Last year I was running a bookgroup for kids, ages 9-12, when the subject of children’s books adapted into films came up. We talked about the relative success of Harry Potter, the bewildering movie that was City of Ember, and the gorgeous credit sequence for A Series of Unfortunate Events. Then one of the younger members, probably around ten years of age, turned to me and asked in all seriousness, “Do you think they’ll ever make a movie out of The Spiderwick Chronicles?” I was momentarily floored. It’s not often that kids will remind me that their memories of pop culture are limited to their own experiences, but once in a while it happens. This girl couldn’t remember back five years to that very film adaptation. And why should she? She was five then! So when I see a new Lemony Snicket series acting as a kind of companion to the aforementioned A Series of Unfortunate Events I wonder how it will play out. The original series was popular around the time of that Spiderwick movie. Does that mean that the new series will founder, or will it be so successful that it brings renewed interest to the previous, still in print and relatively popular, books? Personally, I haven’t a clue. All I know is that the latest Lemony Snicket series All the Wrong Questions is a work of clever references, skintight writing, and a deep sense of melancholy that mimics nothing else out there on the market for kids today. That’s a good thing.
To be a success in Snicket’s line of work it’s important to know how to ask the right questions. And this is a problem since Snicket finds it difficult doing precisely that. He was supposed to meet his contact in the city. Instead, he finds himself whisked away to the country to a dying town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Once a bustling harbor, the town’s water was removed leaving behind a creepy seaweed forest and an ink business that won’t be around much longer. With his incompetent mentor S. Theodora Markson he’s there to solve the mystery of a stolen statue. Never mind that the statue wasn’t stolen, its owners don’t care who has it, and their client isn’t even a real person. When Snicket finds a girl looking for her father and learns the name of the insidious Hangfire things start to get interesting, not to mention dangerous. Can multiple mysteries be solved even if you keep following the wrong paths? Snicket’s about to find out.
What is more dangerous: Evil or stupidity? It’s a trick question since there’s nothing “or” about it. If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from the Snicket universe, it is that while evil is undesirable, stupidity is downright damaging. Many is the Series of Unfortunate Events book that would show clear as crystal that while stupid and ignorant people may not necessarily be evil in and of themselves, they do more to aid in evil than any routine bad guy ever could hope for. In All the Wrong Questions the adults in charge are still inane, but at least the kids have a bit of autonomy from them. Our hero, the young Snicket, is still omnipotent to a certain degree, and only cares to share personal information with the reader when the plot requires that he do so. And because the book is a mystery, he’s almost required to move about at will. He just happens to be moving between stupid people much of the time.
Of course the trouble with having Lemony himself as your protagonist is that the guy is infamous for never giving you good news. If adult Snicket is the kind of guy who warns off readers (in a voice that I’ve always connected to Ben Stein) because of his own sad worldview, reading this series means that we are going to see failure at work. We saw failure at work with the Baudelaires but with them it was always the fault of the universe using them as punching bags more than their own inadequacies. That means that the author’s trick with this book is to keep it from disintegrating into depression even as its hero ultimately screws up (yet seems to be doing the right thing the whole time). How do you pull this dichotomy off? Humor. Thank god for humor. Because like other post-modern children’s mysteries (Mac Barnett’s The Brixton Brothers, most notably) being funny is the key to simultaneously referencing old mystery tropes while commenting on them.
I always had a certain amount of difficulty figuring out how exactly to describe A Series of Unfortunate Events. The term “Gothic” just didn’t quite cut it. PoMo Gothic, maybe. Or Meta-Gothic. Dunno. The All the Wrong Questions series makes it much easier on me. This book is noir. Noiry noir. Noiry noirish noirable noir. As if to confirm this the author drops in names like Dashiell and Mitchum, which like all of Snicket’s jokes will fly over the heads of all the child readers and 82.5% of the adult readers as well (I kept a tally for a while of the references I knew that I myself was not getting, then just sort of stopped after a while). There are dames, or at least the 12-year-old equivalent of dames. There are Girl Fridays. There are mistaken identities and creepy abandoned buildings. There are also butlers who do things, but that’s more of a drawing room murder mystery genre trope, so we’re going to disregard it here.
Let us talk Seth. The man comes to fill the shoes left by Brett Helquist. He’s a clever choice since there is nothing even slightly Helquistian to this comic legend. This is, to the best of my knowledge Seth’s first work for children, though there may well be some obscure Canadian work of juvenilia in his past that I’ve missed. His work on the cover is remarkable in and of itself, but in the book he works primarily in chapter headings and the occasional full-page layout. The author must have relayed to Mr. Seth what images to do sometimes because there is a picture at the beginning and a picture at the end that continue the story above and beyond the written portions. As for the spreads inside, Seth does an admirable job of ever concealing young Snicket’s face. He also lends a funny lightness to the proceedings, not something I would have expected walking into the novel.
There is a passage in the book where Snicket reflects on his life that just kills me. It comes a quarter of the way through the novel and is the clearest indication to the reader that the action in this novel happened a long time ago. It goes on for a while until finally ending with, “Stretched out in front of me was my time as an adult, and then a skeleton, and then nothing except perhaps a few books on a few shelves.” Put another way, this isn’t your average mystery novel for kids. It’s not even your average Lemony Snicket novel. It is what it is, the first part in a new series containing a familiar character that need not be previously known to readers. I have no idea if kids will gravitate towards it, but if you’ve a hankering to recommend a beautifully written if uncommon mystery to kids that ask for that sort of thing (and they do, man, they do) hand this over. Worse case scenario, they don’t like it. Best case scenario it blows their little minds. Blew mine anyway. Good stuff.
On shelves October 24th
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Griff Carver: Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg
- The Third Stall by Chris Rylander
Notes on the Cover: Recall if you will Mr. Snicket’s The Beatrice Letters. Was a book, or whatever the heck that was, ever more frustrating and enjoyable all at once? If there are any similarities to that cluster of documents and this book it lies in Seth’s art. I dare say the pictures you’ll see on this jacket may show scenes we are never privy to in the book itself. Note the shadow of the screaming woman. We know what that picture leads to, but we never see it in the book itself. Note now the spine. There’s a gorgeous little call number there that will undoubtedly get covered up by real call numbers in libraries throughout this great nation (oh, irony). For the record it reads, “LS ATWQ ?1” which makes sense when you think about it. But the thing that really made me give a deep sigh of contentment was under the jacket entirely. Look at the actual cover of the book here. Look at the spine and the cover. If I were to take this book and shelve it without its jacket next to my Nero Wolfe titles, and it would fit in like a dream.
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
Misc: Not to disparage the fine work of the Australian and New Zealand publishers of this book, but when you’ve hit gold why keep digging? Put another way, when handed the world’s most beautiful book jacket, why replace it with this?