Who Could That be at This Hour? (2012)

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Author: Daniel Handler
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

© Copyright Little, Brown and Company

© Copyright Little, Brown and Company

One of the more artful literary creations in the last few years has been Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket, whose idiosyncratic voice infuses the pages of the novels he purportedly pens and often stars in himself. The most famous of these is the long-running collection A Series of Unfortunate Events, which chronicles the sad youth of the Baudelaire children. You may remember Brad Silberling’s 2004 film adaptation, starring Jim Carrey and a very young Emily Browning, but one element the movie doesn’t convey from the books is the clever manner in which Snicket manages to sketch the outline of his own equally unfortunate autobiography in the shadow of the main show.

In October of 2012, Handler decided to fill in some of the gaps and published Who Could That Be at This Hour?, the first book of what promises to be a trilogy called All the Wrong Questions. Over thirteen very unlucky chapters, an all too clever Snicket, who’s only thirteen at this point, undertakes an apprenticeship in the VFD, the secret organization introduced in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Like many intelligent kids his age, he manages (promptly) to get everything wrong.

Breaking a tradition set by prequels such as Isaac Asmov’s Prelude to Foundation or Star Wars Episodes I through III, Who Could That Be at This Hour? gives us a brand new setting full of novel ideas. The story unfolds in something close to a ghost town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea, from which nearly all commerce and adults have gone. You see, there exists a world divided into adults and children, where neither side seems capable of speaking a language the other can understand. None of the right questions are asked, Snicket explains, presenting the book we hold as an account of the first, by his tally, of roughly four disastrously wrong questions.

Among other colourful characters, we meet a budding journalist named Moxie, an obsequious innkeeper named Prosper Lost, and a sub-librarian named Dashiell Qwerty. All are suspects in a theft that our hero must investigate as part of his apprenticeship under the lowest-rated VFD agent, S. Theodora Markson. Their quest for the truth leads to a number of fast-paced twists and turns that are sure to delight young and old readers alike.

In keeping with the Dashiel Hammett conceit, Who Could That Be at This Hour? wastes no time introducing us to its McGuffin, not a Maltese Falcon here but the similarly sized Bombinating Beast. Over the course of the adventure, Snicket has pause to consider that the statue, not dangerous in itself, is like an octopus whose ink can stain everyone with whom it comes into contact. His comparison evokes the book itself, whose sly wit quickly colours our outlook.

With Who Could That Be at This Hour?, Daniel Handler’s All the Wrong Questions trilogy is off to a great start. The author has yet to reveal the title of his next entry in the series, most likely another wrong inquiry, and I wait with baited breath. In the meantime, here’s one that comes to mind: should you read this book? The right question would be, how quickly can you get your hands on a copy?

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