It wouldn’t be fair to call Lemony Snicket’s real world alter-ego Daniel Handler “underrated,” but I’m going to go ahead and assert that people should be more crazy about him than they are. There are a lot of imaginative authors who peddle in the goods of the “fantastic”—a word here that means cool things nerds will love—but few are as deft as Handler. You hardly notice the completeness of his alternate fictional dimensions, because these environments are often defined by what they’re not telling you.
Were all my questions about the Baudelaire orphans satisfied by book 13 of A Series of Unfortunate Events? Hardly. And what of the fictional narrator, Lemony Snicket? Will I now understand him better through this new series of books, which specifically chronicle his young life? Well, like the title says: these are the wrong questions! As before, the joy of Snicket isn’t in revelations or plotty-stuff. Instead, it’s about experiencing one of the most unique prose-stylists in any genre.
One thing I think a smarty-pants book reviewer has to watch out for is trying to reconcile the paradox of writing about children’s books when you aren’t exactly the target audience. As a grown up, I might be a fan of Daniel Handler’s meta-fictional stylings because his insistence on perpetuating the bizarre biography of his nom de plume appeals to my nerdy writerly sensibilities. Plus, I catch and agree with all of his references. But that alone isn’t enough for me to prove the book would be an obsession for a 13-year-old. However, like Lemony Snicket, the character remembers being a child in this book, so I do to. And I can guarantee, just like with A Series of Unfortunate Events, that I would have loved this book as a kid.
Who Could That Be At This Hour? has a lot going for it, the strongest thing being that it feels firmly set inside the Lemony Snicket universe. However, a new reader wouldn’t need to know anything from the previous series at all. For readers who maybe read the other books awhile ago, the future in which Lemony Snicket is a grown-man, telling the story of the Baudelaire orphans is pretty far off, as Snicket is only 13 years old in this story. For diehard Snicket fans (I’m sure if you’re out there, you have the good sense to continue to lay low) I noticed mentions of at least two characters from the previous books. Who are those characters? How does it tie into the overall mythology? These are the wrong questions.
The right questions are: what is this book about? And, what are the cool tidbits inside of it? Second question first: as with previous efforts, Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler renders the world as a kind of Lewis Carroll/Edwardian mash up. There’s never any television, phones are rare, and many messages are sent via telegram. Though I seem to remember one or two odd references to computer in A Series of Unfortunate Events, there are none here. The practicality of how to get around, and how to deduce mysteries are integral to what the characters do. As with other Snicket books, I really appreciate the assertion that most good-hearted characters are constantly recommending books to each other, or spending time in the library reading when there’s time to kill.
What’s Who Could That Be at This Hour? about? It’s hard to say too much without ruinng the fun but, briefly, here’s what’s going on: 13-year-old Lemony Snicket is seemingly recruited by a Chaperone named S. Theodora Markson. (Don’t ask what the “S” stands for.) They drive to a town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea, which no longer has an ocean, but used to. Its primary export is ink extracted from frightened octopi living deep in ditches, which used to be underwater. Numerous references are made to Lemony Snicket’s “training,” seeming to indicate at this point he’s already been inducted into the mysterious V.F.D. from A Series of Unfortunate Events.
He and S. Theodora are supposedly on a mission to recover a stolen statue which later doesn’t appear to have been stolen at all. Along the way, an awesome cast of characters is introduced, including Stain’d-by-the-Sea’s only journalist Moxie Mallahan, two child cab drivers named Pip and Squeak, and mysterious girl with a portable record player called Ellington Feint. Oh, and don’t forget the mysterious, never-seen Hangfire, who may or may not have kidnapped Ellington Feint’s father! Without actually declaring any of the characters orphans, children are, for a variety of reasons, on their own in this book. And while this trick is hardly new (Boxcar Children style, y’all!), Snicket has always been good at depicting intelligent children fending for themselves in a confounding world.
The true success and readability of Who Could That Be At This Hour? lies in the way in which these conflicts are rendered emotionally. At the start of the book, young Lemony Snicket is already uneasy about how his journey isn’t shaping up to be what he thought it would be:
The map was not the territory. I had pictured working as an apprentice in the city, where I would have been able to complete a very important task with someone I could absolutely trust. But the world did not match the picture in my head, and instead I was with a strange, uncombed person, overlooking a sea without water and a forest without trees.
Writing as Snicket, Daniel Handler employs what I consider to be faux-melancholy disguised as hope. Kurt Vonnegut often described his stories as “sugar-coated but bitter pills.” I think Handler is the opposite: the message underneath is always contemplative and hopeful. Books and friends will save you. It’s okay to be ridiculous. It’s okay to be yourself. The Lemony Snicket voice is one which wraps absurd melancholy around this optimism. Here’s probably my favorite example in the book:
I thought maybe if I stared hard enough, I could see the lights of the city I had left so very far behind. This was nonsense, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally staring out of the window and thinking nonsense, as long as the nonsense is yours.
So, if you’re looking for a way to reflect on your own nonsense, and find some strange hope through the supposedly dour Lemony Snicket, I think All The Wrong Questions 1: Who Could That Be At This Hour? will make you smile and tear-up at least once a chapter. And that’s hardly nonsense!
Ryan Britt is a “staff writer” for Tor.com, a phrase here that means “thinks about his and other people’s nonsense while trying not to stare out the window.”