Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: Encyclopedia Brown: Sundown in Adaville

American letters can boast few geniuses. Skillful craftsman and observers, yes, but the flash of insight which leaves everything you read afterwards changed, I can think of only two writers, both stylistically inferior. One is Poe, and the other is Hammett.

Let me make myself clear. I'm not claiming that Hammett is superior to (say) Faulkner as a writer, but that his writing irreversibly changed literature itself. The noir novel, and the noir hero, the detective, are instantly recognizable, and that is evidence of the force of Hammett's perception. Which brings us to Sundown.

Encyclopedia Brown, boy detective, is a well-worn figure. Solving cases before dessert thanks to the trivia he has absorbed, he fulfills every nerdy, obsessive pre-teen's dream of power and acclaim. Despite his enemies' physical prowess, he invariably triumphs, saving the downtrodden, punishing the wicked, and outpacing the adults. All at 25¢ a day, plus expenses.

The shock of Sunset, then, is to begin with Encyclopedia running. He knows his pursuers are faster, and as he tries to escape, his planning is constantly interrupted by a flow of now useless information:
The blindworm is neither blind nor a worm.
There are no penguins at the North Pole.
Turtles have exceptional night vision.
--I've got to get away from them--
Nathan Samuels began the United Federation of Planets.
And instead of Encyclopedia regnant, we see him the victim of an appalling crime. His life does not improve through the rest of the book.

The plot, which would be criminal to reveal, centers on the revelation that Adaville is, with the willing aid of the police chief, a Sundown town. As outside forces begin to expose the Adaville elite, the illegitimate powers within struggle to maintain their positions. Alliances are made, broken, and remade. Battlelines are drawn. Men and women die. And slowly but inexorably Encyclopedia Brown is stripped of each ally in turn.

The noir hero, of course, always stands alone. His moral code is uniquely his, and he follows it without compromise in a world in which morality and hypocrisy are equivalent. What makes Sunset work so well is watching Encyclopedia manipulate those around him, from his best friend and his father to his worst enemy (Bugs Meany, as abominable as ever) while trying to stay his own course.

Our distance from the detective is greater in Sunset than in previous books. We aren't given the insight into his motivations we might like, and certain chapters are heavily elliptical. This is a book which rewards re-reading. We do learn to see his relentless absorption of trivia as a method of imposing order on a chaotic, meaningless universe: god may be dead, but the melting point of platinum is constant.

The book wraps up in destruction, naturally. The noir hero, dedicated to truth, must destroy or be destroyed by the lies of the rest of the world once he comes into contact with it ("takes the case"). In all, a satisfactory addition to the genre, and an excellent addition to Encyclopedia Brown canon.

1 comment:

mdmnm said...

Wait, what? Really?

I grew up on Encyclopedia Brown, too, and didn't realize they were still being written. I'd read this, though.