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Literature / Two-Minute Mysteries

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Donald J. Sobol's less well-known "adult" Encyclopedia Brown series. It centered around Dr. Haledjian, a criminologist, who solved cases stumping the police by finding a mere inconsistency. The series consisted of three books:

Two-Minute Mysteries (1967) — 79 mysteries 

More Two-Minute Mysteries (1971) — 63 mysteries 

Still More Two-Minute Mysteries (1975) — 63 mysteries 

The series was reissued in 2007 in an omnibus edition, Two Minute Mysteries Collection.

These books contain examples of:

  • All Balloons Have Helium: Invoked in "The Case of the Balloon Man" as part of the kidnapper's alibi. Sam Potts claims that, while he was taking down one of Izzy the Balloon Man's balloons that had become stuck a tree in his backyard, he saw Izzy kidnapping a neighbor's child. Haledjian — already knowing that Izzy blows his balloons up by mouth, and that there wasn't a wind that day to put the balloon there — immediately spots the lie.
  • Bad Habits: Figure into "The Case of the Lookout", where Haledjian realizes the "nun" with him at the drugstore across the street from a bank robbery was the gang's lookout, stalling for time and keeping him occupied.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: "The Case of Willie the Wisp" is a variant of the classic "bicycle smuggling" urban legend.
  • Casanova Wannabe: Poor Cyril Makin, who has the distinct misfortune of only wooing ladies with very proud lineages in something or other (Civil War ancestry, horse breeding, Arctic exploration, etc.), and won't look twice at a man without a similar family history. Whenever he tries to concoct a phony background to impress a girl, it invariably blows up in his face.
  • The Case of...: Appears at the start of every story's title.
  • Conviction by Contradiction: Naturally, it was all over the place (spoilers ahead):
    • The very first case in the very first collected volume, "The Case of the Angry Chef", has Haledjian declare that a marine is lying because he stated he went "back" to a pizzeria he swore he'd never been in before... except he'd already been suddenly chased down the street by a chef from the pizzeria wielding a knife, and a cop had escorted them both to the scene of the crime, meaning that "went back" could easily be in reference to the chef, even if he wasn't included in the sentence (to say nothing of the accused just using imprecise grammar). It's flimsy, to say the least.
    • "The Case of the Dying Brazilian": Haledjian knows that Nick the Nose, the informant, is lying (as he always is), because he claims that a dying Brazilian's last words were in Spanish, and the national language of Brazil is actually Portuguese. (Because the Brazilian couldn't be one of the many immigrants to Brazil from nearby Spanish-speaking countries. And because it would be impossible for a native Brazilian to speak his last words in a foreign language. And because it would be impossible for an Anglophone informant to simply mistake Portuguese for the extremely-similar-sounding and more commonly heard Spanish language.) In fact, depending on what he said, it could sound exactly the same in Spanish or Portuguese, especially from the mouth of a dying man (who presumably isn't speaking particularly clearly).
    • "The Case of the Suicide Note" involved the apparent suicide of an actor and Haledjian claiming that the note left behind was a fraud written by an English rival of the deceased because the note used "theatre" instead of "theater" and other British spellings. (Because apparently, Americans are only supposed to use American spellings. And no one ever uses "-re" to refer to stage productions and "-er" to refer to a local multiplex.)
    • "The Case of the Musical Thief" has Haledjian declaring someone's alibi faulty because the person identified the tune a band was playing as "God Save the Queen" rather than "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" (which has the exact same tune), and so knew about a British performing troupe being in town. Many American Gilbert and Sullivan companies play "God Save the Queen" before performances, and as a Standard Snippet, it's always "God Save the Queen." Even worse, the actual name of the tune is "National Anthem."
    • In the "Case of the Overheard Gunshot", the killer is collared by identifying her lover as having been shot in the back — his body had been turned over by Haledjian and was facing upward, so the logic goes that an innocent person would only assume he was shot in the chest. (An innocent person with no knowledge of ballistics, at least. Exit wounds are invariably larger and tend to be more uneven than entry points; the victim was shot through the heart and wearing a silk shirt that the bullet would've visibly shredded, creating a hole that would be hard to mistake.)
    • "The Case of the Sticky Brush": The alleged murderer claims to have not visited his friend for days, but is caught because he leapt over the freshly-painted stairs and knocked on the window set into the door rather than the freshly-painted door itself. (Because it's not like fresh paint looks and smells like fresh paint, especially fresh white paint. And because it's not like some people leap over stairs as a matter of course, or like knocking on a window is often simply louder than knocking on a heavy door.) This is one of the many cases that were recycled for Encyclopedia Brown to solve.
    • "The Case of the Dead Professor": An English professor's suicide note is considered fraudulent and a product of foul play because it contains a split infinitive. (Because English professors always follow grammatical rules, even when distraught and suicidal, and all English professors accept "don't split infinitives in English" as a rule.)
    • "The Case of the Open Door": The suspect claims it is his first time in the victim's house, but when a doorbell rings, he knows to answer the back door. (Because nobody can hear where a given sound is coming from, and it's certainly not that front doors often always have a double ring (ding-dong) and back doors a single ring (ding). And because there's no way at all the suspect could be from, live in, or have lived in a town where it's customary to do everything at the back door except on special occasions.)
    • "The Case of the Stolen Rubens": The painting's owner claimed to be getting dressed to investigate the disturbance, with his right leg in his pants and his left leg out. (Everybody always gets dressed and undressed left-leg-first. Didn't you know that?)
    • "The Case of Freddie the Forger": Freddie's itinerary read "Palestine" instead of "Israel", thus revealing he wasn't actually going to the Middle East as his girlfriend claimed. (Not a lot of tolerance for potential political differences.)note 
    • In "The Case of the Escobi Sapphire", the question of whether or not a ring bearing a very valuable sapphire was stolen or legally bequeathed comes down to the accusing party's testimony. She says that when she saw the deceased for the last time (when he supposedly bequeathed it to her), he was reading a book and wearing the ring on his right hand, so when he turned a page the sapphire flashed brilliantly. Haledjian figures that the 'witness' is lying because the dead man was reading a book written in Hebrew before he died—and Hebrew is written right to left. The man would have been turning the left page with his left hand, not the right page with his right hand... But most people turn the page with their dominant hand, regardless of direction. If Haledjian had been correct here, then people would use a different hand to flip back through a book than to flip forward through it. Even animators knew this wasn't true.
    • In "The Case of the Barbecue Murder", he was on his way to a BBQ when the host was found murdered. His neighbor came over, saying he heard his wife scream in horror, and during the interrogation, spotted the wife's pearl earring in the grill and reached his hand in to retrieve it. The detective told him that he obviously planted the earring because, despite having just arrived, he knew that the coals were cool enough to plunge his hand into them. Apart from the fact that coal visibly whitens when heated and that people can sense heat when standing next to hot coals, does he ever consider the fact that the guy could have just been an idiot?
    • In "The Case of the Maestro's Choice", the head of an orchestra had two skilled violinists and had to decide which would play a solo on opening night. He picks A about five minutes before the performance is meant to start. When he goes to get A, he finds A has been killed, and then has to pick B. Haledjian decides that it must have been B who did it, because B walked onto the stage, sat down and began to play, when he should have tuned his violin and rosined his bow first. Like it's totally unthinkable that someone with an equal chance of getting a part would get themselves ready to play it, especially if the choice wasn't going to be made until about five minutes before it was meant to begin.
    • In "The Case of the Home Bakery", Inspector Winters asks for bicarbonate of soda for an upset stomach while in a bakery. The baker says she doesn't have any; this leads the detective to deduce that the bakery must be a front for smuggling, since bicarbonate of soda is baking soda and no real bakery would be without it. Except there's the possibility that the baker was unfamiliar with an antiquated term for baking soda (even more egregious today than when it was originally written: many modern chemists might find the term unfamiliar, since the proper scientific terminology has been "sodium hydrogen carbonate" for decades, and was "sodium bicarbonate" rather than "bicarbonate of soda" for some time before that).
    • "The Case of the Railroad Robbery" hinged on the detective's belief that a real resident of San Francisco would never ever refer to the city as "Frisco." While it's true that residents of the city traditionally hate that nickname, it's not exactly an enforced law, at least not since Emperor Norton died.
    • In "The Case of the Spilled Brandy", Inspector Winters arrests a man because he claimed to be a stranger in the house, but knew the brandy was kept in the kitchen. Setting aside that most people keep their liquor in the kitchen, brandy in particular would likely be found there, since it's used for baking as well.
    • In "The Case of the Jade Monkey", the decisive clue to determine that the woman who owned a priceless statue had deliberately broken it for the insurance money and was lying about it being broken by accident is that in her story, she received her first mink coat but immediately put it in her closet because it was hot outside. As the book claims, "no woman would ever put away her first mink coat - she would immediately put it on and purr over it". So in the end, a horrendously sexist assumption is treated as hard evidence.
  • Conviction by Counterfactual Clue: Again, very common (spoilers ahead):
    • The classic "mules cannot have offspring" clue was used in "The Case of Molly's Mule."
    • "The Case of the Whispering Finger" had a deaf witness's testimony that he read the suspect's lips and took special note of it because the suspect was whispering called into question, because supposedly, he shouldn't have been able to tell the suspect was whispering. However, whispering is just when instead of using your vocal cords normally, you create turbulence with them, producing a hissing sound. This then requires you to use your lips and mouth to create sounds that your vocal cords normally would, and is very noticeable to a lip reader. You can easily demonstrate this by saying the same word as a whisper and in normal voice, and feel how different your mouth moves. Then try freezing your jaw and lips in place and speaking, something you can do mostly understandably with operating your vocal cords normally, but you can't produce meaningful sounds at all if you try it while whispering. This clue was later reused in "The Case of the Mistaken Shot".
    • In "The Case of the Dropped Cuff Link", a man relates how he leaned over his train bunk and read a headline on the newspaper the man below him was apparently reading. His companion deduced that the man with the newspaper was the perpetrator, because the only way the first man could have read the headline is if the newspaper was held upside-down (and therefore upside-up, relatively speaking, to the first man's eyes.) However, many people can read upside-down text just fine, especially if the text is in a large font and the message short—for example, the text of a headline, or the reader is even mildly dyslexic.
      • Even without any skill at it, everyone who can read can decipher upside-down print letter by letter. It may take a few minutes, but what's time to someone sitting bored in a train?
      • Or even easier, if the top half of the paper is folded back while the man reads the bottom.
    • In "The Case of the Murder at the Zoo", Haledjian meets with a zookeeper after a doorman working at the zoo is found killed. The zookeeper claims to have been alerted to the murder when he heard the scream of a giraffe, since one of them had been caught in the crossfire. Instantly Haledjian declares him to be the real murderer, because according to him, giraffes have no vocal cords.
    • In "The Case of the Impoverished Artist", a man's death is taken not to be suicide because he had recently suffered a heart attack, so a salt shaker on his table would mean another person was present, since the man himself would not be adding any to his food. A man intending to take his life could easily have ignored health concerns. In addition, couldn't he have just left it on there and never used it?
    • A downplayed example in "The Case of the Poisoned Mice". Haledjian realizes that a mouse breeder's assistant is accidentally killing the prize mice by feeding them cheese, which "overheats their blood"; bizarre euphemism for dehydration / illness aside, cheese also isn't healthy for mice as a meal or treat because it's mostly empty calories to them and can't be properly digested. Even if Freddie's mice hadn't exhibited diarrhea, nausea, and erratic behavior, they would've been getting extremely overweight and unfit for mouse shows or stud breeding, and Reeves' incompetence would've been easily spotted before Haledjian investigated.
  • Detective Patsy: Quite a few people bring Haledjian along as a witness while pretending to "discover" the body of someone they murdered, or while trying to commit Insurance Fraud. They invariably end up exposed within minutes, if not seconds, of doing so.
  • Disguised in Drag: The "solution" to one case is Haledjian reassuring a cab driver that the female customer who mugged him was probably a man in drag.
  • Fake Mystery: Any case where Mrs. Sydney is involved will center around her staging a bogus crime or thought experiment for the purpose of confounding Haledjian. Since he's always her willing houseguest at the time, it comes off as more playful than malicious, especially since she never manages to stump him.
  • Grande Dame: Mrs. Sydney is variously described as the wealthiest woman in New York, reputed to own over 8% of the city and "more of Manhattan Island than anyone save the Indians", and a dowager at the top of society circles who throws lavish and illustrious parties. Her motivations for presenting false mysteries aren't just mischief and intellectual curiosity, but also because tricking the great Dr. Haledjian is something money can't buy, and she can't resist matching wits with him.note 
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: They never said the doctor working on the murder victim when they were shot was a dentist. Or that the murder weapon was used for a severe case of Pistol-Whipping instead of shooting.
  • Infraction Distraction: In "The Case of Willie the Wisp", Count Schwinn, head of customs in France, comes in and tells Dr. Haledjian that a notorious criminal with a long history of successful smuggling has been regularly passing customs. He tools up in a shiny high-end car, and when it's searched, everything's fine except the false bottoms in his luggage, which contain three jars, containing molasses, ground oyster shells, and bits of colored glass. It's perfectly legal to have those, so they let him through. But the official knows he's smuggling something. Dr. Haledjian sits, smokes a bit, and realizes exactly what's being smuggled — the high-end car.
  • The Informant: Subverted with Nick the Nose; he wants to be seen as an example of this trope, clearly, but all he does is try to pass off phony leads as genuine whenever word's out that the police are offering rewards, and the discrepancies in his stories always tip them off that he's lying. As a result, instead of being "tolerated", he's a nuisance typically escorted from the precinct with a shoe to his pants (see Literal Ass-Kicking below).
  • Laborious Laziness: Bertie Tilford is almost always mentioned as hating work and avoiding it at every opportunity, but the lengths he seems to go to just to pursue promises of easy money shows that he's certainly not opposed to effort.
  • Literal Ass-Kicking: It's implied Inspector Winters does this with Nick the Nose at times.
  • Never Suicide: If a body is ever discovered in circumstances that so much as suggest the person killed themselves, you can bet that they didn't. Even "The Case of the Suicide Room", about a mysterious bottomless room in a Welsh castle that has developed a legend about a curse that makes young men jump to their deaths there, doesn't feature a genuine suicide.
  • No Full Name Given: Whatever Haledjian's first name is, if any, the reader never finds out. Octavia, Haledjian's "fair dinner companion," similarly lacks a surname.
  • Only One Finds It Fun: Any cases with Octavia feature Haledjian being very delighted at having a chance to regale her with his latest mystery, and her wishing aloud that the waiter would arrive faster, with the exception of "The Case of the Four-Footed Sleuth".
  • The Rat: Nick the Nose. He'd sell out anyone for cash -it's good that he sucks at the information-gathering part of squealing.
  • Reed Snorkel: "The Case of the Bamboo Fence" features a trail guide telling the story of an Old West doctor who tried to help an innocent hunted man this way; after giving him a six-foot length of bamboo the width of a quarter, Doc Holloway misdirected the posse and saved Jim from getting hung, only for Jim to "drown" anyway. Haledjian reasons that the Doc secretly thought he was guilty and did it to kill him, knowing Jim soon wouldn't be able to breathe.
  • Schemer: Bertie Tilford, a chronically work-shy Englishman that never met a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme he didn't like and is constantly trying to hit up Haledjian for investment capital, only for the Doctor to detect the flaw or mistruth in his pitch and turn him down. Interestingly, Bertie doesn't qualify as a Con Man himself, as he's always being duped into the schemes of others, making him criminally naive rather than a naive criminal (unless he's secretly using Haledjian to find out if the offers are legit, that is).
  • Secret Test of Character: "The Case of the Doubting Uncle" has the last wishes of a dead rich man stating that his money is to be divided equally between his nephew and alma matter in four days. He secretly entrusted the money with Dr. Haledjian while arranging for him to monitor whether the nephew would try to break into the safe to steal all of the money. If he didn't, then the nephew was to get his half of the money, otherwise he'd forfeit it to the alma matter.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: "The Case of the Indian Trader" has a tour guide recount the story of Doc Henry, who sold his wares "only to them Injuns", supposedly confessed on his deathbed that his elixir was nothing but sugar water, and bartered his wares in exchange for a young woman's life after she was kidnapped by a drunk war party. Based on how Doc's bottles didn't break after "five days of sub-freezin' weather", Haledjian notes that he was probably selling them hard alcohol and was the reason they were getting drunk in the first place.
  • Tan Lines: "The Case of the Big Deal" concerns a modern-day prospector who's struck a vein after seven months of digging, and is trying to interest Haledjian in financing a mine; Haledjian points out that if he hadn't shaved in all that time, as he claims, then his face wouldn't have had an even tan after he had his beard trimmed. (Borders on Conviction by Contradiction, as anyone in that situation would probably use bronzer afterward to avoid looking ridiculous.)
  • Teens Are Monsters: In general, if a teen is accused of a crime in one of these, he or she is guaranteed to be guilty. The sole exception is "The Case of the Missing Button", and of course the criminal in that one turned out to be a different teen.
  • This Bear Was Framed: The plot of book 3's "The Case of the Killer Dog" involves a murderer killing an old man and then framing the old man's dog for the crime.
  • Varying Competency Alibi: One of the Still More Two-Minute Mysteries involves Dr Haledjian judging a death accidental because "only a master murderer could have staged such a scene." The victim died of poisoning from the gas jet on her stove, but only one jet was on, and there was an untouched pocketbook on the couch containing several hundred dollars. Only someone with considerable motive and experience would be so careful to Make It Look Like an Accident.
  • Work Info Title: The short length of the stories is in the title Two-Minute Mysteries.
  • You No Take Candle: The hermit in "The Case of the Footprint" grunts "no kill man" while being held on suspicion of murder. Bizarrely, he is confirmed to have periodic human contact in spite of talking like this, as he not only earns a subsistence hunting and fishing, but recently bought a new pair of shoes.