“When Did You See Her Last?”

Cover ImageWelcome to Stain’d-by-the-Sea, where all the children are sharp, all the adults are foolish, and all the people are peculiar.

My brother suggested I read “When Did You See Her Last?” while I was visiting family in Milwaukee. Since I haven’t read anything by Daniel Handler (alias Lemony Snicket) since the Unfortunate Events series, I decided to take him up on it and read it on the plane ride back.”When Did You See Her Last?” is a children’s/ya noir novel and the second book in Handler’s noir series All the Wrong Questions.

The story begins when Cleo Knight, brilliant chemist and heiress to an ink fortune in Stain’d-by-the-Sea, goes missing. A young Lemony Snicket and his bumbling guardian S. Theodora Markson are assigned to the case. Stain’d-by-the-Sea is a wild and unique setting populated by an equally odd characters. The town made its fortune harvesting octopus ink, but fell into disrepair after the ink company got too greedy and drained the lake so that they could get to the bottoms of the octopuses’ dens faster. Now the sea is covered by a murky forest of seaweed and the few octopuses remain at the bottom of their holes trapped in mud.

In this strange setting live two boys named Pip and Squeak who take over their sick father’s taxi service (one pushes the pedals and one steers), a journalist named Moxie who is trying to resurrect the town newspaper, a mysterious green-eyed girl named Ellington Feint, and an evil man named Hangfire who probably kidnapped Ellington’s father and is at the center of a web of troubles. Oh, and a vicious boy named Stewie who rides in the police car with his parents (who are as incompetent as cops in any detective story) and makes the siren noises as they drive along.

My favorite part of the book is this metaphor:

It was interesting to watch Stewie’s face as his parents bickered. He reminded me of a shark I had seen once in the aquarium, circling a tank while schoolchildren tapped on the glass. Someday, the shark seemed to be thinking, I will no longer be trapped like this. I will be in the open water, right where you’ll be swimming. On that day you’d better watch out.

I’m guessing you knew kids like this… sucking up to high-expectations, doting parents while torturing their peers on the sly. The trapped shark metaphor is too apt.

While most of the book is morally straightforward, there are places where Snicket plays with these moral binaries. Snicket takes an aside to complicate things and express his doubts about heroes and villains:

It is often said that people do things because they are good or evil, but in my experience that is not the case. Ellington Feint, for example, had lied to me and stolen, but not because she was an evil person. She was a good person, forced to do bad things in order to free her father from Hangfire’s clutches… As far as I could tell, people didn’t do things because they were good or evil. They did things because they could not think of what else to do.

Interesting that he doesn’t apply this to Hangfire, who is literally described as “evil” multiple times. It makes me wonder if Snicket will have a broadening of perspective brought on by the events of later books. Anyway, it’s very noir, and a great way to introduce some nuance into a children’s book.

Speaking of nuance and more adult themes, Snicket character even has a moment of existential crisis when he’s put in a lineup wearing the number “1” with Stewie wearing the letter “B” and a filing cabinet wearing an asterisk.

The three of us stood there for a minute. I don’t know what Stew was thinking, and the filing cabinet wasn’t thinking anything. But I was thinking, is this really the world? Is this really the place in which you’ve ended up, Snicket? It was a question that struck me, as it might strike you, when something ridiculous was going on, or something sad. I wondered if this was really where I should be, or if there was another world someplace, less ridiculous and less sad.

There’s also a few more mature jokes, like puns about Whole Foods and Arnold Schoenberg. I think this is a book that adults would enjoy as well as children, and it’s a nice summer read to pass the time on a plane or at the beach. I’d especially recommend it if you like tough mysteries or puzzles.

However, it went a little too fast for my taste and I’m not the biggest fan of Lemony Snicket’s writing style – it’s too simple and it always bothers me when he explains what an obscure word means, because I’d rather try to understand it with context clues before I look it up. I always end up feeling like the author’s talking down to me if he has to stop and explain words that he thinks might be too hard for me. Probably for most people it’s the other way – they feel like the author is part of an exclusive club if he uses language they don’t know without explaining it – but as for me I like to (at least pretend) to be part of that club.

Rating: ☆☆☆✮✮


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