CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 15 . . . . December 14, 2012
In Lemony Snicket's world, almost-thirteen-year-olds graduate from a place where they have received an unusual education. Following graduation, they are apprenticed to a 'chaperone', which here means 'mentor' or 'adult partner', of their choice. Exactly what kind of training or credentials the chaperones have is not clear. In S. Theodora Markson's case, she considers herself a cat-burglar-cum-detective.
Exactly why Lemony Snicket has chosen a chaperone who is anything but excellent at her job is also not clear. It is one of many questions raised in "Who Could That Be At This Hour?", the first of four volumes in which author Daniel Handler releases the "first authorized autobiographical account of Lemony Snicket's childhood".
With the wit and aplomb readers have come to expect from the author of the outrageously best-selling "A Series of Unfortunate Events", Handler creates a small town and turns it into a mystery in its own right. Stain'd-by-the-Sea is a seaside town no longer anywhere near the sea, where residents and visitors are required to don a mask at the sound of a bell to save themselves from being crushed by the pressure of the water that is no longer there, or to avoid 'salt lung', depending on whose explanation one accepts.
As Lemony discovers when he is taken there by S. Theodora Markson, the town is fading. Almost all of the businesses are boarded up, a whole section of town has been flattened, and the streets are almost completely empty most of the time.
In Lemony Snicket's world, there are a lot of 'almosts'.
Still, with just a few inhabitants on hand to thicken the plot, Stain'd-by-the-Sea becomes a hotbed of illicit activity, and once Lemony is out on the prowl, he manages to meet the most interesting characters: people like Hangfire, a butler with extraordinary vocal talents; Dashiell Qwerty the Sub Librarian, who does what his name implies and provides a place from which the plot can thicken; Pip and Squeak, two brothers who together pilot the town taxi, the Bellerophon, and whose aid Lemony solicits in his quest; Moxie Mallahan, a journalist in training in spite of the demise of the town's only newspaper due to dwindling supplies of ink; and Ellington Feint, who, as her name implies, is not what she at first seems to be.
As Lemony also discovers, very few people in Stain'd-by-the-Sea are who they at first appear to be.
In the style of a combined Peter Pan and Oliver Twist, parents or responsible adults in Lemony's world are physically and/or mentally absent from the children's realms. The kids function individually, or as a tribe, on their own, much like modern teenagers seem to do.
Faced with a video-game-like series of ever more complex problems to solve, Lemony strives to do the right thing and to ask the right questions to get answers he desperately needs. He navigates circuitous routes and dangerous circumstances en route to the solutions he seeks, and he manages to survive in a world where the adults provide no help at all, not even food. In some instances, adults, such as S. Theodora Markson, are a hindrance; in others, they are downright menacing. At first glance, it seems Lemony is quite alone, but, as the story unfolds, readers realize there is a small army of children on quests of their own gathering in the shadows. And that, one way or another, they are all connected.
Lemony Snicket is the kind of hero kids will love. (This adult likes him a lot, too.) He is intelligent, valiant, resourceful, and humble. He has problems and, at times, feels as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he does not let it flatten him. He gets knocked down, and gets up. Readers will also gravitate to Moxie Mallahan, cheer for Ellington Feint, and be intrigued by the 'mystery girl' referred to throughout, who...but shush, don't ruin the surprise.
Daniel Handler does not write down to kids. "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" is chock full of references to literature (i.e. Harriet the Spy; Lord of the Rings) and myths (i.e. Bellerophon, a Greek hero who tamed the winged horse Pegasus and slew the fire breathing monster Chimera) and cultural events (Purim), but the references do not intrude. They are woven cleverly and seamlessly into the story as is the glossary of vocabulary younger readers may not be familiar with when they first pick up this book.
Likewise, Seth's intricate illustrations are clever and informative without giving away too much. The detail heightens readers' interest in the characters and the landscape, and the almost monochromatic colour-scheme heightens the overall sense of shadow and mystery, a case where styles are perfectly matched.
"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" is a fast-paced, exciting read that will leave readers waiting in line for Volume 2 of Handler's "first authorized autobiographical account of Lemony Snicket's childhood".
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
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