Lorelai: I came up for a book [...] of Luke's.
Jess: Well if it doesn't have Encyclopedia Brown in the title, that narrows it down a lot.
—Season 3, Episode 14
Encyclopedia Brown is a series of children’s mysteries starring an entrepreneurial 10 year old with his own detective agency. When he’s not investigating on behalf of his fellow fifth graders (for the reasonable fee of 25 cents), Encyclopedia can be found solving crimes for his father, his town’s police chief. (Seems legit.)
The books are divided into episodic chapters called “The Mystery of [fill-in-the-blank].” Each presents a case (just the facts, ma'am) and ends by asking readers to solve the crime. Readers can then flip to the back of the book for each case's solution. This can make these books fun to read aloud with middle graders. Provided you're comfortable transforming the stories' “cowboys and Indians” stereotypes into teachable moments.
The writing brims with silly wordplay. Of a fifth grade gang that goes by the moniker the Tigers, the narrator quips, "They should have called themselves the Berries. They were always getting into one jam after another." Hardy har har.
The cumulative effect of reading these stories: They invite readers to become more savvy at interpretation, especially of empty space. Revisiting my childhood edition of "Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All" this week, I was reminded that the stories are an exercise in locating the unstated assumptions that link tangible clues (i.e. evidence) together.
Before the exchange referenced above, Lorelai sits at Luke's counter expressing her urgent need for coffee to fuel her clothes shopping expedition for her weekend trip to Manhattan. Why does she need new clothes, Luke wonders, then proceeds to inventory her wardrobe, from memory. He's observant, for sure, but he misses the unstated assumption: Sometimes, we want fresh threads for a big outing.
Then he offers to lend her his book on Manhattan walking tours, which leads to Jess and Lorelei's above exchange, right after she bursts into Luke’s apartment and finds Jess and Rory lip-locked on the sofa. Later in the episode, we learn that Luke bursts in on the couple every 10 minutes to ensure things don’t go too far. So on the obvious level, Jess seems to be referencing Luke’s surveillance methods.
But as I’ve learned again and again from writing this column, literary references rarely (if ever?) operate on the surface level alone. In fact, the episode is rife with intrigue and mystery, enough to keep Encyclopedia busy for a whole book's worth of cases:
- Lane and Dave are hiding their relationship from their band mates, who believe Dave is hiding being a devout Christian from them.
- Lane is hiding her relationship with Dave from her mother (in perpetuity).
- Lorelai feels a little ambivalent about whether she wants Rory to hide details of her, erm, intimacies with Jess.
- Emily is hiding her distaste for Jess from Rory (but not from Lorelai).
- Dean is probably hiding his true intention for being *just friends* with Rory (ongoing).
- And perhaps most significantly, Jess is hiding the real reason he ends up with a black eye.
The episode is called “Swan Song” but could just as well be called “The Mystery of Jess’ Black Eye.”
The trouble begins when he shows up to Friday night dinner with Emily and Rory sporting a fresh black eye and a sullen refusal to disclose its cause. Rory, who apparently lacks Encyclopedia's listening abilities and penchant for deep detective work, jumps to the conclusion that Jess and Dean got into a fight.
Those of us who have studied at the feet of Encyclopedia might read the empty space more carefully: Jess isn't shy about his dislike for and suspicion of Dean. He's comfortable with hostile confrontations, but not with vulnerability. He's also been openly pugilistic, having (in an earlier episode, in an earlier season) gotten into an unapologetic brawl in a public space. Plus, where are the witnesses of this alleged fight? Surely someone in the fishbowl that is Stars Hollow would have seen them go at it.
A fight with Dean? I don’t think so. All signs point to Jess’ black eye being the product of something that makes him feel foolish. And there’s no evidence that he’d feel foolish about fighting, in particular with Dean.
To be fair, Rory isn't the only one who draws the same evidence-free conclusion. Luke assumes the same. Still, Rory looks a bit petulant and foolish drawing unfounded conclusions and then persisting in them. Rewatching the episode was almost frustrating, really. I kept shaking my head like, "Nope. Encyclopedia wouldn't make that mistake. He'd be sniffing around the grass on all fours looking for drops of blood.”
And yet and yet. How tempting it can be to assume ... even when we know it makes an ass out of u and me.