© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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Who Could That be at This Hour?

By Lemony Snicket

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Both boys and girls, ages 8 and up. A mix of engaging male and female characters and a jaunty mystery plot line should make this equally appealing to flatfoots of both genders.

One Word Summary: Hardboiled.

Lemony Snicket, king of the gloomily atmospheric, precocious chapter book returns with ‘Who Could That Be at This Hour’, a faithful and funny adaptation of the 1930s’ detective-centric pulp fiction for a new millennium audience.

Set in a surrealist town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea, Hour follows a young, fictionalized Lemony Snicket, kid detective, on his very first case out of the academy. After being paired with his new mentor, the wild-haired

and thoroughly incompetent S. Theodora Markson, the two are off to the seaside town where they have been hired by a wealthy old woman to retrieve a valuable statue that was stolen from her. But Stain’d-by-the-Sea is not your typical coastal Hampton. Partially derelict and abandoned, Stain’d is a former industrial town whose main commerce was the production of ink. Not created from dyes, mind you, but pumped like oil from subterranean caverns containing giant octopi that are systematically frightened into releasing their ink. Previously underwater, the town is rimmed by a dense forest of seaweed that not only survived the retreat of the ocean, but thrived, growing into a dense, shimmering and sinister tangle. Routine salt storms send the town’s inhabitants scrambling for face masks at the sound of the siren.  

Those inhabitants, of course are just as strange as their town, and as this is a mystery novel, secrets abound and nothing is quite what it seems. Once Snicket sneaks away from his loony chaperone, his investigation into this missing statue turns up a femme fatale, a

cunning kid reporter, thugs, imposters and an evil adversary whose meddlings in Stain’d appear to be connected to a much larger and more diabolical plot.  

The voice is the real winner in Hour, a perfect replication of the genre’s somber cadence that one can’t help but read in the fast-talking monotone made famous by a thousand private-eye movies. Mixing deadpan irony and fantastical absurdism, the tone maintains consistence without becoming repetitive.

But for all of Snicket’s lugubriousness, it’s abundantly clear that the author is having quite a lot of fun. Every chapter brings a sparkling surprise. I particularly loved the leather clad, tough-guy librarian Dashiell Qwerty, and the little pair of brothers, Pip and Squeak who work in tandem to drive the town’s only cab.

My only concern is whether or not the target demographic for this book will really get it. So much of the enjoyment of the book is derived from it’s throwbacks to that old crime-noir genre, and I wonder if an eight or ten year-old has yet had enough cultural exposure to understand what Snicket is accomplishing here. The plot is rather complex, and the author dangles and withholds information to the point where I frequently struggled to understand what was going on. But as referenced by the book’s subtitle All The Wrong Questions, it was surely Snicket’s intention to make the reader feel just as confused as his self-named protagonist. All well and good for an adult reader, but I hope that his young audience won’t become frustrated or discouraged by spending so much time left in the dark.

It’s a challenging book, certainly, but one that is well worth undertaking. Snicket’s legions of devotees will be thrilled with all of his signature touches, and new readers will likely be enthralled by such a distinct and absorbing voice. A true auteur of the kidlit world, Snicket’s foray into pulp-fiction is pitch perfect.