The only book I’d previously read by Lemony Snicket (real name: Daniel Handler) is his adult novel Adverbs, which was surprisingly good. Though I quite liked the Lemony Snicket movie, I never got around to trying the Snicket books.
So when Handler/Snicket released the first of a new series, I jumped in. Who Could That Be at This Hour? is the first in the four-part All the Wrong Questions series, which delves into the childhood of the fictional author Snicket, and his apprenticeship to a mysterious organization of freelance detectives/fixers.
After reading the first half of this book, with its noir sensibility and tidy plot, I chose it as one of my best books of 2012. But after finishing it, I have to downgrade it a level because it doesn’t solve its own mystery. The four-part series, it seems, will cover a single mystery broken into four parts, which is quite irritating.
The good news is that WCTBATH? delivers a big helping of Handler/Snicket’s terrific prose. In the Snicket voice, Handler’s writing takes on a hilariously pessimistic tone, dripping with sardonic fatalism. Additionally, the world he builds is both cartoonish and dangerous. He’s unmistakeably a children’s writer, but one that has no interest in creating safe spaces or carefree romps. Here’s how he describes the setting of the opening scene.
The Hemlock Tearoom and Stationery is the sort of place where the floors always feel dirty, even when they are clean. They were not clean on the day in question. The food at the Hemlock is too awful to eat, particularly the eggs, which are probably the worst eggs in the entire city
Snicket finds himself at the Hemlock with his parents, who are ostensibly there to congratulate him on his graduation from a mysterious unnamed school, and see him off to his new life as an apprentice to a mysterious, unnamed organization. In fact, his parents have dosed his tea with laudanum, and are planning to take him, as his mentor says, “someplace else, someplace I assure you that you do not want to be.”
That mentor saves him at the last minute, by surreptitiously dropping a note in his lap and meeting him in the alley, to spirit him off to their first case. But, of course, the mentor soon turns out to be less than reliable. Snicket has known this all along:
Shortly before graduation, I’d been given a list of people with whom I could apprentice, ranked by their success in their various endeavors. There were fifty-two chaperones on the list. S. Theodora Markson was ranked fifty-second. She was wrong. She was not excellent at her job, and this was why I wanted to be her apprentice.
So Snicket soon finds himself in a surreal seaside town, where the sea has been drained away, and derricks pump ink out of the ground. His chaperone has taken them there to find a missing statue for an eccentric woman.
Snicket soon deduces that all is not as it seems, but since he can’t trust any grownups, including his chaperone, he has to investigate alone, with the occasional help of the town’s odd assortment of children.
Handler puts together a tidy, fast-paced mystery for Snicket to follow, and all goes well until the book ends before the mystery gets solved. If you’re anything like me (and thousands of ex-fans of The Killing), you don’t care for this technique. I could live with it if Snicket had solved a smaller case in this volume, opening a larger one that would need four books to tie together, but there’s almost zero closure in this novel. It’s a shame, because the Snicket style is a great pleasure to read, but I won’t stay on board for a story that’s been chopped into four pieces.