Updated: November 1, 2012 6:54PM
If the great hard-boiled detective novelists Dashiell Hammett (“The Maltese Falcon”) and Raymond Chandler (“The Long Goodbye”) had a dry sense of humor and wrote for kids, the results might be something like “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” (Little, Brown, $15.99).
It’s the first book in a new four-volume series by Lemony Snicket, pen name and alter ego of Daniel Handler. It’s also a prequel to Handler’s best-selling “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which featured Snicket as adult narrator and a character.
In the new mystery, Snicket recalls when he was almost 13 and started an apprenticeship with an enigmatic secret society. His chaperone defines apprentice as “a word which here means ‘a person who works under me and does absolutely everything I tell him to do.’”
Snicket replies, “I’m contrite, a word which here means — ”
“You already said you were sorry,” the chaperone shoots back. “Don’t repeat yourself. It’s not only repetitive, it’s redundant, and people here have heard it before.”
Vocabulary lessons were never so much fun. Snicket ends up in a strange seaside town (with no sea), assigned to recover a black statue of a mythical beast, which may or may not have been stolen. It’s noir for tweens who embrace and even enjoy discovering that the world isn’t as simple and pure as grownups have led on.
With illustrations by the cartoonist known only as Seth, it’s complex and confusing — but that’s the point. It’s for young readers who appreciate word play. A bowl of peanuts is “either salty or dusty.”
Along the way, Snicket confides: “Knowing that something is wrong and doing it anyway happens very often in life, and I doubt if I will ever know why.”
He also meets a girl, about his age, who writes and reports for a newspaper that’s gone out of business because of the lack of ink. She hands him a card:
“MOXIE MALLAHAN. THE NEWS.”
“The News,” Snicket repeats. “What’s the news. Moxie?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” she replies.
The good news is that Handler is up to his old tricks in new territory. “The map is not the territory,” Snicket’s chaperone advises him. “That’s an expression which means the world does not match the picture in our heads.”
After racing through Snicket’s misadventures, readers likely will have their own questions, including: When can I read Book Two?
All the publisher is saying is 2013.
Gannett News Service