Monday, December 3, 2012

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket

The newest addition to the Lemony Snicket narrated universe is “Who Could That Be at this Hour?” Snicket is thirteen-years-old, quite a bit younger than the more adult Snicket that shows up in A Series of Unfortunate Events to tell readers about the from-bad-to-worse situation of the Baudelaire family. Snicket has just started his apprenticeship with S. Theodora Markson (and the “S.” remains a mystery throughout the book, even though Theodora makes use of quite a few words that start with that letter), who is ranked at the end of the list of apprentices young students like Snicket can be paired with. This is, Snicket says, when he chose her.

Theodora leaves Snicket a mysterious note in the bathroom of a hotel restaurant, asking him to meet her outside by her Roadster in five minutes. From here, she whisks him off to Stain’d-by-the-Sea, a small town with an ink industry that is on the decline. The “Sea” of Stain’d-by-the-Sea has been drained away, and a forest of seaweed lies in its vicinity. As Snicket explains, “[Theodora] did not have to tell me not to go into the Clusterous Forest. It was frightening enough just to look at it. It was less like a forest and more like an endless mass of shrubbery, with the shiny leaves of the seaweed twisting this way and that, as if the plants were still under churning water. Even with the windows shut, I could smell the forest, a brackish scent of fish and soil, and I could hear the rustling of thousands of strands of seaweed that had somehow survived the draining of the sea.”

Theodora and Snicket are in Stain’d-by-the-Sea to solve a mystery. A small statute has disappeared from a large mansion in the town, one that looks like an angry and aggressive sea horse. The creature depicted by the statue is called “The Bombinating Beast,” which “was a mythological creature half horse and half shark – although some legends claim half alligator and half bear – that lurked in the waters just outside Stain’d-by-the-Sea. It had a great appetite for human flesh and made a terrifying bombinating sound – I had to get up from the table and find a dictionary to learn that ‘bombinating’ was a word which here meant buzzing – when looking for prey.” When Snicket finds the statue in the building that houses the local newspaper, he learns that the mystery might not be as straightforward as it initially appeared to be. With the help of Moxie, a young girl who continues to write for the newspaper and exercise her journalistic tendencies, Snicket starts understanding that he has been asking the wrong questions all along and endeavors to figure out what the right ones are. With the help of Querty the librarian, Snicket begins reading about the town and the people who live there. He sends notes back to the library in the city he came from, disguised as a fictional title of a book and a fictional author, and the promise he has made to someone back home underlies the story. This individual comes up often when Snicket is tired and homesick, when he will think, “I wanted to see her. Communicating through made-up book titles was not enough. I could almost hear her saying to me, ‘Well, L, where was the last place you saw this statue?’”

Theodora and Snicket share a small room at the Lost Arms, a hotel in town, and Snicket consistently expresses more than a little discomfort at the small living space. But then, once the mystery gets underway, Snicket doesn’t have much time to stay at the room in the Lost Arms, anyway. He meets a girl named Ellington Feint who’s father has gone missing, and she believes the nefarious and mysterious Hangfire has taken him. There is an impromptu recipe for pesto sauce buried in “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” as well as dozens of descriptions that are so emblematic of Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler’s writing. Two that stand out come from the beginning and the middle of the novel. As Snicket describes his parents, he writes, “It is curious to look at one’s family and try to imagine how they look to strangers. I saw a large-shouldered man in a brown, linty suit that looked like it made him uncomfortable, and a woman drumming her fingernails on the table, over and over, the sound like a tiny horse’s galloping.” When trying to fall asleep at the Lost Arms, Snicket says, “The sheets had spiky wrinkles, and the pillow felt like a bag of marbles, and I had a very lonely feeling, thinking of how few people knew where I was or could come to me if I were in trouble. But I was too tired to be sad about it.”

The characters in this book stand out so clearly that it is impossible to leave them behind at the end of the novel. They are illustrated by Canadian comics artist Seth throughout the novel, which makes them even more tangible. This is only the first book in Snicket’s new All the Wrong Questions series, and so there is still much more of Snicket’s description, characters, and incredible storytelling to come.  

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