The Short Version: It is almost inevitable that you are familiar with the terrible tale of the Baudelaire orphans, as researched and recounted by Lemony Snicket under the title “A Series of Unfortunate Events” – but what of the unanswered questions and the life of Mr. Snicket himself? Our story begins with a town no longer by the sea, a young apprentice, and all the wrong questions…
The Review: There is a particular type of child who, if you show them a Lemony Snicket book, will light up. This would, I have little doubt, strike Mr. Snicket as odd – he, of course, believes his books to be dreadful and warns readers away from them as often as possible. But for that group of readers who love the odd and the picaresque, who grow into bookish and lovely young people, those books held a certain fascination. They also primed us well for inevitable disappointments like the series finale of LOST, to which the end of the 13th book can be equated. For there were so many questions left unanswered that it almost felt like a betrayal: Snicket had created for us this wonderful dark world and built up these stories but then left us high and dry. The orphans survived but where were our ANSWERS, damn it!
So the announcement of a return to the misty-grey world of Snicket’s classic achievement was welcomed warmly – a prologue, too, which meant that background would definitely shade in some missing pieces of the puzzle. I’m happy to say that the signs point to some answers (some) arriving by the conclusion of this four-part series… but I wouldn’t place money on whether those questions are ASoUE questions or simply new questions, raised in this (darkly) hilariously titled All The Wrong Questions series.
The tone, from the get-go, is different: we meet a young Lemony, just about to turn 13, and he’s a pint-sized Phillip Marlowe. Oh, yes, this is not the Gothic tradition but rather the Noir tradition – you can practically feel the gritted teeth. The descriptions are rich and feel exactly like you’d expect from a 13-year-old noir detective – his suit hung “like an empty person” in his closet, a bowl of peanuts were “either salted or dusty.” It’s that dry wit – not different from that deployed with such precision in ASoUE, just funneled through a different channel here – that immediately reminds you that you are reading a Lemony Snicket book. That and the now-classic trope – a word here which means a recurring image or theme – of defining words that might otherwise stick out uncomfortably for readers. Some folks had an issue with this during the original series and I suppose I can see how, over 13 books, some might be annoyed by it dragging on at such length… but I never got bored of it and found it a joy to re-encounter here, especially with the twist of Snicket learning it from his chaperone.
The plot of this particular novel (left, now that I think about it, strikingly unresolved on all but the most superficial of levels) revolves around a MacGuffin of the Maltese Falcon variety: a small black statue of “The Bombinating Beast” – which may well be the question-mark-shaped creature encountered by the Baudelaires years later. After a whirlwind first chapter – seriously, prepare yourself: it takes several twists at breakneck speed and leaves you a little off-kilter for several chapters to follow – our hero and his chaperone end up in a typically quirky town, Stain’d-by-the-Sea (which is no longer by the sea, although they still pump octopus ink… yeah…), in pursuit of this supposedly stolen artifact. Who wants it, what it signifies, and who the heck Hangfire is are all important questions – the right, or somewhat right, questions. Whereas “wouldn’t it be easier to read a book that just gave you the answers” would be an example of the wrong question.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It took me a little while to warm into it, I’ll admit – but once I recovered from the crazy opening sequence, I settled in and began to examine my surroundings. Snicket has once again introduced fantastic characters and retains his quirky sense of story. I’m intrigued to see where this particular adventure is leading and also impatient to discover further links to the story told later by the Baudelaires – especially after that last chapter, which introduces (or confirms the introduction of) several adults (as children) who we last saw dealing with the orphans long after the schism in VFD. Because that is the secret society, right? One must assume… although I hope that too isn’t a wrong question.