Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events books are a pessimist’s response to Harry Potter. Instead of an orphan triumphing over evil with the help of his adult mentors, they tell the story of three orphans terrorized by nefarious forces, unaided by the bumbling grown-ups who are meant to serve as their guardians. While the Potter series took its time teaching children that the world is a dark, dangerous place, the Unfortunate Events novels dove right into that darkness, with Snicket (Daniel Handler’s occasional alter ego and nom de plume) dolefully warning away readers who hoped for something less gloomy.
But Handler’s irony and wit kept the books from becoming moribund. Snicket’s narrative voice is unique: He’s funny, empathetic, emotionally engaged with his characters, and perfectly happy to define hard-to-spell words for his readers. But he remained on the sidelines throughout the series, never interacting with the books’ protagonists, the Baudelaire orphans. His character was defined through asides, offhand comments from minor characters, or clues imbedded in the text.
Six years after the original series ended, Handler has decided that Lemony Snicket deserves his own story. The first of the All The Wrong Questions quartet, Who Could That Be At This Hour?, takes place long before the Baudelaire children were born, when Snicket was an adolescent working for the mysterious organization known as VFD. Readers might be tempted to look at this new series as a set of prequels, but Handler deftly deals with those expectations by starting the book with an attempted poisoning and an escape through a bathroom window. Questions about the Baudelaires are left far behind in the quick action.
After his narrow escape, Snicket begins an apprenticeship with the contrarian S. Theodora Markson, who whisks him to a lakeside town whose lake has dried up. Charged with retrieving a stolen statue, Snicket discovers chicanery much more dangerous than petty theft. Unlike Unfortunate Events, which resembled Edward Gorey stories blown up into novel form, Who Could That Be is something of a noir for kids—there’s even a character named Dashiell, after crime writer Dashiell Hammett. While Snicket was a hapless writer in the first series, here, he’s a gumshoe.
Like any good crime novel, the book zooms along at a breakneck pace. It’s a quick read, both for its large-print type and the way Handler throws out twist after twist. But what makes Who Could That Be a small masterpiece is how well Handler balances every other aspect of the book. His meticulous brilliance begins with recreating Lemony Snicket. In Unfortunate Events, Snicket tended to be overly dramatic. He was older, bereft after losing his true love (the Baudelaires’ mother) and wading through a world in shambles. He was also disingenuous, describing himself as a coward, though there was plenty of evidence to the contrary, and purposefully withholding information about himself. As Unfortunate Events progressed, Handler got a better sense of his literary alter ego, but he had boxed himself into a corner by then, and there wasn’t room for Snicket to grow as a character.
By changing the focus to Snicket’s childhood, Handler frees him. Unlike his depressed older self, the young man is courageous, romantic, and has a razor-sharp tongue. Most of the humor in Unfortunate Events comes from Snicket’s ironies, especially when he pleads with readers not to continue with his books. There’s a bit of that humor in Who Could That Be, but Handler has mostly traded it in for wisecracks, which pay dividends. Snicket is as smart-mouthed as Sam Spade, and has no interest in keeping quiet. His penchant for talking back gets him in trouble on a number of occasions, but makes the book a joy to read. Snicket is in many ways a typical 13-year-old (albeit one with special spy training): He’s worldly enough to call the adults around him into question, but not experienced enough to know when to hold his tongue.
Handler rounds out the cast with a fantastic collection of oddballs, each of whom has a role to play here, and presumably more so throughout the series. Moxie Mallahan is a young reporter spitfire, who pesters Snicket with questions while tapping away at her portable typewriter. S. Theodora is Snicket’s tenuous link to VFD, but mostly gets in his way as he tries to retrieve the stolen statue. A pair of brothers, named Pip and Squeak, drive the town’s only cab, one working pedals while the other steers. No noir is complete without its femme fatale, and Who Could That Be has one called Ellington Feint. A teenager like Snicket, Ellington is also after the statue, though her methods for getting it are as dark as the coffee she continually drinks.
With all the Dickensian names, odd factoids, and intriguing setting of a town on its last legs, the book may seem like simply a rousing jaunt. It is for children, after all, and that may ward off readers who assume the book must be childish. But whatever faults Unfortunate Events had, Handler proved he could provide real pathos in a story supposedly just for younger readers. And while Who Could That Be doesn’t feature the death and destruction of the previous series, real danger lurks around each corner. The book’s final twist reveals that Snicket may be in over his head with the various schemes encircling him, and that people he cares about will suffer because of it. It’s heavy stuff, but told in a way that amps up the tension even more, making the wait for the next book all the more nerve-racking.