got $25,000 for the film, television, and licensing rights to the character in 1979.

But while Brown never accounted for inflation, always charging a quarter throughout the nearly 50 years Sobol wrote the books, the $25,000 was a different story. “My father was not a businessman,” his son, John Sobol, told The New York Times after the author passed away in 2012. “His contribution was sort of inversely proportional to his financial compensation.”

The ancillary rights holder, a former immigration lawyer named Howard David Deutsch, had plans to capitalize on the immense popularity of the character, who was often referred to as “Sherlock in sneakers." Despite his best attempts, hardly anything materialized.

That was due in large part to Sobol's growing unhappiness with the deal, which led the author to sue to get his boy detective back. It would become the only Encyclopedia Brown case with the character’s name listed as a defendant.

Making the Cut

Sobol didn’t always want to be a writer. Born in 1924, he had his sights set on playing professional baseball. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds but didn’t make the cut. When World War II heated up, Sobol marched into the Pacific as a battalion engineer.

Deposited back in his native New York in 1946, Sobol began a newspaper career, first as a copyboy for the New York Sun and then as a syndicated columnist for the Associated Press. His Two-Minute Mysteries were brief bits of fiction with a solution that appeared upside-down or on another page of the paper, whodunits written with enough brevity to finish at the breakfast table.

Sobol was certainly capable of more substantial work: He had published an adult romance set in medieval times in 1957 and was eager to explore the book market further. The Mysteries, which began in 1959 and lasted nine years, had a format that Sobol thought would lend itself to juvenile fiction. In 1962, he decided to tackle an anthology of short stories with a juvenile detective. Wanting to get across the idea that the boy was intelligent, he first settled on a nickname—“Encyclopedia”—before fleshing out the rest of the formula.

In Idaville, Fla. (named after Sobol’s mother, Ida), Encyclopedia Brown became a child prodigy who could rattle off obscure facts at a moment’s notice. His father, the chief of police, frequently consults with him on cases that are proving difficult for his detectives. In subsequent chapters, Brown usually heads off into the neighborhood to sort out plots involving stolen goods or vandalism. His Watson is Sally Kimball, a pretty classmate who doubles as his bodyguard. She’s able to fend off Bugs Meany, the town bully, with a well-placed right hook. (Sobol, perhaps ahead of his time in the feminist movement, gifted Sally with creditable boxing skills.)

Sobol finished the first book in just two weeks. It was a kind of interactive fiction, with readers able to pick up on clues in the stories that led to a reasonable conclusion. If they were stuck, they could turn to the end of the book for the solution in much the same way Sobol’s newspaper readers flipped the page upside-down.

He circulated the manuscript among 26 publishing houses, all of which turned him down. Finally, Thomas Nelson and Sons was receptive. They offered a contract that eventually stretched to 13 agreements in total by 1976. The first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, performed well, and Sobol eventually settled into what would become the routine of his writing life: one or two books a year, all bestsellers.

The Dutton publishing company acquired Sobol’s agreement in 1978, which granted them the right to negotiate ancillary opportunities like video games, coloring books, and screenplays. It was through this agreement that Dutton entered into a deal with producer and lawyer Howard David Deutsch. Sobol would later argue Dutton had no right to make a deal without consulting him, but at the time, all parties seemed content with Deutsch handing over $25,000 for the ability to take Encyclopedia Brown into other media.

A Boy Legend is Born

Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective
Puffin Books via Penguin Random House

In time, the Encyclopedia Brown series would grow to more than seven million copies in print in North America alone; it was translated into 12 languages. In Hollywood, that kind of brand awareness was invaluable, and Deutsch had no shortage of suitors. In 1981, Warner Bros. began negotiations to have Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn star in a feature film adaptation. (Whether they would have played his parents or have Chase portray a grown-up detective is unclear.)

At some point, Warner backed out of the deal, leading Deutsch to file a breach of contract suit against the studio. It wasn't the first time Encyclopedia was listed in court documents, though: Sobol had filed a $20 million lawsuit of his own against Deutsch and his Encyclopedia Brown Productions shingle in 1983, contesting Deutsch's claims over the character.

While Deutsch and Sobol tried to reach some kind of resolution, the rights to Brown were still in considerable demand. Both Johnny Carson and Aaron Spelling were looking to secure an agreement to bring the character to television; Hanna-Barbera was interested in animating him. Deutsch had what amounted to a Harry Potter-level property, but the ongoing litigation with Sobol made closing a deal difficult.

Finally, Deutsch reached a deal with HBO in 1988. The network that put Fraggle Rock on the map was interested in expanding their children’s entertainment brand and ordered a live-action Encyclopedia Brown special that led into a recurring series. Producers filmed the pilot in Provo, Utah, and the episodes were well-received.

Deutsch then did something unexpected. After just six episodes, he insisted on breaking away from the network, which puzzled them. “The idea of a producer taking his show off the air that was successful, that was so good, and so far ahead of its time that it made my career is [mind-boggling]," show co-producer Ned Kandel told The New York Times in 2005.

By way of explanation, Deutsch later sued HBO, claiming they had failed to properly publicize the series, and maintaining that they had exhibited the pilot outside of a contractually-ordered two-year window. The court ruled in Deutsch’s favor.  

Deutsch and Sobol were eventually able to settle their own dispute, though the court records are sealed. With newfound freedom to pursue a feature film, Deutsch spoke with Anthony Hopkins, who considered directing. In 2005, Deutsch put together a package in conjunction with Ridley Scott and sent it off to studios in the hopes of inciting a bidding war. But before an agreement could be reached, Deutsch withdrew the package. Encyclopedia Brown had been foiled once more, this time by French hair stylists.

Foiled Once Again

When Deutsch began shopping the property to studios, it became known that he had been convicted of immigration fraud in 2000. According to The New York Times, Deutsch was accused of identifying French hair stylists as executives in order to obtain visas for them: their salon company was looking to expand into the New York market, but to do so quickly, they misrepresented the stylists as high-level managers. Deutsch was sentenced to three years in prison, served 14 months, and was disbarred from practicing law.  

Sources told the Times that it made the situation more “complicated” but that no studios backed out as a result of the discovery, which Deutsch said he had never made a secret of and held no relevance to any potential deal.

That was the last anyone had heard of an Encyclopedia Brown film until 2013, when word got around that Deutsch and partner Ray Lee (The LEGO Movie) were nearing an agreement with Warner Bros. The project has yet to move forward.

By some estimates, 50 million copies of the book series have been sold since it debuted in 1963. They rewarded a reader’s attention and intellect—the puzzles were not easy to solve—and imparted values without preaching, something Sobol actively worked to avoid. Whether Brown finds his way into theaters at some point was probably immaterial to the author, who only wanted to sharpen the problem-solving and observational skills of his readers.

And Encyclopedia Brown's generations' worth of fans certainly do pay close attention. In 1990, Sobol had gotten a fact wrong in one of the books, and numerous kids wrote in to make sure it would be corrected in future editions. They had learned a lot from their kid detective hero.