‘This much-anticipated new series is, frankly, none of your business,” Lemony Snicket writes on the website for his latest book, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” However, despite the tongue-in-cheek attempt at dissuasion by Snicket (a literary persona of author Daniel Handler), young fans of his “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books may not be able to help themselves.
While the characters in this “All the Wrong Questions” series opener are not as immediately arresting as Snicket’s Baudelaire siblings and evil Count Olaf, it has a contagious kinetic energy, as if it were written on a steady diet of espresso and sugar. The sophisticated novel demands to be read twice: once for the laughs and the second time for the clues.
Readers left frustrated by the unsolved puzzles in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books will find some explanations and a new set of mysteries and in this “autobiographical” account of Snicket’s early years. Twelve-year-old Lemony has recently completed his “unusual education” and joined an unnamed organization to conduct clandestine missions. His first assignment? To journey with his mentor to Stain’d-by-the-Sea, a downtrodden town no longer actually by the sea (it was drained), to recover a statue of the mythical Bombinating Beast.
The undertaking becomes complicated once Lemony realizes he does not know whom he can trust. Throw in an aspiring young news reporter, a strange sub-librarian, a local bully, a villain called Hangfire, an enchanting girl desperate to find her father, and a host of other quirky individuals and Lemony has to face some tough questions indeed; one of them, of course, is echoed in the title of the book. But what you will wonder is what is Lemony’s secret agenda and who is the beloved person he laments leaving behind?
There’s an old-fashioned noir quality to the story (complete with shady personalities and snappy dialogue), but the exact time it takes place is difficult to pin down. A typewriter, telegram, and phone booth all play a role in the plot, but so does an elaborate coffee machine that puts Starbucks to shame. The black, blue, and white illustrations by Seth feature characters in newsboy caps and bowler hats.
Lemony and the other young characters (save for the bully) are the heroes here. The adults are inept and/or their honesty dubious. The husband-and-wife police team bumbles; Lemony’s chaperone is useless; and as for his parents, “They’re helpless.” “The children of this world and the adults of this world are in entirely separate boats and only drift near each other when we need a ride from someone or when someone needs us to wash our hands,” Lemony concludes.
As in “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Snicket challenges even as he entertains. In this
title, allusions to children’s literary classics are scattered throughout. Lemony takes a break in the library to “read about someone who was a true friend and a good writer who lived on a bloodthirsty farm where nearly everyone was in danger of some sort.” That’s probably the best summary of E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” I’ll ever encounter.
The humor is what we have come to expect: equal parts wit and absurdity. His jokes work on many levels, but he’s not afraid to be thoughtful, too. “Knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway happens very often in life, and I doubt I will ever know why,” young Lemony concludes.
For every question “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” answers, it creates two new ones. Is the charming girl a friend or foe? Who is Hangfire? And will Lemony complete his personal mission? If these, too, are the wrong questions, then I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the next three books for the right ones.Chelsey Philpot is a book reviews editor at School Library Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.