Book review: Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket (also, reflections on A Series of Unfortunate Events)

Confession: I am a big Lemony Snicket fan. A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorites through my teen years, though it took a more recent rereading in the last couple of years for me to properly appreciate the majesty and depth of the last few books in the series. (When I originally read them, all I wanted was ANSWERS to all those damn mysteries.) And I am excited about the potential of the Netflix series recently announced. I didn’t see the 2004 movie, able to discern at a distance that it would be disappointing. For me, one of the most crucial points will be whether they keep the child abuse, like when Olaf hits Klaus hard enough across the face to leave a bruise.

Who Could That Be at This Hour? is the first new book I’ve read by Snicket since ASOUE ended, and so many years have passed since then, I’m approaching them with quite a different perspective. This is the first book I’ve read in a while that was pointedly directed toward a young audience. But because this is Lemony Snicket, he doesn’t waste anyone’s time, no matter the age of the reader.

I love Lemony Snicket for so many reasons — first and foremost, his writing style, his wordplay and wit — but I respect him most of all for how seriously he takes his young audience. You could say the whole purpose of A Series of Unfortunate Events is an author declaring, “fuck it, I’m not going to sugarcoat stories for kids. They already know better, anyway.”

Also, I had an epiphany in my second read of the series, one concerning his famous habit of defining higher-level vocabulary words according to the particular context of the scene (e.g., “‘oblivious’ here means ‘not aware that Stephano was really Count Olaf and thus being in a great deal of danger’”). I detected something sardonic about it directed toward the editors and publishers of children’s literature, who perhaps told him or other authors, “You can’t use those words, they’re too difficult for children.” And he went, “Really? You, who make your livelihood selling books to children, underestimate them that much?” and then started laboriously over-defining them in each passage, thus illustrating exactly how children pick up those difficult vocabulary words — by context. That’s certainly how I got my vocabulary.

Back to Who Could That Be at This Hour?  I can easily see the appeal of this set-up, as it starts out with a twelve-year-old boy (Lemony himself!), very serious and just completed some mysterious graduation, occupied with important, dangerous projects and his own long-term agenda. And who at that age hasn’t wanted 1) to already be graduated and 2) to just take off from where you’re sitting with your parents, climb out a bathroom window, and drive away with an apparent stranger in an old-fashioned car?

S. Theodora surprised me. I really had no idea of her incompetence until they arrived at the client’s door. In her introduction to Lemony, when she was being snappish and stern, I just thought she was the super-strict type who would challenge Lemony to meet difficult standards, not “rules for rules’ sake” and “don’t ever question me because you’re a child and I’m an adult.” But that’s Lemony’s usual message, encouraging kids to stand up for themselves and empathizing with them when they’re oppressed for no good reason.

Because it’s Lemony Snicket, there were entirely too many mysteries in one book, and it does not end on a satisfying note with any kind of closure. Also there were strong opinions on many works of literature, all of which went unnamed, and I was certainly about the identities of very few of them, despite my English degree with a minor in Literature.

But I liked the character cast, the hint about the long-term project Lemony has with his sister (!), and his usual creativity with depicting weird-ass towns that don’t run quite right. I will pick up the sequels, if I run across them.

Quotes, including some of the “damn, that’s a difficult and painfully honest truth, even for adults” type:

I’d managed to acquire a new measuring tape for just that purpose, one that stretched out a very long distance and then scurried back into its holder with a satisfying click. The holder was shaped like a bat, and the tape measure was red, as if the bat had a very long tongue. I realized I would never see it again.

…Twice I almost fell asleep thinking of places and people in the city that were dearly important to me, and the distance between them and myself growing and growing until the distance grew so vast that even the longest-tongued bat in the world could not lick the life I was leaving behind.


I crossed the room looking for the librarian, and soon found him behind a desk, swatting a couple of moths with a checkered handkerchief. The moths were fluttering over a small sign at the desk that read Dashiell Qwerty, Sub-librarian. He was younger than I think of librarians as being, younger than the father of anyone I knew, and he had the hairstyle one gets if one is attacked by a scissors-carrying maniac and lives to tell the tale. He was wearing a black leather jacket with various metallic items up and down the sleeves, which jangled slightly as he went after the moths.


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.


There was something I was always very good at, however, and that was teaching myself not to be frightened while frightening things are going on. It is difficult to do this, but I had learned. It is simply a matter of putting one’s fear aside, like the vegetable on the plate you don’t want to touch until all of your rice and chicken are gone, and getting frightened later, when one is out of danger. Sometimes I imagine I will be frightened for the rest of my life because of all the fear I put aside during my time in Stain’d-by-the-Sea.


It was a ripped sheet, I realized, but the edges were too jagged to have been cut, and there was moisture here and there on the jagged edges. He had used his teeth. I did not like to think about a person ripping a sheet into strips with their teeth. It seemed too fierce or too wild a thing to do.

“He was wearing a mask,” Theodora said. “He said he was going to kill me.” Her eyes kept blinking. She was crying. Crying is like the opposite of scolding, because adults are hardly ever allowed to do it.

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