As this is the second book in the All the Wrong Questions series, there are potential spoilers below.
In When Did You See Her Last? (Lemony Snicket, 2013) we continue where we left off with Who Could That Be at This Hour? With Snicket still under S. Theodora Markson’s tutelage, the two are employed to investigate the disappearance of young scientist Miss Cleo Knight, granddaughter to Ingrid Nummet Knight, founder of Ink Inc., the ink company that made the Knights the wealthiest family in Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Snicket determines that Miss Knight was busy working on a new formula for effective invisible ink that would allow her family to regain their standing and allow for the repopulation of the octopi who have become endangered due to their flailing production of ink. Library research leads Snicket to learn of war hero Colonel Colophon, the clinic built in his name, an encounter with the nefarious Hangfire, for whom Ellington Feint has been hunting after his abduction of her father.
One thing that was particularly noticeable to me in this book, indeed, in all of Snicket’s books as I think of them, is that the girls are allowed to be just as strong as the boys. The aptly named Moxie Mallahan doesn’t waver in her journalistic pursuit of a dangerous story. Ellington Feint needs little help or encouragement from Snicket in her ongoing search to rescue her father. Cleo Knight is a brilliant chemist and the center of the mystery. The girls don’t wait to be saved by the boys – they are as integral the story as their male counterparts – and they don’t dawdle in romantic notions. Although Snicket lays the groundwork for potential attraction between himself and Ellington, and possibly between himself and Moxie, it never devolves into wanton romance. It is respect and admiration and esteem we see in Snicket’s eyes, and that is more valuable than fleeting attraction could ever be.
Snicket has a particular talent for lacing his stories with a maturity and wisdom often found lacking in children’s and young adult literature. He doesn’t cite platitudes in an attempt to pander to a young audience, but we see him, as a character, begin to learn about and question the world around him. When wondering why people commit evil acts, he ponders, “It is often said that people do things because they are good or evil, but in my experience that is not the case… My sister, for another example, was certainly a good person, but she was soon to commit a crime with one of the items in the museum. 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…” And while the two are researching Colonel Colophon, Ellington says, “I thought that war was a simple matter, with one side good and the other evil. But the more I read, the less clear it was.” To which Lemony replies, “I think that’s true of all wars.” This commentary on life may be subtle for young readers, but it will grow with them and ring true in their adulthood. It’s a talent I quite admire and it makes Snicket one of the best children’s authors out there.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a middle grade novel.]