Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler of The Magnetic Fields) has style to burn. His first YA opus, the thirteen-volume (and then some) A Series Of Unfortunate Events, put three clever and reasonably attractive orphans in ahistorical but distinctly Victwardian-as-drawn-by-Gorey situations and landscapes as they struggle to unmask a nefarious Count, learn about “V.F.D.” (the secret organization their parents belonged to), and survive despite the best efforts of their various guardians. Every bit as substantive as they were stylish, it’s not surprising that they were popular with children and adults alike.
Handler’s follow-up, the prequel series All The Wrong Questions, is not another baby’s‑first-gothic, but rather noir-for-tots. In it, Lemony Snicket, who as an adult chronicles the escapades of the aforementioned Baudelaire children, instead narrates his own adventures as an apprentice member of the V.F.D.. While still oozing with Handler’s trademark ho-hum pathos and frisky wordplay, the new books will appeal to readers of the first series while being delightfully their own thing.
All The Wrong Questions reads almost as a distillate of Noir tropes; familiar elements such as the anti-hero, the city of shadows, the femme fatale, even cigarette smoking and drug-induced dream sequences are re-imagined for kids—but not at all dumbed down. This unapologetic foregrounding of such stock essentials serves as an introduction to the genre for young readers, and (given the author’s evident enthusiasm for his subject), helps the series deftly avoid cliché. The books would be unbearable if they were mocking Noir. Instead, the winks and nudges recall the genre without seeming like cheap parody.
The first book in the series, Who Could That Be At This Hour?, is a MacGuffin plot; the second, When Did you See Her Last?, a missing persons case chock full of doubles and twists. The third, and most recent, Shouldn’t You Be In School?, is a great switcheroo. All center on Snicket’s attempt to evade the watchful eye of his incompetent chaperone S. Theodora Markson and investigate mysteries far more sinister than what the “S.” stands for in her name.
Like the protagonists of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, the thirteen-year-old Snicket is a bright and plucky child, as eager as he is helpless to affect the world of insane grown-ups against which he is pitted. The most sinister of these is the villain, Hangfire, who is responsible for the downfall of Stain’d By the Sea, a once-prosperous town that has fallen on hard times after overfishing octopuses, in which Snicket is trapped by both duty and circumstance.
Snicket is not alone in his efforts. Side characters like Jake Hix, the short-order cook at Hungry’s Diner, Pip and Squeak, kid taxi-drivers (one steers while the other works the pedals), Moxie Mallahan, intrepid Girl Friday-style reporter, Ellington Feint, the dame to kill for, and Dashiell Querty, punk-rock librarian, all help Snicket out… as much as they can. These characters, as trite as they might initially seem, have their own inner lives and personal tragedies; Snicket, too, is almost painfully well-realized, subject to ruthless self-judgment and 20/20 hindsight that makes his plight heart-aching even when it’s drawing forth giggles. It is this sort of nuance in the overall quality of the writing that will almost certainly enchant adult fans of Noir, even if they are not otherwise readers of YA. Readers of the first series will find resonance between Snicket’s situation and that of the Baudelaire orphans—both come from shattered families, but Lemony might be the lonelier, for he is separated from his siblings.
Whether as a morose (but entertaining) gateway for young readers into the rich world of noir and crime fiction, or an interlude for adults who are fans of the same, All The Wrong Questions is wonderful. The reviewer eagerly awaits further series entries. —MT
Lamentation by Joe Clifford is an excellent crime novel that falls just short of noir. Jay Porter would be the champion loser of his small New Hampshire town if not for his brother Chris, who takes the crown thanks to a long career of drug use, truck stop hooking, and petty scheming. When one of Chris’s drug buddies turns up dead and a hard drive connected to the powerful local Lombardi family goes missing, Jay takes a crack at solving the case and saving his brother.
So far Lamentation sounds like any other amateur sleuth tale, and it has the usual twists and turns of one, the typical small town secrets, and even a bog standard family tragedy. What makes Lamentation different is the pitch-perfect vision of post-industrial New England, an understanding of and sympathy for the plight of junkies and the abused that never becomes either moralistic or prurient, and a cracking pace. Most books like this are written by outsiders; Lamentation is a sad song by an insider. Read it for a taste of the real shit. —NM