Lemony Snicket's Who Could That Be at This Hour?

First aired on Q (12/20/12)

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"There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft." So begins Who Could That Be at This Hour?, the latest novel from Lemony Snicket, author of the popular Series of Unfortunate Events stories. Snicket is also a character in this new novel, a young man beginning an apprenticeship as a private investigator in a quirky, creepy island town called Stained-by-the-Sea. (Although, in true Snicket fashion, there is no sea, only forests of seaweed.) Snicket's alter-ego Daniel Handler spoke with Jian Ghomeshi on Q recently about the noir twists and turns of his newest novel, which is the first in a new series called All the Wrong Questions.

Handler/Snicket has been a household name for a generation of readers since his first series of books, the darkly humorous A Series of Unfortunate Events, first came out in 1999. Now, 14 years later, his first generation of young readers are now young adults, which is somewhat alarming to Handler when he's on book tours. "One of the things that's been terrifying on this tour has been looking at photographs of myself with various 10-year-olds held by people who are now in their 20s," he said. "I find that panicky."

The title of the new series is inspired by Handler's insight that asking the wrong questions is a thing that children and detectives have in common. "They're both struggling to understand something that's shrouded from them, and the questions that come naturally to them often turn out to be the wrong questions," he said. "That was where the series was really born, from the idea that a detective and a child are on the same journey. My own childhood was full of asking things that turned out to be wrong, and now I'm raising a child of my own...I'm reminded hourly that his questions about the world and the way we train people to look at the world are often at odds."

And now that he's an adult, does Handler still struggle with being wrong? "All the time. I consider myself to be wrong all the time," he said, deadpan. "I wander through this world not understanding a thing."

Handler is modest about the success he's had over the past decade. "I'm continually shocked at what's happened in my career...I started writing books about terrible things happening to orphans over and over again because I thought that was interesting," he said. "I was stunned that other people thought it was interesting. And with each new book I think there's going to be a reckoning."

There hasn't, and Handler's books continue to be eagerly received by children and adults alike. In his new series, which centers on a 13-year-old detective, most of the adult characters are either incompetent or evil. Handler both empathizes with his child readers, and also delights in holding a skewed mirror up to the adults who might be reading. "I find most of the behaviour of most adults I know inept," he said. "And I think children recognize that, question it, and as they grow older get a sinking feeling that they are falling into the same traps."

Handler himself certainly feels this sinking feeling, especially now that he's a father and is "forced to explain the world constantly to my own offspring." He finds himself coming up with "the exact kind of wrong-headed ineptitude that I was so suspicious of when I was young."

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