Monday 4 March 2013
'Who Could That Be at This Hour?' by Lemony Snicket, reviewed by Cecilia Busby
'There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft...' So starts Lemony Snicket's new adventure,'Who Could That Be at This Hour?', signalling immediately that we are heading into noir territory - and sure enough, the plot revolves around the theft of a small statue, worth 'upward of a great deal of money', although in this case it is not a statue of a falcon but of a creature looking rather like an evil sea-horse, called the Bombinating Beast.
The protagonist of the story is Lemony Snicket himself, at the age of thirteen. Having completed his training with a shadowy organisation, Snicket is apprenticed to S. Theodora Markson, fifty-second in the list of fifty-two 'chaperones' to whom he could have been assigned. (The question 'What does the S stand for?', always answered with a brush off that starts with an S, is one of many recurring jokes in the book). The main plot revolves around Theodora and Snicket's attempts to solve the apparent theft of the Bombinating Beast from their client, Mrs Murphy Sallis, but Snicket gives us a clue to the nature of the case in the very first page, when he notes that, instead of the many wrong questions he did ask, the question he should have been asking is, 'Why would someone say something was stolen when it was never theirs to begin with?'
Following the trail of the Bombinating Beast takes Snicket and S. Theodora Markson to Stain'd-by-the-Sea, a ghost town that is no longer by the sea, with a declining industry based on extracting ink from octopuses in underground caves. Ink, printing, jazz music, Roald Dahl, questions and coffee are some of the recurring themes that weave through the plot, while a sub-plot concerning Snicket and a former 'associate', and their vital plans back in the big city, teases the reader with the sense that more is going on than meets the eye. 'The map is not the territory', as S. Theodora tells Snicket early on, and, as she goes on to explain, 'That's an expression which means the world does not match the picture in our heads'.
The book is full of tricky subplots, references and asides, but it's also fast-moving and funny, and while new mysteries are thrown up with every chapter, we also begin to learn more and more about Stain'd-by-the-Sea and the cast of characters that inhabit it. Snicket is an engaging hero, and we very soon meet a strong female counterpart in the form of one Moxy Mallahan, would-be child reporter, as well as the femme fatale, Ellington Feint, who is 'a little older, or maybe just a little taller' than Snicket, and signals her sophistication by drinking real coffee. We also meet two young boys who run their father's taxi service, one sitting on a pile of books so as to be able to see out of the windscreen, the other working the peddles. They ferry Snicket around for 'tips' - his first is to check out a book about a champion of the world, by the man who also wrote the book with all the chocolate. Snicket himself gets up to all the tricks you would expect from a young Sam Spade: posting himself important evidence, falling for the femme fatale, and staying one step ahead of the town's two bickering police officers (who remind me strongly of Thompson and Thomson in the Tintin books), even when that means taking a tumble from a great height.
As with the earlier Unfortunate Events books, the new series is packed with red herrings, asides, mysterious characters that may or may not ever reappear, and peculiar or even very ordinary objects that may or may not prove to have later significance. However, the Series of Unfortunate Events undoubtedly lost its way after about the eighth book, and the battering of the Baudelaire orphans by constant tragedy became increasingly hard to take. What is refreshing about the new series is that thirteen-year-old Snicket is much more in control of his destiny, and he and the other child characters pursue their own goals around and despite the attempts of the adults to run things their way. S. Theodora Markson is an utterly incompetent chaperone, who is reduced to 'scolding' Snicket for taking matters into his own hands; he simply endures the scolding while trying 'to make my face look like I was listening carefully' and waits till he can get back on the case.
Snicket's world, in this and his earlier books, is unlike anything in contemporary children's fiction. It comes closest, probably, to the world of Roald Dahl, but it's rather like Dahl rewritten by a crossword compiler with a fondness for vaudeville. This is a world run by adults who range from mildly incompetent to downright evil, in which the only people who make any sense are children. But just as there are occasionally adults who seem relatively normal and helpful, so there is also the occasional awful child - in this book, Stew Mitchum is as horrible and devious a child as you'd wish to meet, and his ability to get away with his nasty behaviour by appearing angelic in front of adults will send a shiver of recognition up every reader's spine. The books are also full of strange names, places and details which are amusing nods to other books or general cultural references. Not all of these will be picked up on, even by adult readers. But even if the child reader misses individual references, I'm sure they will 'get' and enjoy the sense that the world of the book is connected in strange and mysterious ways to other fictional worlds. The resonances of these books live on afterwards, so that a reader later coming across Salinger's short story collection, 'For Esme with love and squalor', experiences the delight of recognition in realising just where the terrible female villain, Esme Squalor, had her origins. And for my family, certainly, a sugar bowl is no longer just a sugar bowl.
For anyone out there who has missed this author, or who maybe gave up after one book, I really recommend giving him another chance - this book is witty, amusing, surprising, and truthful on many different levels.
Who Could That Be at This Hour? (All the Wrong Questions), published by Egmont, 2012.
C.J.Busby is the author of the Frogspell series.
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