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Reviews

Who Could That Be At This Hour?

Clare Hobba

RSnicket.jpg

Lemony Snicket
Egmont Books
208pp

This book is the first of a new series by Lemony Snicket entitled 'All the Wrong Questions', and it  follows the lengthy and hugely successful 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'. This time the subject matter claims to be autobiographical. However, the author is himself a fictional construct - Lemony Snicket is the pen name of the US author, Daniel Handler - so the biography is fictional too. The novel follows the 12-year-old Snicket as he trains to be a detective under the aegis of an inefficient chaperone with 'endless uncombed hair - S. Theodora Markson (every time somebody asks what the S stands for, the answer is different). The manner of telling is at times that of the hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett and indeed one of the characters is named Dashiell Qwerty.

Who Could That Be at This Hour? is aimed at older primary school children -a calculation one performs by taking the age of the hero/heroine and subtracting a couple of years. Children and teenagers are always interested in appearing older than they really are and in gaining the next stage of maturity.

On of the great things about Lemony Snicket's books, however, is that instead of encouraging youngsters how to behave as if they are older, it encourages them to think as if they are smarter. In the design of its cover and illustrations, Who Could That Be at This Hour? is deliberately presented as a 1950s' style children's book. However, it is no cheerfully patronising romp. Who Could That Be at This Hour? is quirky and wry and full of cultural references and plot points that make the reader work a little.

My first encounter with Snicket was over the shoulder of one of my children and I had the impression that 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' was being cynically marketed at aspiring parents (who, after all, are the family members with the wallets), the text being sprinkled with new vocabulary, complete with definition, e.g. 'I'm contrite - a word which here means sorry'. The characters were also given names with literary references, e.g. the Baudelaire children, who were the central characters of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events'. This apparently educational agenda would gladden the heart of any parent who was seeking an improving book for their offspring.

However, as a result of reading Who Could That Be at This Hour? I appreciate Snicket much more - he displays humour, humanity, quirkiness and an inventive way of delivering the narrative. Getting a reader immersed in a plot is all about motivating them to ask questions; and Snicket certainly does that, encouraging his audience to put together clues more cleverly than his detectives do and also hinting at more long-term concerns for the characters, (for instance, seeking long-lost parents). It is these issues that will motivate youngsters to pick up the next book in the series.

There are also some bits of writing so sparky they made me whoop with glee, for instance the description of the two police officers who are a constantly-wrangling married couple (Harvey and Mimi Mitchum) '…a man and a woman who looked so much alike they could only be twins or two people who had been married for a very long time. They both had pear-shaped bodies with short, thick legs and grumpy-looking arms, and it looked like they had both tried on heads that were too small for them and were about to ask the head clerk for a larger size.'

The mode of storytelling is also inclusive - even though Snicket is a male author writing from the point of view of himself as a child (although a fiction), our hero is not defined by male attributes and there are plenty of female characters who are talented and purposeful rather than decorative.

Lemony Snicket does not discuss religion in his work, but his books are a good preparation for a young mind that will one day wrestle with the place of their religion in a contradictory secular, modern world. In the pages of the 'All the Wrong Questions' books, they will encounter issues of logical deduction, of multiple interpretations and of lateral thinking. The title of the series implies that Snicket's approach is about approaches to problem-solving, yet the thing which stops it from seeming too didactic is the humour, delivered to the reader with a knowing wink. For instance, when our hero is considering escaping through the bathroom window, he describes it thus, 'It was small and square and had a very simple latch. A child could open it, which was good, because I was a child.'

The most interesting shift between the first set of novels is that Snicket has moved from being the omniscient narrator, to being the first person protagonist at the centre of these faux autobiographies. This is a far more characteristic 21st-century stance for an author to take and allows the reader to feel that they are accompanying the narrator on their adventure rather than being lectured at from on high.

I would be pleased to see my child reading Lemony Snicket, not because he is didactic, but because he has developed as a writer, and not because he gives out all the right answers, but because he encourages the reader to ask all the right questions.