Just over six years have passed since the 13th chapter of A Series of Unfortunate Events was published. By the time The End rolled around, readers were well acquainted with — and occasionally, even fond of — the Baudelaire orphans, their evil cousin Count Olaf and the threatening, vaguely steampunk world they all inhabited. Yet the object of many fans’ fascination was neither the mysterious sugar bowl nor the initials V.F.D., but the author himself. Over the course of the series, Lemony Snicket became more and more of an active participant in the story. He may have begun as a snarky and exceptionally self-aware narrator, but he ended as the cryptic eye of an ominous storm of unsolved mysteries. As A Series of Unfortunate Events never bothered to solve many of these mysteries, it is not without some apprehension that many fans return to Snicket’s bizarro world.
The first installment of Snicket’s new faux-autobiographical series, Who Could That Be At This Hour?, puts the author in the limelight and acts almost as a prequel to the Baudelaire saga. It tells the story of a 13-year-old Lemony, freshly graduated from a mysterious training school — the kind that gives classes on eavesdropping and falling from great heights — and placed into an apprenticeship with S. Theodora Markson, the Snicketized interpretation of a bumbling detective. The two journey together to solve a crime in Stain’d-By-The-Sea, a surreal deserted town, home to a seaweed forest and a failing ink business nowhere near the sea. The premise bears all the markings of traditional noir fiction, yet Snicket does to detective lit what Douglas Adams did to science fiction: He simultaneously honors and blatantly mocks the genre. The surreal setting, Snicket’s retrospective regret and the marvelously ominous narration (“There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft,” the book begins) combine to both pay homage to and deconstruct common tropes of crime novels.
The genre-bending and literary references play into a larger theme that has always been an attractive trademark of Snicket’s work; despite the fact that his work caters to the pre-puberty set, he doesn’t talk down to his audience. Snicket consistently treats children, whether readers or characters, as mature and capable human beings. His young readers are more than able to handle the death and desolation he depicts, while his child characters are motivated, precocious and perceptive beyond their years. In Who Could That Be At This Hour?, our cast of preteen characters includes Moxie, an aspiring journalist who lives in a lighthouse; Pip and Squeak, the brothers who drive their father’s cab and accept book recommendations as fare; and Stew, the violent young boy who fools his police officer parents with a sickly smile. Almost all of these children have been abandoned by, or at least separated from, their families. As such, they’re all driven and independent, forced to operate in an absurd world ruled by incompetent adults.
Returning in full force in this book is perhaps the most prominent Snicketism, the author’s word-definition gimmick — a phrase which here means “occasionally annoying habit of defining a word immediately after using it.” At times, this conceit comes off as amusing, but for those of us with 13 previous Snicket mysteries under our belt, the snarky asides can verge on cloying. Perhaps it’s the fact that Snicket is now both the narrator and the protagonist. While A Series of Unfortunate Events allowed him to occasionally insert himself into the story, Snicket’s new book places the reader in constant contact with a strange and sometimes frustrating main character.
By placing himself — or rather, his constructed persona — center stage, Snicket distances the reader from the story to an extent. While the later pages largely resolve this shortcoming, the first three chapters show Lemony to be a tad unrelatable. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the reader discovered a dark, malevolent world along with the three child protagonists. With each turn, they were exposed to some new, shocking horror, and so were we. Here, we’re watching from afar as a young child explores a dark, cruel world — one he already knows exists. It’s new for us, yet his blasé familiarity with stealth and deception makes it a bit harder to care.
But aside from these issues, Who Could That Be At This Hour? is wonderfully engaging and better structured than many of the later Unfortunate books. Within its 261 pages, you’ll find a fully developed, pursued and solved case, an extravagant cast of characters and just enough unanswered questions to make an adult reader Hulk-smash her copy against a wall out of sheer excitement for the next installment. For new Snicket readers, Who Could That Be At This Hour? is an excellent stand-alone introduction to his wry morbidity and somehow hopefully dark worldview. And for old fans, plunging back into Snicket’s murky, twisted world will be a worthwhile thrill — a word which here means “something you should do, immediately.”