There’s a very real chance that the Lemony Snicket books are too smart for their own good. If you can detect every single literary allusion contained in any of Snicket’s book, but specifically in When Did You See Her Last? then I want to meet you! Smarts and friendship are still the real currency of the Snicket universe and the latest in the new series both continues the mysteries and adventures laid out by the previous volume, while still managing to be its own stand-alone romp.
Light Spoilers ahead.
When I ask adults whether they’ve read any Lemony Snicket, the answer tends to be, “I read the first one, I think,” which mystifies me. If you read the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and you’re not sure if you read the other ones, I feel like you missed something. It’s weird, and I end up sounding like some sort of broken record here (hopefully being played on Ellington Feint’s portable record player!) but why isn’t there more hysteria associated with the release of a new Snicket book? Loving these books as much as I do sometimes makes me feel like I’m in a secret society not dissimilar from the books’ VFD or Inhumane Society.
Chronicling the adventures of the 13-year-old Lemony, the character at one point contemplates his general lot in life by likening himself to a puzzle piece which he has to set aside for a moment in order to figure out where he fits in. I feel like the location where Daniel Handler stands in the contemporary literary landscape is similar. His writing is starting to define a larger puzzle which will comprise the 21st century lit canon, but we’re just not sure how he fits in, yet. Whereas a lot of novels for children are derivative of other children’s lit, while maintaining originality, Lemony Snicket books are original from the get-go and then derivative or homage-ridden seemingly, for fun. By the way, “derivative” is a word here meaning “people notice it might be like other books they also think are great.”
So, what’s going on in When Did You See Her Last? Well, if you read Who Could that Be at this Hour?, the previous volume in All The Wrong Questions, you’d know Lemony Snicket was hanging out in a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea where he is trying to solve several mysteries at once. The nearest to his heart is clearly the elusiveness of the villain Hangfire, who is holding Ellington Feint’s father hostage for nefarious purposes. Handler renders Lemony’s crush on Ellington Feint in a way both touching and not at all corny. His affection for Ellington isn’t the driving force behind everything he does, but it does cause Snicket to make major decisions which may or may not betray his whole purpose in Stain’d-By-The-Sea. In one scene, Lemony grapples with the decision to keep this appointment with Ellington, despite her tendency for deceit and betrayal.
You don’t have to meet her. She’s a liar and a thief. She’s desperate. She’s trouble. She stole from you. Nobody knows what you promised. You could keep it to yourself. But you can tell yourself anything. A wildcat is just one of the wonders of nature, and it’s not going to give you nightmares.
Many analogies in the Lemony Snicket books might seem apropos of nothing, and yet it’s in these slightly manic assertions that Handler manages to keep readers on their toes. A constant inversion or challenging of children’s book clichés is one of the author’s favorite tricks, one which he sports in this latest book more than once. The Snicket universe likes to have it both ways with playful fantasies. In these books you can both inhabit familiar clichés (bandaged villains in disguise, indestructible vehicles) and subvert others by mocking childish phrases.
In my favorite scene towards the end of the book, Lemony Snicket and Jake Hix are desperately trying to pry open a hatch which doesn’t seem to be budging.
“Hangfire did it,” I said. “We need to open this hatch, Jake. We need to open it now.”
“My aunt always says that if you put your mind to it, you can do absolutely anything,” Jake said. “Is that true?”
“No,” I said. “It’s nonsense. But we can open this hatch..”
Some might say the tone of Snicket novels is “sardonic” or “bittersweet,” but I think “counterintuitive optimism” is closer to the truth; a phrase here meaning “your assumptions about life, positivity and everything will be totally mixed up by reading awesome Lemony Snicket books.”
The stakes in these books are always deceptively low (missing statues, formulas for invisible ink) but the emotional stakes are secretly finding their way into the canals of the reader’s brain, just like the ink spreading out from a frightened octopus. This diffusing cloud of emotions created by a reading a Lemony Snicket book is different from said cloud of octopus ink in two ways: 1. It’s not a real cloud. 2. It makes you feel good. If you’ve never read a Lemony Snicket book, there’s no reason to feel like you need to “catch up.” Just read this one. We all know what “catching up” really means: “I’m too intimidated by this awesome thing to even begin tackling it.”
Don’t be a frightened octopus! Dive in!
Lemony Snicket's When Did You Last See Her? is available now from Little, Brown Books for Younge Readers
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and is frequently hiding in plain sight, disguised as himself. His writing has appeared in “numerous places” a phrase here which means “A lot of science fiction publications, pop culture sites, and recently, The New York Times.”